Taking a Walk Through the Unlit Paths in the Gay Capital

Amsterdam is hailed internationally as one of the gay capitals of the world. After Queens Day, Gay Pride day is the biggest celebration in the city. The idea that homosexuality is accepted in Dutch society, and especially Amsterdam, is an idea that many in this city and country are heavily invested in. There is a constant endeavor to stay ‘Amsterdam, Gay Capital of the World’. It is part of the Dutch national identity. The Dutch were the first to legalize gay marriage. National gay rights organizations are heavily subsidized by the government. The Amsterdam municipality is even ‘exporting’ gay rights to other countries by for example sponsoring Gay Pride events. The image of the Netherlands as a ‘tolerant’ society has some dents in it since the arrival of politicians like Fortuyn, Verdonk and Wilders, but acceptance of homosexuality has remained an important part of public constructions of the national identity.

So, homosexuality is accepted, but which homosexuality is accepted? Gay men are a minority within Dutch society, but within this group there are more minorities. How are these minorities treated and how do they feel about mainstream gay culture? Do they feel accepted and welcome and fully part of this subculture? Which role does race play in the interactions between white, Dutch gay men who belong the dominant culture and gay men of color in the gay scene? To find out how gay and queer men of color negotiate race in the Amsterdam gay scene, we interviewed seven gay and queer men about their experiences in gay bars and clubs, online dating sites and their thoughts on gay rights organizations. We interviewed two white men, one of whom was native Dutch and the other a Polish immigrant, and five black men, four of whom were of Dutch Carribean descent and one a Jamaican immigrant.

The invisible colors in the Rainbow Flag

The rainbow flag is without doubt the most iconic symbol of gay-culture and - advocacy. All the colors give you the impression of inclusion and celebration of diversity. How does a LGBT*-organization who advocates for equal rights and social acceptance, with the rainbow flag in their hands, incorporate and deal with the diversity within their own community? Was the gay-community able to do that what every other community failed to do; being truly inclusive, or are some colors in the rainbow flag missing?

The main Dutch organization considering LGBT* advocacy is the COC. The COC was founded in 1946 and is the oldest LGTB* organization in the world. Marlon is a gay man of color and a gay rights activists. He tells us that COC has his particular way of dealing with being gay. He tried to explain to COC Amsterdam that gay people of color have other ways of dealing with their sexual and gender identity. He wanted to show that there were other ways of being gay than the COC was promoting and founded ‘Stange Fruit’, one of the first groups for gay people of color. They made their own sex education folders, started support groups for people with HIV and AIDS and later on started helping LGBT* persons who seek asylum in the Netherlands. Marlon tells us that the group fell apart when they wanted to become independent from COC Amsterdam. “The Moroccan part started their own group. They preferred to stay within the walls of COC which gave them a sense of safety”, Marlon says. He also mentions a class difference between the Turks and Moroccans and those from the Dutch Antilles, who were mostly higher educated. Marlon also mentions that one of the effects of Islam being politicized was that the political attention moved away from ‘Blacks’ towards ‘Muslims’. That gave a lot of opportunities to the Turks and Moroccans.

Collin is also a volunteer for COC Amsterdam and gives lectures in High Schools. Even though he is a volunteer at this educational project, he claims that he will never go to a COC party. “When I studied in Groningen and went to a COC party, it was a huge culture shock! The way they organize was too white. The schedule of when to work and when to have fun was spelled out very tightly. Like, between 8pm and 10pm you have to have fun. You have to be ‘Gezellig’ (sociable). If I didn’t feel like it, people would come over to me to ask why I was silent, sitting and not being ‘Gezellig’.” Apart from social events, Collin feels that the COC and other organizations don’t pay enough attention for diversity within. He tells us about his experience as a volunteer on the educational projects. “Every time they had to give a lecture at a ‘black school’ (a Dutch name for schools who have a significant population of non-Dutch students) they would call me. It was too tokenizing. Once, another white volunteer came along and after the lecture he started to imitate the Surinamese accent of the girls in the class. COC wants black people, but they don’t want to address their own racism. Some things are simply racist, even though they do it without knowing.” Marlon confirms this and says that white privilege and – supremacy are taboo. “Back in the day Moroccans were denied to enter bars because people thought they were prostitutes, now they do this towards eastern European boys.” Egbert adds that racism manifest itself through invisibility of gays of color and the relegating gays of color to special interest groups.

It’s still a challenge for gay organizations to be open and inclusive. Collin; “Most of the organizations are based on the white-gay-culture. They are inclusive in the sense that you can join them, but is has to be on their terms, otherwise you have to leave, so I left.” Twenty years ago Strange Fruit was one of the first of its kind and abolished after time, but today there are still organizations for LGBT* of color, like ‘Respect2Love’. LGBT* of color meet each other here, can ask questions and can get advice and guidance. That there are still special interest groups is a good thing according to Egbert. “Personally, I don’t think of the COC, the Gay Krant nor Expreszo represent queer people of color. Even Trut, a radical queer space, is still white. There is need for spaces and organizations for queers of color where they feel safe and can address issues that affect them.” Egbert was particularly happy with Pinkstage. Pinkstage is a festival where gays of color can meet each other, discuss topics and enjoy culture, art and music.

The segregation within the gay community is not experienced as such by all. Krzysztof for example agrees that there is a white and colored groups within the gay community and underlines that many gay’s voted for extreme-right-wing, racist party of Geert Wilders, the PVV. But Krzysztof also emphasizes that it is not possible to talk about separate groups within the community, because he himself doesn’t feel separated from LGBT* of color.

While getting all those insights into the division within the gay community, the question that rises is a simple but crucial one: How to unite all colors into one flag? Can the gay community be united, or is the social construction of segregation stronger than the brotherhood of sexual identity? All questions who are difficult to answer. Marlon sees two options; complaining about gay organizations or being part of them and trying to change things. “The main board of COC Netherlands needs to have members of color.” When asked why he is not being part of that, Marlon replies; “I know it’s going to be a constant fight, and I don’t have the energy for that right now”. He also tells us that COC Amsterdam now has a black chair. “He [ed. Dennis Boutkan] was raised by a white mom, so culturally he is quite white, so he only got the skin color.” Marlon still hopes that this will change some things.

Collin remembers that there was a big party one year ago, when a lot of places re- opened in the famous gay-street in Amsterdam. “Dennis was also there and choose to come over and stand with us. People were looking. He kind of ‘chose color’ and he is aware of this as well. But this is not a priority on his agenda”. Marlon believes that there have to be more people within the organizations who have a clear ‘black- agenda’ to really change things. He remembers that the board of COC Netherlands once had one black member, but he left after a few discussions because he didn’t feel like he was being heard.

Collin mentions that after a long break he started giving lectures again, because “kids should know that gay people come in every color and form”. All the conversations we had made one thing clear; gay organizations welcome color, but a culture which would make all gays feel welcome is not achieved... yet... So, the rainbow flag includes all colors, but has a shadow too.

Amsterdam gay club scene

After the several interviews we had about the LGTB* organizations and having heard the experiences we decided to give the gay club scene a closer look. The public Amsterdam gay scene consists of several bars, clubs, festivals and (ir)regular parties. This variety of places where gay men can drink, dance, talk and hook up with each other, are according to our interviewees, overwhelmingly white. People of color are a significant minority in these spaces to the extent that many of the black men that we have interviewed have often felt out of place and the odd one out. Egbert, Marlon, Dean and Gary – all black men – all describe the common experiences of being stared at, ignored, whispered about or being approached aggressively by white men. However, all still frequent visit white gay spaces, though none do so regularly. Their experiences seem to have two common themes: feeling invisible on the one hand and being completely exoticized on the other. As Egbert puts it when asked if he goes to mainstream, white gay spaces: “Rarely, I don't feel very comfortable in them. I get tired of navigating them. I get tired of being reduced to an object, of being rendered invisible, etc.”

Collin and Marlon also describe the cultural difference that makes white spaces unattractive at times. According to Collin, many black gay men are interested in urban, ‘black’ culture. The music and atmosphere that is part of this culture isn’t represented in white spaces. For all of the above reasons, gay men of color have been organizing their own social and cultural events in Amsterdam for years now. There is only one café that is specifically known for being a “black” gay bar and one club that caters to gay men of Arabic descent. Additionally, festivals like Pinkstage provide safe spaces for black gay men to share experiences, celebrate and socialize. Egbert is happy that a festival like Pinkstage is being organized: “I was really happy something like Pinkstage came along where I could meet a group of Black Queer folks.” Alternatively, most of the men of color we spoke to also visit straight, mainstream white and colored spaces. Collin for example, goes to urban clubs, because he likes to immerse himself in urban, black culture. Gary goes to salsa events to dance. They feel welcome, but they are very clear on the limits of this acceptance. Holding hands, dancing or kissing with another man is not done.

When frequenting white, gay spaces the men of color we spoke to also mention often being exoticized. Marlon describes who he used to be approached by white men in white clubs and bars. “I’ve been totally objectified as a black man. The bluntness with which people approach you is terrible. When I was younger, people would just come over to me and touch me and be aggressive. People stare in a way that makes it obvious that they are fantasizing about you sexually. They feel offended when you say something, like they have the right to touch you. I’m not there to fulfill fantasies of people.” Dean, Collin, Marlon all agree there are some white spaces that are more accepting of gays of colors than others. The “really Dutch” places, where Dutch music is played, are the places where the most blatant racism occurs. More trendy bars and clubs, such as those in the Reguliersdwarsstraat at the heart of Amsterdam’s centre, are more diverse. Experiences of blatant rude behaviour towards gays of color, feelings of invisibility or exotification occur less often in these spaces.

These experiences of invisibility and exoticism also manifest when desire is involved. According to Egbert, it’s even worse when desire is involved: “You want to feel desired, but not like you're being reduced to an object. That is bound to happen, because that's the nature of desire. But I want someone to see me first and objectify me when the moment comes, but not look at me through the constant lens of objectification.” Dean says he is often approached by white gay men who flirt with him by commenting how beautiful his brown skin is. This exotification is the flipside of the minority status that men of color have within mainstream, white gay culture. According to Marlon, black men are at the apex of the sexual hierarchy. Collin adds: “There are a lot of stereotypes about black men. They are well endowed, active in bed and very skilled, very acrobatic in bed. That’s a lot of pressure!”.

Race, sex and relationships

Racial stereotypes are however just as diverse as the racial diversity in the gay community. Asian men are seen as feminine and often thought to be “bottoms”, according to Marlon and Collin. Latino’s are seen as being macho and sexually dominant. Every ethnic and racial group that is “Other”, i.e. non-white, has these stereotypes to deal with. When asked what stereotypes there are about white men, Collin simply states: “They’re rich... And not much else”. Marlon explains the ways in which race and class tend to interact when it comes to gay relationships: “I know a lot of black men who have a long term relationship with a white men, but also have sex with black men. It’s still the case that white men are seen as a source of security and stability. A lot of black men actually also keep the stereotypes about black men alive. They act the way white men expect them to.” He also offers an explanation ”Black men are the top of the social hierarchy in terms of sex. That is the only place where they are allowed to be at the top.” Dean confirms this trend for men of color to date white men for the financial security they offer. “It reinforces the racial divide. For many men of color the stereotype of the rich white men is reason enough not to date white, because they’re afraid people will think that they’re selling themselves out.”

Race also affects relationships within gay communities of color. Marlon and Collin describe the reluctance that a lot of black gay men have towards dating other black men. “There is an issue of trust. For example, there is often a lot of tension between two black men having sex. Who’s going to be the bottom and who’s going to be the top? Because being a bottom means you’re taking up the feminine role. If both partners belong to the same community, for example the Curacao community, there is fear that one of the sexual partners will talk about the other being a ‘bottom’.” The white beauty ideal of the blonde, blue-eyed man is powerful and pervasive in white, mainstream gay spaces, Marlon says. It’s also has been internalized by gay men of color. Marlon shared with us his experiences of being the only one with a black boyfriend when he was in his twenties. All his friends where pursuing white men. Black men weren’t considered to be desirable. “People were surprised that I had a black boyfriend.”

Racism and the white beauty ideal are pervasive in the online dating world as well. Egbert: “Mostly, in personal ads you'll see people explicitly say that they're not into Blacks, Asians, Latinos etc. I've been told several times by white men that they don't date Blacks. You don't have to give a reason when it comes to desire. Desire is treated as a neutral concept.” Marlon says the following about his experiences about online dating: “ I always start by stating that I’m black when I’m chatting with someone. Only Caucasians don’t say that they are white. Because they are the norm. They don’t have to declare themselves. The exceptions have to declare themselves.”

Conclusion

Almost all of our interviewees clearly demonstrated that racism does exist within the gay community. Colored gay men are discriminated among the gay community either by white majority or other ethnical or racial minorities within the gay community. By community, we mean both people individually and also gay organizations. The LGBT* organizations are mostly run by white gay people and gay people of color are not heard in policy and decision making processes, often the perception of gays of color is missed. This also affects their reach of gay people of color, which is limited. It can be said that colored gay men are more invisible amongst the gay community in the Netherlands because of their race and ethnicity.

Gay men of color are not just fighting against the racial and ethnic discrimination externally but also internally. They have to fight against the discrimination of their sexual identity and then fight against the discrimination of their race or ethnicity within the LGBT* community. It would not be wrong to call them “multifold minorities”. So as pioneering sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois defined, colored gay men have the “double consciousness” of being a racial or an ethnic minority but also being homosexual and male. And this multi-consciousness dilemma offers really limited space for colored gay men where they socialize and also can feel themselves as a whole. Based on the interviews we conducted and our field research, we have to conclude that this is, sadly, still a reality in Amsterdam, the self-declared gay capital of the world.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2012

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