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Beyond the Comfortable: Queer Politics in Amsterdam

Gay in 2013 means Frank Ocean, Grindr and Gay Pride. It could mean societal engagement, grassroots protests and raised fists. But in The Netherlands the gay community no longer fights against the big “isms.” Some don’t fight at all anymore. “After the 2001 legalization of gay marriage many gays thought, we’ve arrived, it’s done,” says queer organizer Vreer. Others such as Lieke disagree, “I want to be engaged in a community that treats sexuality not as a lifestyle that should be comfortable and apolitical, but a community that talks about issues, important issues that are relevant.” This is why Lieke is involved with the queer movement: a movement that combats normative ideas on gender and sexuality and oppressive structures in general. Why is the LGBT community in The Netherlands largely apolitical? And is queer the solution to the issues of the mainstream LGBT movement? 

Histories of Activism

The political disengagement of the LGBT movement in Amsterdam is all the more surprising considering Amsterdam’s history of counter-cultural social justice movements. Especially important among them are the provo-movement and the squat-movement, two movements that challenged normative Dutch society in the 1960s and 70s. 

The Provos

You stick to your own church, school and people. You read your own newspaper, watch your own television shows and read your own paper and TV-guide. This is what life in the 1950’s under pillarization, the division of Dutch society on the basis of different philosophies, looked like. It was not until the onset of the sixties that “the Dutch stopped being dull’ (Kennedy: 11). Young people collectively questioned the authority of their parents and the strict moral norms associated with life within a certain pillar. They spoke of free love, smoked weed and listened to LP records of American rock ‘n’ roll artists. But these ‘nozems’ (bum around anti-authoritarian youngsters) were rarely politically active. This changed in the early sixties with the onset of the provo movement, whose main goal was to provoke the authorities by organizing nonviolent, playful, provocative get-togethers. The movement was founded in May 1965 by a group of artists and philosophers and found its roots in non-violent anarchism. The location of its activities was the “Spuiplein” in Amsterdam, around which the movement captured the dissatisfaction of young Amsterdammers, who they referred to as the “provoteriat.” Their main tactic consisted of confusing the authorities with actions like handing out krenten (raisins) as a reference to the krenterigheid (thriftiness) of the Dutch authorities. They also marched with blank banners after protest banners were prohibited by the mayor, handing out white flowers to police officers. Their specific repertoire of protest left the authorities confused. Powerful figures were uncertain how to deal with these non-violent tactics and the provos’ anti-authoritarian attitude. The Provo movement and its criticism of capitalism and other societal structures was at the base of the development of some of the most influential student, feminist, and political movements of the 70’s, including the LGBT-movement and its struggle for equal rights.

The Squat Movement

Another important group to influence the LGBT-movement in the Netherlands was the squatters. The Dutch word for squatting, kraken, is originally lingo of burglars and thieves, but was appropriated by the squat movement in the sixties. The first organized protest took place in 1964. While young students and other city-dwellers were desperate for housing in the city, many perfectly habitable buildings were deliberately left empty. Because Dutch law strongly protects renters, many owners thought it more profitable to leave their properties empty for a while than to take in a renter – a renter who, after all, might refuse to leave when the owner found a new purpose for the property. In 1966 the provos movement responded with the “White House Plan.” Door posts of empty houses were painted white and anyone in need of housing was encouraged to squat such an empty building. This evolved as a practical initiative from the provos movement after the Nieuwmarkt riots in 1975. From this point on, the squatters became involved in loosely organized social protests against existing power structures. The movement reached its peak in the early eighties. At a time of economic downturn, high unemployment and widespread pessimism, the squatting movements had a lot to offer. Sociologist and former squatter Eric Duivenvoorden estimates that roughly 20,000 people were involved with squatting at that time, out of a total of 35, 000 that participated over the years. While the nature of the movement varied over time, the squatting movement has always had anarchist sympathies and shied away from disciplinary structures and governmental control. It lacked clear, articulated goals because such strict organization flew in the face of their anarchist beliefs. Nonetheless, the squatting movement has always been an anti-movement—anti-establishment, anti-fascist power structures and anti-urban bourgeoisie. After the eighties, the squatting movement slowly disintegrated. Its legacy of societal criticism, however, can be seen to this day as the squatter community remains closely linked to the LGBT-community.

Origins of the LGBT Movement

The turbulent 1960s and 70s provided a window of opportunity for gay and lesbian organizers to also make their message heard, aided by the squatters and the Provos. As the sexual revolution reached the Netherlands, social and sexual norms were questioned more broadly. Laurens Buijs, lecturer of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, explains life in this turbulent time:

"Try and image life back in those days. Urbanization was not a thing so if you did not live in the big city and you came out in a small town this was a horrible process which usually led with your family casting you out… this was also a generation conflict, it was a clash between the generations that had experienced the sexual revolution and those who had not. So most gay people would go to Amsterdam, where they formed tight communities that became surrogate families and the idea to address oppression in general was natural. The COC [Cultureel- en Ontspanningscentrum or Cultural and Relaxation Center] was one of the first organization to speak up about this. In the 60s the COC was a radical organization, that together with the students, squatters and other radicals formed a true democratic grassroots movement."

Along with the decriminalization of sex work, porn and abortion, homosexuality was also decriminalized in this period, becoming legal in 1971 without major protests. Buijs describes this broader movement:

"It coincided with the rise of the sexual revolution, in the sixties Amsterdam was the center of the gay movement. The whole ‘coming-out’ thing started here. It came from a stream of thought that focused on structural inequality and a sociological approach of looking at societal systems, left-wing thought. But it was also a time in which people thought in terms of ‘the social’ instead of the ‘individual’, as is now the case. It was also the time that ideas about gender and heteronormativity as we now know them arose. Sometimes it’s strange to think about, but things like gender- and women studies are very recent phenomenon. It was really revolutionary."

Becoming Model Citizens

Despite the initially broad vision of the gay movement’s goals, the idealism of the 1970s did not remain unaffected by changing political conditions. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, gay Dutch citizens steadily made political gains in the realm of state administered rights. Same-sex couples were incorporated into social security, tax and other structures, and an anti-discrimination law was passed in 1993. The Netherlands also became the first country to recognize same-sex marriage in 2001. The state-centered goals show a definite shift in the values of the movement, with marriage in particular showing a commitment to more normative ideas of state recognized relationship structures.

Gay activists now fought to be recognized as full citizens of the nation state, rather than fighting to change that nation state. Along with increasing acceptance and decreasing social alienation for certain members of the LGBT community and fuller integration and easier alignment with mainstream society, the changing political climate affected the path of integration. The radical spirit of the 1960s and 70s gave way to the neoliberalism of the 1980s. Neoliberal, free-market capitalism became central in the Netherlands and the idea of homosexuality became generally tolerated. Through social and institutional forces in these decades, the current condition of individualization and fragmentation, of mainstreaming and government involvement within the LGBT community was created. 

The forceful hand of the government?
The increased involvement of the government with LGBT issues after the AIDS epidemic has lasting consequences for the place of LGBT issues in society today. Buijs argues:
"There has been a real shift. Also the role that homosexuality plays in nationalism changed, gayness is no longer seen as a threat to the nation-state. This initially allowed the gay community to see their struggle as a larger struggle against the big -isms, such as capitalism or the nuclear family. The state embraced its gay citizens. … the idea that there is a need for the LGBT community to take up the fight against structural inequality is gone."
Currently it is often easier for gay rights activists to work with the government rather than to directly challenge it, limited as its view might be at times. Vreer claims: “When playing pool, sometimes you get more of an effect if you play via the rails. In The Netherlands, if you want to achieve something, it is often better to play it via the government.” The government is eager to help, though on their terms. And when actively supported by the government, it becomes difficult for groups rallying for specific values of the fringe to hold an anti-state ethos and continue their work. 
Tania Birkhuis, the former director of the Amsterdam branch of the COC, describes that for some organizations government involvement has positive effects. For the COC it means that working with the dominant power structures is now a possibility. Birkhuis states, “The fact that some people that are high up within politics or economics or other spheres of society are gay is a good thing, because they have the power to improve things for those that have it more difficult.” She also recognizes the necessary practicality for this kind of work, she said, “There is a difference from radically going for a radical issues, versus mainstream objectives, because that means that we have to accept all the political extremes as well. That’s a choice that you make. You can’t be mainstream if you start excluding people. The PVV can say that they want all Moroccan criminals to get a shot in the knee and the COC will definitely not agree with it. But the COC will not say the PVV is not allowed to support our cause.” To pragmatically further goals of tolerance for LGBT identities, the COC is willing to work with parties that actively discriminate against other historically marginalized groups, a major shift from the broad emancipatory visions of the early movement. 
Complications with the government’s embrace of gay citizens are highlighted by a 2007 policy document from the Dutch Ministry for Education, Culture and Science, Gewoon homo zijn or ‘Just being gay.’ This document sets out a Dutch “homo-emancipation” policy for the period of 2008–2011 placing two core values on the political and public agenda—the social acceptance of “homosexuals” and the freedom to be out (Jivraj 2011). The introduction of this policy was according to the needs formulated by the COC, but also demonstrated its limits. It assumed that all gay people were striving to be recognized by the government and to have the freedom to come out. For many, however, the reality is quite different. 
Egbert Martina, a cultural critic and writer who self-identifies as black and same gender loving, mentions he did not feel at home with the notion of coming out of the closet, “I didn’t always agree with the coming out story, as though it was some huge liberating experience. For me it was that I just stepped into something else.” Those who do not recognize themselves in this rhetoric find further difficulties when they try to express their own experiences. Lieke speaks of an incident where a friend of hers wanted to volunteer for the COC. She sais, “the problem was that my friend’s story did not really match with that of the COC. She never had a coming out or anything.” The story ends with her friend not volunteering for the COC because they were unconvinced that her friend’s particular experience of sexuality would translate well to the COC’s volunteer work. The Dutch state and the COC thus support one specific, and at times limited, narrative of what homosexuality is or can be.
Particularly problematic about the power that the COC has is the fact that the government addresses LGBT issues mainly through the COC. It receives the lion’s share of funding for LGBT issues in the Netherlands. This leads to a situation in which individuals and communities expressing their own experiences with sexuality can become dependent on the COC for funds. In practice this can mean that these people may feel pressured to adjust their story to become more aligned with that of the COC, or they can risk losing funding. It can be difficult, therefore, to present a different voice or stir up debate.
Individualization and fragmentation 
Emancipation is no longer seen as a collective process but as something of the individual. Laurens Buijs explains, “The gay-movement emanated from a left-wing movement, called the Red Fags.” This coincided with the rise of the sexual revolution in the sixties when Amsterdam was the center of the gay movement. It came from a stream of thought that focused on structural inequality and a sociological approach of looking at societal systems. This changed with the onset of neoliberalism, an ideology that increasingly put the burden of emancipation with the individual. Buijs adds, “When we look at “homopolitics” you can see a development of solidarity, of seeing [minority groups] interests in the seventies to the situation currently. The scene is much more fragmented now, which also complicates the possibility of solidarity and that is a problem for gay politics.”
This fragmentation is visible in the COC’s strategy of ethnic interest groups. Gay Turkish people organize specific events for other gays of Turkish descent, black LGBT people organize for other black LGBT people, but there is not an active fight against societal racism by the LGBT community at large. The gay community as a whole instead leaves people of color to sort that out for themselves. When Egbert Martina thinks of the COC the words white and male come to his mind. He explains, “I also worked with the COC in the education program. I did that for two and a half years. And I liked it but I didn’t agree with their way of doing things. I felt like there was no space for people like me.” The pragmatic approach of working with anyone interested in  ending homophobia means that the COC’s ability to show solidarity with other minority groups, or tackle issues such as racism, is limited. Furthermore, racism is still a very real problem within gay spaces, as Egbert explains:
"In the gay scene people saw me as the black gay guy, I had to deal with a lot of racism, even more than in everyday life. Especially when it intersects with sexuality it can be really harsh. People would say stuff like, ‘I’m not really into black guys, but you’re really cute’ and expect me to be thankful. People say it was really great hooking up but they couldn't be in a relationship with me because their parents would freak out and then they would expect me to still hook up with them. I don’t think the LGBT-community here has an eye for other forms of oppression."
Ruud presented us with an example of a meeting that was supposed to focus on racism within the gay community, but turned out to be a workshop on self-emancipation. He said, “this is what happens in The Netherlands in general. People organize events about racism and so on, but people don’t really want to talk about those issues. Rather they want to talk about how can you as a person “advance” yourself, how can you improve your CV… They advise you to volunteer for the COC and improve your CV and hire more brothers and sisters.”
This rhetoric of individual responsibility and self-emancipation can have some particularly negative consequences. It suggests that if you have not emancipated yourself than you are to blame for this, turning the frustration inward. This is the message of the COC that can make politicized individuals go elsewhere to engage in their activism. But exactly where do they go?

Queer is Here

One alternative to mainstream LGBT organizations is the queer movement. The term queer is both personal and political. Originating as a derogatory slur in English, it was reclaimed in the United States in the 1990s, most visibly by the New York City activist group Queer Nation. Queer is difficult to define, but Vreer argues, “On an individual level it refers to people who do not identify with default expressions of gender and sexuality. On the other hand it also has to do with questioning the powers that be.” Rather than focusing on being accepted by the state, queer politics often look to challenge dominant systems and question the value of conventional lifestyles. The Amsterdam festival Queeristan for instance is about providing a space—not only an autonomous space that dodges logics of profit and commercialization, but also a platform to both explore and counter the normative workings of gender, sexuality and identity. This means that it is necessarily small. Queeristan co-founder Vreer says, “The queer movement is very marginal. This is partly our own choice, in order to keep our structure open, transparent and credible.”

As a personal label, it refers to people who refuse to be pinned down by a default identity. Vreer claims, “There is a multitude of gender identities and sexual identities. If you pinpoint a standard, you only grasp one among many. We have to protect the multitude.” Lieke, who self idefines as queer explains, “I don’t find myself in hetero/bi/homosexual definitions, because they’re all defined by the gender of the person you like when that doesn’t seem like a relevant thing to me.” In short, queer is a political tool that can be used by individuals to show a commitment to challenging established ideas about identity and its intersection with gender and sexuality. But even though the queer movement provides some interesting ways of politicizing gender and sexual identities in Amsterdam, it comes with its own challenges.

Complicating Queer and Queer’s Complications
Some have doubts about the use of queer as a politicized new identity. Buijs remarks, 
“I know queer theory is very popular in academic circles and it is a way to establish yourself as a developed person.” It is very intellectual; it has something arrogant to it, unrealistic, weird, impractical.... I believe that there is such a thing as a “straight” majority, and that means you need to figure out how the gay minority can get its place in society... Queer theory does not help in doing this, although neither does the approach of the COC.” Krzysztof, as someone who works in schools directly addressing homophobia in youth, also questions its practicality. He claims, “The queer movement has ambitious aims that do not match with what concretely must be done... Take the COC’s work with education on homosexuality in classrooms. Go to a school and explain to kids who know only that “gays are filthy” that there is something like queer, or queer theory, go ahead. It’s like explaining the Pythagorean Theorem to youngsters who have just learned how to add.”
Some queers describe first coming across the term in works by US academics like activist and law professor Dean Spade. Lieke expressed, “I feel it’s a huge tension with people not understanding what’s going on because they haven’t read all these books, lower class people who have never had that education, and for them to feel part of the queer movement ultimately depends on a lot of work and education.” For Lieke, however, the heart of queer identity remains alive beyond the theory. “If it just doesn’t hit home when you hear it, maybe it’s not too academic, but maybe it just doesn’t work for you.” 
The matter of diversity, however, is also not fully resolved within the queer movement. Egbert reports:
"When I think of queer, I think of Queeristan, that kind of aesthetic and I don’t necessarily feel comfortable in that space either. I think because it’s again very white... I went to the last one and I felt melancholy. I wouldn’t say sad. I felt invisible. I felt like everything was set up in such a way as it wasn’t meant for me. Even though I know a lot of people who participated and volunteered and it wasn’t that I didn’t feel welcome, I just knew that people who set it up didn’t have people like me in mind. Someone spoke of nostalgia, and how we all feel a longing for the past sometimes. Well, I obviously don’t."
Ruud echoes some of these thoughts. “I don’t think ‘queer’ has that political feel to it here in the Netherlands. There’s Queeristan and they try, but they’re more involved with themselves but don’t go outside that. They tried to address people of colour and white privilege this year, but I heard it wasn’t that successful. There were speakers who said problematic things and the public wasn’t receptive.” Though the queer movement may wish to challenge LGBT institutions, it may not have escaped some of the potential pitfalls of organizing another distinct, and necessarily exclusionary, identity. Tania also does not view the queer and LGBT movements as naturally in opposition, but as potentially complementary. “I recognize that next to the mainstream organization there is the possibility of self-development of groups which gives a lot of chances on starting up new issues, like Queeristan. There is no one organization which knows it all.”

Looking Forward

The LGBT movement is no longer a political movement whose goals challenge all forms of injustice, and overarching solidarity is not promoted within it. Although The Netherlands has a history of counterculture movements that battle injustice broadly, nowadays emancipation can be seen as a process of individual liberation rather than a collective effort against injustice. This fragmentation is very visible in Amsterdam. LGBT people of different heritages all get their own night and their own party, but efforts to combat systemic oppression beyond homophobia remain limited. The queer movement attempts to reverse this shift. In its aim to preserve intellectual and ethical purity, however, it fails to mobilize large groups. The COC, on the other hand, tries to gain broad support and is thereby forced to be apolitical on nearly all issues. Neither of the two, it seems, are ‘mobilizing the gays in the streets.’ But perhaps Tania is right. No one group knows it all. This multitude of viewpoints is worth preserving, as long as there is common talk and common action. What is lacking is not the instruments, nor the power, but the solidarity.  The lesson, it seems, is not that queer movements are good or mainstream LGBT movements are bad. Rather, there is a need of solidarity. There is a need of an open discussion on alternative interpretations of what sexuality can mean. There is a need for connection between LGBTQ people on the fringe and in the center, people who are white and people of color, those in power and far from it. Otherwise, the powers that be can continue to divide and rule. 


ANP. “VVD en PvdA: Amsterdam moet weer Gay Capital worden.” Volkskrant, January 16 2011. http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/1824964/2011/01/16/VVD-en-PvdA-Amsterdam-moet-weer-Gay-Capital-worden.dhtml

COC website. COC Netherlands. http://www.coc.nl/

Jivraj, Suhraiya and Anisa Jong. "The Dutch Homo-Emancipation Policy and Its Silencing Effects on Queer Muslims." Feminist Legal Studies 19.2 (2011): 143-58. Print.

Kennedy, James C., Nieuw Babylon in aanbouw. Nederland in de jaren zestig. Amsterdam (Boom) 1995.

Moerings, Martin. “Protest in The Netherlands: Developments in a pillarized society.” Contemporary Crisis 7 (1983): 95 - 112.

Personal Interviews

Egbert Martina. Cultural Critic and Writer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 18 June 2013.

Krzysztof Dobrowolski-Onclin. COC volunteer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.

Laurens Buijs. Lecturer Political Science University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.

Lieke. Student. Queer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 14 June 2013.

Ruud. Student. Black Feminist. Netherlands. 19 June 2013.

Tania Birkhuis. Former director of the COC Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 20 June 2013.

Vreer. Co-founder van Queeristan. Queer-organizer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. 21 June 2013.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2013


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