September 24, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Dutch LGBT advocacy spans more than a century
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A rainbow flag outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

AMSTERDAM — Formal Dutch LGBT advocacy began in 1911 when the Netherlands raised the age of consent for same-sex sexual relations from 16 to 21.

Koen van Dijk, executive director of COC Nederland, a Dutch LGBT advocacy group, told the Washington Blade during an interview in his Amsterdam office earlier this month the measure prompted gay men to respond against it.

“That spurred gay men that were insulted by this legislation, but were also offended by it to become more organized and start working on change,” he said.

COC Nederland can trace its origins back to the late 1930s when a group of gay men who primarily lived in Amsterdam begin to publish a magazine called “The Right to Live.”

Gay organizing in the Netherlands came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when Germany invaded the Netherlands. Those who published the magazine burned their archives and went underground because van Dijk said they “heard stories of what happened to gay people in Germany” under the Nazi regime.

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Amsterdam’s oldest gay bar, Café t’Mandje, opened in 1927. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Café t’Mandje, the country’s first gay bar that lesbian Bet van Beeren opened in what is now Amsterdam’s Chinatown in 1927, remained open during the war. Van Beeren hid Jews and smuggled weapons to the Dutch resistance in her establishment throughout the occupation. She even bribed German soldiers with alcohol.

“The Right to Live” began to publish after the war ended in 1945, and COC Nederland formally came into existence on Dec. 7, 1946. It began as a social club under the acronym Center for Relaxation and Culture or Cultuur-en Ontspanningscentrum (COC) in Dutch, and had two offices in Amsterdam and The Hague.

“It was a social club where people could meet behind closed doors,” van Dijk said. “Discrimination was still very high in the Netherlands at that time. People would actually lose their jobs if they were out at work and could lose their homes.”

LGBT equality and acceptance remain group’s objectives

COC Nederland has two broad goals: Personal emancipation of LGBT people and the promotion of greater acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the country through legislation and social acceptance.

Lawmakers in 1971 equalized the age of consent for same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relations. The Dutch government in 1973 formally recognized COC Nederland, which at that time was known as the Dutch Association for Integration of Homosexuality COC.

The Netherlands in 2001 became the first country in the world to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Van Dijk was quick to point out COC Nederland continues to work on a host of issues in spite of the country’s liberal and pro-gay reputation.

A 2009 report the Dutch Ministry of Justice commissioned found 70 percent of LGBT people in the Netherlands have experienced harassment because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. A third of respondents said they experienced physical violence.

One-third of Dutch LGBT employees are not out in the workplace, while more than 30 percent of people in the Netherlands said they find gay people kissing in public shocking.

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COC Nederland’s GSA program is now in two-thirds of the Netherlands’ public high schools. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Van Dijk said anti-LGBT bullying in Dutch schools remains a problem — COC Nederland in 2008 launched a program based on Gay-Straight Alliances in the U.S. to combat homophobia and transphobia. The initiative is now in two-thirds of the country’s public high schools.

“The layer of tolerance is thinner than it looks at first glance,” van Dijk told the Blade, noting anti-LGBT attitudes remain among specific religious and ethnic groups in the Netherlands. “There’s a whole spectrum of intolerance that is still really worrying.”

COC Nederland: Dutch government is an ally

Van Dijk said lawmakers have been responsive to concerns his organization and other LGBT advocacy groups have had over specific issues.

Dutch lawmakers last September passed a law that said a resident of the Netherlands could only sponsor their partner for immigration purposes if the couple had already legally married in the foreign-born spouse’s country of origin. The Netherlands is one of only 14 countries in which gays and lesbians can legally marry.

Lawmakers quickly repealed the statute after COC Nederland and other LGBT advocates expressed concern.

“We had to go to Parliament, go to our government to say you probably don’t mean this happening, but this will make our lives more difficult,” van Dijk said. “They’ve been very responsible.”

Van Dijk said LGBT asylum seekers in the Netherlands remain particularly vulnerable because the government places them in housing with their countrymen who may subject them to anti-gay harassment and violence. He noted officials are sometimes unaware of this treatment, while others may blame the victim who experiences mistreatment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

“For them a gay man is 40, wearing a pink boa standing on a boat at gay Pride,” van Dijk told the Blade. “They don’t recognize LGBT people and that they have a different view of how good they should be or take care of themselves in that situation. So we need to really work with organizations like them, or care organizations for the elderly.”

State Secretary for Security and Justice Fred Teeven in 2011 introduced a bill for which COC Nederland and the Transgender Network Netherlands had lobbied for years that would allow trans people to change their gender on their birth certificates, passports and other official documents without undergoing sterilization and sex-reassignment surgery before petitioning a judge to grant the request.

Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last year signed a law that allows trans Argentinians to legally change their gender on official documents without surgery and an affidavit from a doctor or another medical provider. The Dutch measure is similar to the Argentine law, but it would still require a trans person to obtain a statement from an “expert” to legally change their gender.

The proposal would also eliminate the need to petition a judge to approve a person’s request to legally change gender.

“It’s an invasion of rights,” van Dijk said in reference to current Dutch law. “It’s the integrity of the body; it’s privacy.”

The main chamber of the Dutch Parliament earlier this year approved the bill, but the country’s Senate has yet to act upon it. Van Dijk said he remains hopeful senators will vote on the measure in the fall once they debate a bill that would allow a married lesbian to petition municipal officials – and not go before a judge as current Dutch law mandates — to receive full parental rights of her spouse’s child she conceived through artificial insemination.

“The Senate is not working very fast at the moment, but we have good hopes that within a year it will all be fixed,” van Dijk said.

COC Nederland also works with LGBT rights advocates in Eastern Europe, Africa and other areas throughout the world.

The organization in April staged a protest outside the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over Russia’s LGBT rights record. More than 3,000 people last month protested a Russian law that bans gay propaganda to minors and other anti-LGBT measures in the country during a Kremlin-sponsored concern in Amsterdam’s Museumplein that van Dijk said was designed to “acquaint the Dutch audience with the beauty and diversity of Russian culture.”

Authorities in the Russian city of Murmansk in July arrested four Dutch LGBT rights advocates who are not affiliated with COC Nederland for violating the country’s gay propaganda law while filming a documentary about LGBT life in Russia.

Van Dijk described Russia’s LGBT rights record as a “disgrace,” but said COC Nederland does not support calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics over the issue.

“What we’re doing is listening to our counterparts in Russia and [they’ve asked] us to come over instead of to boycott,” van Dijk said. “We’re not going to explain to them what’s best for them. They should explain to us what is best for them.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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