Joke Swiebel

Six months before the Stonewall Inn riots, Joke Swiebel organized a gay rights demonstration in the Netherlands. In her Mosse lecture, given on 21 January 2019 at the Public Library in Amsterdam, she looked back on the past fifty years of activism.

In 1811, France, after having annexed the Netherlands in the year before, installed the Napoleonic Code, which did not dictate homosexual acts as a criminal offence. But in 1911, Article 248 bis of the Penal Code criminalized sexual intercourse between an adult (someone over the age of 21) and a minor of the same sex, while for heterosexual sex the age limit was 16 years. This article caused considerable harm and reinforced existing prejudices. It was not only discriminatory, it also stood in the way of free development and sexual self-determination of young people. This provision was based on the idea that young people can be ‘seduced’ into homosexuality, an idea clearly at odds with the notion of free choice that came up during the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

No wonder it was young people and students who took the lead. On January 21, 1969, arguably the first gay demonstration in Europe took place, at the Parliament buildings in The Hague, initiated by young people and students. Their demand: abolish Article 248 bis of the Penal Code.

In 1971, after the Speijer Committee had determined that the idea of homosexuality by seduction was ungrounded, a large majority of both Houses of Parliament voted to abolish the article.

These two events, the 1969 demonstration and the 1971 repeal of Article 248 bis, marked the start of the modern gay movement in the Netherlands. Homosexual men and lesbian women took matters into their own hands. They were no longer worrying for years about their identity and so-called self-acceptance. They stopped hiding in the closets and wanted neither to conform to society nor beg for acceptance. On the contrary, they demanded social reforms. They despised the phrase ‘the homophile fellow man’.

Much has changed since then. The gay movement has become broader – even government documents now refer to LGBTI people (lesbian women, gay men, bisexual men and women, transgender and intersex people). And those identities are celebrated with ‘pride’, the well-known slogan for the global LGBTI movement.

There are many reasons to be proud of the successes achieved by our movement. The strategy of openness has led to a huge increase in social tolerance. Homosexual men and lesbian women have become an ‘ordinary’ – but never a self-evident – phenomenon: it’s ok to be gay, but not to make your gayness visible. In 2015, the Social and Cultural Planning Office published a study with the apt title, ‘You can marry, but not kiss‘. The young people and students at that demonstration in The Hague in 1969, however, were not thinking about a wish to, or ability to, marry. Their interest was rather in the recognition of other forms of relationships, as well as in ending discriminations against single people. Their claim was that the context in which you live should not influence your rights and obligations as a citizen. The state should not force people into a straitjacket of dependence. The state should not be the moral guardian.

In the arena of social security, the government broadened the dogma of ‘family capacity’ to include unmarried cohabiting couples. The legal recognition of alternative relations was limited to the so-called registered partnership, which is very similar to marriage. From there, from a legal point of view, opening up marriage was a small step. That was a different outcome than what we intended when we launched our movement fifty years ago. History rarely follows a straight line.

Count your blessings. The opening up of marriage has undoubtedly contributed a lot to the acceptance of lesbian women and homosexual men (albeit much less for bisexuals, transgender and intersex people). It is time for the next step, not only by fighting for the interests of LGBTI people, but especially by working to demythologize these identities. Did we not want to get rid of the labels that led to our worrying about self-acceptance fifty years ago? Why should you first profess to belonging to a certain group or category before you can ‘be yourself’? It is not because LGBTI people are entitled to safety and acceptance because they are that way, but because they – like everyone else – have the human right of free choice?

Joke Swiebel has been a long-standing activist in both the women’s movement and the LGBT movement. She worked as a civil servant and policy adviser for the Dutch government. Between 1999 and 2004 she was Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Labour Party and served as Chair of the EP’s Intergroup for Gay and Lesbian Rights.

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