Amsterdam Pride sends defiant message of gay visibility

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Adrian Tippetts reports from Amsterdam Pride, speaking to organisers ProGay about media attention, homophobic violence and why the city is not the safe haven it once was.

A downpour on Saturday afternoon was responsible for a low turnout of just 380,000 spectators at the Amsterdam Canal Parade, the climax of the city’s annual Gay Pride festival.

Even so, organisers ProGay deserve credit for making this year’s Pride one of the most inclusive events of its kind. The five-day festival of over 300 events – comprising parties, cultural exhibitions, religious gatherings and sporting competitions – highlighted the diversity of the LGBT community. Perhaps the biggest success was the near-saturation coverage of the event in the media, which paid serious attention to the homophobic prejudice that still exists in the Netherlands today.

The 80 boats, which sailed the along the city’s Prinsengracht, included delegations of Jews, Christians, disabled people, senior citizens and numerous international and government organisations. The parade highlighted the global struggle for LGBT rights and acceptance. A symphony orchestra led the flotilla, playing Beethoven’s European anthem, ‘Ode To Joy,’ while naming and shaming EU countries with discriminatory legislation.

An African boat was featured for the first time, acting as a poignant reminder of the wave of anti-gay violence sweeping across Sub-Saharan countries. One of its representatives explained: “Homophobic governments promote the lie that homosexuality is a ‘western’ ideology. Well, we want to send a clear signal that as gay Africans, we’re here and we’re proud! We are here to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Africa who cannot be themselves. We will keep fighting.”

The theme of this year’s Pride, ‘Celebrate and dare to be visible!’, was a defiant message to the many in Dutch society who still find the very sight of gay people ‘offensive’. Amsterdam is not the safe accepting haven it once was. In the city alone, 370 cases of intimidation and violence against gays and lesbians were reported last year.

Frank van Dalen, the charismatic 41-year-old president of ProGay, explained that visibility is more important than ever in these circumstances: “On the one hand, we want to empower LGBT people to be proud of who they are and show it. And we are also making it clear to society in general, we are here, we’re going to stay and you are going to see us because we are going to be visible, not just during pride but throughout the year.”

In the week running up to Pride, one of the country’s national broadcasters, AVRO, exposed astonishingly negative attitudes towards homosexuality in its Hoe straight ben jij?( How Straight Are You?) survey. Three quarters think it’s okay to be gay, so long as you ‘act normal’. Thirty-six percent found two men kissing in public offensive, and half found it fine to use ‘homo’ as a term of insult.

“The outcome was that they accept homosexuality as long as they don’t see it”, van Dalen explained. “When it becomes too obvious and too physical they find it difficult. So it’s alright to be gay as long as you don’t express yourself.”

The violence against LGBT people in Holland is to some extent a consequence of the failure of past governments to integrate different cultures into society. Surveys show most of the perpetrators are aged 16 to 25, and immigrant communities, such as those of Moroccan ethnicity, are over-represented.

“If they are confronted with expressions of homosexuality, they see it as a direct threat to their own masculinity,” van Dalen explained.

“They strongly believe when they are under threat they have a right to defend themselves, and then, violence is an option. Almost all violent incidents of violence occur on gay people because they dare to answer back after being subjected to verbal abuse in the first place. Hurling insults at someone is a way of asserting superiority. If you don’t simply accept it, then these people think, ‘now I really have to stand up for my rights, because he didn’t get my message’, and so they attack.”

To combat homophobia, ProGay and other organisations have been successfully lobbying for the police and the judiciary to take a harder line against homophobic violence. While the Netherlands lacks the hate crimes legislation that protects British LGBT citizens, he is pleased to see more arrests and thugs being given longer prison sentences.

But there is still work to be done. There is much anger following revelations that gay people in a street in the west of the city are being driven out of their homes after months of intimidation from a gang of youths. The police were only recently able to make arrests because the victims were too fearful of reprisals from the rest of the community to make a statement. In cases like this, van Dalen wants to see the perpetrators evicted and more reassurance of protection for victims, to enable them to come forward in the first place.

In the long term, van Dalen sees compulsory education about homosexuality in all schools as the most effective remedy. The previous minister for education, Ronald Plasterk, made the topic an integral part of the state school curriculum. Plans to extend this universally will undoubtedly be met with fierce opposition from religious schools, especially those in the country’s Calvinist communities, which can still teach about sexuality in accordance with religious values and dismiss gay teachers.

A ProGay initiative for high schools and sports clubs is the Gay-Straight Alliance. This is where straight friends make a commitment to show support, should a gay classmate or team member ever experience homophobic abuse. Unfortunately, there has been little enthusiasm from the sporting world yet.

Gay Pride in Amsterdam receives the kind of national media coverage that UK organisers can only dream about. While BBC Radio 1 failed to even mention London Pride this year on its Newsbeat website – let alone broadcast from the event – one of the main youth radio stations, 3FM, went ‘gay for the day’ on Friday, broadcasting its annual Homo Top 100 live from the Rembradtplein, the square near the city’s gay venues.

Two newspapers made Thursday’s opening ceremony headline news, while during the week, there were TV debates on tackling social prejudice, and there was even coverage on the classical station, Radio 4. Van Dalen explains: “Since in 2007, we have broadened the message and deepened the meaning of gay pride. Last year we had over 600 articles in the newspapers, because we created so much news about the type of boats that were sailing along the things we were doing. There are many diverse messages about the struggle for emancipation, and we work hard to get these into the media. If you only talk superficially about the extravaganza of the floats, it’s not going to fill three pages, and to be honest, it misrepresents.”

Van Dalen has a defiant message to those who accuse pride organisers of ‘flaunting sexuality’: “People make a huge fuss about the gay pride, and how disgraceful this display of flamboyancy is. What hypocrisy. I don’t hear this about the Summer Carnaval in Rotterdam, organised by the Surinam community. What they really mean is, they can’t stand the sight of two men walking hand in hand.

“In essence we are here to show straight people that a world where being different is seen as an added value to society, that is better for everyone. It creates a society open for innovation, development, progress and without these, society stagnates.”