Sexual Minority Rights in Europe

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Sexual Minority Rights in Europe (9000 woorden zonder eindnoten; geen bibliografie)


When the first homosexual rights movement the Wissenschaftliche-humanitäre Komitee (WHK, Scientific-humanitarian Committee) was established in Germany in 1897, its main goals were abolition of legal discrimination and enlightenment on homosexuality for the general public. Germany still had a criminal law paragraph forbidding “counter natural intercourse” between males and of men with animals (also called sodomy or buggery in other jurisdictions). Subsequently, such movements were established in the Netherlands, England, France and Switzerland, and after the Second World War in the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Austria and so on. These movements have seen their greatest successes since the late 1960s, the time of the sexual revolution. By now, all European countries have removed articles in the criminal law that forbade homosexual acts specifically, be it certain acts like in the German case or higher ages of consent for homo- than for heterosex. The new topic has become same-sex partnership rights, commonly known as gay marriage. The Netherlands, Belgium and Spain have opened up marriage for same-sex couples, while other countries have created civil unions for same-sex couples with less rights. Most other European countries debate such laws and regulations. The general attitudes have gone in Europe (but more so in the West than in the East) from rejection to acceptance. This has raised the question in the countries with the most liberal laws regarding homosexuality whether there is still a need for gay and lesbian politics and a LGBT movement. In this article I will answer this question with a resounding yes because after the important legal changes, there are ample reasons to continue with major social changes to abolish the continuing patriarchal or sexist and heteronormative structures of post- or late-modern societies and create space for sexual diversity and intimate citizenship. I will first explain the aims and successes of the post-war gay and lesbian movement, then indicate the limits of its results to conclude with new possible agenda’s.

The homophile organizations, 1945-1965

The homosexual rights movement in Germany had seen little political success before the rise to power of Hitler and his Nazi’s. The anti-homosexual paragraph had remained on the law books. At the other hand, Berlin and other German cities harboured in the 1920s a lively homosexual subculture with dancing’s, bars and journals. Lesbians had their own venues and drag shows were popular. Male and female homosexuality had become visible and got recognized as special sexual identities. Berlin was the gay capital in those days, with Paris being a good second. With the rise of fascism in Italy, communism in Russia and Nazism in Germany the situation for all kinds of minorities including the sexual became more difficult after 1930. Homosexuals who were already persecuted in many places, had to witness a hardening of the sexual climate in the mentioned countries, and also elsewhere. Castration of “sex criminals” became in this decade a “cure” for homosexual inclinations all over the West. The worst situation developed in Nazi Germany where in the shadow of the Holocaust of Jews about 6000 men were murdered because of their homosexual preferences and many more were imprisoned, harassed or sent to the most dangerous war zones. After 1945, some countries in the West saw a minor amelioration of the situation for homosexuals, while the communist East offered little perspective for the development of gay bars or homophile emancipation. Western Germany kept in 1945 to the stiffer anti-homosexual legislation introduced by the Nazi’s. Gay men, who had been sentenced under this law, were not released from prison after the German surrender and never received indemnifications as other war victims did. France had not known specific anti-gay laws, but got one during the war and kept to it afterwards (the age of consent became 21 years for homosexual practices). Sweden that remained neutral during the war abolished its sodomy law but introduced a higher age of consent for homosexual relations in 1944, 21 instead of 15 years. Denmark and Iceland had done so in 1933 and 1940. Switzerland was split up between the French- and German-speaking cantons, the latter had sodomy-laws and the first not. In 1942 a new criminal law was introduced for all of the country in which there were no provisions against sodomy, although here also a higher age of consent was created for homosexual sex (20 years compared to 18 for straight sex). Most other countries continued to have laws that forbade same-sexual relations; most often only for men but Austria and Finland included women, or stipulated higher ages of consent for homosexual relations. Only Spain, Italy, Belgium and Poland had neither of those. So Europe has come very far from generally criminalizing homosexual acts to having no such laws any longer (see for a legal overview)

The only continuous gay journal & movement during the Second World War years was Der Kreis (The Circle) that started in 1932 under another name. It created a bridge between pre- and post-war movement and became world-famous after the war. Being trilingual, it attracted foreign contributors and served apart from German- also French- and English-speaking audiences that had no such publications in their countries immediately after the war. At that time, the homosexual rights movement started up again, first the COC (Cultural and Recreation Centre) in The Netherlands in 1946, Forbundet 48 in Denmark, Riksforbundet for seksuel Ligeberettigelse (RFSL) in Sweden in 1950, various groups and journals in Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Arcadie in France in 1954 and the Homosexual Law Reform Society in England in 1958 which changed its name to the Committee/Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). The latter began as a response to the Wolfenden Report of 1957 that proposed to partially decriminalize homosexuality and prostitution. The various organizations created on the initiative of the COC in 1951 the International Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE) that produced newsletters and a series of conferences in the 1950s and disappeared quietly in the early 1960s.

The new homophile movements after the war were to struggle against anti-homosexual articles in laws, against social prejudices in the media and against pathologization by medicine, and to create safe havens in stone and in print for gays and lesbians. The word homophile gained a certain popularity in gay circles as it put less stress on the sexual compared to the most common term homosexual. Visibility or the “closet” were not yet issues because homosexuals could not allow themselves to be open and out. If they did so, they took the major risk to be excluded from family, friends and workplace. Many homophile activists worked under pseudonyms. Their movements were weak, under constant threat of unwilling authorities and did not attract many gays and lesbians except where they created their own bars and disco’s (as the COC and Arcadie did). From the 1950s on a lively homosexual subculture developed with bars, dancings, sauna’s and hotels in some places in Europe such as Copenhagen, Paris and Amsterdam while the existing public culture of urinals and parks continued to thrive all over Europe. The first ripples of new times became visible with the attention gained by Alfred Kinsey with his books of (homo)sexual surveys (1948 & 1953) or the British Wolfenden committee that suggested decriminalizing certain homosexual practices and forms of prostitution (1957). In the artistic world, several courageous authors took to the gay subject, most famously Jean Genet from France while André Gide of the pre-war generation received the Noble prize for literature in 1947.

There have been many explanations why the Western world opened up to gay and lesbian emancipation in the 1960’s. For the Netherlands that moved between the 1950’s and the 1970’s from conservative backwater to progressive vanguard in sexual matters several causes have been indicated. In general terms, the country saw (like other nations) a growing secularization, democratization and individualization. Many people lost their beliefs or simply stopped going to the church while some religious leaders became accepting first of the homosexual person, still denouncing the sin (homosexual behaviour), and later embraced gays and lesbians understanding that it was absurd to separate person and behaviour in their case, and not for straight people. Democratization meant a new kind of popular leadership (John F. Kennedy in the USA being the main example) at higher levels and new social movements at lower levels such as those of students, women or ethnic minorities. The gay and lesbian movement fitted very well in this trend. Individualization meant that singles could rent or buy their own housing much more simply – and could there have the sex they preferred without interference of family, landladies or neighbours. Individualization also implied it became seen as prejudicial to only allow heterosexual relations inside marriage but not what other people did in different situations – engaging in pre- and extra-marital, gay or lesbian sex. It also created more distance between the individual homosexual and his or her family – identity started to depend more on sexual preference than on social descent or group.

Additional reasons were the sexual liberation of straight unmarried women and men due to new means of contraception, the pill being the most important. Females now ran less risk to loose their virginity that had always been the expected state of unmarried women before the sexual revolution. Psychiatry, long a mainstay of homophobic attitudes, discovered there was little pathology in gay men, and also that young men could not be seduced into a gay lifestyle. An important change was the gender position of gay men and lesbian women. While in the past homosexuals were always seen as queers who desired “passive” sex with straight men (meaning being anally or orally penetrated), and lesbian as butches who went after “normal” women, since the sixties gay men masculinised and lesbian women feminized, and instead of going for straight partners, they started to have interchangeable sexual relations among themselves: gay with gay, and lesbian with lesbian. Moving away from unequal sexual relations that followed the model of prostitution, they got egalitarian and stable friendships that looked much more like marriage. While in the past both homo- and heterosexual desire was supposed to be based in social inequality (male with female, old with young, rich with poor), the new view became always more that sexual relations should be between social equals. This new perspective helped the normalisation of homosexuality while it made relations between old and young, of humans with animals or in prostitution less intelligible.

The sexual revolution

The 1960s saw a very quick and radical movement in most Western-European countries with the “sexual revolution”. Obscenity laws were abolished, or became much less strict, straight dating became easier (also thanks to the famous pill), marriage changed definitively from a social-economic arrangement between families to a sake of love between individuals. Film, theatre, literature, the daily press, and the new medium of television created a visibility of sexuality that was unheard of. Homosexuality came above ground in this movement of erotic liberation. Gay and lesbian desires that had been for ages sins, crimes and diseases became within a short period between 1965 and 1975 innocent pleasures for large groups in Western-Europe. The small and vagrant queer subculture of the past became vibrant and gay.

The sexual revolution created major changes all over the Occidental world, and the United Stated are seen as the origin of many developments – with the sexological work of Kinsey, the eroticism of Hollywood, the black and feminist movements, the Stonewall riots of 1969. At the same time, similar things happened in European countries that were not so much seen as starting points. The Germans had their “Tiroler” soft porn, the French already knew a tradition of erotic novels and films while seeing the rise of a “Situationist” movement, Austria was strong in the new “body arts”, and the Swedish had become more open-minded already before 1965 on sex education, sexual politics and erotic imaginary like in the movies of Ingmar Bergman. The sexual revolution was over in Sweden when it still had to start in other countries. The Scandinavian countries, in particular Sweden and Denmark, also belonged to the vanguard of gay and lesbian emancipation, profiting from the sex reform, the even earlier decriminalisation of homosexual acts and the subsequent growth of a gay subculture. Although most European capitals harboured in the 1960s a hidden gay world, in cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm it came into the open, while Amsterdam developed into a capital of hedonism and homosexuality.

In the Netherlands, the president of the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform (NVSH) Mary Zeldenrust-Noordanus, gave a lecture in 1967 that discussed the desired sexual reforms for 2000. It included decriminalization of abortion, prostitution, pornography, and homosexuality (there was a different age of consent for homo- and heterosexual relations, 21 versus 16 years), and making it easier to divorce and get contraception, also for youngsters. Extra- and premarital sex should not be the taboos they still were. All these proposals were in fact realized not in 33, but in 10 years (the laws took longer to be changed). Interestingly, she also suggested that the gender and sexual dichotomy should become less strict. Heterosexuals should realize their homosexual side, and the reverse, while men and women should not keep strictly to their gender roles. It is remarkable that this more fundamental, queer change she proposed, did not make it, while all other suggestions were by and large enshrined in the legal consciousness of secular Dutch, and Europeans more broadly.

The traditional homosexual rights movement that had stressed its homophile, asexual side was replaced by radical gay groups. In The Netherlands, the COC was faced in 1967 with gay student groups that demanded social integration of homosexuality meaning not a place at the table, but a general change of socio-sexual culture. These groups soon took over the COC that however did not become as radical as promised. Lesbian groups attacked the new COC from 1972 on for being sexist, and the feminist movement for being heterosexist. They became separatist and created their own worlds of “women only” with bars, collective housing often in squatted buildings and publishing venues for books and journals. After 1974, “Red Faggots” opposed integration as it too often resulted in assimilation and defended a queer world where not a gender dichotomy, but gender fuck was the rule, and not heterosexuality, but the “perversions” were embraced including pedophilia and s/m. This brought them in conflict with the leftist student movement that rather embraced Wilhelm Reich and his heterosexual ideals. The French group FHAR (Front of Revolutionary Homosexual Action), starting in 1971, stated “we want all”. As in New York, they organized massive meetings where sexual pleasures often were more prominent than debates. They wrote pamphlets and published journals. They denounced psychiatrists who saw homosexuality as a disease, politicians who saw it as a scourge and ‘heterofliquisme” (straight policing). Solidarity with Arabs was underlined. The spokesman of the FHAR Guy Hocquenghem became a leading publicist and novelist on and beyond gay issues. Italy had its own version of the FHAR since 1972, the FUORI. In Germany “Schwulen” (queers) started to organize after Rosa von Praunheim’s inspiring movie “Not the homosexual is perverse, but the situation in which he lives” (1971). They created discos in squads, started journals, bars, festivals, theatre, bookshops and their own presses and became part of the rich alternative subculture of Germany. In the United Kingdom the Gay Liberation Front began in 1970 but split within two years because of the multiple interests of men, women, transgenders, cruisers, socialists and other groups. The Marxism of student groups divided the radical gays in the beginning, but in most places a suggested coalition with working classes and socialist groups failed because of the left’s homophobia. Cooperation with women was difficult at a time when many lesbian chose either for the feminist movement or for lesbian separatism, but proved to be more lasting in the places where it succeeded. In most countries the radical gay phase was short and filtered out certainly when many activists started the march through the institutions and began either on their own or in gay/lesbian groups to organize in political parties, trade unions, universities, health care, the police or the army.

The results of the gay and lesbian activism

The sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s opened up the gay world and accelerated the movement for gay and lesbian emancipation. It consisted of various elements. The first was decriminalization of homosexual relations that was realized over the next 30 years in all European countries, starting in the northern ones in the late 1960s and 1970s, and spreading to the south in the 1980s and the east in the 1990s (where some countries such as Czecho-Slovakia and Eastern-Germany already decriminalized in the 1960s). Sometimes general laws against “sodomy” were replaced with laws that introduced higher ages of consent for homosexual relations, like in Germany, but such laws also disappeared some time later. Since the treaty of Amsterdam, countries of the European Union can have no criminal laws with different regulations for hetero- and homosexual practices. Its article 13 forbids discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In most places, the decriminalization did not stop harassment of gays and lesbians, for example in gay districts or public cruising area’s (see below, point 9). Also, the attitudes of the police-officers did not change that easily and many of them have kept to their homonegative attitudes.

The depathologization of homosexuality was the second development. The resistance against psychiatric classifications of homosexuality as being pathology was the strongest in the US – also a stronghold of psychoanalysts who defended it. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided in a controversial vote among its members to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, much later followed by the World Health Organization in 1992. This meant homosexuality was no longer a crime or a disorder – a status it had occupied in Europe respectively since the Middle Ages and the late nineteenth century. As the European countries had no central authority like the APA to decide about the pathological status of homosexuality, they did not witness such dramatic demarcations. Many psychiatrists, mainly in Southern- and Eastern-European countries, kept to their homonegative attitudes and continue to resist for example gay and lesbian marital rights. It can be nonetheless expected that with the gradual replacement of an older by a younger generation of nerve doctors the profession will pathologise homosexuality less, and focus more on other sexual variations such as pedophilia, kinky desires and transsexuality.

Thirdly, several churches stopped seeing homosex as a sin – something it was even before it became a crime. The amazing and radical change of homosexual behaviour from sin, crime and disease created a kind of gap. Most gays and lesbians liked to hold to the idea that they were not different from other people except for what they did in the privacy of their bedroom. They rather forgot all the public aspects of private preferences, a topic we will return to. Notwithstanding the progressive move of some liberal churches, the largest ones, the catholic and orthodox, continue even nowadays to condemn homosexual behaviour as a sin, although they might accept the homosexual who remains chaste. In fact, the Catholic Church that has always been so defensive of its pedophile priests was strongly opposed to gay rights like marriage and intervened regularly in public debates with its positions and influencing conservative politicians – showing that the separation of state and church is permeable, also in Europe. In all surveys on the acceptance of gays and lesbians, people who are active believers, score among the lowest – together with the elderly and lower educated. Another group that shows high degrees of homonegative attitudes are recent immigrants with Muslims in a leading position. The advance of Muslims and evangelicals in Europe does not bode well for the acceptance of homosexuality as leaders of these groups have often spoken out against acceptance of homosexuality, or even said worse things. The trend of growing secularization has recently been reversed by the growth of religious orthodoxies mainly among new immigrants. It is remarkable that the religious leaders who are most active to enforce a puritanical sexual morality, are rarely able to impose this ethic on themselves or their colleagues, leaving the question open why lay people would ever follow their moral ideas.

A fourth element was spatial expansion, the growth of an open gay (and less so lesbian) culture with bars, disco’s and sauna’s that largely replaced a hidden subculture of public meeting places in urinals and parks. Gay men got apart from more private also more semi-public space. In most cities, gay vicinities or streets came into existence – an attraction point for gay locals and tourists. From Copenhagen and Amsterdam in the 1960s, these spread to Berlin, London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and so forth and what was hidden became visible through rainbow flags or underwear and leather shops. Due to housing policies and lower levels of discrimination, these neighbourhoods never became the concentrated gay ghetto’s they weree in the US. Demonstrations, parades, festivals, celebrations and commemorations on Aids-day created a calendar for the gay world. At the same time the public space for gay cruising largely disappeared form the city centres and moved to urban parks, highway stops and nudist beaches.

A greater visibility of homosexuality in the media and the arts was a fifth development. While homosexuality was rarely present in the media until 1970 apart from scandals and small news items on sex crimes, afterwards it became more and more a topic in the news. In the second half of the 1980s Aids attracted most attention while the glossies plunged into the private life of famous homosexuals in the 1990s. Aids also brought the secret sex life of gay men into the open while the Latinised medical sexual terms were more and more replaced by every-day language. Gay and lesbian novels became a niche market, companies like the London Gay Sweatshop or the New York Hot Peaches enjoyed successes in European capitals. The internet once more contributed enormously to the visibility of homosexuality – through websites and list services that offer everything from news, chat rooms, sex ads, information to pornography.

The sixth topic concerns the demand of the gay and lesbian movement to get more and better representations of homosexuality in education. Now, most schoolyards and sport fields are places where budding queers learn all the negative prejudices about homosexuality as the most common insults remain faggot, homo or wankie. Although in some countries schools teach courses on sexuality that include information on homosexuality, such education remains very limited to this day as the focus is often more on biological than on social or historical issues and rarely address the anti-homosexual attitudes of youngsters. Most sex education does not prepare for sexual life, but continues to teach about the negative consequences of sex acts: sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abuse. Schools are pivotal places to teach positive perspectives on sexual variation and the gay and lesbian movement has asked for it many times but with little result. This could be done by making schools safe spaces for LGBT people (both pupils and teachers) but that has rarely been done because school managements are afraid of engaging with topics of gender and sexual variation. Another approach is to include (homo)sexual themes in courses of history, geography, language, literature, sports. This would make homosexuality more self-evident while it does address indirectly the personal problems of the closet youngster may have. LGBT issues are not only absent at primary and secondary schools, but as well at higher levels of educations. A few Dutch, English, German and Scandinavian universities started with gay and lesbian studies from 1980 on while some of the most famous authors belonged to an earlier French generation (Michel Foucault, Guy Hocquenghem, Roland Barthes). The saying goes that life is based on money and love, and while there are hundreds of academic schools and faculties of economy, sexology remains an unwanted child mainly relegated to medical faculties where they research sexual dysfunctions. The undervaluation of sexual themes in education runs from the lowest to the highest levels.

The seventh theme is representation in politics. There must have been many LGBT members of parliament in the times of the closet but since the seventies more and more of them came out of it, or were outed. Coming out was easier in countries such as The Netherlands where MP’s are not directly chosen, but by way of party lists. In 2000 7% of the Dutch MP’s was gay or lesbian, beyond the 4% which is the assumed national percentage of queers. The most famous candidate MP in 2002 was right-winger Pim Fortuyn, leader of his own party that got just a week after his murder 17% of the votes. He had success not only because of strict opposition to migration, statements that he knew Moroccan culture was backward since he had had sex with Moroccan youngsters or criticism of the state bureaucracy, but also because of his dandy style and sexual openness. He was progressive in sexual matters. But not unlike other politicians and parties, he never created a gay political agenda. The presence of openly gay and lesbian politicians on all levels in parties is an important step forward, and sometimes they will defend the gay cause but more often they will remain hidden because it does still no good for any politician to be too out as gay or lesbian. Other famous examples of gay politicians are the mayors of Paris and Berlin, the social-democrats Bernard Delanoë and Klaus Wowereit who won elections in 2002 after coming out, the Christian-democrat mayor of Hamburg Ole von Beust, who was outed in 2003 but survived the next elections very convincingly, or the former British Labour minister and present-day EU-commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Protection of gays and lesbians on the workplace is another issue. Although most European countries have enacted the relevant legislation, it is not very effective because most gay and lesbian women who are out of the closet move to jobs where they face little discrimination, and those who work in more homonegative places remain closeted to prevent unpleasant situations. The army and the police force – in the past the arch-enemies of gay men - have been the places that have shown most institutional opposition to non-discrimination of gays and lesbians, while in some countries these institutions have more recently put a lot of effort to become non-racist, non-sexist and non-homophobic to counter their white male straight image – with mixed results. Most European countries have no official prohibitions any longer of gays and lesbians serving in the army or the police. But these institutions often remain like other male defined labour (blue collar work, macho sports and the higher levels of management) resistant, more to gay men than to lesbian women.

A central element of gay and lesbian emancipation has been the protection of LGBT persons against violence, insults and other forms of discrimination. In most surveys, high percentages of LGBT’s report aggressions that go from being insulted in public and semi-public places to murder. It happens on streets, workplaces, in schools, at home. People who are suspected of being sexually different have been chased from their homes by unwilling neighbours. Gay men have been physically attacked and murdered in cruising areas. Amsterdam saw in the 1980s annually two murders of gay men by male prostitutes in their homes, not out of economic but out of sexual reasons. These young men were apparently insecure about their homosexual practices and preferences as they murdered their clients at the moment of sexual activity. Very common is rejection of LGBT youngsters by their families that prove to be rather a hell than a heaven in a heartless world. Estimations of suicides indicate that LGBT youngsters are five times more likely to (try to) commit suicide than their heterosexual age mates. It is especially young people who have not learned to defend themselves who have to face insults and aggressions.

The tenth and final topic is the extension of relationship rights to gay and lesbian couples with regard to housing, insurance, inheritance, social security, family discounts, and above all, parenthood and marriage. These two latter issues have become the top priorities for large parts of the gay and lesbian movement (see next paragraph). But before same-sex relations were legalized by the different states, in most countries the mentioned rights were slowly extended to same-sex couples. Marriage as the institution that regulates all these issues in one stroke is now seen by many gays and lesbians and by always more politicians as the best way to organize same-sex relations.

Same-sex marriage

The struggle for same-sex marriage was controversial in the gay and lesbian community for several reasons. In the first place, until the sixties many gay men and lesbian women were pushed into straight marriages also as a way of healing their homosexuality. Since 1970, psychiatrists discovered homosexuals did not become heterosexual by marrying; to the contrary, they made themselves, their partners and their children unhappy by doing so. Instead of advising gays and lesbians to marry, doctors now said they could better not do so. Secondly, lesbians got to know marriage as a sexist and patriarchal institution. Even today, the division of tasks in straight households remains disadvantageous for women. Both gays and lesbians experienced marriage and the nuclear family as very heteronormative. Before Aids, gay men had developed a sexual and relational culture that combined one-night stands, loves, passions and established relations instead of creating oppositions between the various (kinds of) partners. As French utopian socialist Charles Fourier 150 years before, they could say their multiple relations created more social bonds and thus social cohesion than nuclear families that live isolated on their little islands. So some parts of the gay and lesbian movement rather preferred individualized models of taxing, housing or social security instead of the couple version of marriage with its (hetero)sexist history. At the other hand, many people who were not always strongly in favour of same-sex marriage, have analyzed its introduction as a step in the struggle for equality not very different from the emancipation in other controversial institutions such as army or police – or as an inevitable historical development. Because marriage has changed from an arranged relation that organized reproduction and inheritance to a confirmation of love, there is little reason not to include gay and lesbian couples.

The acknowledgement of same-sex relations became important since Aids struck the gay community that was confronted with the absence of any form of rights for gay couples. Lesbians realized it as they witnessed at approximately the same time a baby boom – both of children born in lesbian relations and of those born in prior straight marriages. These developments helped to inspire the battle for equal rights in relationships for homosexual couples. Not all LGBT persons however were convinced that introduction of equal rights for couples was any good for the community because such rights excluded single persons and also those who rather have different or plural relations, for example those people who prefer communal living arrangements or for whom a father and a lover are different people, not one and the same.

Another important development that facilitated the rise of the same-marriage issue was the trend toward socio-sexual equality. Most of history, and in most places, sexual desire always originated in social differences like gender, class or age. This was more or less the norm in both hetero- and homosexual relations until the sexual revolution. Most gay relations were between young and older men as with Greek pederasty, or between a feminine and a masculine man as between queen and trade, maricone and macho, or transgender figures with a “real” man. The most well-known lesbian parallel is between butch and femme. Since the 1960s a new norm of egalitarian (pure in the words of Anthony Giddens ) relations has been established very quietly, mainly as a result of feminist and socialist ideals. While unequal sexual relations become always more unacceptable (pedophilia, bestiality, prostitution), gays and lesbians are much better able to create equality in their relations than even heterosexuals who have always to face a gender difference. This trend towards equal relations strongly favours the struggle for gay and lesbian rights especially for same-sex marriage.

By now, three European countries have opened marriage for same-sex couples, namely The Netherlands being the first in 2001, Belgium and Spain. Other countries have separate partnership regulations for homosexual couples, such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Czechia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom. In some countries these special institutions are only for gay and lesbian couples while in France with its ideals of equality of all citizens the PACS (partnership) is for all couples: gay, straight, lesbian and also non-sexually defined relations. In Denmark, the first country to legalize gay and lesbian couples in 1989, they had a special regulation only for same-sex couples that excluded celebration of the relation in the Lutheran state-church. Because of all the various ways to legalize both homo- and heterosexual couples the EU works at a law that proscribes all member-states to acknowledge each other’s regulations.

In accordance with the declining rates of marrying among Europe’s heterosexual couples, the number of same-sex couples getting married remains rather low compared to the number of existing couples. Because of lack of systematic data both on the number of gays and lesbians, and of the couples among them (that may live together or apart), the eagerness of gays and lesbians to marry can not be ascertained. Much depends on what countries offer to married couples in terms of legal, social and economic (tax) benefits for couples and their children compared to what is done for singles or cohabiting couples. For the Netherlands, my estimate is that about 10% of same-sex couples married notwithstanding high economic and for some symbolic benefits.

State of the Art

The gay and lesbian movement has been successful in achieving equal rights in European society. There are few flaming examples of discrimination of gay men and lesbian women any longer in laws and regulations. All EU countries have enacted labour laws protecting gays and lesbians (only Latvia has yet to do so) while making differences between homo- and heterosexuality in criminal laws is not any longer the case in the European Union and most other European countries. Gay marriage remains the most important theme of campaigning. There is still a lot to desire for in some Eastern-European countries, but the general trend is positive on the legal level. In his The World We Have Won, gay historian Jeffrey Weeks celebrates the major gains and the great impact of gay and lesbian emancipation for the UK. My perspective is more pessimistic.

The twentieth-century movement for homosexual rights has been successful, but legal rights don’t mean social equality. Changing the social situation is more complex and difficult than changing the laws. Large numbers of gays and lesbians report to have experienced negative reactions from insults to violence, often on the streets but also in the family, on the workplace or with services. Many others will not have faced such direct forms of discrimination because they are invisible as homosexual. In most surveys among the ‘general’ population, growing numbers of people indicate to have no moral objections against homosexuals. In some countries, such answers seem to have become politically correct, meaning that they miss real content. People know they can’t show any longer the negative attitudes of the past. When the questions become more specific, for example on gay men kissing in public, the number of negative responses rises quickly. Homosexuals are accepted as long as they behave “normal”, meaning not like sissies and butches. In The Netherlands, moreover, gays and lesbians have internalized the rejection of faggots and butches to such an extent that they themselves reject unmasculine behaviour in men and unfeminine behaviour in women. They criticize gay parades because they would give a wrong impression of gays and lesbians flaunting semi-nude bodies, nelly queens, leather guys and butch women. The existing tolerance seems to be quite superficial and not deeply rooted. Gays and lesbians may have equal rights; socially they remain the queers and dykes they have been for so long even if they fit the requirements of normalcy. Straight society continues to marginalize them, prefers them to be invisible and shows little empathy with the problems of coming out for young queers. The sexual culture of gay men continues to be regarded with suspicion and even abjection, also in the more liberal cultures such as Sweden and The Netherlands.

European countries have a tradition of Christian white male straight privilege. All these adjectives are being challenged, but they have not yet fundamentally changed. Women have made major inroads into male worlds and ideas, more than non-whites did in white society. European culture may witness a diversity of religions and have gone through two centuries of secularisation; Christianity in its catholic, orthodox and protestant versions continues to have a firm grip on European minds and states. The straight norm even more continues unbroken – straight people even lack awareness that public space could be created for sexual variation. This norm takes various forms, the most obvious being the continuous use of insulting terms that refer to gays, the nearly total invisibility of homosexuality in politics and streets, or more hidden the never ending interest in “explanations” for homosexuality while no one ever cares to explain heterosexuality – that empty space in the straight mind. Recently in Poland, Latvia, and beyond the European Union in Croatia, Serbia and Russia gay and lesbian parades have been forbidden, or had to face violence of counter-demonstrations – of right wingers, nationalists and Christians who sometimes received the support of police forces. Gay and lesbian issues such as marriage, public visibility or cruising spaces remain highly contested topics all over Europe. The visibility of homosexual issues in education leaves still all to wish for.

While the legal rights and social tolerance for gays and lesbians may be growing, the opposite is the case with sexual rights and tolerance more generally. In particular the “fringe” or “extreme” elements of European sexual culture are under attack. Several countries have enacted laws against bestiality and zoophile porn and others promised to do so (France, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands). Because of laws that already forbid animal abuse and public indecency, there is little reason to condemn non-abusive sexual relations with animals, for sure not in culture that mass-murders animals for the meat market. Moral panics around pedophilia take always more grotesque forms while ages of consent get higher (in the range of 16-18 years) and definitions of sexual acts get broader from coitus to touching the other in sensitive areas. In the past the production of child pornography was forbidden because it was based in the abuse of children, now also the possession of such material is criminalized because it would lead to the abuse of children. Most European countries have signed the Lanzarote treaty to criminalize taking a look at child porn and include morphed material – where no real child is any longer involved (Dutch Ministry of Justice, press release, Oct 25, 2007). Grooming (surfing the internet under pseudonym with the intent to engage youngsters in sexual acts) will be criminalized as part of the same treaty. In the UK BDSM relations are forbidden either because they are regarded as violent abuse or, when more people are present, as public indecency. “Extreme” porn is the next thing to be criminalized in the UK – and this includes largely BDSM material. Sweden completely outlawed prostitution and criminalizes mainly the men who visit prostitutes. The Netherlands, the first country to legalize prostitutes, is going to introduce a series of laws and rules that will limit prostitution and the city of Amsterdam has started to buy the buildings where prostitution is practised with the intent to close down a large part of the Red Light District. The argument is that these poor sex workers are victims of abuse and trafficking – already illegal acts that the police are slow to prosecute apparently to build up abjection for the profession. This moral crusade against the fringe hinders sexual diversity and denies the citizenship rights of people who have variant sexual desires. Creating higher ages of consent enforces straight norms upon youngsters whose total life is defined by heterosexual institutions such as families, schools, sport clubs and media. It disciplines them into heterosexuality while open societies should support and teach sexual and gender diversity instead of straight standards that are detrimental to all youngsters’ well-being.

Beyond the straight norm

The main problem for the queer movement is a heterosexual norm that impedes openness for gender and sexual variation. It is based in an ideology that sees a combination of relationship ideals (in particular marriage), the nuclear family, fixed gender roles, monogamy and heterosexuality as basic for the socialization of children. Gender and sexual diversity is regarded as bad for young people. This puritanical ideology is negative for gays and lesbians, and even more so for adolescents who struggle with their gender and sexual identity. It effects sex workers, women who are seen as sluttish or butchy, kinky people and is in the end disastrous for all Europeans because it marginalizes, sometimes even denies basic sexual citizenship rights. The EU may have given certain rights to homosexuals, the UN and its organisations still have to do so. The Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 includes abundant references to marriage and the nuclear family in need of protection, but queers, transgenders or sex workers are left out. The UN’s definition of children’s rights is formulated in terms of defending children against sexuality, not of extending them to the realm of sexual knowledge and information or developing their own sexual life. The Western world continues to be pervaded by a restrictive sexual ideology that consists of several elements.

The first is the idea that sexuality, and in particular heterosexuality, is natural. Sometimes it is accepted that homosexuality is natural as well, inborn or innate, but only represents a marginal minority. This idea of the natural is basic to occidental understandings of sexuality that would be based in genetic formations, hormonal variations and chromosomal combinations. The concept of a sexual drive or instinct is fundamental to it. Although much weight is attributed to the idea that this drive is a compelling force, it is utterly clear that most people don’t sexually act upon bodily imperatives, but are able to abstain from sex, or postpone it. Sex is not a force beyond volition, and most people can control it. Arguments of nature are a lucky-bag that is used arbitrarily. So homosexuality is denounced as being unnatural but the people who say so, never contemplate that marriage or sexual privacy are for sure more unnatural. The first problem with the “natural” aspects of sexuality is that we have no access to these except by the cultural means of language or technical apparel – so what is said to be natural comes to us through cultural lenses. The major problem with this idea is its outcome: a refusal to acknowledge to what extent sexual practices are historically and culturally rooted, and how important a cultivation of love, erotics and sexuality is for an easy-going and respectful culture. The focus in sex education on biological aspects is counterproductive, because it doesn’t teach citizens how to behave and perform sexually, how to bridge the gap between sexual subject and object, or meet beyond that gap. What Western cultures need is cultivation of sexuality, not offering young men an excuse that they couldn’t help abusing women “because their balls played up”. This cultivation means that people learn about their own and others’ sexual preferences and options, and what role history and society play in making sexual cultures and pleasures. It is essential to break down a heteronormative tradition that builds on selective ideas of nature to refuse space for sexual and gender diversity.

This view of sexual nature is strongly connected to a sex dichotomy of men being sexual and women asexual. The strive for equality has not changed this view, and women who take a male role are defined as sluts or whores – bad women who enjoy sex too much and are promiscuous. When men do the same, they remain good guys. This gender/sexual inequality is not only visible in the world of heterosexual flirting or of prostitution where men buy sex from women, with the opposite being rare, but also in the LGBT scene where gay men have many sex places from parks, parties, dark rooms, sauna’s to internet chat and sex sites and women have next to nothing when it comes to sexual spaces. In the past both men and women were seen as sexual beings, with for sure the men controlling female sexuality , but in the present there are no reasons to limit women’s sexual freedom in either an ideological or practical sense, or to continue a tradition that defines men as active and women as passive partners in sexual relations. The research in biology or evolutionary psychology that continues to underline an absolute difference between male and female sexuality is using this lucky-bag of (hetero)sexist examples where one narrative is seen as the definite proof of a difference that in many other examples does not exist – for example in the primates closest to the human race, the bonobo’s, where both men and women engage in all kinds of pleasure, homo-, hetero- and pedosexual. The ideology of a natural sexual difference between men and women and of the sexual chastity and passivity of women is more a product of a sexist than of a scientific perspective, and limits women’s sexual freedoms. Women should be sexually empowered instead of being attacked as sluts when they enjoy erotic pleasures. The sex dichotomy is basic for the straight norm in the sense that man and woman should copulate for reproduction while it marginalizes homosexuality and other sexual variations. Heterosexuality remains the tacit norm and homosexuality the exception, the target of biological study that once more inplants a sex dichotomy, gay men being seen as feminine and lesbian women as masculine. Heterosexuality remains in the biological study of sexual preferences an empty space, the natural and self-evident norm that needs no explanation.

The third element is the idea that love and sex need to be combined. In past times when marriage was arranged, there was little chance to combine love in marriage with sex, and moreover the assumed equality of love relations stood in stark opposition to the unequal marital relation with the husband being the master of an obedient wife. Only when equality became the norm in marriage, and marriage developed from a social arrangement between families into an intimate companionship of lovers, sex and love could be better combined. The idea that sex is only possible with a lover is now widely shared notwithstanding the opposite directions both move. Sexual pleasure is more about moments and situations, and love about the long term and stability. In most intimate relations not surprisingly the flame of sexual desire slowly extinguishes and boredom takes its place. The obligation to combine both only leads to jealousy, this feeling that the beloved is not a gift but a possession. The gay men of the seventies understood this very well and created open relations in which lovers allowed each other sexual freedom, or went cruising for third partners together. They separated love, friendship and sex and explored polyamory and multisexuality being men among men. Lesbians rarely do so because of their female sexual socialization, and straight people face the problem that men and women are sexually educated in opposite directions with men going for sex and women for love. This ideology doesn’t help bringing men and women in straight relations closer together, to the contrary.

Since the eighteenth century, a distinction has been made between private and public. With the separation of state and church came a differentiation of state and citizen, the state being responsible for public life and the citizen for his intimate world (the citizen being defined as a male person, preferably married and reproductive). Before, sexual relations were a public concern of control for families, churches and states and afterwards they belonged to the private realm while public sex became a criminal offence. Although sexuality has many public sides from sex and marital laws or regulations through education and the media to the concreteness of finding lovers and partners or engaging in public sex, these aspects are rather neglected. Public speech would not be necessary because sex is a natural and private affair, but the media attention and the continuous desire of states, also secular ones, to regulate and control sexual life make clear how public eroticism in fact is. Since the French Code Penal material public sex has been criminalized under laws that forbid “outrage against public morality” or “public indecency”. The main reason was and continues to be the aversion for sexual practices that are more innocent and less dangerous than many other public activities such as some sports or car driving. Space is essential for sex, from the bedroom to the bars, disco’s, street corners and love lanes where people cruise and meet. Because of the gentrification of inner cities, the traditional public spaces for sexual use have disappeared, as happened with Red Light Districts or labyrinthic corners where straight and queer loves could be consumed, extinguishing rich and old sexual cultures

There is a strong sense in contemporary societies that sexual desires are deeply ingrained in personal identities – both in a biological and a social sense. Our sexual persona defines who we are and our erotic preferences and practices, so individual and specific, remain our strictest secrets. These interests are moreover innate, in particular in terms of gendered object choice, creating a dichotomy between homo- and heterosexual. As sexual desires are polymorphous perverse and variable, this belief in fixed identities denies gender and erotic diversity. No one prefers men or women indiscriminately, but rather specific gender types or particular practices. This idea of gendered object choice has created a strong and unrealistic dichotomy between gay and straight. Its backgrounds are a strict opposition of male and female roles and a straight norm that assumes heterosexuality is the natural outcome of sexual development while homosexuals only form a small minority. This perspective is basic to all disciplinary efforts to impose heterosexuality that is founded in a strict gender divide. It helps straight men to feel more self-confident about their sexual urges by assigning homosexuality to a small stigmatized minority that they are separated from through a biological difference. But desires are always more specific than homo or hetero in terms of ethnic, age, situational, kinky or fetishist specializations. It would be much better both for queers and straights themselves to break down both categories, not by abolishing the homo-hetero-binary, but by creating more labels in terms of these special preferences with a focus not on identity but on curiosity or practices. Also straights have their erotic particularities in terms of spaces (beach, bedroom, sauna), acts (oral, anal, coital, masturbatory, kinky), toys (dildo, whip, bondage material), fetishes (army, police, medical, sport, silk, satin, leather, rubber), body parts or personal characteristics (black, blond, white, old, young boyish, butch, feminine, masculine). The focus on identity is neither very promising as sexual relations are always between more persons except for self-stimulation. The stress on erotic individuality makes it complicated to create bridges to others who remain stuck in their own wondrous selves. To create socio-sexual relations it would be much more sensible to promote a concept like identification rather than identity because it is processual, or curiosity that creates bridges from self to others. In 18th-century libertine novels curious was a typical adjective for girls that were after sex. This curiosity not only helped them to get access to erotic pleasures, but as sex is food for thought, it brought them from hedonism to knowledge and the reverse. Identity creates no bridges to a broader world, as curiosity does: from erotics and sociability to intelligence. No innocence or identity for curious girls, but wisdom and pleasure.

We discussed before how the Western world changed its view from considering sexual inequality as basic for sexual desire to erotic equality as its fundament. This development works well for gays and lesbians because their relations are more equal than those of straights, but it works in negative ways as it excludes intergenerational, sadomasochistic or paid loves. It is moreover unrealistic because all social relations are based in various inequalities of power, class, gender, age, ethnicity, wealth, status, knowledge making the idea of equality utopian. It is probably also less sexy because differences stimulate curiosity that is such a basic element in desiring.

Contrary to this one-sided ideology of sex as being defined as natural, male, private, love and equality based, and identitarian, it would be better to give space to the reverse term or open up such dichotomies. To support a public cultivation of not so equal sexual pleasures, also for women, without obligations of love and faithfulness, stimulating curiosity. This very restrictive ideology that largely stems from enlightened philosophy has not been broken down, to the contrary, is in some respects even intensified by the sexual revolution. Heterosexuality has always more become the norm, with a fringe place for a normalized homosexuality. It is not only bad for queers but for everybody because it continues to see sexuality as something highly problematic, often still evil, that is given limited space – and not as the pleasure we often imagine it to be. So same-sex marriage is not the pinnacle of gay and lesbian emancipation, to the contrary, beyond legal terrains the queer movement has still a long way to go into social spaces.


The contemporary sexual ideology of the West continues to be one-sided and oppressive and seems only to become more so. Outsiders may praise its liberalism and secularism, but the general trend is towards more laws and rules that limit sexual pleasures, also in formerly more liberal places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia or urban metropoles. There are many institutions that promote such restrictions from the US and the UN, Christian and Muslim organizations and states, the catholic church under its present and former pope, evangelicals and missionaries conquering the “pagan” world to the NGO’s that depend on them. The Bush government only gives aid to those NGO’s that don’t offer (information on) abortion, condoms or sex education that goes beyond the “chastity until marriage” ideology. The view most Western countries have embraced remains limited to giving space for heterosexuality and monogamy in marriage with possibilities for contraception and divorce. Some marginal room may be allowed for respectable gays and lesbians who are tolerated, nowhere accepted on an equal basis. Age limits create an enforced straight environment of schools, families and sport fields for adolescents whose gender and sexual behaviour is non-normative. They have no or little access to information on gender and sexual diversity, and even their sexual experiments in heterosexual versions like “playing doctor” are often regarded with abjection. A critique of such policies is rare and in fact, there are no international organizations that defend or promote sexual freedom, certainly not for queer or questioning youngsters. The older religious and the newer rational attitudes towards pleasure continue to regard sexual and gender diversity as evils that innocent children should not learn about and adult should better not engage in.

Not all developments however point to more repressive attitudes. There is a large crowd of curious people who by way of internet have found access to a wide range of sexual variations. Websites and list services nowadays offer the first access to queer worlds for younsters. They support people with various kinky interests and queers all over the world who have learned to use the internet to find like-minded persons also in countries with highly repressive cultures like in Eastern-Europe (and in the Middle-East, Africa, China). The world is also full of people whose sexual citizenship rights are disregarded like queers, women, youngsters, sex workers, kinky people or those who love public sex or enjoy porn. But all these different interests may rather divide this large group than create solidarity over sexual boundaries. Respectable gays and lesbians will rather join the straight group in demonizing public sex, bestiality, pornography, sadomasochism and pedophilia than defend such pleasures.

Sexual politics and realities are changing rapidly. Until now, the neo-liberal politics that are globally promoted, sometimes even imposed, have not been extended to the erotic field. Even in “liberal” countries like the Netherlands, the gay and lesbian movement has a long way to go to translate legal into social equality. When it comes to queer issues and a broader struggle for sexual and gender diversity, the trend seems backward rather than forward. The minimal rights that are extended to gays and lesbians mainly count for adults. Straight sexual norms get a stronger grip on Western societies, leaving the margins of cities and internet for libertines to survive in. Regarding the downward trend in the West, it could well be that places in the South or the East where the sexual discourse is not yet stuck in straight rules and regulations and the queer movement may go beyond the complacency and identity politics of Western gay and lesbian organizations, may offer a sparkle of hope. The example of South-Africa where gay and lesbian rights are enshrined in the constitution and gay and straight have equal rights in all fields, may point to the sexual potentialities beyond the Western world that is getting stuck in a rigid and repressive sexual morality.

Gert Hekma, Gay and Lesbian Studies, University of Amsterdam

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