Good to be gay
Last month, 35,000 revellers swarmed around Anspachlaan in downtown Brussels for the gay pride parade and village, a record number and a nearly 30% increase on last year. Although the sunny skies didn’t hurt, the crowds were also a testament to an increasing collaboration between the country’s three gay rights organisations in the three regions.
On the eve of Antwerp Pride, we look back at the coalition government that made Belgium the most progressive country in the world for gays and lesbians
A new coordinator and better publicity boosted turnout and so did the strategic actions before pride, which drew media attention. And this year for the first time there was a unified political message – or three, in fact: a strengthened focus on gender issues, problems with the adoption law and the European directive.
Now that organisations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Belgium have attained access to marriage and adoption, they are casting their nets wider. “The laws in most European countries only deal with discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, which is required by EU law, but we want to see protection in all areas of life,” says Juris Lavrikovs of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), based in Brussels. “And this is where Europe is very divided.”
The European directive currently stuck in parliament would ban discrimination in housing, health care and access to goods and services with regards to sexual orientation and also a number of other identities, such as age, disability and religion – a protection that right now only applies to race.
Hence, this year at the big pride parade and street party, amid truck after truck of disco dancing youth, was an actual political float. It was simple – the giant head of Flemish politician Herman von Rompuy, president of the European Council, with the rainbow flag (the traditional symbol of the LGBT movement) as a scarf, riding on a flatbed truck atop the European flag.
Organisations in Belgium, unlike most European countries, have the luxury to help ILGA fight for LGBT rights across the continent because so many of its own battles have already been won. In 2003, Belgium became only the second country in the world to legalise gay marriage and, in 2006, full adoption rights were granted to same-sex couples.
But don’t use the phrase “gay marriage” when talking to Yves Aerts, director of Çavaria, the Flemish organisation for LGBT rights. “Not ‘gay marriage’,” he tells me patiently from his office in Casa Rosa (Pink House) near the picturesque Vrijdagmarkt in downtown Ghent. “It’s not a ‘gay marriage’ apart from other marriages; it’s just marriage.”
So how did Belgium, a largely Catholic country with a centre-right government, become a pioneer in the opening of civil marriage to all couples? There are two big reasons, says Aerts, who is a font of knowledge of LGBT history in Belgium. Number one, he says, “the Netherlands was first.” Just as Wallonia looks at what is happening in the political and social landscape of France, Flanders looks at the Netherlands, the first country in the world to open up marriage to gay couples. “If there hadn’t been a Netherlands, we would have never opened it up here,” he says matter of factly.
The second reason is perhaps even more pertinent: change of government. In 1999, the elections yielded a government coalition of liberals (Open Vld), socialists (S.PA) and greens (Groen!), which became widely known as the purple-green coalition. “For the first time in 40 years, the coalition government did not include the Christian-Democrats [CD&V],” says Aerts. “They had always been in the government and they almost always had the prime minister.”
When the liberals finally got their turn, with Guy Verhofstadt as prime minister, they decided to “make the difference clear,” continues Aerts. They changed the marriage law and then, after the same coalition was re-elected in 2003, they opened up adoption to all couples, too.
In doing so, they also made some unexpected allies. “Even some of the Christian Democrats voted for marriage,” says Aerts. “And today they say they would never go back on that. In April of 2009, there was a very important anti-discrimination vote in the European parliament, and the Belgian Christian Democrats voted in favour of that law. They were an exception among Christian Democrat parties across Europe. Thanks to the opening of marriage, they changed their position more towards social equality.”
Until recently Çavaria was called the Holebi Federatie – taking its name from the popular Dutch umbrella term “holebi”: HOmo LEsbian BIsexual. But the organisation found the former name too limiting for its new mission strategy – to put more focus on issues of gender. This includes problems of transsexuals, who continue to suffer political, as well as extreme social harassment and discrimination, but also gender expression in general.
“Society makes assumptions,” explains Aerts, “about what it is to be a male or a female and connects feelings or ideas with the fact that someone is a woman or a man.” Education, particularly in schools, will be a large part of upcoming gender work. “A recent study showed that a gay boy of 15 who is macho has fewer problems than a straight boy who behaves in way that people think is feminine,” says Aerts. “Gender expression is often the reason why young people are harassed at school.”
Adoption – or rather parental rights – is also an area where Aerts and the Çavaria staff of about 20 are not satisfied. If a woman gives birth, her partner must then adopt the child, even if the couple is married. If a man and a woman are married, the man is listed as the father, no questions asked. If they are not married, they can go through an administrative process where the father is listed as such before the birth. Çavaria wants that same legal recognition for a second mother before the birth. “There is a risk that if something should happen to the biological mother between the birth and the adoption, that the other mother is not considered the parent,” explains Aerts.
And that can be a scary prospect if your partner’s family is not overly supportive of your relationship or your decision to bring children into it. Which brings up a very good question: does Belgium being so progressive politically with regard to LGBT rights change the hearts and minds of average citizens?
“Visibility is higher thanks to the laws,” says Aerts. “Today, you cannot be fired; you cannot be discriminated against just because you are gay. The law makes it possible to be more visible, and visibility changes mentality.”
And government directives, says Juris Lavrikovs of ILGA, are a stamp of approval. “You can’t wait for society to be ready. Legislation is a specific sign of the position of government. It’s important that legislation is in place because without it, you can’t move.”
Antwerp Pride • 24-27 June
The only Belgian city outside of Brussels to stage gay pride, Antwerp actually did it first, with the annual “Pink Saturday” in the 1980s. The port city has become something of a Mecca for LGBT Europeans. “I travel a lot, and if you consider the size of Antwerp – a small city with half a million people – you don’t see other cities of that size with half as much going on,” says Antwerp Pride director Bart Abeel.
The calendar of Antwerp’s four-day event is packed, but you can’t go wrong with these top three:
• The White Party: A mainstay of the LGBT calendar, this dance party – where everyone wears white – is a huge outdoor affair at the docks, with DJs, drag queens and other performances, plus plenty of beverages to make sure perceptions are altered enough so that everybody thinks everybody else looks good in white 26 July, from 15.00, Kaai 21
• Popi’s Hysterical City Bus Tour: it’s in English, and it lives up to its name. Don’t miss it. Times vary, visit www.popi.be
• Closing festival: Right in the centre of town on the Grote Markt, this is a big concert, party and collection of speakers 27 June, 15.00-18.00
You know and I know there’s far too much to list, but here are some highlights of gay Flanders.
Casa Rosa The “pink house” in the centre of Ghent is home to gay rights organisations Çavaria, Flemish LGBT magazine Zizo and the city’s best-known gay bar Kammerstraat 22 Hephaestion This “holebi-shop” just down the street from Casa Rosa is relatively new and doing great things. With books, DVDs and other merchandise for sale, there is also a bar, terrace and the nicest gay boy in town running the place. He organises group events outside the shop, too. Kammerstraat 29
Het Roze Huis A friendly bar underneath and home to Antwerp groups, social events and political organising above. Fantastically large terrace out front – be and be seen here Draakplaats 1 ’t Verschil Antwerp’s biggest and oldest LGBT bookshop, with fresh coffee and homemade cake besides. Head across the street to De Onderkant, where they sell their lingerie and sex toys. Minderbroedersrui 33
The Rainbow House The capital’s central meeting place, located in the gay district, with a bar, tons of informational folders, group meetings and on- and off-site activities Kolenmarkt 42 Tea Dance Brussels and Antwerp are overflowing with gay bars and clubs, but the Sunday Gay Tea Dance at You nightclub is a classic. Mixed ages, styles and genders mingle with house music, cocktails and plenty of flirty glances
The Flemish department of Gelijke Kansen, or Equal Opportunities, publishes a handy little booklet that lists LGBT organisations across Brussels and Flanders. It can be picked up in resource centres or accessed on the department’s website, www.gelijkekansen.be.
The current equal opportunities minister, by the way, is Pascal Smet, the first openly gay Flemish minister.