On a recent weekend trip to Amsterdam, I figured a responsible fag hag like me should swing by something called the Homomonument. Located amidst the picturesque canal-front homes of the Keizersgracht, the Homomonument is a subtle, barely noticeable collection of three stone triangles, one flush with the surface of the sidewalk, one slightly raised above the ground, one jutting into the nearby canal. I nearly missed it when I wandered past.
What, you were expecting something gaudy and garish, with flashing pink lights, mirror balls, and a recording of Barbra Streisand belting out showtunes as you walk over it?
Ok, fine: the triangles are made out of pink granite. But that’s about as camp as the Homomonument gets.
The fact is, gays can be subtle when they need to be, and the Homomonument is appropriately subtle, given its somber significance. The official placard reads:
“The objective of the monument was two-fold: to serve as a memorial for the gay men and women who were persecuted and killed in the Second World War, and as a source of inspiration for gay men and women who ‘continue to suffer persecution today.’”
Under the Third Reich, roughly 100,000 men were arrested in Germany for being homosexual, and up to 15,000 of them were sent to concentration camps, where they were subjected to hard labor and medical experimentation (read: castration). In the concentration camps, homosexuals were forced to wear pink triangle badges — a symbol and color which the gay community has since appropriated to mark a collective gay pride.
In fact, right next to the Homomonument stands the Pink Point, a free information booth about gay and lesbian life in Amsterdam. The Pink Point waves a rainbow flag from its roof, and right behind it looms the Westerkerk, the largest and one of the oldest Protestant churches in Holland, opened in 1631. And there you have an example of Amsterdam’s legendary social tolerance: the Church and the gay community co-existing peacefully, side by side.
Stepping back from the explanation of the Homomonument, I noticed it was flanked by a poster for The Torture Museum, advertising a “Medieval Exhibition: Punishment and Instruments.” Hmmm… so in one image, we had the Church, medieval instruments of punishment, and a memorial commemorating the persecution, torture, and killing of homosexuals by the Nazis… You could have one heck of a BDSM fetish club right here, next to the Keizersgracht.
But that’s what I love about Amsterdam. It’s a city which does not shy away from the sorts of unexpected juxtapositions crowding our contemporary, liberal world – religion, gays, medieval torture, Holocaust memorials, all next to each other.
In another part of town, the infamous red light district, the 14th-century Oude Kerk (Old Church) rang its 2:00pm bells just as I walked past. On the other side of me, directly opposite the church, the lit windows of a brothel displayed a few bored-looking prostitutes . I accidentally made eye contact with one of them, but I don’t think I was her target clientele…. (Like most red-light districts, the one in Amsterdam is largely male-oriented.)
But this is a country where prostitution was legalized in 1988, brothels in 2000, and gay marriage in 2001. It seems odd for me to even group gay marriage in the same category as prostitution, but I guess by the standards of “normal” straight society, both fall into the seamy classification of “deviant sexuality.”
This is also a country whose most influential right-wing politician in 2002 was openly gay. I repeat: its most influential right-wing politician was a faggot. Could you ever see that happening in the United States? Pim Fortuyn rode to popularity on his anti-immigration, strongly anti-Muslim viewpoints. The fact that he was even able to gather a socially conservative following despite being gay speaks miles about how advanced Dutch society is in terms of homosexual tolerance. (Multicultural tolerance is another matter, given how popular Fortuyn’s anti-Muslim policies were.)
Pim Fortuyn was later assassinated in 2002 by a man who was a vegan animal rights activist. He killed Fortuyn not because Fortuyn was gay but because he was arguably racist. Now that’s what I call progressive.
What I mean is that in Holland, you don’t have vegans, feminists, gay rights activists, and multicultural activists all grouped together under the same pan-liberal banner. They’ve advanced to the point where being publicly gay isn’t even a political issue anymore. In the US, there are Republicans like Fred Karger, who is openly gay and launching a bid for the presidency. But his chances are slim, since the Republican establishment is, um, not very gay rights-friendly. But heck – even Barack Obama defines marriage as strictly heterosexual, even though he advocates same-sex civil unions with all the same benefits as a straight marriage.
Here in the UK, the same hetero definition of marriage still legally stands, although gay civil partnerships have been recognized since 2005. Just yesterday, it was announced that the British government would work towards enabling gay civil partnership ceremonies to take place in religious settings. Perhaps this will one day pave the way towards gay marriage in the UK…
But enough about politics. One of my gay friends, “V,” explains that in Amsterdam, he feels much more comfortable with Public Displays of Affection (PDA) than in London. Really? This prompted me to run an informal poll amongst my gay Londoner friends: “Would you feel comfortable holding your partner’s hand in public in ALL parts of London?” Answers ranged from “Not really” to “No!” to “OMG I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me in Bermondsey.”
And it’s true. A few years ago, “V” and his boyfriend were holding hands in a popular pub in Piccadilly Circus. Eventually, the bouncer came up to them and said: “I’ve had complaints that you’re making people uncomfortable, so I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Really? In 21st century London? Christ, if they did that to all straight couples holding hands, they’d be out of business.
Now that just strikes me as sad. And rather hypocritical, because I’ve seen straight couples shoving their tongues down each other’s throats on the Underground and nobody seems to bat an eye.
In contrast, I’d like to bring up the shocking story of Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man, beaten to death in Trafalgar Square by drunk teenage girls. They saw him holding hands with his partner and began to hurl homophobic abuse at him. When their friend knocked him to the ground, the two girls, aged 18 and 19 at the time, kicked and stomped on Ian’s head and chest. He died later of brain damage.
This took place in 2009, in the touristy heart of London. I know the Third Reich was over fifty years ago, but those drunk English teenagers would have been prime candidates for the Nazi Youth. Yes, we can all agree the Nazis were evil and today’s current European governments much more accepting of homosexuality, but it seems the public still has far to go in terms of tolerance. The Metropolitan Police believe homophobic attacks are on the rise in London. And gay civil unions may be legal, but if gay couples still get attacked in central London for holding hands in public, how tolerant are we really?
I’d like to highlight the irony of all this on Valentine’s Day, a day when we’re all encouraged / brainwashed to publicly show our affection for our romantic partners. In the same way that the Third Reich pushed a conformist love of the Aryan nation, retailers around Valentine’s Day push a conformist purchasing of champagne, chocolates, jewelry, expensive dinners, and tacky stuffed animals bearing unoriginal messages. You WILL spend money on the one you love!!!, shout the Valentine’s Day Nazis. You WILL gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes!!! You WILL hold hands in public!!!!
That is, of course, unless you’re gay. Straight PDA is generally expected on Valentine’s Day. Gay PDA is another matter.
“It’s just hard to be romantic in public,” “V” says. “When other people start reacting weirdly to seeing an openly gay couple. You want it to just be personal, between you and your boyfriend, but every public display of affection become politicized.”
So yes, as I wrote in Paragraph Four, gays can be subtle when they need to be. Often my gay friends feel they need to be subtle in showing their love for each other, even if they’ve been married for years, even if the straight couple next to them can get away with public handholding, kissing, and more. I’m hoping Valentine’s Day might be a bit of an amnesty, a day when we can strive to be more tolerant of romantic love in all forms, even while we’re hemmorhaging stupid amounts of money on gifts and dining out. The one day in the calendar year when both straight and gay couples can get away with public displays of affection and not worry about getting kicked in the head by drunken teenagers.
Then again, on Valentine’s Day, all the disgusted single people might stage a mass revolt and start thrashing all the couples. I find that concept rather satisfying…. Wait, did I say that? I think I need to get myself to Amsterdam again. After all, as a single person, I too must learn to be tolerant of couples. Especially on Valentine’s Day.