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social sciences

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Famous as a major gay tourist destination and for its tolerance of glbtq people, in the second half of the twentieth century Amsterdam became a leader in the struggle for glbtq equality.

Founded around 1225, Amsterdam developed from a small village of 5000 inhabitants in 1500 to become one of the world's largest cities in 1700, when it achieved a population of 200,000. In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam's "Golden Age," the city became the trade center of the world, home of the first global capitalist enterprises. It saw relative decline in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but began to grow again in the mid-nineteenth century.

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Today Amsterdam is the financial and cultural capital of the Netherlands, with 700,000 inhabitants. It has a reputation for religious tolerance, and--more recently--for liberal drug and sex policies.

Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Prosecutions for Sodomy

There was, however, no tolerance of "" activities until 1811, as sodomy was a capital crime in the Dutch Republic. For long stretches of time, very few prosecutions were reported. However, in 1730, Holland experienced a major moral panic around sodomy, which led to a wave of repression.

Amsterdam was affected by the 1730 panic in a relatively minor way, since only half a dozen of the 100 executions took place in the city. But later in the eighteenth century, Amsterdam was at the center of new waves of prosecutions, as well as the scene of isolated cases.

After the Batave Revolution of 1795, the Dutch version of the French Revolution, the number of prosecutions for sodomy increased, its definition broadened from anal sex to same-sex intimacies of all kinds, but the harshness of the penalties diminished. Even some "tribades" (i.e., lesbians) were prosecuted for sodomy.

Nineteenth-Century Prosecutions for "Public Indecency"

After the French emperor Napoleon incorporated Holland into his empire in 1810 and introduced the French Penal Code in 1811, sodomy was no longer a crime. When the Netherlands became an independent kingdom in 1813, it retained the French laws.

In the kingdom "public indecency" was the crime under which "wrong lovers" (verkeerde liefhebbers) were prosecuted. In the nineteenth century, prosecutions of public indecency--mainly targeting men having sex with men--increased slowly but steadily in Amsterdam.

The basic principle of the new French laws, freedom in the private home but restrictions on public activity, had little meaning for same-sex practices, since few men and even fewer women with such interests could boast houses where they could freely pursue their interests beyond the control of family and neighbors.

In the period from 1830 to 1899, Amsterdam police arrested 280 men and two women for same-sex sexual activities in public, and another 180 men in the next decade.

With stronger enforcement of laws against prostitution after 1890, Amsterdam police also came across meeting places of "wrong lovers"--bars, bordellos, and private homes--and sometimes raided them.

The increase in prosecutions at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century may be partially explained by the growth and increased professionalization of the Amsterdam police force, but it was also the result of morality campaigns, mainly directed against prostitution. One argument against the oldest profession was that it served as a cover for--rather than a shield against--lesbian and perverted lusts.

Center of Sexual Culture

In the 1880s Amsterdam became a center of sexual culture, expressed in the publication of quack and serious medical books, the flowering of art and literature, and the production of pornography for consumers of all sexual tastes.

"Eighties" artists such as Willem Kloos and Lodewijk van Deyssel depicted gay topics and themes, as did novelists such as Louis Couperus and Jacob Israël de Haan.

In 1894, the quack doctor J. Schoondermark wrote the first booklet that asked for sympathy for homosexuals. Serious doctors took up the theme after 1898.

Arnold Aletrino, who belonged to the artistic circle around Kloos, wrote several essays and two booklets on "Uranism," as he referred to same-sex attraction. He described the phenomenon as an innate condition, and asked for compassion. Most courageously, Aletrino addressed the fifth Congress of Criminal Anthropology in Amsterdam in 1901 to speak on behalf of homosexual tolerance. He was fiercely attacked by the founder of the discipline, Cesare Lomboroso.

Another physician, Lucien von Römer, also spoke up for homosexual tolerance. He wrote many long articles for Magnus Hirschfeld's Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen.

Aletrino and Römer were both denounced by political leaders, who declared, for example, that the University of Amsterdam, where Aletrino taught and Römer was a student, promoted the sins of Sodom.

The work of these authors strongly contributed to the possibilities of homosexual identification, which had been difficult before that time.

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Top: An aerial view of Amsterdam.
Above: One of three pinkish granite triangles that comprise Amsterdam's Homomonument.

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