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social sciences

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The Netherlands  
 
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At the end of the nineteenth century, the Netherlands witnessed an era of sexual ambivalence and frankness. The liberal climate made it possible, on the one hand, to publish the first novels, medical books on homosexuality, and male pornography. On the other hand, the Christian political parties that dominated Parliament in the first decades of the twentieth century were intent on creating stricter sex laws.

The Early Twentieth Century

The Christian parties succeeded in 1911, when laws against abortion, prostitution, pornography, and same-sex sexual acts with minors under 21 years passed parliament. This latter piece of legislation, article 248bis, introduced a discriminatory provision into Dutch law. Whereas the age of consent for heterosexual behavior remained sixteen, the age of consent for same-sex behavior was set at twenty-one.

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In the first two decades of the twentieth century more books on same-sex themes were published than in the entire previous history of the Netherlands. Despite the new laws, the Christian political parties did not succeed in restraining the flood of erotic material. Moreover, the sex laws also produced protests and public debates on (homo)sexuality. In 1912, a Dutch chapter of Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific Humanitarian Committee (NWHK) was founded. At the beginning of World War I in 1914, the chapter became independent.

The leader of this movement was Squire J. A. Schorer, who had lived some time in Berlin. Other participants were the physicians Arnold Aletrino and Lucien von Römer, who both published extensively on homosexuality, defending the position of Hirschfeld and others that sexual preference was innate.

All of them had worked with Hirschfeld in Berlin. Their main disagreement was whether homosexual relations were ethically allowed in a loving relationship, which von Römer endorsed and Aletrino rejected.

The NWHK had two other members, M. J. J. Exler and J. H. François, authors of homosexual novels. Although the NWHK consisted of five persons, Schorer was by far the most active. Aletrino and von Römer stopped writing on homosexuality in 1908. Schorer wrote irregular annual reports and letters to the press, acted as a gay match-maker, and collected an important library that the Germans shipped off to a still unknown destination shortly after their occupation of the Netherlands in 1940.

The law against sex with minors was not the only threat for gay men. Loss of job, house, and reputation were real dangers they had to fear should their proclivities become known.

Moreover, they also had to fear the new medicalization of homosexuality. The naturalization of homosexuality in emancipatory discourses had as its corollary the pathologizing of homosexuality by physicians, who began to castrate "sex criminals," including homosexuals, in the 1930s and continued to do so until the 1960s.

Article 248bis was, however, the main expression of society's disapproval of homosexuality. From 1911 to 1971, 5,000 persons were prosecuted under this law, 99% of them men.

Other measures against homosexuality were also taken. For example, local regulations introduced in the 1930s forbade men to stand longer than 5 minutes in public toilets. Laws against public indecency probably victimized gay men even more than 248bis.

Lesbians had to face restrictions as women, including, for example, restrictions on going out in public, visiting bars, and wearing gender-appropriate clothing. Only when they neglected or transgressed such rules could they act upon lesbian desires. Once they did, they were treated as whores.

Growth of a Subculture

The Red Light Districts of the bigger cities were the natural place where gays and lesbians could meet each other and their objects of desire in the earlier twentieth century. The police strictly monitored bars in these districts. As soon as they discovered too many obvious gay men or lesbians patronizing these venues, they threatened the bars' licenses.

Gay men cruised these locations for "real" men, such as sailors and construction workers, while "mannish" lesbians sought "femmes" among the prostitutes. Theories of homosexuality as gender inversion held that sexual desire could only ignite between opposite poles, namely "nicht" (sissy) and "tule" (trade) and "butch" and "femme." Not until the 1950s did the idea that gay men and lesbians could love and have sex among themselves gain much popularity.

German Occupation

World War II made little difference in the status of gay men and lesbians. The NWHK halted its work; a new gay journal, Levensrecht (Right to Live), that had begun publishing just two months before the German troops arrived abruptly ceased. But queer bars opened and closed, and the Dutch police continued to arrest gay men, just as before and after the war.

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