Establishment of COC Utrecht

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Utrecht’s oldest LGBTI+ organization

1950 is the birth year of the Utrecht department of the Culture and Relaxation Center (COC). Because the vice squad was lurking, the organization had to operate with caution. In the more tolerant 1960s and 1970s, membership and activities increased rapidly. The meeting center on the Nieuwegracht was much too small for that, but it was not until 1979 that COC-Utrecht got its own building.

Shakespeare Club

COC was founded in Amsterdam in December 1946 as the Shakespeare Club, a scientific, cultural and leisure centre. This neutral name did not explicitly refer to homosexuality, but it was known among literate gays that Shakespeare was ‘like that too’.
Members were subscribers to the magazine Levensrecht (the right to life) which had started in March 1940. After the German invasion in May of that year, the publication was immediately discontinued. At the end of 1946, Niek Engelschman and Jaap van Leeuwen restarted the magazine and sent it to 180 hard-to-find addresses of former subscribers and potential interested parties. The Shakespeare Club was renamed Cultuur- en Ontspanningscentrum / C.O.C (Culture and Leisure Center) in 1947. With later name changes, the abbreviation C.O.C. – first with and later without dots – maintained.
In the same year, the first local chapter started in The Hague, followed by Rotterdam and Groningen (both in 1949). Shortly afterwards it was Utrecht’s turn. On January 18, 1950, 70 Utrecht COC members gathered in the NV House at Oudegracht 245. The national  magazine Vriendschap reported: ‘This first meeting of the Utrecht circle was a great success and a wave of enthusiasm has come over the people of Utrecht, which holds good promise.’

Double life

In the 1940s and 1950s, gay men and lesbian women could only be themselves in private. Most led a double life in which they scrupulously concealed their ‘orientation’ from most people. Those who were lucky were members of a circle of friends who regularly met in the house of a well-to-do ‘fellow in spirit’.
In the big cities, gay men could go to a few bars where you had to ring the doorbell and as a newcomer you were first checked. For sex contacts, men in Utrecht sought refuge on cruising areas (parks and urinals) or ‘messed about’ in the back rows of the Filmac / Palace cinema or the Spoorbio (a converted train carriage) at Central Station. You always had to be wary of the police who actively hunted men who violated article 248bis (sex with a minor of the same sex) or who acted ‘contrary to public morals’. Due to 248bis, minors could not become members of COC.
Lesbian women were virtually invisible during this period. To meet other women, the Utrecht lesbians mainly went to De Schakel, the COC society in Amsterdam.

Neat citizens

Under such circumstances, the arrival of its own center in Utrecht was more than welcome. In addition to offering meeting, culture and entertainment, the COC wanted to promote scientific research and a ‘humane treatment of ‘homosexuals’, provide psychological and legal assistance and combat homosexual prostitution. The national association of COC-departments distanced itself from the subculture of pissers and faggots. She wanted to develop a sense of self-esteem in its members and advocated long-term friendships. She also wanted to show that gays are decent citizens who pose no threat to young people. In the beginning, new members were only admitted if others acted as guarantors for them. Registration was done with the first letter of the surname and a number code. Internally, the members used pseudonyms.
Although women were members of COC from the beginning, they were a vast minority, which did not favor the attractiveness of new female members. At the end of 1953, for example, the Utrecht section had 149 men and 16 women as members.

Police raid

COC Utrecht’s first home was the wharf cellar of Oudegracht 333, the address of the writer Ina Boudier Bakker (1875-1966). She was the landlady of the first Utrecht COC chairman Joop Damen Sterck. Members could go there every evening. On Wednesdays and weekends there was a program with classical music, lectures, films or theatre. Sometimes there was dancing, which was officially not allowed because the club did not have a dance permit. Moreover, according to the local police regulation, it was forbidden to dance with peers.
In July 1952, two policemen sneaked in, saw that there was dancing and made an official report. The case was dropped because  the chairman (then Chris de Rijke) and other members kept telling the Justice Department that they only knew the first names of other members and did not even know if they were the real ones. The incident and the requirement that new activities had to be approved in advance by the vice squad put many members off. At the end of 1952, the club was closed due to declining visitor numbers.

Living room meetings

In the years that followed, the department wandered from one mostly bare and uninviting room to the next. In 1957, chairman Jacques Drabbe decided to organize living room meetings with the permission of his landlady. A circle of about twenty men and a few women was formed. When the landlady withdrew her consent on the advice of her GP, a new period of changing locations began.
Jacques Drabbe – pseudonym ‘Jacques Durfteleven’ – was chairman from 1952 to 1963. In 1960 he was made an honorary member, in 2000 he received the Maartenspenning from the city of Utrecht and in 2010 the Annie Brouwer-Korfprijs, Utrecht’s annual LGBTI+ city prize . He died in 2012.

Meeting center Nieuwegracht

On December 12, 1964, COC Utrecht finally opened a new home in the wharf cellar of the Nieuwegracht 28 building purchased by Drabbe. A liquor and dance license was obtained with great difficulty. At its heyday, 100 to 140 people crowded into the cramped space. COC would remain there for almost fifteen years until the lack of space became really acute. In 1977, the Albrecht Foundation, which is affiliated with the national COC, purchased the Oudegracht 221 building. But it would take another two years before the COC Utrecht went above ground.


Maurice van Lieshout




Maurice van Lieshout, ‘Cultuur, ontspanning en confrontatie. De eerste dertig jaar van het Utrechtse COC, 1950-1979’, Tijdschrift Oud-Utrecht 92 (2019) 3, 106-112.

Mariska van der Steege en Wanda Zoet (samenstelling en redactie), Durfteleven. Zestig jaar geschiedenis van het COC Utrecht (Utrecht 2010).

Vriendschap 4 (1950) februari, 15; idem 5 (1951) maart, 11.

Hans Warmerdam en Pieter Koenders, Cultuur en ontspanning. Het COC 1946 – 1966 (Utrecht 1987).



Sinterklaas celebration (Dutch tradition) of COC members in the mid-fifties in the room of a Chinese restaurant on  Vredenburg square. In the foreground 2nd from the left chairman Jacques Drabbe and in the background Gerard de Brie as Sinterklaas and Geurt Rensenbrink as Zwarte Piet. (photo private collection)

Program of activities in the Utrecht COC society in March and the first week of April 1951, published in the COC magazine Friendship (Vriendschap) of March 1951. (private collection).

Interior (in 1942) of the Spoorbio, Utrecht Central Station, one of the public places in Utrecht where homosexual men ‘[could] mess around with each other’. (photo Wikimedia commons)

Jacques Drabbe (1928-2012) as 22 years old. (photo private collection)

The COC meeting centre was located in the wharf cellar of Nieuwegracht 28 from 1964 to 1979. The door reads ‘Meeting Centre’ (Trefcentrum), the logo of COC at the time, and the opening times. The photo dates from 1975. (collection of visual material, The Utrecht Archive)