Group of Christian lesbians and gays
In early 1974, the working group for information churches was set up in Utrecht by a few people from COC Utrecht and the Contact Groups for Homophiles (that would later become The Circles (De Kringen)). It became an official working group of both. Its purpose was described as ‘bringing about a change of opinion regarding homophily among various churches’. The working group existed for over 13 years.
The first year was mainly spent on internal training and knowledge exchange with the support of Ben van der Wilt, who has been active for many years in the national COC training of information officers. For instance, members learned to look for the reasons behind certain questions, sometimes answering them with a counter-question. Members exchanged bibliographical information based on the 1972 report On people who are homophile by the Synod of the Reformed Churches. In the beginning, the working group consisted almost exclusively of women. This was quite exceptional for the time because most visible ‘homosexuals’ at the time were still men.
In late 1974, the working group sought contact with various Utrecht and Amersfoort church groups such as sections of the Dutch Christian Women’s Union (NCVB), the Catholic Women’s Guild and youth groups.
Contacts with churches
The preparation of an information meeting followed a set pattern. Two members of the working group had a preliminary discussion with board members or group leaders of an organisation or group, tried to get an impression of them and then proposed an information programme.
The presentation usually consisted of three parts: a factual account (5% of the population is gay, lesbian or bisexual, etc.) followed by two personal stories: from a man and a woman.
If it was a small group, two or three working group members went there; in larger groups, all members of the working group. They sat scattered among the members of the group being educated so that they could easily engage in conversation during the break. Information material was also viewed and handed out during the break.
In the city of Utrecht, the working group organised five ‘theme evenings’ for all members of the church councils and parish boards within a certain part of the city. This was done in cooperation with the pastors of the respective churches who were asked to recommend the invitation to the theme evening to their church council or board.
Those evenings sometimes had surprising outcomes. In Nostheast Utrecht, a pastor took the floor and condemned the homosexual lifestyle on the basis of some Bible texts. To this came a reaction from a progressive Roman Catholic priest of the former Biltstraat church who did not agree with him at all.
First experiences in the classroom
In 1977, two members of the working group, Hellen de Wit and Gea Zijlstra, gave out information to a class at the Utrecht Christian Gymnasium, a secondary school. In XL, the COC magazine of February-March 2002, a short report by the teacher of that class appeared 25 years later: ‘The tone in the class then was: we will teach those faggots a lesson. Then two very sweet girls stepped into the classroom. The whole thing was upside down. Two boys threw a table upside down and angrily walked out of the classroom. Parents called me angrily because I was advertising gay people.’
Apart from that curious beginning, the women did think it was a meaningful meeting. Later, they learned from this teacher why things had gone so wrong in the beginning: a group of boys from that class had devised a plan in advance to ridicule the visiting gays. But instead… two lesbians stepped in! Then their plan completely fell apart! Well, at that time homosexuality was still mainly seen as something for boys or men!
The working group soon abolished the use of the term ‘homophily’, because it was veiled and led some people to think away the sexual side of a relationship: ‘Can’t you just be friends, without sex?’ That question was especially addressed to women, who – especially at the time – were often hardly seen as sexual beings. During an information session, the group refused to discuss one topic: possible causes of homosexuality; they weren’t talking about possible causes of heterosexuality, were they? And when the possibility of being cured of homosexuality was mentioned, their response was: ‘why are you asking about that? (No, we don’t need a cure, we feel fine.)’
Sometimes, after such an information meeting, a follow-up conversation with a church council ensued. In it, one pastor invoked the creation story: in a marriage, children can be born, therefore a relationship between two men or two women can never be of the same order. He was called to order by a woman who was an elder there: ‘But pastor, you don’t have children, and neither do I – so are our marriages second-class?’
The working group members never brought up texts from the Bible themselves at an information meeting, but did address questions about them. They primarily wanted to combat prejudice and sometimes had the impression that Bible texts were used to mask societal prejudices.
End of the working group
In the late 1980s, the working group dissolved. Earlier, some members had quit and others had joined, such as Geertje Mak who took over the coordinatorship from Gea Zijlstra. Some members became active nationally within the COC, for instance in the ‘working group dykes and theology’ founded in 1984, in which several lesbian theologians, theology students and a few more lesbians interested in theology also participated. There, the terms ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’ were never seen as a swear word, but as a name of honor.
Gea Zijlstra, ‘Voorlichting in de jaren ‘70’, Vroom&Vrolijk 7:6 (1996) 6-7
Over mensen die homofiel zijn; rapport aan de Generale Synode van Dordrecht 1971/1972
Detail from a 1973 report of articles on homophily and church.
Group photo Churches Information Working Group, 22 September 1977: from left to right, back row: Alp Buitelaar, Astrid Sakkers, Chienus Schokker and Nel Aleman, Front row: Truus Hortensius, Gea Zijlstra, Hellen de Wit and Joke Stroes.
Round photo above: Bible moralisée (1220s); Manuscript (Codex Vindobonensis 2554); Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Wikimedia Commons.