The Utrecht Gay Monument
Immediately after the liberation, monuments were erected all over the Netherlands that reminded of the war, focusing on the resistance against the German occupation. In Utrecht, Prince Bernhard unveiled the Resistance Monument on May 4, 1949, on the Domplein. On the plinth was chiselled:
“Remember your dead who have fought the good fight / in righteousness. / Carry on their flame, they have remained, / But in that glow we become new life.”
‘The good fight’ was also fought by gay men and lesbian women, such as Do Versteegh (1888-1970) and Ru Parée (1896-1972), Willem Arondéus (1894-1943), Frieda Belinfante (1904-1995) and Karel Pekelharing (1909-1944). Their names remained unknown to the general public for a long time. That only changed around the turn of the century, when the Dutch government, in the context of Reparation of Rights for war victims, gave money for research into the live of homosexuals during the occupation.
Immediately after the war, no attention was paid to this. Dutch society supported the reconstruction. The pre-war order was restored as much as possible, including the stigma on homosexuality. Although the German Regulation 40/81 was abolished, Article 248bis reappeared. Despite this, gay men and lesbian women started to organize themselves in the COC after the war. In 1950 Utrecht got its own department.
In COC circles, the life and suffering of homosexuals during the Second World War was indeed a theme. In the autumn of 1946, the popular Dutch writer Jef Last (1898-1972) wrote in the magazine Levensrecht (The Right to exist) that approximately 40% of the prisoners in German concentration camps had been homosexuals. COC founder Niek Engelschman (1913-1988), alias Bob Angelo, came to an estimate of 60,000 in 1949. Five years after the liberation, the May issue of the COC magazine Vriendschap (Friendschip) was completely dedicated:
“To our dead, branded with the “lilac triangle” and perished in the torture camps between 1940-1945, whose sacrifice in our hearts shall remain unforgettable….”
From 1960, people involved in the COC launched the idea for a gay monument or memorial stone several times, but at that time they were never heard. On May 4, 1970, the radical Amsterdam Youth Action Group Homosexuality did try to lay a wreath at the National Monument in Amsterdam. That action was thwarted by the police, but the gate was open.
Pink wreath set on fire
On May 4, 1978, representatives of COC Utrecht laid a pink wreath at the Resistance Monument on Dompleinn (cathedral square). “Don’t forget the thousands of murdered gays,” read one of the ribbons. They were set on fire by unknown perpetrators, an action that illustrated for COC Utrecht “that the oppression of homosexuals did not end with the liberation of the Netherlands from fascism in 1945.”
In the 1970s, the new gay movement called increasingly loudly for public acknowledgment of homosexual victims of World War II. In 1974 Rob Tielman from Utrecht, as secretary of the national COC, demanded that the new Act Implementation of Prosecution Victims (1973) also apply to homosexuals. According to him, many homosexuals had been persecuted during the war, but no one knew for sure.
Homosexuals played no role in the work of historian Lou de Jong, the director of the National Institute for War Documentation (RIOD) who wrote the 14-part standard work “The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War (1969-1994)”. In 1974 Rob Tielman urged him to make room for the persecution of homosexuals. That’s what De Jong did; in part 8 (1978) he argued that there had been no systematic persecution of homosexuals in the Netherlands during the war.
This representation of affairs was not well received by the gay movement. The pink triangle, the mark for homosexuals in German concentration camps, had since about 1975 become a symbol of resistance against a history of discrimination and persecution. In the fight for equal rights and emancipation, gay activists and historians therefore emphasized the enormity of the persecution during the Second World War. Henk van den Boogaard, for example, published the article ‘The concealed holocaust of the homosexuals’ in De Groene Amsterdammer on May 2, 1979. He estimated that 250,000 gays had ended up in German camps like Sachsenhausen, with death as a result. According to him, there were at least a thousand Dutch people among them.
These kinds of messages were reason for the gay group within the Amsterdam branch of the Pacifist-Socialist Party (PSP, merged into GroenLinks in 1990) to now seriously work on a monument, as a lasting reminder of and indictment against the oppression and persecution of homosexuals. In collaboration with the COC and other organizations, a Gay Momonument Foundation was founded in 1979, in 1981 there was a design with pink triangles, but it took years before the finances were arranged. Finally, on September 5, 1987, the monument was inaugurated, around the corner from the Westerkerk on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. In 1993, The Hague also received a gay monument.
Utrecht followed in 1999. A commemorative plaque appeared on Cathedral Square, opposite the Resistance Monument. This monument does not refer to the Second World War, but to the sodomite persecutions of the 1730’s. New research, especially by gay studies historian Pieter Koenders, had shown that the persecution of homosexuals during the German occupation of the Netherlands had been less extensive than estimated earlier. Moreover, the death sentence of Barend Blomsaet and other ‘sodomites’ was more specific to Utrecht.
The driving force behind the Utrecht ‘sodomite monument’ was Jan Vesters (1951-2020), a man from the south of the country who came to Utrecht in the 1970s to study anthropology. Afterwards he became active in the federation board of the PSP, worked as a volunteer in the collective eatery De Baas (The Boss), the committee against fascisme in Utrecht (AFKU) and the Utrecht anti discrimination agency (Meldpunt Utrecht tegen Discriminatie). As a municipal official responsible for social and LGBTI+ policy, Vesters initiated Pink Spring in 1997 to promote the visibility and acceptance of homosexuality. At the same time he stimulated RozeLinks, the queer group within GroenLinks, to make a plan for a gay monument. The city council quickly agreed; the memorial stone was unveiled during the 1999 Midzomergracht festival.
The sodomites remembered with the memorial stone were men, but the text also refers to homosexual women. In 1999, Theo Sandfort, chairman of the university working group Gay Studies at Utrecht University, thought this was understandable from an emancipatory point of view, but problematic from a historical perspective. Namely, the prosecutions and convictions of the 1730 persecution did not affect women. However, Erna Kotkamp, then a board member of COC-Utrecht, wanted to prevent the role of women in gay emancipation from being denied.
The memorial stone has not always been valued. Passers-by often do not notice the monument. In December 2012, GroenLinks council member Pepijn Zwanenburg even signaled that the municipal Christmas tree had been placed on top of the monument. In recent years, however, the gay monument has grown into a place of significance for the Utrecht LGBTI+ community.
In June 2016, after the attack on a gay club in Orlando, Florida, COC Midden-Nederland organized a memorial at the memorial stone on the Cathedral Square. In January 2019 there was the manifestation ‘Love Shine a Light’. With this, COC Midden-Nederland protested against the Nashville statement, a trans and homophobic statement about faith, marriage and sexuality of conservative Christians from the United States, which had just been translated into Dutch at the time. Jan van Zanen, then mayor of Utrecht, stated in his speech that ‘we exclude no one and everyone belongs in this city’. To underline that message, alderman Linda Voortman announced in June 2021 that she would pay extra attention to the memorial stone and the history to which it refers.