1949-1979 Changing times
Following the example of the church, science and government, most Dutch people in the post-war period regarded homosexuality as a sin, disease or crime. Homosexuality was seen as a danger. In the eyes of many it was not only repulsive, but also seductive: whoever came into contact with it could become infected. Vulnerable young people in particular would easily fall victim to shrewd older men and women.
Punish or cure
Detective Sergeant J. van Kouwen of the Utrecht police wrote in 1951 that the propaganda ‘in word and writing’ by the COC was one of the causes of the growth in the number of sex offences. A year earlier, the Center for Political Education, which is affiliated with the Catholic People’s Party, proposed making all homosexual contacts a criminal offense. Several psychiatrists tried to “cure” homosexual men through aversion therapy or castration. Between 1945 and 1955 a few dozen gay and pedosexual men were probably ‘voluntarily’ surgically castrated (removal of the testicles). These were usually sex offenders who had been arrested more than once, had sex with boys under the age of 16 and had been placed at the disposal of the government by the court (TBR, later TBS).
In those years of repression, the COC tried to make a different sound heard. Not only by presenting its members as decent, sexless citizens, but also by educating the public and the authorities. For example, COC Utrecht organized lectures that were open to everyone, in which the latest scientific insights were proclaimed, and theater performances that showed how gay men and lesbian women tried to survive in a hostile environment.
In addition to members, relevant outsiders such as doctors, psychiatrists, the police and the press were also invited to these lectures and performances. The theater group of the Amsterdam department was responsible for the stage. The performance in 1955 of The Prisoner – about a woman who unsuccessfully enters into marriage to escape her homosexual feelings – received a positive reception in the local newspaper Utrechtsch Nieuwsblad. A year later, the performance of The Shadow – about a married director of a teacher training college who falls in love with a male student – was personally banned by the Utrecht mayor De Ranitz.
Freer sexual morality
When COC Utrecht moved into its new home in the wharf cellar on the Nieuwegracht in 1964, times had changed. Already in the course of the 1950s, various counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists adopted a more humane treatment of gay men and lesbian women. In the early 1960s, this development gained momentum. In the wake of a freer sexual morality it was possible to discuss homosexuality. People were no longer just talking about gays, they were also increasingly talking with gays. In literature, film, theater and ballet, homosexuality became a popular theme and more often it was about social oppression of homosexuality.
Gays and lesbians on TV
In 1964, two weeks after the opening of COC Utrecht club on the Nieuwegracht, a couple of gay lovers first appeared on Dutch television in the current affairs program Achter het Nieuws (Behind the News). They sat unrecognizable with their backs to the viewer, in contrast to national COC chairman Benno Premsela, who did appear recognizable. The reason for the TV broadcast was the establishment by the COC of the foundation and magazine Dialogue. These were supposed to contribute to a new course aimed at contact with and ultimately integration into society of citizens who had a different sexual preference, but who were still ‘just the same’. The magazine received a lot of media attention and achieved high single copy sales.
New, open course
To underline its openness, the COC chose a new name in 1964: Nederlandse Vereniging van Homofielen C.O.C (Dutch Federation of Homophiles C.O.C.) The organization pursued ‘full self-fulfilment’ of homosexuals and a ‘balanced adaptation to society’. Article 248bis had to disappear and the association had to receive royal approval (until 1973 this was a requirement for legal entity). Not all members were enthusiastic about the new course. Some needed a safe haven and preferred to keep their feelings secret from the outside world.
In Utrecht, the fear of a counterproductive effect of greater visibility was fueled by two incidents in 1965 that took place in quick succession. First of all, the vice police still made an effort to find out the names of the COC Utrecht members. She put pressure on the board by using (non-existent) articles of law and regulations. Without result. Against a second case of discrimination nothing could be done. When COC Utrecht wanted to advertise in the popular door-to-door newspaper Stadsblad (City Magazine), the board was told that such a thing was impossible: ‘We take the liberty of seeing homophilia as an unhealthy deviation from acceptable conditions. We believe that the Stadsblad should not be the medium that legalizes or stimulates such abnormalities in its editorial or advertising columns.’
Until the mid-1960s, the COC had a near-monopoly in the advocacy of gay men and lesbian women. That changed in the late 1960s with the arrival of student work groups and youth associations. In April 1969, six members of the Homofiel Studenten Dispuut (gay student group) opened the ‘society for young homophiles Pann’ in Utrecht – also in a wharf cellar on the Nieuwegracht. Significant of the changed zeitgeist was that the initiative was supported by education and youth officials of the municipality, the vice squad and the public prosecutor.
The ‘Federatie van Studenten Werkgroepen Homosexualiteit / FSWH’ (Federation of Student Working Groups on Homosexuality) aimed for ‘integration through confrontation’. The highlight was the demonstration on January 21, 1969 at the Binnenhof against 248bis.
Although the national COC was not in favor of public actions, the association nevertheless opted for cooperation. FSWH members participated in the COC study group Nieuw Lila (New Lilac), which advocated a more socially critical course. In 1971, the COC Congress adopted the new strategy including a new name: Nederlandse Vereniging tot Integratie van Homosexualiteit COC (Dutch Association for the Integration of Homosexuality COC). In the same year, art.248bis was deleted from the Dutch Penal Code and minors could also become members of the COC.
Competition in the hospitality industry
The COC had also lost its monopoly as a meeting place, despite the crowded meeting centre. In the 1960’s, the first ‘real’ gay bars opened in Utrecht, such as Café de Pauw (cafe Peacock – corner Pauwstraat / Oudegracht), singer Don Mercedes’ Adonis (Oudegracht 49), La Vie en Rose, better known as Club 234 (Oudegracht 234) and the JJ bar (Oudegracht 70). In the 1970’s, the Sobrinobar (Hamburgerstraat 17) and In de Gouwe Gheyt (Oudegracht 196) followed, among others.
All those names suggest a richly varied Utrecht gay hospitality industry, but that is only an illusion: most pubs did not last very long and Utrecht is – because of the proximity of ‘gay walhalla’ Amsterdam – never been richly blessed with a versatile gay and lesbian hospitality industry. Moreover, the number of venues increased where gays and lesbians mingled with the straight public without much problem, such as the clubs of some student associations and the night bar Het Pandje on Nobelstraat.
In the 1970s, gays and lesbians increasingly came out and fought – often side by side with other social reformers such as the NVSH, Dolle Mina and other groups – for the emancipation of women, men and sexual minorities. Radical groups such as the Rooie Flikkers (Red Fagots) and Roze Driehoek (Pink Triangle) rejected COC’s integration strategy and emphasized being different. They opted for the provocation, the queerness and sexual freedom. On the women’s side, it was Paarse September (Purple September), as a radical-feminist action group, that questioned the normality of heterosexuality.
Many political parties, trade unions and other organizations had their own gay groups and the number of COC departments grew exponentially. Despite all the ideological differences, all these groups worked together in the Roze Front (Pink Front), which has been organizing the annual demonstration on Pink Saturday since 1977.
Unlike in student cities such as Amsterdam and Nijmegen, no radical fagot group arose in Utrecht, while radical lesbians were active in the Witch (Heksenketel/Heksenkelder) and other (lesbian) feminist groups. There were men and women within the COC who adopted the nicknames ‘faggot’ and ‘dike’ and (sometimes) wore a pink triangle or buttons with texts such as ‘flikker mee of flikker op’ (work together with us of get lost) and ‘it’s nice to be a faggot’.
Within the COC, the opinions between the more radical ‘activists’ and the ‘recreational members’ who often still called themselves ‘homophile’ could clash. The latter, for example, saw nothing in the dance actions in popular Utrecht straigh discotheques such as Hordijk on the Mariaplaats. The activists entered as a mixed couple to continue as male and female couples once on the dance floor. Not to the satisfaction of the first surprised and then indignant staff: ‘At half past ten the group had entered Hor(ror)dijk except three. […] Petra, Rike, Ardy and Hanneke entered the dance floor and soon danced close. The bully bouncer made his first threat. “Get off the dance floor or get out,” he yelled, his head flushed red. The ladies withdrew temporarily and Raymond, Herman, Jan and Gerard entered the battlefield. Their dance lasted only a short time. The now overheated bouncer grabbed Hanneke and Petra by the “guts” and dragged them outside.’
Real change, but not enough
In 1952, the police forbid COC members to dance with each other in their own private club. In 1976, COC members dance together in popular straight discos, but were not welcome there. Some things had really changed, but not nearly enough.
Maurice van Lieshout