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The History of Homosexuality in Belgium

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 28 oktober 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
Length: 5 minutes

The book “Verzwegen verlangen: Een geschiedenis van homoseksualiteit in België” (Concealed Desire: A History of Homosexuality in Belgium; Antwerp 2017) has three editors and five authors: Jonas Roelens deals with the period up to the Enlightenment, Elwin Hofman with the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, and Wannes Dupont discusses the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1950s.

Sodomy trial (1578)Paul Borghs and Bart Eeckhout tackle the period after the 1950s. The first three, the editors, are young historians, and the two latter authors who tackle the most recent time in history, are respectively a multidisciplinary researcher who previously wrote “Holebipioniers: Een geschiedenis van de holebi- en transgenderbeweging in Vlaanderen” (HLB Pioneers: A History of the HLB and Transgender Movement in Flanders; 2015) and a professor of English literature and Flemish gay activist. Although the men write empathetically about lesbian history, no single woman was involved in the project.

The book is the first history of homosexuality in Belgium. Monographs and articles have been published in the past, but not with such a large scope. The book starts of thoroughly, although it is unfortunate that the book has no index. There are no footnotes, but each chapter does have an overview of used sources and literature. It is similar to my very own “Homoseksualiteit in Nederland van 1730 tot de moderne tijd” (Homosexuality in the Netherlands from 1730 to the Modern Age, 2004) that is quoted in the first chapter, but has a shorter time span, only one author, has no footnotes but an index, and discusses lesbian life only indirectly.

Hieronymus Bosch shows sodomites being punished (av. 1500)Like neighbouring countries, Belgium has lived through the necessary transformations concerning homosexuality. Initially, sodomy (mostly anal sex) was a mortal sin that was often punished at the stake. The earliest criminal procedures took place as early as 1292, and while such procedures in the Middle Ages were exceptional in the Northern Netherlands, they were more frequent in the Southern Netherlands, also involving women. In the period 1400-1550, 272 men and twenty-five women were tried, and of the women, fifteen were sentenced to death.

Because the book states figures per changing period and place, it is difficult to give a complete picture. Thus, between 1400 and 1600 in Bruges and the surrounding area, 203 people were arrested, of which 142 were burnt at the stake.

In Ghent, a slightly larger city, the total number was much lower over a two hundred year period - sixty-five sodomites were tried, of which thirty-three were burnt at the stake. Roelens explains the fact that comparatively, many women were prosecuted for sodomy up to 1600 by pointing out their relative privileged position in this period of time, having equal rights of succession between brothers and sisters.

After 1600, the sodomy persecutions declined, as witch hunts became the modus operandi. While the active persecution of sodomy began in the Dutch Republic in 1730, it had completely ended in the South. In the eighteenth century, the judges would deal with sodomy privately, out of sight of civilians for whom it would be better to stay ignorant than to give them the wrong ideas by means of burning at the stake. They did, however, began to ask more and more questions about what the sodomites did exactly, whether they had certain traits and habits. A desire for knowledge gradually emerged from Catholic confessions.

The decriminalization of sodomy with the introduction of French legislation in 1795 meant no major further changes, as the persecutions had mostly come to a stop. With the “Code Pénal,” a new article on offences against public decency was used against public homosexual contacts in Flanders and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, an underground scene of bars and public meeting places for homosexuals arose in big cities at the end of the nineteenth century, and a debate about variation in sexuality was started in forensic psychiatry.

It is remarkable for Belgium that, unlike other countries, such as the Netherlands, the police did not pursue a more stringent persecution up to the period following the end of the Second World War, and the country did not contribute to the debate on homosexuality. Both Catholics and liberals wanted to let sleeping dogs lie, the first group with the idea that “where ignorance is bliss, ’t is folly to be wise,” whereas liberals feared the danger of homosexuals using forensic psychiatrists that would declare them not imputable for their actions, therefore escaping a prison sentence.

Portrait of Georges Eekhoud, 1876

The only homosexual who did take such questions seriously was Georges Eekhout, whose chaste gay novel “Escal-Vigor” (1899) was under threat of being banned. Fortunately, he got the support of an excellent lawyer, a socialist senator who stood up for the freedom of expression, as well as international celebrities, such as Émile Zola. Thus, he won his case, which was seen primarily as a matter that concerned the freedom of expression and was not about homosexuality, as his socialist friends were not keen on his novel nor on his gay stories. They were just as narrow-minded when it came to sexual orientation as their Catholic opponents.

gay bar, Brussels, av. 1950

A more intense persecution of homosexuals began in 1955, and Dupont’s explanation is that, inspired by Senator McCarthy’s hunt for communists and homosexuals, this was the same in all countries in Western Europe, on the brink of the sexual revolution. In the last two chapters, the rise of a gay movement following the Dutch example of the COC in the early 1950s is discussed - initially more in Flanders than in the Walloon provinces, and later on in both parts of Belgium. Also, the introduction of a new Legislative article in 1965, following the example of the Dutch article 248bis, is discussed, which laid down a higher age of consent for homosexual sexual contacts than for straight sex acts. The authors then discuss whether the pragmatic attitude that was adopted from 1999 with the “purple-green” government with right-wing liberals, socialists and greens in power, was a better road to success than adopting a more radical attitude.

Elio Di Rupo, 2003Contrary to what I would say, they are of the opinion that pragmatism and normalization work better. A highlight for Belgium is that they, as the second country after the Netherlands, introduced gay marriage, and as the second country following Iceland, had a gay prime minister in Elio di Rupo. It raises the question why a country that was relatively late with gay emancipation until 1970 is now such a forerunner. In his last chapter, Bart Eeckhout gives an overview of the movements and cultural innovations in Flanders.

All in all, the essay collection is very much worth reading.

 Wannes Dupont, Elwin Hofman, Jonas Roelens (ed.), Verzwegen verlangen: Een geschiedenis van homoseksualiteit in België.  Antwerpen: Publisher Vrijdag, 2017, 300 pages, ill., € 24,95, ISBN 9789460015281



published Dec 2017        Length: 4 minutes

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