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Dancing on the Homomonument

by Hans Hafkamp in Health & Body , 26 september 2003

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

At the eve of the Amsterdam Gay Pride, the completely renovated Homomonument was put into use again. The ceremony was conducted by Anne Lize Van Der Stoel, president of the City Center Council, who, from 1981 till the unveiling of the memorial in September 5, 1987, was the president of the Homomonument Foundation. At the time of the unveiling Pieter Koenders’ book The Homomonument was published. It soon sold out and since then no other study on the subject has been available.

But at the recent unveiling of the renovated monument, Thijs Bartels’ Dancing on the Homomonument was presented. Like the monument, the book consists of three parts, in which Bartels successively describes past, present and future of the memorial.

In 1979, Bob Van Schijndel, at the time member of the gay group of the P(acifist) S(ocialist) P(arty), took the initiative. A year before a monument commemorating the gypsy Nazi victims had been unveiled on the Museumplein. A gay periodical at the time drew a comparison between the history of neglect of the Nazi persecution of gypsies and gays and concluded that the struggle for gay liberation would be the living monument of gay repression.

Van Schijndel didn’t trust a memorial built of mere mental material could withstand the ravages of time and in a letter to PSP gay group members in the spring of 1979 he called for action: "I had an idea last night. We should write an open letter to Mayor Polak [of Amsterdam] asking him to build a monument to the homosexual victims, either on Leidseplein or in Vondel Park, along the lines of the monument to the gypsies who died in concentration camps. This would serve to keep the memory alive of the 200,000 homosexuals who were murdered, in a time when more and more gays are falling victim to fascist regimes in South America and voices of condemnation are being heard from religious conservatives in the Netherlands."

Van Schijndel’s action was in sync with the times. In the seventies gays were becoming more and more visible, like in the historiography of gays in WWII.
In 1965 Jacques Presser published his Ondergang (Downfall), for the first time documenting the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It would be several more decades before the persecution of gays would be given serious attention. In the summer of 1940 Arthur Seyss Inquart, the Government Commissioner for the occupied Dutch territory, issued a a regulation of which the first article said, that "a man who commits fornication with another man is punishable by imprisonment for a maximum of four years." Homosexual acts in themselves hadn’t been punishable by law in Holland since 1811, which didn’t mean gays could pursue an uninhibited gay lifestyle.

First, since 1911, there was the discriminating age limit for homosexual contacts, an easy open door for blackmail. And public acceptance of homosexuality was of course still next to nothing. The few brave men who shortly after the war took a public stand for gay emancipation did so under a pseudonym. They were well aware of the measures the Germans had taken against their fellowsufferers.

Already in 1946 a writer under the penname Corydon wrote in the gay magazine Levensrecht (Right Of Life): "If reliable data regarding these camps and the number of homosexuals who were annihilated there are still unknown, that is simply because no one has ever dared take up their cause, since many, also in the Allied countries, did not oppose this action in their hearts." And three years later Niek Engelschman, writing in Vriendschap (Friendship, the successor of Levensrecht) under the penname Bob Angelo, said it in even less wrappedup terms: "There has not yet been a single newspaper that has ever found it necessary to focus attention on that issue.

Indeed, one might be inclined to assume that people think the Nazi bandits did humanity a favour in carry-ing out this mass extermination." In May 1950 Vriendschap printed on its cover: "To our dead, branded with the 'lavender triangle and killed in the torture camps between '40-'45, whose sacrifice shall remain unforgettable in our hearts..."
In Dancing on the Homomonument Bartels gives a short history of the Nazi persecution of gays and the slow acceptance of these facts in the general historiography of WWII.

He also touches on the paradox we see more often in gay history, namely the difference in awareness and experience between those actively engaged in the struggle for equal rights and the average homosexual, adjusting himself to the change of tides: "the curtains required for blacking out homes actually increased the opportunities for homosexual contacts. 'It was very busy at the johns,' some homosexuals related after the war. A few of them even claim not to have realised that homosexuality was against the law during the occupation. And according to the sociologist Hekma, there were surprisingly a few gay bars in Amsterdam that opened their doors for the first time during the war years."

The first ideas for a memorial for homosexual war victims were voiced by members of the organized gay movement. In 1961 Jef Last, writing in Vriendschap onder the pseudonym Ohira, proposed for the first time the idea of “a monument to the unknown homo”: No one knows how many there were, not a single statistic relates how many of them were thrasted or starved to death or otherwise succumbed in those camps. There is no flame that burns for the unknown homophiles."
It would take another twenty years for these dreams to become tangible reality.

Van Schijndel’s idea obviously wasn’t just a chimaera in the mind of an idealistic politician, but inspired dynamic action. On May 2, 1979, the PSP gay group asked the city council to come up with a proposition for a place for a gay monument. This proposition didn’t end up in the wastebasket, but got actually discussed. It did meet with some resistance. Some voices were raised saying that a national commemoration should have priority over the random appearance of memorials for all kinds of separate groups of war victims all over the city. But Van Schijndel’s idea met with more and more approval.

A foundation was founded, a competition held, and a jury put together, which had to see to it that the eventual monument would be a vital one and not "some pathetic little affair on a pedestal". In 1981 the winning design of Karin Daan was presented to the press. But soon other hurdles loomed at the horizon. Some said the impact of the monument should go beyond merely commemorating the Nazi WWII victims and should be a reminder of the still invisible social status of gays in general.

Also finding the necessary funds to realize Karin Daan’s design took some doing. The subsidies granted weren’t sufficient. Also private donations had been made, sometimes "by gays and dikes who - to put it dramatically - had donated their last savings for the realization of their monument," as writer/columnist Stephan Sanders put it. And indeed, donations had been made by people living in remote hamlets all over Holland, which clearly shows that the monument wasn’t an internal affair of one city only, but that the monument’s appeal was nationwide long before its realization. Later the Homomonument would appear to be a milestone in in-ternational gay historiography. In Pictures and Passions.

A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts James M. Saslow wrote in 1999 for instance: "Bearing out the postwar Netherlands' reputation as the most permissive nation, Amsterdam was the first city to erect a Homomonument, designed in 1987 by Dutch artist Karin Daan." Saslow’s facts aren’t correct though; Daan’s design dates from some years before.

But eventually also the financial problems were overcome and the monument could actually be build. The pros and contras raged on with undiminished fervour. Some objected to the monument’s monumentality, and the former minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns, unveiled the murky depths of his roman catholic soul when he said, that "You don't go making a monument for kleptomaniacs either, do you?" One of the letters to the editor of the paper De Telegraaf read: "So they managed to pull it off after all: the Homomonument has been unveiled. And the only one in the world at that.

Now it's just a matter of time before we'll have a monument for transvestites.

" A few days later this "narrow mind" was called to order by another letterwriter: "This monument would not even be necessary if there weren't people like the letterwriter 'W.P.v.D.', whose mentality leads to so much grief and so many difficulties for gay people."

Bartels’ book shows that once the Homomonument was a fact, gays didn’t pay attention to these obstreperous voices any longer. Over the years the monument has made a durable place for itself in contemporary gay Amsterdam.

Dancing on the Homomonument doesn’t only serve the tourists visiting the memorial. At one point Bartels quotes Bob van Schijndel, saying: "These days you will need to explain the significance of the triangles. It is no longer the symbol of gay pride that it was in the seventies and eighties." And elsewhere in this Gay News issue Anne Lize Van der Stoel says: “When you see a young gay generation go through life easily, as if homosexuality has always been accepted, you can wonder indeed whether as an older generation we have been successful in communicating that such freedom has been fought for long and hard.”

Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to raise the necessary funds for the distribution of Dancing on the Homomonument among pupils of secondary education, so that they, whether straight or gay, can read for themselves that gay history is more than merely a parade of extravagant boats sailing through the Amsterdam canals once a year.

Thijs Bartels, Dancing on the Homomonument. Translated by Tom Johnston. Amsterdam, Schorer- Books, 2003, 128 pages, E 7.95



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