The Gay Humanist

Autumn 1986

Kees Waaldijk, a lecturer in public law at the University of Limberg at Maastricht in the Netherlands, spent some time last winter at Edinburgh University while conducting research into the obligation to give reasons for legislation. He is a member of the Dutch Humanist League and was Co-ordinator of the Legislative Committee of the Dutch Society for the Integration of Homosexuality (COC). While in Britain he gave a talk to the Gay Humanist Group in London. The following interview is reprinted from New Humanist by kind permission of the editor.

Humanism and Homosexuality in Holland

Jim Herrick interviews Kees Waaldijk

Herrick: Humanism is said to have made much more progress in the Netherlands than in the United Kingdom. In what ways has that progress been made and what are the reasons for it?

Waaldijk: There are many more individuals calling themselves humanists in the Netherlands than in Britain. There is a tradition of freethinking in the Netherlands, possibly caused by the fact that there have been many minority religions, which among other things resulted in a large separation between church and state. It has also been a small country with much exchange of ideas with other countries. This has led to strange things like humanism being tolerated!

Humanism is given radio and television time. This arose from a broadcasting law – a compromise between the dominant groups – which gave all the various groups of society entrance to the media. Humanists have profited from this. No-one has ever challenged our right to broadcast. We are given a certain time every week and receive state money for doing so.

Hospital visiting is another area where humanists are quite active. There is a policy in main hospitals of having available humanist and religious counsellors. Humanism is regarded as the next mainstream belief after Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. There is still difficulty in the more conservative regions and the more conservative hospitals in allowing humanist counsellors to enter or in getting it mentioned that a humanist counsellor is available to people who don’t ask to meet one but might like to. There is government funding for this and also for humanist chaplains in the army.

Herrick: What is the position of humanism in schools?

Waaldijk: The Humanist League employs teachers of humanism, who are offered to schools for one hour or so a week. This happens especially with 10 to 14-year-olds and mainly in state schools. The session would be optional for children. This is parallel to the right in state schools for a local church to provide a teacher, when the state must make a room available and heat it and in some cases local authorities also give money to pay the teacher. But most schools are religious and it is very rare that humanist teachers are invited to present their option in religious schools.

About 70% of secondary schools and a slightly larger number of junior schools are Christian, whereas those who go to church and those who call themselves Christian are far less numerous. At least 40% of the population claim to be non-Christian. The school situation does not reflect this ratio. This is mainly a matter of tradition, going back to the foundation of the present school funding system at the beginning of the century. In every locality there are Christian schools and only when a new school is needed is there the chance of starting a state-run school. In most rural areas there is a Christian majority unfavourable to starting a non-Christian school.

All Christian schools are completely funded by the Government. Some Christian schools are only very slightly religious, especially at the secondary level. There is no obligatory religious teaching and children may stay away from religious lessons if they wish. But other schools have obligatory daily prayers or singing of hymns, some only at Christmas or Easter. Some fundamentalist schools are run by specific orthodox denominations and they can bring Christianity into everything, so that Genesis comes into a biology lesson. But such schools are not typical.

Herrick: In what other ways is the Dutch Humanist League active?

Waaldijk: It is a strong force lobbying to make the “liberal” “majority” in Parliament active. The right-wing Liberal Party and the left-wing Labour Party always have a majority in Parliament together, but they never can agree on social-economic and defence policies, so they never form a “liberal” coalition government. Therefore the Christian Democrat minority in Parliament is always in a position to form a coalition with either the Liberal Party or the Labour Party. This means that the Government is not very likely to produce libertarian bills (on euthanasia, abortion, emancipation), and certain groups outside the political arena like the Humanist League try to establish ad hoc coalitions between the right-wing Liberals and the left-wing Labour Party jointly to oppose or amend a government bill, or even to introduce a Private Member’s Bill. This lobbying is sometimes effective.

Herrick: Gay rights have also made more progress in the Netherlands than in the United Kingdom. Would you like to say why you think that is and in what ways it has made more progress?

Waaldijk: The main reason it has made more progress is that homosexuality as such has not been illegal since the Napoleonic Criminal Code abolished ‘the unspeakable crime’. In the period between 1911 and 1971 it was illegal to have a homosexual relationship with someone under 21, while the heterosexual age of consent was 16. But since 1971 it has been completely legal, with the same age of consent for everyone, which is 16. At the present time public opinion polls and official policies of most leading parties (including the Christian Democrat Party) and some churches show an acceptance of homosexuality and a belief that there should be no discrimination against homosexuals.

This may have been caused by the same factors which caused humanism to be tolerated or even promoted: a tradition of tolerance towards minorities. The Napoleonic Code helped as well; in the eighteenth century there were severe prosecutions against those who had committed homosexual acts. More specifically, in the 1960s intellectual élites, including those within Christian circles, started to examine and discuss the question of homosexuality. It began in academic circles but they had a large influence on the rest of “their” groups in society; the Catholic academics for example influenced the Catholic teachers and politicians and so on. Probably a difference between Britain and the Netherlands is that academic insights are more readily accepted by politicians and by public opinion in the Netherlands; there is more interplay between academics, the media and politicians. This has helped to get more professional and academic knowledge about homosexuality over to leading circles, and hence to the population at large.

Herrick: Do you still have the same kind of discrimination that there is in England within the armed services?

Waaldijk: Not officially. Homosexual acts within the armed forces are not a criminal offence. And homosexuals are, since 1974, no longer exempted from military service. But it is a rather male and heterosexist community, which can lead to discrimination by individuals. There is an officially recognised organisation of homosexuals within the army, which has contact with the Ministry of Defence and which discusses these problems.

Herrick: How far are gay partnerships recognised within the legal system?

Waaldijk: They can’t marry. But in landlord and tenant law the position of unmarried couples and married couples is the same, and heterosexual couples and homosexual couples have the same rights. This can be relevant in cases where one partner leaves or dies. In the law of succession and death duties homosexuals who have been living together for a long time have the same benefits that married people would have. Some employers give time off work for special occasions in the life of a gay partner, although there is no legal requirement for this.

Herrick: You have been talking to the Gay Humanist Group in Britain about the need for an anti-discrimination law to protect homosexuals. Could you tell me why you think it is necessary and how far it has got in the Netherlands?

Waaldijk: The majority of people may claim to tolerate homosexuality, but cases of discrimination, open or suspected, still appear every now and again. An anti-discrimination law would prevent this, for example in cases of employment or housing. It would also make it easier for people to “come out” and not to hide their homosexuality. The general level of coming out among homosexuals in the Netherlands seems to be higher than it is in Britain, but still most homosexuals are not “out”, or at least not to their employers and colleagues. When they know that there is a law to protect them against discrimination, they will be more ready to come out, and in my opinion coming out is one of the main instruments for gay emancipation. The time seems to have come for a law against discrimination, because there is a general acceptance of homosexuality now in public opinion and in the main parties. If the economy declines during the next ten years, which is possible, the position might worsen, for tolerance often tends to decline in such periods. An Act of Parliament might help to guard against less tolerant periods in the future.

An anti-discrimination law was first proposed in 1978 by the official commission on the emancipation of women, which was adapted by the Government into a proposal for a general law against discrimination against women, homosexuals and unmarried people. It was published in 1981 and was widely discussed and criticised, especially by Christian organisations who want to retain the right for Christian schools, hospitals, etc., to refuse to employ gays and lesbians. The Christian Democrats think schools should indeed be given this right. The Liberals and Labour think discrimination should be illegal for everybody (including Christians). Last year the Government decided that it couldn’t agree on such a bill during this term of government ending in May 1986. So the right-wing Liberal Party, which is one of the currently ruling coalition parties, is now planning to put forward its own Private Member’s Bill on this topic. This would be a bill with less exceptions than the Christian Democrats want. If Liberals co-operate with the Labour Party it could be passed.

Herrick: Is there a general Bill of Rights in the Netherlands?

Waaldijk: The first article of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution outlaws all discrimination “on any ground whatsoever”. It is generally accepted that “homosexuality” is one of these grounds. However, it is not clear what exactly the word “discrimination” means. It is an important symbol, but more specific tools like anti-discrimination legislation are needed. The European Convention on Human Rights is directly applicable in Dutch courts, unlike in Britain. However, its clause on the right to a private life and its non-discrimination clause are very vague too.

Herrick: Lord Scarman and others have recently been talking about the need for a Bill of Rights in Britain. Do you think that would be a good thing?

Waaldijk: Yes, but it wouldn’t help much if those applying the law have no favourable attitude to it. I understand conservatism within the judiciary is far stronger in Britain than in the Netherlands. If you give tools to judges which they are unwilling to use, it is not a great help. It would, however, be a political symbol and a possible starting point for introducing more specific legislation, like adding “sexual orientation” to the British Sex Discrimination Act. I would certainly therefore favour a Bill of Rights.

Herrick: Voltaire laid great emphasis on tolerating the beliefs of those whose views we dislike. How far should humanists tolerate those groups, such as fascist or fundamentalist groups, whose views we abhor?

Waaldijk: The main thing about humanism is that you think before you reach your values, before you condemn, before you fight. Therefore as a humanist I try to distinguish between more and less damaging forms of intolerance. If someone for example preaches on the radio that woman is created for man, that is discriminatory, but it doesn’t do much harm. There’s no point in not tolerating such remarks, we must let them go by and criticise and contradict them. Intolerance can force views and groups to go underground or it can create martyrs, and even sympathy from more moderate groups. If you attack fundamentalists, more moderate religious groups may support them and the fundamentalists may thus gain strength from your opposition. You must be very careful of being intolerant of intolerance, since it can be counterproductive.

This is just one example of how we should use knowledge when putting forward our values. Humanist values are based on the best available knowledge. The relationship between knowledge and ethics is very important. Values which are not based on knowledge either are irrational, prejudiced and dogmatic, or are so vague (“love each other”) that even Christians and humanists can have them in common. Humanism can help to develop more specific values; and not only “negative” values (“discrimination is bad”) but also positive values like – people should be given the freedom to take responsibility for themselves; and – you should be prepared to change your opinions in the light of newly available information.

Herrick: Does information necessarily change people’s views and attitudes? How do you change people?

Waaldijk: Giving information is one thing, but giving information in papers or talks or on radio or television is not enough. Daily experience is our main source of information. If you can change this “information”, for example by being openly gay or openly pacifist, it will do more to change people. When someone tells other people about his or her homosexuality, he or she is not just giving information, but showing that someone they have come to respect, or love, or like, is homosexual. Such direct information might, especially in combination with rational views in papers and books, help to change values. But change takes time. When people have strong beliefs, it’s difficult to change them by information. Legal sanctions do not prevent people from having discriminatory ideas either. But both information and the law can play a small part in change.

Herrick: After having been studying in Scotland for a short period, what are your impressions of Britain?

Waaldijk: This was the first time I had been in Britain for a full month of December and I was struck by the uniformity of everyone’s behaviour. Sending Christmas cards, having Christmas dinners with work colleagues, visiting parents; everyone seems to follow the same pattern. This uniformity seems a rather general characteristic of British life. Even people who are deviant or eccentric are so in a uniform way.

Another difference I noticed is the level of coming out. I met many gay people who were really afraid of kissing goodbye in the streets – in London, yes, but in Edinburgh and Glasgow, no. And in the streets people don’t look at each other. In the Netherlands when I look at a good-looking young man in the street, he may smile back, but in Edinburgh everyone looks at the pavement. This makes life slightly more boring in Britain.

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Created : Sunday, 2000-04-02 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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