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Friday, May 11, 2007

Word Is Out Makes a Mark on Europe

In 1980 the movie Word Is Out was shown in the European Youth Centre in Strasburg, France. It was presented in the framework of The Conference on Intolerance in Europe. The Dutch delegation had brought it along to the conference, organized by the Council of Europe and European youth organisations. The conference dealt with a broad range of intolerances, anti-Semitism, racism, the German Berufsverbote.

The Dutch delegation raised the topic of intolerance against homosexuals, at the time a still underdeveloped theme on the level of the Council of Europe and in the organised youth structures of Europe.

We thought that the movie Word Is Out could give a nice introduction to the theme also for a European young audience.

We hired a copy through the Dutch distributor of Word Is Out and took it along to Strasburg.

We arranged a showing in the centre’s viewing room and made a handwritten announcement on a poster board in the hall of the centre.

To our great indignation we found out, when we returned from a conference session outside the Centre that the Dutch permanent representative to the Council of Europe, Mr Jan Breman, had tore off the poster and crumpled it up, uttering screams like ”a shame, scandalous” and worse. He threw the crumpled poster in a corner and headed for the Director of the centre to lecture him.

A staff member of the Centre with a great sense for history had saved the crumpled paper and handed it over to me giving me all the details of the enragement of the Dutch permanent representative (= ambassador). His behaviour was so much more surprising as the Dutch foreign policy had already committed itself to equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

The participants of the conference reacted with indignation, but the showing went on that same evening. The head of the Dutch Delegation Ad Melkert (who himself is not a gay man, and is now working for United Nations Development Programme in New York) on behalf of the members of the Dutch delegation addressed Mr Breman and suggested to him that he apologize, case closed.

But Mr. Breman refused and once more caused indignation with the other members of the Dutch delegation and among the participants of the conference. One of the members of the delegation (Jan Herman Veenker, a well known Dutch gay activist and in later years AIDS activist) contacted his MP (Member of Parliament) in The Hague and the next day the matter was raised in the Dutch Parliament. The Dutch Foreign Minister of those days, Chris van der Klaauw, swiftly reacted and summoned Breman to withdraw from the conference at once. The Dutch government had been one of the initiators of the Conference and could not tolerate that it should fall short of expectations or worse fail.

The conference adopted a document that included homosexuality as a behaviour that should not lead any longer to intolerant attitudes.

The whole incident even had a greater impact. The day after the conference I received a mysterious phone call from the Secretariat of the Council of Europe. The secretary to the Political Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council, told me he had followed the incident with great interest and asked me to take up contact with a Dutch Member of the Assembly who was just preparing the first political document in an International governmental structure (the Council of Europe). The MP, Mr Joop Voogd was reported ill at the time and the secretary of the political committee had found out that conservative colleagues of Mr. Voogd tried to kill the document in his absence. He urged me to warn mr Voogd to have the vote postponed in committee in order to save the document. It all worked out well, the document was saved and is to my knowledge the first time that a very well respected international governmental human rights organisation took a positive stand on LGBT rights.

Mr Breman was transferred to his next diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia. According to Dutch foreign office circles it was considered a heavy punishment for him and even more for his glamorous wife.

Well Word Is Out!

For myself the whole story was the beginning of a long period of international gay activism, but that's another story!

Hein Verkerk Amsterdam, Blog

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