There was a thought-provoking article in the Dutch NRC weekend paper today, in which Stephan Sanders questioned the political effectiveness of the Gay Pride Canal Boat Parade.
Why should we be ‘proud to be gay’, he asks, when it’s no more an achievement than being born with a certain skin colour?
There are gay people who should rightly be proud of the battles they have fought against discrimination.
But in the present-day Netherlands, where openly gay people can be police chiefs or mayors, where they won the right to marriage in 2001 and are legally protected from harassment and discrimination (which is far from saying that it doesn’t still happen), who should take pride in simple sexual orientation?
Plenty of heterosexual people, argues Sanders, would feel mighty uncomfortable being dragged through town on a float, wiggling their hips to techno music under a confetti-storm and a ‘Proud to be straight’ banner. Why should gay people feel they ought to do it whether they want to or not?
Sanders questions whether the image of gays, lesbians and transgender people portrayed in the canal parade merely reinforces the stereotype in the minds of many, particularly those inclined to be homophobic.
‘(It’s) the paradox of gay life, or rather, of the life of all minorities. You have to assert your right to be there, but even more important is that you shouldn’t have to live life as a walking billboard.’
Sanders yearns simply to be able to put his arm around his husband in the street without feeling it’s a political act.
Having read his article, I went off to see the parade and decide for myself.
Eventually I found a dress circle spot, three or four rows back, overlooking the party boats lining the Prinsengracht.
Techno music is not my thing, and probably not even the thing of many of those on the boats, but at an event like this, it’s infectious.
Sure, there was plenty of tat and tackiness. There’d been some hard work done on the costumes, less on the choreography and a lot more on the bodies in the gym.
But there is also a serious political point to be made in this parade; there are gay people in all walks of life, and being gay is not the only thing in their lives.
I bet their lives in the services are not always easy, but it’s a far cry from the American ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, let alone what may happen in the armed forces of other countries.
The police were there too, not just the Dutch ones, but representatives of various European police forces.
There were boats of gay rugby players, postal workers, health care providers, bank officers…
And there were church members with ‘A wink from God for you’ on the side of their boat and ‘Oh Happy Gay’ on their t-shirts.
These statements are important, even in one of the most tolerant cities in one of the most tolerant countries on the planet.
There is still plenty of work to be done, but if Mr Sanders and his husband want to hold hands in the streets of Amsterdam today, nobody will take a blind bit of notice.