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From Backbiting to Quistory, A Queer History of Eindhoven

by Helm de Laat in History & Politics , 30 April 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 11 minuten

Anniversaries are celebrated with gusto in many COC departments. Some even considered it a good idea to write down their own history and publish a book for educational and entertainment purposes. At best a few dates, including the formation, are recorded, as well as some memories from important events. Usually it contains the acquisition of the housing, and sometimes a beloved person - a commendable director or a prominent bar owner - is put in the limelight.

After the festivities, the booklets wither away in a closet, perhaps coming out occasionally to satisfy someone’s curiosity. Children are easily pleased, but otherwise they serve their purpose as a footnote in our history at best. In Eindhoven it is commemorated that, sixty years ago, the first attempt was made to found the Shakespeare Club - the pseudonym of the COC at the time. Early 2017, the book “Tussen Repressie en Provocatie” (In Between Repression and Provocation) was presented. This book is a serious study where the author has worked on for two years. In this book author Luc Brants tries to describe the history of gay and lesbian emancipation in Eindhoven from 1948 to 1990.

Canon of a Company Town

Several years ago, our government wanted to contribute to an answer to the identity crisis the Netherlands and its people were suffering from by rewriting the History of the Netherlands. This resulted in the presentation of the Canon of the Netherlands. This inspired many administrators to commission more and mostly local Canons. In Dutch history as well, these Canons traditionally concentrate on the administrative and socio-cultural elite. Only their ideas and stories are discussed. However, not only the history of the common man was discovered in the last century, the emergence of the feminist movement showed that women as well went through more than just a single footnote can justify.

And students coming out of the closet en masse in the 1970s unearthed many secret histories in order for people to speak of a gay research renaissance. Yet all these new developments and discoveries are generally not found in Canons. Even the great sodomite persecution of 1730, which left its mark everywhere in the country, hardly is mentioned. It is a story that does not fit in with the traditional - and now more than ever sought after - image of the Netherlands as a tolerant country.

Eindhovens top executivesThe great sodomite persecution is not mentioned in the Canon of Eindhoven either, but that can be contributed to the fact that precisely that prosecution has never been investigated. This Canon is dominated by the old story of a Catholic rural town that was put on the map because of the united efforts by the government and industry. The dominating role that Philips played, makes Eindhoven a prime example of a Dutch Company town. What ordinary church people and its workers thought is marginalized in order to work towards the desired polished corporate identity of the city. In such a Canon homosexuality is also invisible.


Like all gay historians, Luc Brants is struggling with the problem of invisibility of homosexuality in sources. But since the Canon pretends that nothing ever happened in Eindhoven before Catholic emancipation (and the beginning of the town’s industrialization) in the nineteenth century, we forgive him for starting in 1948. Even then the source material apparently is very limited at best. Judicial and police sources were destroyed in a bombing during the Second World War. At subsequent frantic clean-ups some sources escaped the paper mill by a miracle, and something of the local history could be rediscovered during the gay research renaissance. This history as such mostly focusses on Amsterdam and the Randstad, the urban agglomeration of Western Holland.

From random publications Luc Brants collected the stories and footnotes relating to Eindhoven. With new material from the Regional Historical Centre and some stories he managed to retrieve through interviews, he describes the story of the repression of homosexuality in post-war Eindhoven. He corrects the foundation myth as told in COC circles. In 1962, the COC department was set up by the foreman of the COC, Niek Engelschman, who had travelled to Eindhoven to do. At the station the police was waiting for him, only to put him on the next train back to Amsterdam. The actual story is much grimmer. It takes place in 1948 when, at the request of a member of the Shakespeare Club from Eindhoven, a meeting was held in a hotel near the station on January 3rd. This new branch was to be founded there in the presence of Niek Engelschman. The Eindhoven police had heard of the meeting and managed to lure twenty members from the South of the country into a trap. They disbanded the meeting, and all people present were detained and included in police records. Niek Engelschman did take the train back to Amsterdam - a city not much safer in those days - and it was not until 1962 that COC Eindhoven was finally founded.

Repressing police corps

Cottaging, the Can, and the Cops

The gay population in Eindhoven as well still had to meet the like-minded by cottaging while playing a dangerous cat and mouse game with the police, who were all too busy with the nearly 400 gay men in their records. It turns out that in the City of Lights it was a hell of a job to repair the broken lights in the urinals. Their continued destruction was an early form of resistance against repression. This also applied to the gay swimming club that met every Friday night at the Sportfondsenbad, which was closely monitored by the police. The police also patrolled the beginning and the end of film screenings at the cinemas to prevent young people from being tempted to engage in homosexual contact. A policeman took it upon himself to fight fornication by tackling a man who was loitering near a urinal. Brants calls it “gay bashing by the competent authorities.” These stories retrieved from contemporaries - in this case a younger police man - make history come alive. It is therefore a pity that these anecdotes are limited in number. Thus the cautious drag scene remains obscure, and the infamous Eindhoven rent boys are only mentioned in passing. Gay pub life would also have gotten the thick end of the stick without a fight against the “Dansverbod” (Dance Ban).

To combat moral decline, dancing was subject to strict rules everywhere. In Eindhoven, the ban was to the point: persons of the male gender are not allowed to dance together. When the COC requested a dance permit for a party to celebrate the liberation from German occupation, it was refused without any explanation, although the persecution of gay people by the Nazis was pointed out in the request. This was followed by the first battle with the local government. This fight was eventually won in spite of opposition from the homophobic catholic mayor Witte, who also was a member of the Centrum voor Staatkundige Vorming (Centre for Political Education). In the 1950s this organisation even proposed to ban homosexuality altogether.

The years of repression against the backdrop of the narrow-minded Catholic Eindhoven comes into its own especially well in the book. Although it is a shame that we find out more about the key players in the police force than about the homosexual N.A. Maas, who took the initiative for the meeting in 1948. But Luc Brants has created a nice gay memorial of Guus van Bladel (1931-2016) who, as one of author Gerard Reve’s partners, was just a footnote in Dutch literary history. He belonged to a new generation of COC directors who dared to stick their necks out in the 1960s, for example in the fight against the dance ban which paved the way for the modern movement.

From Repression to Provocation

The book does not pay much attention to the other side of the Canon medal. The suffocating role of Philips - keeping an eye on everyone and everything with their very own company police - is hardly discussed. With some reservations Brants does report that Philips director Otten supported the COC with money and goods. But that story dovetails with the traditional image of the benefits the company bestowed upon the community and the way the Canon prefers to look at things. An old COC treasurer told me that Otten had little affinity with the stories of the COC directors: “Let them just say what they need.” COC Arnhem did get a brand new TV out of it. By adhering to such historiography, the underlying tensions in Eindhoven society are kept out of the picture.

Throughout the virtuous 1950s, Eindhoven had a semi-legal, but active NVSH (Dutch Society for Sexual Reform) department that had 5,000 members in 1963, more than any local chapter. The gay and women’s movement here were not set up because of a wondrous radio speech by a Catholic priest. Nor because of some tomfoolery of a younger generation, as the Canon suggests. The Catholic socio-political block was in crisis, and also at Philips things were amiss. This became evident in the 1980s crisis, when the once-powerful company was under threat of collapse. The bombings of the Red Youth did not come out of nothing either.

Precisely these kinds of tensions played a role in the development of the more radical parts of the gay movement, such as the action group “Roze Driehoek” (Pink Triangle). The second part of the book is dedicated to the Provocation, which was mainly initiated by the “Roze Driehoek,” without giving a satisfactory explanation of their relatively large and lasting impact. To the many parties concerned he has interviewed this subject incidentally did not seem very important any more.

COC and Pink Triangle

How well Brants distils the story of Repression from the scarce resources truly plays out in the second half of the book on the Provocation, when we completely loose track. History should be more than just a list of facts and names. And the story of the gay movement in Eindhoven should also be more than a dry analysis of COC minutes and newspaper clippings about the “Roze Driehoek.” It is therefore understandable that everything and everyone gets a mention... But contemporary Intersectional Queer History must also incorporate the influences of gender, class and race in the telling of the story. It is also striking that the lesbian movement has to settle for ten strikingly sided pages. Not a word about homosexuality in the Indian and Moluccan community - with more than 5,000 members in 1960 and by far the largest ethnic group in Eindhoven. This also applies to other groups which contributed to the colorfulness of the city in later times.

A good thing is that the battle with local political rulers on the funding and the establishment of a local gay and lesbian policy comes into its own. This also holds true for the stories about anti-gay violence and the gay bashing investigation, which was copied throughout the country. The changes to the local police force form an attractive contrast to its role in the period of repression. Such exciting stories are interrupted by a depressing list of administrative disputes and housing troubles.

For all concerned these disputes must have been vital, but the author ignores the question of why they were so concerned about them. All of a sudden, the single page that is dedicated to the AIDS crisis compares poorly to the rest. That precisely Philips applicants had to undergo an obligatory HIV test leading to rejection in case of a positive is not discussed at all. It is interesting to see that the COC received over 1,800 phone calls in 1983, but what were they about? What changed over the years when seeking help from the COC? What were points of discussion in these discussion groups, and what subjects were no longer an issue? And education in schools surely must have been more than handing out - only to boys - the naughty booklet “Vies is Lekker”?

More ‘Boebelepoe’

The stories about the Roze Driehoek (1978) - the main source for the “Provocatie” (Provocation) in the title of Brants’ book - are also featured. For many it will be a feast of recognition. The first ever Pink Festival in de Effenaar. The participation in the Carnival parade with a float in the shape of a wedding cake. And the demonstration against a homophobic bishop in Roermond, which directly led to our Pink Saturday. But why did these festivals become so successful that their format was copied all over the world? We now know how Tilburg got its Pink Monday and Nijmegen its Pink Wednesday.

No small feat for a small pressure group from Eindhoven. But equally important is the question why all these actions against injustice did so little and just led to a lot of “Boebelepoe.” Why did the “Roze Driehoek” become a sect that was experimenting with their own sexuality in their small venue Het Vagevuur? Why is it that the COC did manage to become a relevant and modern political interest group? The answer is, among other things, hidden in the dozens of issues of the “Verkeerde Krant” that are now awaiting further research. It is to Luc Brants’ credit that he made us curious about the sequel with his book that should not be missing in any gay household.

(The word “Boebelepoe” is from an interview with Roze Driehoek member Joop Keesmaat.)



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