The history of homosexuality in Belgium

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The book "Verzwegen verlangen: Een geschiedenis van homoseksualiteit in België" (Concealed Desire: A History of Homosexuality in Belgium; Antwerp 2017) has three editors and five authors: Jonas Roelens deals with the period up to the Enlightenment, Elwin Hofman with the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, and Wannes Dupont discusses the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1950s. Paul Borghs and Bart Eeckhout tackle the period after the 1950s. [...] The book is the first history of homosexuality in Belgium. Monographs and articles have been published in the past, but not with such a large scope. [...]

Like neighbouring countries, Belgium has lived through necessary transformations concerning homosexuality, sodomy (mostly anal sex) was a mortal sin that was often punished at the stake. The earliest criminal procedures took place as early as 1292, and while such procedures in the Middle Ages were exceptional in the Northern Netherlands, they were more frequent in the Southern Netherlands, also involving women. In the period 1400-1550, 272 men and twenty-five women were tried, and of the women, fifteen were sentenced to death. Because the book states figures per changing period and place, it is difficult to give a complete picture. Thus, between 1400 and 1600 in Bruges and the surrounding area, 203 people were arrested, of which 142 were burnt at the stake. In Ghent, a slightly larger city, the total number was much lower over a two hundred year period - sixty-five sodomites were tried, of which thirty-three were burnt at the stake. [...] After 1600, the sodomy persecutions declined, as witch hunt became the modus operandi. [...]

The decriminalization of sodomy with the introduction of French legislation in 1795 meant no major further changes, as the persecutions had mostly come to a stop. [...] Meanwhile, an underground scene of bars and public meeting places for homosexuals alone arose in big cities at the end of the nineteenth century, and a debate about variation in sexuality was started in forensic psychiatry. It is remarkable for Belgium that, unlike other countries, such as the Netherlands, the police did not pursue a more stringent persecution up to the period following the end of the Second World War, and the country did not contribute to the debate on homosexuality. Both Catholics and liberals wanted to let sleeping dogs lie, the first group with the idea that "where ignorance is bliss, 't is folly to be wise," whereas liberals feared the danger of homosexuals using forensic psychiatrists that would declare them not imputable for their actions, therefor escaping a prison sentence. The only homosexual who did take such questions seriously was Georges Eekhout, whose chaste gay novel "Escal-Vigor" (1899) was under threat of being banned. [...]

A more intense persecution of homosexuals began in 1955, and Dupont's explanation is that, inspired by Senator McCarthy's hunt for communists and homosexuals, this was the same in all countries in Western Europe, on the brink of the sexual revolution. [...]

A highlight for Belgium is that they, as the second country after the Netherlands, introduced gay marriage, and as the second country following Iceland, had a gay prime minister in Elio di Rupo. It raises the question why a country that was relatively late with gay emancipation until 1970 is now such a forerunner. In his last chapter, Bert Eeckhout gives an overview of the movements and cultural innovations in Flanders. All in all, the essay collection is very much worth reading.

source: Book review 'The history of homosexuality in Belgium' by Gert Hekma; Gay News, #314; October 2017