Speech by Minister Van Bijsterveldt at the opening of the 14th ILGA-Europe Annual Conference, on 27 October 2010, in The Hague

Minister van Bijsterveldt heeft op 27 oktober 2010 een toespraak gehouden tijdens de opening van de 14e ILGA-Europe conferentie. Deze toespraak is alleen beschikbaar in het Engels. Alleen het gesproken woord geldt. 

Good evening my honourable guests,

I would like to give you a warm welcome here in the Ridderzaal, the Knights’ Hall, in The Hague. You can sense its long history as soon as you enter. This is the hall where centuries ago the Counts of Holland gathered to discuss the politics of the States-General. It is here that the queen delivers her Speech from the Throne every year which explains the government’s plans. It is the hall where today we will be holding the 14th ILGA-Europe conference – for the first time by the invitation of a national government, and on initiative of COC The Hague. I would like to thank the Municipal Council of The Hague for its support for this conference.

In the early years of the Republic of the Netherlands, in the late 16th century, the standards and flags of many countries hung in this hall, as victory trophies. Today, we in Europe are no longer crossing swords, but rather we have joined together like modern knights. As Europeans, we are united in the fight for equality and equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people worldwide.

As the host country of this conference, the Netherlands is glad to be at the vanguard. Because we have a high standard to live up to.

For example, fourty years ago, in 1969, on the 21st of January, the “first gay demonstration” in the Netherlands took place in The Hague. It was a protest against a discriminatory section of the criminal code, that set down the age of consent for homosexuals at 21, while for heterosexuals it was 16. This was before the Stonewall riots in New York in June in 1969, that are generally considered to mark the start of the organised struggle for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Ten years ago, the Netherlands was also the first country in the world to allow legal marriage between same-sex couples. We had the Gay Games and EuroGames, and every year we have Canal Pride, in which for three years now a government boat has taken part.  

We are proud of these achievements in the struggle for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. And we show this to the world. But I didn’t mention this to glorify my own country. Rather, in this way we would like to set the tone, to inspire others worldwide to tackle this issue in their own countries. Because there is still a lot of work to be done.

Over the past four years, our current Deputy Prime Minister, Maxime Verhagen, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, drew attention to these issues everywhere in the world, regardless of whether he was visiting the Gaza Strip, Uganda or a neighbouring European country. And his message was always the same:

‘Religion, culture or tradition may not be used as an excuse where the protection of human rights is concerned. Human rights are golden rules that apply to everyone, everywhere and at all times. They are obligations of international law. You cannot simply place a group of people outside the law on the basis of their sexual orientation.’

As Minister for Emancipation, I support this fully: every person has the right to live in freedom. The acceptance of homosexuality is a touchstone of our humanity.

But as long as some African countries still consider homosexuality a capital offence or simply deny the existence of homosexuals; as long as in some countries just being gay is enough to receive the death penalty; as long as in Europe and here in the Netherlands too, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are still verbally and physically abused on the streets, bullied out of their neighbourhoods, or excluded from their community or family…

…as long as all this is still going on, the battle has not been won.  

Everywhere in the world, in Europe too, even here in the heart of The Hague, people should be able to be open about their love for someone of the same sex. Recently, the mayor of the city of Utrecht, launched a ‘gay-alert’ after tragic incidents of homosexual couples being bullied out of their neighbourhoods. The cabinet and Dutch municipalities want to come down hard on this sort of behaviour.

There has to be room for differences between people. We have to fight against a social climate of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Because there is a huge gap between “no discrimination” and “open acceptance” and this gap must not be filled with silence.

I am therefore glad to see so many European countries represented here today, and that the European Commission and the Council of Europe will be making a contribution. We are all aware that focusing on the emancipation of minority groups, abolishing  discriminatory laws and safeguarding equality is not just a matter for national governments. It is time for a European LGBT strategy.

And at the same time, it is also the responsibility of the municipalities and local authorities to add their specific touch. Because it is our local pioneers who, through their efforts, bring about greater understanding and respect in our towns and cities.

I said earlier that the Netherlands is a standard bearer in this area. And we would like to remain so. The Netherlands has therefore already registered as the host country for the Council of Europe conference 2013. And next spring, the Dutch cabinet will launch an LGBT strategy and present it to parliament. We will continue to cooperate with trade unions, networks, youth organisations and LGBT organisations, at both the national and the European levels. We would also like to contribute to a NATO working group with the countries that have implemented an active LGBT equality policy, because we believe you should also be able to be gay or lesbian in the army. I am therefore pleased that we have the international Working Group LGBT in the Armed Forces in our midst today. I would also welcome a request for support from the Transgender Network Europe and I hope that many within Europe will follow my lead.

As I just said, every person deserves the right to live in freedom. I am saying this to you all, and in particular, to the fourty representatives from East and Central European countries who, with our support, have had the courage to join us here today. As the playwright Oscar Wilde once said: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ Together, we have the responsibility for creating a society in which everyone counts. We have to achieve this together, side by side and with firm belief.

I wish you all success in your work, let’s fight the good fight! And for now, I hope you enjoy your evening. It is with great pleasure that I declare this conference open.