Amsterdam wasn’t always gay-friendly

Our local Pride Month celebration was this weekend, and it got me wondering about rules and attitudes toward homosexuality in Amsterdam during its Golden Age.

These days, Amsterdam is known as haven for human rights and open-minded people. The Netherlands was the first country to allow same-sex marriage, in 2001, and it had been known as a city of come-as-you-are inclusiveness for decades before that. In fact, in my first trip to the city — in 1983, when I was 11 — my mother and I stayed at a pension run by a gay couple, and my pre-teen mind was blown that two gay men could run openly run a business like that without raising nary an eyebrow.

Justice watches sodomites uncovered
Justice watches the sodomites being uncovered, while fire and brimstone rain down in the background, 1730. Representation of the Netherlands destroyed by water and fire, while allegories of Truth and Virtue uncover a group of sodomites. On top, Justice looks at it from above, as does a figure holding a flaming sword and a scroll that reads “men, leaving the natural use of the woman” (Romans 1:27). The conveyed meaning is that Dutch sodomites will incur God’s wrath, who, as a consequence, will destroy the Netherlands.

As you can imagine, things weren’t always this way. And in fact, there was a time Amsterdam was known not just for its intolerance of gay people, but for its murder of them. 

Finding sources about homosexuality from or about the actual Dutch Golden Age proved to be a challenge. I turned up a few books in Dutch, but my language skills aren’t up to that challenge yet. Outside of that, I found a few mentions in academic papers and websites and a few lines out of a few books.

The corruptions of the south

Keep in mind that the Dutch Golden Age kicked off within a few short decades of the founding of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch were eager to assert that they were Northern, not Southern (like their former Spanish overlords) and Protestant — specifically Calvinist — not Catholic (again, unlike Spain). 

Technically, the Catholic church considered homosexuality to be a sin. But some southern cultures, specifically Italy, tolerated same-sex relationships between men to a considerable degree.

In Florence, “Same-sex relations had become so commonplace in that northern Italian city in the late fifteenth century that one in two men had come to the attention of the authorities for committing sodomy by the age of thirty” (Roberts, 2012, p. 150). While these relationships may have come to the attention of the authorities, it’s not certain that legal action was taken in all cases. Instead, it seems that “‘sodomy was one of the many strands that composed the fabric of the male experience, one that not only grew out of established social bonds and patterns of collective life but also contributed in creative ways to fashioning and reinforcing them.” It also provided an outlet for sexual frustration before marriage, which typically didn’t happen before the late-20s for men — but the mid-teens for women.

Even 150 years later, during the Dutch Republic, same-sex relations between men were alluded to as “Italian.” Dutch Stadtholder William III, aka William of Orange, aka William III of England was also known as William the Italian by his detractors who said behind his back that he preferred the company of men to women (Vergeer and Haven, 2017, p. 533). But while the behavior may have been tolerated among royalty, it wasn’t among the lower classes.

The limits of tolerance

Legally speaking, same-sex relations were illegal in the Dutch Republic during the height of the Golden Age. But a review of courthouse records show that there were few prosecutions for it until 1730. Prosecutions before 1730 often — but not always — involved cases involving a lack of consent or acts done in military service.

These cases fell under the crime of “sodomy,” which was then a catch-all term for any sexual act the people of the day felt to be unnatural. Yes, this included same-sex relations and things today we think are beyond the pale, such as bestiality. But that also included sexual relations with non-Christians, for example, a Jew.

These cases included (Robers, 2012, pp. 150-1):

These cases included (Robers, 2012, pp. 150-1):

Amsterdam_sodomites_1730
A wanted poster for sodomites in Amsterdam, 1730.
  • Three cases of involving men over 40 engaged in sodomy with minor youths between the years of 1545 and 1645 in the city of Middleburg. Three other cases of prosecuted sodomy did not have that dynamic.
  • A case of a teacher alleged to have abused his students in the city of Arnhem in 1596.
  • A boatman burned at the stake in Delft in 1620 after being accused of sodomizing youths.
  • A master tradesman in Amsterdam in 1633 accused of abusing an apprentice who shared his bed (this was an accepted practice and considered an honor, but no physical or sexual activity was supposed to occur). It’s unclear what the outcome of the case was.
  • In New Amsterdam (now New York and vicinity), an enslaved black man was accused of raping a black youth in 1646. The man was strangled and burned at the stake and the youth was forced to watch and was beaten with rods.
  • In 1647, a surgeon in the Dutch West India Co. was accused of sodomizing his black servant. The doctor sought refuge among Native Americans but was hunted down and brought back to Fort Orange (now Albany) to await trial. He broke free and tried to escape but fell through the ice of the Hudson River and drowned.
  • In 1660, a soldier in New Netherlands was accused of sodomizing an orphan he employed. His sword was broken, he was stripped of his arms and then tied in a sack and thrown in the river.
  • In an undated account, two young teen boys and a solder were found in an act of mutual masturbation on board a Dutch East India Co. ship en route to Asia. The three were tied together and thrown into the ocean.

But repression and punishments didn’t cause gay people to cease to exist. It only drives gay culture underground. “We have to assume that the majority of same-sex encounters or relations in the early seventeenth century went undetected by the authorities and occurred in numerous forms ranging from a clandestine rendezvous to seek-ing anonymous sex partners in green and wooded areas that surrounded villages and cities. At night, these areas became cruising places for men of all ages who sought sexual encounters with female prostitutes and/or other men” (Roberts, 2012, p. 151).

The mass murders of the 1700s

One of the darker chapters in Dutch history began in Utrecht in 1730. At the time, the Netherlands was struggling. The Golden Age was definitely over. The country’s cattle population had been devastated by disease and shipworm threatened the nation’s extensive system of dykeworks that protected its people from flooding. The country, which had so recently been on top of the world in terms of wealth and prestige, was quickly becoming a backwater of Europe once again.

Gronigen sodomy
A pamphlet warning against the dangers of sodomy, Groningen, 1731.

The Dutch, who then were quite religious, wanted to know why. The semi-official church was the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist brand of theology that taught that everything had been predestined. If bad things were happening now, it wasn’t much of a leap to think that it was a sign that god had withheld his favor from a nation that had lost its way because of the luxuries and distractions that came from the great wealth that washed ashore a few generations earlier.

Someone had to pay.

Utrecht had always been a very religious city, but unlike the rest of the Netherlands, it was heavily Catholic — upwards of 40 percent. In fact, the last non-Italian pope until the Polish Pope John Paul II, Pope Adrian VI (1459–1523), came from Utrecht. So when the cathedral’s nave collapsed on 1674, it was yet another sign that the world had turned upside down.

Imagine how much more alarm, then, was caused when it became known that men were using the ruins of that cathedral to cruise for sex with other men under the cover of night. And this is what authorities uncovered in April 1730.

One of the men arrested was Zacharias Wilsma. Under interrogation, he gave names and locations for a network of gay meeting places and men who met there. A pogrom was underway. 

In Utrecht, some forty men were implicated and tried. Eighteen of them were convicted and sentenced to death. They were strangled to death — the punishment for women, instead of a man’s death by hanging — and remains were either burnt, cast into the sea or buried under the gallows

Wilsma’s testimony led to four men in Amsterdam. Wilsma testified against the men there, and all four were put to death.

Sometimes, the gay panic was used by opportunists as a way to knock political enemies out of the way. This happened in the town of Zuidhorn, when Mayor Rudolf de Mepsche of the neighboring village of Faan had twenty-two people executed and saw another two die on the rack during interrogation.

Eventually, though, the villagers revolted, refusing to believe they lived in a modern-day Sodom, and that every other man they knew was a catamite. Afraid of an uprising, the mayor called in soldiers to help carry out his death sentences. But he lives on in local legend as a cruel and vicious political opportunist. 

There would be several continuing waves of moral panic leading to gay executions until 1811, when homosexuality was decriminalized. They include Amsterdam (1764) Utrecht and the Hague (1797) and various cities in 1776.

In all, about 300 trials were conducted and as many as 600 people were murdered.

Gay culture endures

Despite the repression and brutal treatment that gay men (and in rarer instances, women) faced, gay people simply would not stop being gay. Moralists have never been able to shame it out of them; terrorists have never managed to scare it from them. Under the most desperate of circumstances — and in some cases because of it — gay men and women have survived by forming their own subculture and intragroup support systems.

In the Dutch Republic, as in France, it appears that gay subculture in Amsterdam was effette. “Dutch sodomites used feminine nicknames and terms of endearment.  One commentator, a publicist named Justus van Effen, described sodomites as ‘hermaphrodites in their minds'” (Wikholm, 1998).

Gronigen sodomy
A pamphlet warning against the dangers of sodomy, Groningen, 1731.

The places the men met in Amsterdam included brothels and two taverns and were known as “fun houses.” Men who left those places to have time alone together in public toilets said they were “going to the office” to do the “shaking out” or “dirty work.” You know.

Finally, this culture was strong enough to outlast the moral panic. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1811 when Napoleon took over. Still, that’s miles away from acceptance.

Public opinion about homosexuality swung toward tolerance through the 20th Century. By 1973, it was declassified as a mental illness, the same year as the U.S. The Equal Treatment Act of 1994 asserted that gay people should face no discrimination on the job, in housing, in public accommodation or other areas. That law was expanded in 2019 to include gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. And in 2001, it became the first nation in the world to allow for equal marriage rights.

Which, taken in historical context, is really hopeful. You’ve come a long way, Netherlands. Maybe the rest of us can, too.

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