Amsterdam has long been hailed as a leading champion of LGBT rights – not only in the law but also in spirit. The city’s love affair with tolerance began as far back as 1811, when homosexuality was decriminalised under Napoleonic law. A hundred years later, one of the world’s first openly gay bars, The Empire, was already serving cosmos in Amsterdam; and the COC, the official Dutch LGBT organisation, was founded in 1946. While New York holds the badge of honour for throwing the first gay-pride event in 1969, the Dutch launched their own Pink Saturday shortly thereafter, in 1979. Still hosted in a different city every year, Pink Saturday’s mission is geared towards activism.

20 years of Gay Pride in Amsterdam 

It was in 1996, with an eye towards celebrating freedom and diversity in its signature merry way, that Amsterdam also started throwing its now world-famous Amsterdam Pride bash, which culminates in the boisterous and colourful Canal Parade. To mark the 20th edition of Amsterdam Pride, Amsterdam was invited to host EuroPride from 23 July to 7 August 2016, featuring a programme jammed with parties, cultural and sporting events, and more serious endeavours such as discussion panels and remembrance happenings.

LBGT milestones in the Netherlands 

2016 also marked the 15th anniversary of another important LGBT milestone for the city: it was here that, on 1 April 2001, the world’s first same-gender weddings were consecrated by (then) Mayor Job Cohen. Anne Marie Thus and Helene Faasen were one of the couples that tied the knot at midnight that day – officially, the first lesbian wives in the world. ‘We love each other; we wanted to commit and take care of each other. We weren’t the first to do all the work, but we were the lucky ones. It made us want to pay it forward,’ says Thus, a registered nurse who kept her word by founding Meer Dan Gewenst (‘More than Desired’), an organisation that supports LGBT parenting rights throughout Europe.

Amsterdam gay lesbian wedding cake, Edwin van Eis

Gay marriage has made strides worldwide since that first wedding, but the Netherlands remains one of the only countries where equal rights have come this far. Discrimination has been illegal since 1983; blood-donation restrictions for gay men are being lifted, slowly but surely; and adoption laws came as part of the marriage package in 2001, ensuring that non-biological parents would have the same parental rights as their partner. While there are still detractors, the local mentality seems to be in step with the law: the latest polls show a whopping 91% national support for LGBT marriage equality. This unwavering spirit of liberalism, added to the city’s landmark statutory achievements, beg the question: is Pride still relevant in Amsterdam?

Pride in 2016: Is there still a fight to be fought? 

‘I don’t attend Pride anymore,’ claims Antonio Rondilla, 51. ‘We got what we wanted, so I don’t see the point.’ But Anne Marie Thus disagrees: ‘We got complacent, but the fight is not over.’ She speaks of the older generations having to go back into the closet when they move to care homes, where they might otherwise face abuse, gossip and loneliness. While there is a special network of nurses that caters specifically to the LGBT community, a lifesaver for many, the existence of these networks proves that discrimination is alive and well. It sheds a new (and more palatable) light on the construction of condos reserved for gay and lesbian couples (such as the Roze Hallen in the Oud-West neighbourhood), which at first view are disturbingly reminiscent of another intolerant era’s segregationist housing.

The younger generations are not spared either: in spite of the COC’s excellent sex-ed programmes, which include comprehensive classes on diversity as early as primary school, official studies show dismal statistics on LGBT youth integration. Almost half of these children have had suicidal thoughts, and 12% have attempted suicide – four to five times the rate of heterosexual children. Children with same-gender parents also face bullying, adds Thus, and what the acceptance of homosexuality still severely lacks is the perception of normalcy. ‘My kids still have to explain at length that they have two mothers,’ she says. ‘And what child on Earth wants to talk about their parents’ sexuality?’

What of the recent reports of a rise in discrimination? Laurens Buijs, sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, explains these – at least in part – with a two-prong theory: ‘Tolerance has become part of the national myth, and it’s being instrumentalised by the right-wing party and the media. So nowadays you’ll hear a lot more about incidents between Muslim youths and gays because it serves the anti-immigration discourse. But it’s also because the LGBT arm of the Dutch police, the Roze in Blauw (‘Pink in Blue’), has done a fabulous job at fostering a trusting relationship with the community.’ Ellie Lust, representative of Roze in Blauw, agrees: ‘We have lowered the threshold of tolerance for discrimination, and victims now come to us to report even verbal attacks. This has definitely affected the statistics.’ 

Amsterdam as a LGBT role model

Nonetheless, there is an evident backlash against the LGBT-rights movement worldwide at the moment. While countries such as Italy are climbing aboard the marriage-equality bandwagon, the United States is currently at the centre of a controversy on transgender bathroom usage. ‘The US is very influential, and the intolerance will spread,’ fears Thus. In her collaborations with other international foundations, Thus says she feels honoured that she can speak on behalf of people who fight for their rights in, especially, oppressive regimes. ‘We take care of each other worldwide, because we face the same things.’ She also emphasises that LGBT rights offer protection beyond the LGBT community. For example, it’s important to strengthen and expand related national laws, such as those on commercial surrogacy (which is still illegal in the Netherlands), to thwart the potential exploitation of women, especially in developing countries. LGBT rights are about human rights in general. With floats representing gay Moroccans, LGBT Jews and the police force, Amsterdam Pride offers fringe communities within the LGBT whole open representation, casting a light on countries and cultures where repression is still the law.

Amsterdam homomonument, Henri Blommers

The Homomonument behind the Westerkerk was designed in 1987 to symbolise the long road towards gay emancipation in the Netherlands and abroad

There is no doubt that the celebration still has a vital role to play – not only nationally, where (even here) intolerance is still a daily plight, but also as a model to the rest of the world. That message is broadcast loud and clear with this year’s theme: ‘Join Our Freedom’. ‘We’re showing what we’re proud of: our lack of censorship, our freedom. Be who you are!’ exclaims Thus. A truly Amsterdam motto, if ever there was one.

Text by Leda Georgiades and Marie-Charlotte Pezé