WAFFLING ON ABOUT BELGIUM by Catherine Hume
It’s been less than a month since Belgium has been rocked yet again by acts of terrorism. Anyone seeing this could leave us feeling cold about this small country at the heart of Europe, especially as LGBT people.
I’d been on holiday to Belgium twice before I moved there in 2014. My experience as a bisexual person and gender non-conformist, as well as a woman, has dramatically reshaped my life. What I first noticed as a gay person was the openness of a lot of gay venues – cafes, bars, pubs and the like. They were located in “normal” areas of town, in among houses, not in gay villages or other enclaves as they often are in the UK. I noticed that there were several LGBT magazines than we have in the UK, and a lot were free of charge with quality articles and quality production. By contrast the UK has three or four UK-wide LGBT magazines – the number is uncertain because several UK publications often run out of money and so can’t afford to put out paper copies or even produce monthly editions on line. In the UK, a lot of our LGBT venues have closed down.
Some say this is because LGBT people are now accepted in mainstream venues. I think the closing of UK venues has more to do with the lack of money in people’s pockets - a lot of mainstream pubs have closed in the last few years. Our one and only local LGBT group that addresses mental health and well-being has suffered a massive cut to its funding meaning it meets less than it did and can’t do the amount of vital work that it did three years ago. In Belgium, I saw LGBT venues and groups flourishing.
Across Belgium, several towns hold their own Pride marches, but there is one central Pride in Brussels that is attended by people from across the country. In 2014 The Belgian Pride attracted 55000 people. In 2015, the number was 85000. The Belgian Pride is political, attended by every political party, including the Right Wing parties. All the political parties have their own floats and marchers, although the Right Wing parties have the smallest floats with the least marchers. I was at The Belgian Pride in 2014. The Pride started with proclamations at La Place de Bourse (the economic centre of Belgium). Each political party had to promise to uphold Belgium’s LGBT charter. Yes, Belgium has an LGBT charter!
The Belgian Prime Minister, who happens to be gay, was there at the 2014 parade, pausing for selfies with marchers. Some marchers wore masks that were a mashup of Thatcher and Putin – a statement on the prohibition in Russia of talking about homosexuality. There were three young men dressed in latex dog costumes, led around by another man in latex, and there was a guy with his bum out, but that was the only echo of the sexed-up, boozed-up scenes that we see at Prides in the UK. The Belgian Pride was not only a political statement, but a celebration of how far Belgium has come in its treatment of its LGBT citizens.
I was lucky to live in Brussels – a small city with a huge mix of cultures and quirks from around the world, where Oriental men carried handbags and Arab men wore green glittery sandals – before I moved north to Ghent, a hippy town that combined peacefully its Catholic past with its lefty present. Groups of students chat as they cycle on the tram tracks, and the trams simply have to stop and wait for cyclists.
Moving to Ghent was the best thing I did. I moved in with a friend – a white convert to Islam who is homosexual, his brother and another guy who is polysexual and polygender. With fluency in the national languages now being mandatory in Belgium, I enrolled at a daily Dutch language class alongside other foreign nationals who had had a university education in their own countries; Europeans, Africans and Arabs. We talked about all sorts of things – in Dutch – from burqinis to music festivals. One day we did an exercise in the text book that was based on a dating agency, and the aim was to be able to describe people. A Spanish guy who is married to a woman asked if we have to choose opposite sex “dates”. The tutor replied, “Dis is twee duizend en vierteen!” This is 2014! She saw no issue on choosing a same-sex or opposite-sex partner.
Walking around the centre of Ghent - which has lent itself towards a certain wealthier, thus often more educated, shopper by its mainly higher end retail – I saw two elderly women walking arm in arm and two teenage boys kissing at a tram stop. Nobody stared, nobody looked twice, no one thought it was anything to think twice about.
However, there is homophobia in Belgium. I remember reading the accounts of two teenage girls saying they have been called “dyke” among other things. My poly flatmate was called “poof” and “queer” in the street because he was wearing a skirt over leggings. My homosexual housemate lost a job after the first day because he had mentioned he’d had a boyfriend. Fortunately for him, the unions in Belgium are much stronger than they are in the UK, and he was given another job trial the following week which went well, and the union prosecuted his homophobic employer.
As a masculine woman, I found people in Belgium welcoming even without any knowledge on their part that they were welcoming me. In the UK, because I am more masculine than the average woman, and because I am university educated, I speak other languages, I travel and I speak my mind, UK women tend to be afraid of me, and so reject me. However, in Belgium, I was constantly around university educated women who spoke various languages, who had travelled and who speak their mind. I was not “different” in Belgium. In Belgium I fitted in.
I remember going to Ghent’s nature reserve one Sunday evening for a klimaatwalderen – a guided tour around the reserve with the aim of learning more about how the natural world changes through the seasons. I expected a small group of middle aged people in anoraks. I was taken aback to see young blondes on the walk and they were taking notes! That would never happen in the UK! While I lived in Belgium, I only saw four fake tans (in northern UK towns you’d normally see at least four fake tans per hour) and perhaps two short skirts. Women in Belgium – of all cultural backgrounds - tend to wear trousers, and then in the winter months they tend to wear colourful, thick woollen tights with flat-soled knee-high boots and thick knee-length skirts. Whilst there is an open sex industry in Belgium, Belgian women tend to not see themselves as something to be objectified, whereas in northern UK towns, a lot of women feel their sexuality is their main ticket through life. Feminism has passed them by.
By contrast, in Belgium, no matter what the time of day or night, or what area I was walking through, I always felt safe. I always felt respected and I had a better sense of well-being. If I could sort out my immigration papers and move back to Belgium, despite its problems, I probably would.