Universiteit Leiden

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Nationaal Archief/Rob Croes

How students launched the Leiden LGBT movement 50 years ago

Four students founded the Leiden Student Working Group on Homosexuality on the day of the Dies Natalis in 1968. This was to be the start of the LBGT+ movement in Leiden, which celebrated its 50-year anniversary this year. What has been achieved and what is the status of emancipation today?

The rainbow flag will fly above the Academy Building and this 50-year anniversary will be visible in the Pieterskerk: COC Leiden is calling on all Leiden students, staff and alumni who are LHBTI+ - or who want to show their solidarity - to wear something pink or rainbow coloured on 8 February. 'We're hoping that around half the people in the church will  take part,' Ivo van Spronsen, COC board member for policy and diversity, said. He looks back on the turbulent history of the birth of the LGBT movement in Leiden where the COC  had no local department for a long time. 

Ivo van Spronsen (right) with Jan Thijs Leeuwrik, chair of COC Leiden.

LGBT people had to stick their necks out

In the 1960s men's hair became longer, women's skirts shorter and morals a lot more liberal. These changes were also visible at the rather traditional Leiden University. But for many students it was still very difficult to say that they were 'homosexual or lesbian', according to Van Spronsen. ‘The climate in 1968 was still oppressive. As an LGBT person, you really had to be brave enough to stick your neck out if you wanted to come out.' 

Show that you are decent people

Four students - Paul de Leeuw, Jan van Nakerken, Leo de Ridder and Jos Westerdijk - were frustrated by this oppressive climate and also by the conservative strategy of the national COC at that time. ‘The COC's policy was to encourge acceptance by showing that LGBT people are decent human beings. If you were under the age of 21, you weren't allowed to become a member of COC.' At the Dies on 8 February 1968 the four founded the Leiden Student Working Group on Homosexuality (LSWH). 'The student counsellors were i favour of this move, but the University Council had some objections, along the lines of: "Before you know it we'll have a working group on sadism",  as founder Paul de Leeuw recently recalled in local newspaper the Leidsch Dagblad.

Discriminatory law

The newly organised LBGT students protested against sexual discrimination. According to the Dutch Penal Code, the minimum age for heterosexuals to have sex was 16 years, but for homosexuals the age was 21. Van Spronsen: ‘So, if you were 19 and you had a relationship with someone who was 21, your older partner would be punishable in law.' In the sixty years that this exception applied, some 5,000 men were arrested in the Netherlands. A register of sexual offenders was also kept in Leiden, which had serious consequences for the personal lives and careers of  those who were put on the register.  

The demonstration at the Binnenhof in 1969. Photo: Jac de Nijs/National Archive

Gays against Vietnam

This inequality came to an end thanks in part to the angry protests by the national Student Federation for Homosexuality, of which the Leiden student working group was a member. The Federation organised the first public demonstration for equal rights at the Binnenhof in 1969, where students who had been roped in from Leiden, was a great success: the discriminatory article was removed in 1971. The COC adopted the viewpoint of the student federation and partly as a result of this the Leiden student working group became less active. Van Spronsen: ‘The group still organised a lot of parties and typical 60s-style demonstrations like 'Gays against Vietman'. But at the start of the 70s the student working group ground to a halt. The students had strong ideals but they lacked strong organisation.'

In 1983 a national LGBT demonstration took place in Leiden. Photo: Rob Croes/National Archive

Many students and alumni active in COC Leiden

A number of Leiden residents outside the University founded the Leiden Working Group on Homosexuality in 1971. In 1985 the group moved to its current location at Langegracht, together with Lesbian Women Leiden, although it was not until 1999 that they officially took the name COC Leiden. Many Leiden students and alumni were and are active in the LHBTI movement, Van Spronsen stresses. 'It is partly thanks to the courage and commitment of those first Leiden students that COC Leiden exists.' Van Spronsen and four other members of the committee also studied in Leiden. 'We've seen in recent years that the young members working group from 18 to 27 years has been less popular among Leiden students in recent years. This could be a sign that emancipation has largely succeeded within the Leiden student associations.' 

The rainbow flag flying above the Academy Building

Coming out

How did his coming out go in his student time? 'When I came to the EL CID in 1995 I had already come out to most of my friends although I hadn't said anything at home. I had a very liberal upbringing so I didn't want to make a point of my homosexuality but just wanted to take a boyfriend home with me. Only it took a while to find that first boyfriend. I had looked around at Minerva and for a short while wondered whether I should become a member. I didn't  have the feeling that this would be the right thing for me, partly because I didn't really dare to come out there. So I decided to join SSR Leiden because it had a more relaxed atmosphere. I also noticed later as a member of Sempre Crescendo, Minerva's open music association, that the atmosphere at Minerva was becoming more relaxed.' But he also remembers that there  were sometimes clashes in Leiden. 'We have to continue to fight against stigmatisation and stereotyping. Emancipation is never finished, never! That's why it is so important to celebrate 50 years of the LGBT+ movement, including at the University.' 

Leiden University firmly believes in the importance of the university as a place where everyone feels welcome. This is the particular task of the Diversity Office. Leiden University Pride focuses on students and organises drinks, conferences and other activities. Read the interview with Kirsten de Mare, chair of  LU Pride. The Leiden University LGBTQ+ Core Network focuses particularly on staff. 

(LvP)