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The biggest gay bar in the world: lees mijn speech

28 februari 2022

Ik mocht het evenement "LGBTI Freedom Zones in Practice: LGBTI-rights and the EU", een studiedag georganiseerd door het European Liberal Forum, openen en gaf een vlammende speech over gelijke rechten voor alle Europeanen! Lees hier de integrale tekst. 

A month ago, in my hometown of Ghent, a new bar was opened. The owners called it “the smallest gay bar in the world”. It was a tiny townhouse. Just three floors on a couple of square meters. And “gay” should not be understood in the modern sense of the word, as homosexual, but rather in its medieval sense. As joyful. Carefree. Bright, and happy. 

In this bar, you could drink a cocktail. But there was also karaoke. You could play bingo. Or visit a darkroom. Oh, and there were gloryholes. 

The whole bar was a mishmash of all conceivable ways of living. There was something for everybody, but there was also no clear perceivable theme. No specific societal group was catered to. If you walked around in this bar, you could find one little corner where you’d feel comfortable. But the entire time you’d be there, you’d be confronted with people living a very different life than yours. With a very different way to express themselves. 

It didn’t matter which clothes you wore. What colour your hair was. Or how you expressed yourself sexually. Everyone was welcome. As long as you yourself didn’t exclude anybody else. 

The bar was part of a festival for contemporary arts, called the Ghent International Festival. It ran for a couple of weeks, and the festival purposefully intended to colour outside the lines. It’s an effort to show the diversity that enriches our society. 

And what interested me the most, is how nobody in Ghent really cared. It would have been easy to predict some conservative outrage. Some shocked parents, fearing for the moral integrity of their children. But no. None of that. 

In Ghent, we have reached a stage where a project, celebrating diversity by integrating all ways of life, has become normal. And I am immensely proud to live in a city where this is possible. Because I am all too aware, how unique this is. 

For decades, the Belgian liberals have fought to create a society in which everybody can be themselves. Where you can love, whoever you love. Where you can marry, whoever you want. And where you can express your love, in private or in public, in any way you want, without any sorrow. 

And here, we often say that the work is not done. And it’s true. The work ìs not done. A third of all people in Belgium’s rainbow community say that, at some point in time, they did not feel safe. Verbal harassment, physical threats or even physical violence are very much a reality in my country. A realty, that we try to tackle every day. 

And yes, we in Belgium have been frontrunners. Often under the impulses of the liberal parties. We were the second country in the world to make the same-sex marriage possible. We were the second country in the world to allow adoption by same-sex couples. We’ve had laws acknowledging transsexual people since 2008, and they keep on being modernised and liberalised. Today, we are proud to hold the second place on ILGA Europe’s list of countries who are most friendly to the rainbow-community. All levels of government have anti-discrimination laws, and we have holistic plans to try and end all remaining forms of injustice as well. 

And it’s because of these efforts, that I become so enraged, when I see some political groups in some European countries go in the opposite direction. Countries, who have often made great progress over the course of the past few decades. But they have fallen victim to conservative and extreme right-wing politicians trying to take advantage of the rainbow community. They marginalise the community. They vilify them. And then, they try to erase them. 

These are politicians who benefit from polarisation. Who need an imaginary enemy, because their political platform is too weak to stand on its own. And the sad reality is, that the fast paces by which our current society moves forward, has been enabling politicians like these. 

They abuse a society in which people are figuring out who they are and who they can be. New identities, new ways of living together or new ways to present yourself to the world are a logical consequence of a society in which people use individual freedom to their own benefit. But it also creates confusion. 

You may have noticed that, during this speech, I have consistently used the term “rainbow community” instead of “lgbtqiap+-community”. I choose to do this because I have noticed that too many people simply can’t keep up with the rapid pace by which these letters and terminologies change! It is a normal reaction in a society, that when things are quickly changing, a lot of people get scared or frustrated. So I believe it is our responsibility, as liberals and progressives, to make sure everyone can keep up. “Rainbow community” is an accessible way of explaining to all generations that some people in our world are “queer”, but that they are an integral part of our society, that has always been there and that will never go away. 

Because extreme conservatives will do everything in their power to convince you otherwise. They will tell you that transgender people are a new invention of a postmodern elite. That gay people are a threat to a country’s birth rate. Or that anti-discrimination laws are a conspiracy to take away the sovereignty of a nation. 

We know this to be a lie. But we must be aware that these ideas can spread. Unmoderated platforms like social media are hotbeds of fake news and disinformation. They are a fish trap in which people get caught, and it is much harder to get out than to get in. Algorithms of big tech companies force people to only listen to what they already know, and deny the diversity of our European society. And pseudo-liberal politicians hide behind the notion of free speech, to spue any nonsense they like, only to score political points. 

Little do they realise that free speech is limited by hate speech. Little do they realise that they are destroying society in their wake. 

Because words, so often, are only the prelude to deeds. 

Today, we are here to discuss LGBTI Freedom Zones. A term that would never have entered the European jargon, had it not been for the LGBTI free zones. And this, at its turn, is nothing more than an outrageous effort by opportunistic and populist fools who have no societal vision other than their own political self-preservation. 

I am proud and enthusiastic that the European Union has been taking concrete steps against these repugnant practices. And the European Court of Justice, just a few weeks ago, took away all doubt: if you do not respect human rights, if you discriminate and demonise against a group of people, you have no business in taking European money. 

I am also proud to see many member states judge and react against these idiotic LGBTI-free zones. In my own federal parliament, just as in my regional Flemish parliament, we took on resolutions and motions making very clear that our Europe is an open and inclusive Europe where people get the chance to express their individuality any way they like. Because that is what a liberal democracy is all about! 

I am the first to admit that nowhere in Europe, we have reached the perfect society. It pains me to say that just a year ago, in Belgium, a man was beaten to death, just because he was gay. His name was David. 

We also know that suicide rates in the rainbow community remain terribly high. Much higher than in the broader population. Because acceptance of a different sexuality remains difficult in certain communities. 

And even more heart-breaking; it often happens that elderly people go back into the closet when they enter a retirement community. Because they are confronted with people for whom sexuality is still taboo. 

So yes, we have to keep developing initiatives to stimulate acceptance and integration of people in the rainbow community. We need to call out fake tolerance, where symbolic actions are used as a shield from real change. We need to hear and support victims of gaybashing, to make sure they are not afraid to file a complaint with the police. 

But most of all. Most of all, we cannot cease our fight. Equal rights have taken a long time to enforce. And in the grander scope of history, they have only just arrived. It is thanks to liberals across Europe, that our continent has these rights. Without us, it just might lose them. 

So this is my call to action, to you.

I talked to you about the smallest gay bar in the world, in Ghent. Let today’s objective be, to make Europe the biggest gay bar in the world. A joyful, carefree, bright and happy place where everyone can be themselves. No matter who you want to be. 

I thank you.