“Relying on your gut feeling is not enough,” Bruno De Lille writes. If we want to be a society where every LGBTI+ person can be open and feel safe, we have to fight macho behaviour and the entrenched patterns of thinking about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.
I’m gay, so I’m part of a minority. Yet, I think I should have equal rights and that I shouldn’t be discriminated against. Luckily, so do the majority of people in this country. How countries deal with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI+) inhabitants is actually often seen as a measure of how democratic and open they are.
Of course, as an LGBTI+ community, we can only be happy about this. However, there’s a great responsibility that comes with it. If you want to be treated with respect, you have to be very consistent yourself. That’s why we take action against sexism, we protest against anti-Semitism, and we demonstrate together with the people of Black Lives Matter. It’s logical, because how can you claim equal rights if you would allow other people to be discriminated against?
This is the way our associations and umbrella organisations behave, and rightly so. But in discussions in gay bars, on social media and in the comments on some websites, you often hear a different sound. When the gay dating app Grindr announced that you would no longer be able to filter your dates by ‘ethnicity’, a lot of users commented negatively. Just because you belong to the LGBTI+ family doesn’t mean you are automatically open-minded.
A large study recently conducted by the FRA – the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights – showed that no less than 67 percent of LGBTI+ Belgians and 57 percent of LGBTI+ Dutch people never or almost never dare to hold hands in public because they’re afraid of being harassed. When I reacted to this in outrage, I soon got the comment that ‘I knew why’. I’m not naive so I know what they’re hinting at. According to those people, homophobia or violence against LGBTI+ persons is linked to the presence of Muslims, and more specifically Moroccan Muslims. But this ‘cannot be said’.
By the way, this discussion is going on in Belgium as well as in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, for example, there was commotion after a recent case of gay bashing. The victims had called Amsterdam a ‘gay hell’. In a TV discussion about this, however, the mayor of the city and the group leader of the left-liberal party D66 refused to say that this ‘hell’ was caused by Amsterdammers of Moroccan origin. In response to this, articles appeared about ‘taboo’ that surrounds the origin of those gay haters. Because you can only solve a problem if you’re willing to name it.
Now I think that naming it is fine. The resources are always too limited, so you’d better use them efficiently. And as a gay man I’ve been fighting taboos all my life, so I don’t want to make an exception. I also want to be able to walk safely on the streets, and I see no reason why I should mind a slap from a Moroccan citizen of Brussels any less than a slap from a citizen of Brussels with Flemish or Walloon roots.
But if you want to name something, you have to base it on correct information. It’s not enough to rely on your gut feeling. You have to know where the shoe pinches. If my bike has a flat tyre, I don’t fix it by installing gears. But when it comes to homophobia, we often do: “If we tackle the Moroccans, the problem will be solved.” When I look in the Van Dale, I see the word ‘taboo’ with the definition: “something that shouldn’t be done or said.” Is that right? Is there no talk of the origin of the perpetrators of anti-gay violence?
I don’t see much of that in my surroundings. At the bar, on the street and on social media, people rarely feel restrained from pointing the finger at the Moroccan community on this subject. Quite the contrary.
Aren’t the newspapers up to it? Surfing around on a number of news media websites (from De Telegraaf to De Standaard) teaches me that to begin with, relatively few articles about gay bashing are published. And if there’s a case in the press, it’s often picked up by several newspapers at the same time. In the FRA study we see that in the last year, 5.8 percent of Belgians and 5.3 percent of the Dutch have faced physical or sexual attacks because they were LGBTI+. Still, on average only about 3 cases of such attacks appear in the newspaper columns every year.
These articles don’t always mention the origin of the attackers, but hints are regularly dropped. Sometimes through a name (“Youssef C.” ), sometimes with a reference to the Muslim faith, and sometimes through the attacker’s appearance (“a southern type”) or origin (“two Filipinos”, “a group of young people of Moroccan origin”, “Turkish neighbour”, and “a Croatian woman and her Bulgarian partner”).
In addition to these news items, you will also find opinion pieces on Dutch newspapers and news websites about gay bashing, discrimination against LGBTI+persons or gay- and transphobia. And even then they spare no one. Google the words ‘gay bashing’, ‘gay violence’ or ‘homophobia’ and you get titles like “Why are the perpetrators of anti-gay violence so often of Moroccan origin?” and “Increased homophobia – Conservative Christians criticized, Moroccan youth not”.
There are almost no opinion pieces on the subject in Belgian newspapers, but it is regularly brought up in interviews and background papers. With quotes like “There’s a big problem there. If the neighbourhood isn’t homophobic, why can’t you find a Turkish homosexual who wants to talk about his orientation?” or “Violence against homosexuals is often perpetrated by boys of North African origin.”
The tone of the pieces varies, but a taboo?
So is it the researchers who are avoiding the subject? Investigating perpetrators of anti-gay violence is difficult anyway. Relatively few people are convicted of gay bashing and those who are convicted seldom want to participate in a study of why they crossed the line. Still, I quickly found seven studies* on anti-gay violence in Belgium and the Netherlands (2006 – 2017). All of them talk in one way or another about the origin of the perpetrators. Sometimes they talk about North Africans, about people with Berber as their home language or about Moroccans, but each time they are mentioned separately.
So it doesn’t seem taboo to me. Talking about it is allowed. But should we even talk about it? Is it the truth that you only get results in the fight against homophobia if you tackle Moroccan people? I suggest we let the figures speak for themselves.
We already know from the FRA study that 5.8 percent of Belgians and 5.3 percent of the Dutch were confronted with physical or sexual attacks in the last year because they were LGBTI+. This may not seem like much, but compared to the entire population, an LGBTI+ person is more than twice as likely to be confronted with violence. The Dutch Security Monitor 2019 indicates that 2 percent of the Dutch population was the victim of one or more violent crimes in that year. According to the Security monitor 2018, this figure is slightly higher for Belgians at 2.7 percent, but it’s also much lower than that for the LGBTI+ population.
Moreover, this violence has a major impact. The fact that 5-6 percent of LGBTI+ people are confronted with violence (mostly in public places) results in 57 percent of Dutch and 67 percent of Belgian LGBTI+ people seldom or never daring to hold hands or show affection in public. Being attacked because you are who you are is terrible.
When one of my heterosexual friends tells me, “It’s not the end of the world to not be able to hold each other’s hand all the time,” I always ask him to try it himself. Every time he feels like grabbing his girlfriend’s hand or giving her a sweet kiss, he first has to look around him, wondering if the people around him might take that badly, and only then can he take action. Intimacy should be spontaneous and should never feel uncomfortable. It’s cruel that people do this to us. Tackling violence and hatred against LGBTI+ people must therefore be an absolute priority.
A double standard
In 2011, research was conducted on the quality of life of Flemish LGBT people. The researchers asked the victims of violence and discrimination to name the presumed origin of the perpetrators. The study showed that, according to the victims, about 58 percent of the perpetrators were of Western European origin and about 25 percent had North African roots. In the Netherlands, such a study was conducted in 2009 for the city of Amsterdam (Als ze maar van me afblijven or As long as they don’t touch me). They looked at the origins of suspects of physical violence against LGBT people. The suspects turned out to be native Dutch just as often as Dutch citizens with Moroccan roots (36 percent).
So the perpetrators with Moroccan roots represent a large group, that’s right. And there’s no reason not to deal with them; you’re not going to hear me say that. But why don’t we see the same urgency to tackle the other 64 to 75 percent? There is a double standard here. If discussions and opinion pieces suggest that we as LGBTI+ people can walk the streets safely hand in hand as long as those ‘Moroccans’ are tackled, then they’re not consistent with the figures in these studies.
Could it be that there is indeed a taboo, but that it is a different taboo than what many people think? That the problem of homophobia is more widespread than we’d want to see or admit?
Now, for the sake of completeness, I have to admit that both the Flemish and the Dutch studies show that the group of North-African/Moroccan origin is over-represented. In proportion to their share in the population they are more likely to engage in anti-gay violence. This doesn’t make much difference to the result: in Amsterdam you have a 36 percent chance that the blow will come from a native Dutchman, and again a 36 percent chance that you will be beaten by someone with Moroccan roots. The fact that one group is under-represented and the other over-represented doesn’t change that ratio.
There could be a reason to target this over-represented group. Maybe there is something special about them that makes them more likely to commit violence against LGBTI+ people? If we find out what, we can tackle it effectively. But then we need to know where the difference can be found.
Knowing the right reason is important. I already said it: taking action based on your gut feeling doesn’t necessarily lead to the desired results. Moreover, in a constitutional state everyone is innocent until proven otherwise. And a democracy must treat all its inhabitants in the same neutral way anyway. Especially for LGBTI+ people, this principle should be sacred.
At first sight, there are two things that really distinguish this group from the rest of the perpetrators. They are Moroccan, and they are Muslim.
Let me start with the Muslim thing. Like the other religions of the Book, Islam doesn’t have a high regard for homosexuality. But it’s not because the official text calls it ‘haram’ that every Muslim feels the need to punish the ‘sinners’. Yes, IS has thrown gay men off buildings and Iran hangs gay men. But meanwhile, in France, South Africa, Australia and the United States, there are also imams who are openly gay and have established inclusive mosques. There is no such thing as THE Islam. As in Christianity, there are many ideologies and variants. And like Christians, not all Muslims look at homosexuality in the same way.
A few years ago, an imam and I had a discussion about gay bashing on a French language radio station. The interviewer wondered, just as we do now, whether Islam’s negative attitude towards LGBTI+ people incited young Muslims to violence. The imam confirmed that homosexuality was a sin in his eyes, but at the same time he strongly condemned hatred and aggression. “For,” he said, “the only one who can judge whether you have lived correctly is Allah. If you feel called to attack others because you disagree with their way of life, then you are acting instead of God.” And that arrogance, according to him, was an even greater sin. According to him, calls to attack LGBTI+ people in order to ‘bring them to the right path’ did not occur in Belgium.
I think that’s right. If it were different, the anti-gay violence would have been structured and occurred in waves. After an inflammatory sermon, for example, you’d have to see an uproar of gay bashing. And that’s not true. There is no ‘hunt’ for LGBTI+ people in Belgium or the Netherlands. There are too many LGBTI+ people who have already been victims of violence; the figures show that. But the testimonies of the victims indicate that these are not targeted attacks. They’re about occasional violence and ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
By the way, this makes it a lot harder for the police and the government to solve the problem. If something happens in an organised way, the cause is usually relatively easy to tackle. If something happens in an unpredictable way, it requires a lot more effort.
There’s another reason why I don’t think we can just pin the anti-gay violence on some perpetrators ‘being Muslim’. Besides the Moroccan community, there are many more Muslims living in our countries. According to the Nederlands Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS), almost 420,000 Turks (first and second generation) lived in the Netherlands in May 2020. Most of them are Muslim. The same goes for a large percentage of the almost 355,000 Indonesians. However, both groups (certainly the Dutch of Indonesian origin) are under-represented in the offender figures. Moroccan, Turkish as well as Indonesian Muslims are mainly Sunni Muslims. If religion really were the reason why Moroccan offenders attack or insult gays, one would expect Turkish and Indonesian Muslims to show this behaviour to a similar extent. But this is not the case.
Moreover, the authors of the Dutch study As long as they don’t touch me already established in 2009 that perpetrators who are also Muslims only have a superficial knowledge of the Koran and rarely go to mosques. After several interviews with the perpetrators, the authors concluded that the violence is not religiously inspired. Apparently there is no sense in targeting the Muslim nature of this group of perpetrators. What remains then? Their Moroccan roots?
In 2017, the Agency for Domestic Governance and Statistics Flanders organised the survey ‘Living together in diversity’. It was a population survey among 4500 people of Belgian, Turkish, Polish, Romanian, Congolese and Moroccan origins, in which their attitude towards homosexuality was also polled. We see that 90 percent of the participants of Belgian origin agree with the statement: “homosexual men and lesbian women should be able to live their lives the way they want to.” Among people of Moroccan origin, this figure is 60 percent. A lot less, but still the majority of the group. If we look at the participants of Turkish origin, only 48 percent agree with the statement. And for those with Congolese roots, it’s barely 45 percent. The researchers note that persons of foreign origin born in Belgium agree with this statement more frequently than persons born outside Belgium. The second and third generations appear to be more open in this matter.
If there were a link between anti-gay violence and the perpetrator’s origin, these figures would make you expect more problems with the Turkish community or with the Congolese group. And despite the fact that the acceptance of homosexuality in the native group is very high, it remains responsible for just as many (if not more) cases of gay bashing.
By the way, the conversations with perpetrators in Amsterdam showed that the perpetrators don’t completely reject homosexuality per se. The report mentions that in many cases they say they don’t hate homosexuals at all and realise that homosexuality is part of society. But according to them, the behaviour of homosexuals must be ‘masculine’ enough. This is what I’m going to talk about right away.
Thin layer of varnish
Considering all the above aspects, I find it difficult to defend the view that we should tackle the group of Moroccan perpetrators separately and as a priority, as many people suggest. Even within the LGBTI+ community, we have to get rid of this racist finger-pointing.
But if we can no longer burden ‘the other’ with all the sins, we have to start looking at ourselves. This is uncomfortable, of course. Then Belgium and the Netherlands will have to admit that their image as an LGBTI+ friendly country may turn out to be just a thin layer of varnish.
Instead of looking for what distinguishes one group from the rest and then tackling it separately, I think it would be much more interesting to look at what the various perpetrators have in common and whether that could be at the basis of their aggression towards LGBTI+ people. If that is the case, we have a much greater chance of resolving the problem quickly. We won’t only be tackling 36 percent of the perpetrators, but instead going for the full 100.
What immediately catches the eye is that gay bashing is a man’s business. Anti-gay violence in the Netherlands, a 2013 publication by the Dutch police, states that no less than 92.7 percent of the suspects are men. Talk about over-representation. From conversations with perpetrators in the Dutch investigation As long as they don’t touch me, it appeared that the main cause for the anti-gay violence lies in their view of masculinity and sexuality. They were disgusted by men who showed ‘feminine’ behaviour, visible homosexuality, the thought of anal sex, and the idea of being seduced by a homosexual.
This is confirmed by the conclusions of the Belgian Zzzip2 study and the research report Beyond the box. Attitude measurement on sexism, LGBT and Transphobia (2014). Both conclude that men who adopt homophobic behaviour often have a rigid view on what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. They will target or even ‘correct’ persons who do not adhere to this view, for example a man who in their eyes behaves in ‘too feminine’ a fashion. This is less the case with female offenders, who seem to be motivated mainly by ideological reasons.
In this way you also understand that the perpetrators can claim to have nothing against homosexuality per se. As long as a gay man’s behaviour is ‘sufficiently masculine’, or a lesbian appears ‘sufficiently feminine’, nothing is likely to happen. But two men who hold hands romantically or boys who express themselves in a somewhat feminine manner run the risk of a confrontation because their behaviour deviates from ‘the norm’. In itself, it doesn’t even matter whether the victims identify themselves as gay or straight.
This ‘macho behaviour’ is indeed found among many Belgians and Dutch people with Moroccan roots. But the Dutch TV presenter who dresses up as a transversal woman for Football Inside and says “every madman has his flaw” when he mocks Bo Van Spilbeeck, parents who tell their son “to be a real man” and not to cry, the Belgian politician who – on the occasion of a Zalando campaign for men in dresses – tweets “something to send back”, another who posts a photo of three partying gay men in pink swimming trunks on Facebook and says he’s disgusted, or the annual tirades against the ‘extravagant’ gays at the Prides that would ruin it for the ‘ordinary’ gay… are no less part of the problem. Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far to find examples. They contribute to a toxic atmosphere and to a climate in which the threshold for physical violence against LGBTI+ people is getting lower.
Laws are important here: it must be irrefutably clear that our society does not tolerate LGBTI+ people being attacked. Making sure these laws are obeyed is just as important. We need to know that we are not only protected theoretically, but that the police and the justice system will also do everything in their power to really punish perpetrators of anti-gay violence. Today there is at least a perception that this is not entirely the case. This has to change. Not by populist targeting of some groups of perpetrators, but by prosecuting every case of gay bashing.
Laws help, but they’re not enough. If we want to get homophobia out of the world, we also need a change of mentality. Traditionally one looks at the schools, but a lesson in homosexuality during biology, religion or morality will never be enough. If we want to be a society where every LGBTI+ person can be himself / herself / themself openly and safely, we will have to fight machismo and the entrenched patterns of thinking about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ on all levels.
The media, politicians, and well-known Flemish and Dutch people who claim to be on our side, must set an example here. Moreover, it is time that all companies, sports clubs, schools and other organisations ask themselves whether they are doing everything they can to guarantee their LGBTI+ employees, members and students an open and safe environment.
Anyone who says they disapprove of violence against LGBTI+ people and rejects homophobia should take a stand. Stop looking for groups or people who should be targeted, and start cleaning up the mess that lies in front of your feet. Indeed, without taboos.
* Sources of studies (the studies are written in Dutch):
- 2006 – Geweld tegen homoseksuelen
- 2007 – Agressie tegen holebi’s in Brussel Stad
- 2009 – Als ze maar van me afblijven
- 2011 – ZZZip2: Onderzoek naar de levenskwaliteit van de Vlaamse holebi’s
- 2013 – Anti-homogeweld in Nederland
- 2014 – ‘Gestreden als Don Quichot tegen windmolens.’ – Onderzoek naar geweld tegen burgers vanwege hun seksuele gerichtheid of genderidentiteit in hun directe woonomgeving
- 2014 – Beyond the box. Attitudemeting m.b.t. seksisme, holebifobie en Transfobie’
- 2017 – Straatintimidatie naar LHBTI-ers in de gemeente Rotterdam – Masterscriptie Criminologie Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam
This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/focus-op-marokkaanse-afkomst-bij-sommige-daders-is-niet-de-oplossing-tegen-homofoob-geweld-weekend-knack/