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Going out: Just how LGBT-friendly is Belgium?
While many countries are still lagging behind in LGBT rights, Belgium enjoys a raft of equality laws. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1795, for example – 35 years before the Belgian state came into existence. And since 1985, the age of consent has been 16 regardless of a person’s sexual orientation.
In 2003, Belgium became only the second country in the world to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Initially, both parties had to come from a country that would recognise the marriage. However, this was lifted in October 2004 and now a couple only has to prove that one of them has lived legally in Belgium for three months. Today, same-sex marriages account for around 2.5% of all weddings in Belgium and just over 80% occur either in Flanders or Brussels.
The president of Antwerp Pride, Bart Abeel, agrees that in terms of legal rights and general acceptance, Belgium is an advanced country. “Law is a framework and it helps people to cross the border into acceptance.” However, he warns that in today’s difficult times, “there is a certain hard core who will resist, whether it be for cultural, moral or religious reasons. There is a risk that there might be a movement backwards. I recall saying that it won’t get any better than this, that the situation can only go backwards.”
He believes Belgium reached a summit of acceptance around 10 years ago and that the current refugee and terrorism crises have triggered a degeneration. “Refugees are vulnerable and viewed with hostility. People who had hidden lives in Syria and maintained a certain discretion were not in life-threatening situations. But now they have to be vigilant. Finding another society that is open but still linked to their culture is difficult. Politicians are refusing asylum and sending refugees back; the situation is certainly very worrying.”
Abeel likens Belgium and Europe to a fortress. “We are enlightened here and we want to keep it that way. By making it difficult for other nations to share this, the value of our moral enlightenment is futile.” He thinks the LBGT community has become spoilt over recent years.
“A perverse effect is that our community has become fashionable, even among politicians, and we allow them to take less controversial decisions. We had to struggle for what we have today and we should be empathetic to other people who don’t have these rights. What we have is a lovely party, and let’s celebrate it, but we should not be self-satisfied.”
For this reason, the situation of LGBT refugees is to be given a special mention at the next Antwerp Pride. The city has led the way, and not only in Belgium’s LGBT social scene. Abeel: “There was a lot of militancy in the 1970s and 80s. Antwerp has always been an open-minded city, a real haven.”
Though bourgeois Brussels took longer to catch up with Antwerp’s queer community, events and organisations have now spread across the country. The heart of the capital’s LGBT community can be found in the city centre, around the Grand Place, Rue du Marché au Charbon and Plattesteen. And most cities have a LGBT-friendly space. Many, such as Arc-en-Ciel in Brussels and across Wallonia, and Het Roze Huis in Antwerp, support the activities of various groups and offer a space for their members to meet. Het Roze Huis also includes the Den Draak bar on the ground floor, which overlooks a square and is a good place to meet people.
Gary James, who moved from the US to live with his Belgian partner, has found that families have an extremely strong bond in Belgium. “If you’re from a culture where LGBTs tend to make their own families, outside the biological network, then you’re going to be in for a culture shock,” he says. “My partner will eat dinner with his parents three times a week. That’s unheard of in America. Here you either spend a lot of time with the relatives, or you do things by yourself.”
To make building those networks easier, there are sports groups and social organisations around the country. Formed in 2010, Straffe Ketten (Tough Guys) is Belgium’s first gay-inclusive rugby team, based in Schaerbeek in Brussels. “About a third of our members are expats, with the rest split fairly evenly between Flanders and Wallonia,” says president Miguel Gallardo Albajar. “We have special training sessions for new players at the start of the season, but you can also join mid-season and we will help you catch up.”
The group hosts activities including a pub crawl on the third Friday of the month. “All our social activities are open to players and supporters. We welcome everyone,” he says. In Antwerp, meanwhile, Active Company will celebrate its 20th birthday this year with sporting activities for men and women, ranging from aerobics to yoga. Brussels Gay Sports has been running for 25 years and offers sports such as futsal, hiking and volleyball.
It also organises cultural activities including vegetarian cooking classes, a choir, theatre improvisation and dance. Potential members can try any of the activities for free; after that there’s a membership fee of €15 a year. “We also organise regular one-off events such as the Brussels Games, a three-day weekend of activities in July that will attract more than 700 competitors from across Europe,” says president Szandra Gonzalez. “Annual social events include a picnic for members, and a party for the volunteers, who we rely on to make it all possible.”
Major events such as the monthly La Demence dance party in Brussels and annual Leatherpride in Antwerp attract lots of visitors from around the world. Belgium also hosts two Pride marches – Belgium Pride in Brussels in May, and Antwerp Pride later in the summer. These events are a chance to find out more about the people and organisations that make up Belgium’s diverse and colourful LGBT community.
This article first appeared in the Bulletin Newcomer Spring 2016