Tolerance towards homosexuals is in decline in the Netherlands, reported the Dutch government's Institute for Social Research recently. At about the same time, two international students were roughed up in Wageningen because they did not hide their homosexuality. How tolerant is Wageningen these days? 'We are quite spoiled in Wageningen, really.'
Nevertheless, more than a quarter of the homosexuals in the Netherlands have faced negative responses to their sexual orientation, says the Institute for Social Research. Although the Netherlands remains one of the world's most tolerant countries when it comes to homosexuality, that is not the whole story. Things do go wrong sometimes, even in Wageningen.
Jeroen and Natasja are members of Shout, Wageningen's association for homosexuals. Jeroen came out recently, he says. 'I am not a student myself but have lived all my life in Wageningen. It's a good place to be gay. I know a lot of Wageningen youth and most of them are very tolerant, just like the students.' According to Jeroen, the incident on the Rooseveltweg was definitely an exception. Natasja is bisexual. 'It is not that everyone in Wageningen goes around shouting 'hoorah for gays', she says, 'But most people in Wageningen are open-minded about it.' She thinks homosexual women are more readily accepted than homosexual men. 'People sometimes think two men kissing is dirty, whereas they find kissing women arousing.'
One of the most negative reactions Carel and Niko have ever had in Wageningen was at a party at the International Club. They were kissing on the dance floor when the bouncer came up to them. He didn't want 'that sort of behaviour' inside and asked the lads to go outside. Carel: 'Heterosexual couples often kiss. We did eventually go outside but in protest we stood kissing at length right in front of the door. I don't mind adapting my behaviour, but only if the same thing is expected of heteros.'
Niko and Carel notice that Wageningen's international ambiance does have an effect on the level of tolerance, but not a terribly big one. Carel: 'Niko and I do get some funny looks from international students if we walk around hand in hand. But I have never been threatened or verbally abused.' What is more, it sometimes works the other way round: some foreign visitors feel Dutch tolerance is something positive, or at least they start talking about it. Dutch tolerance as an export product. For instance: Niko was once manning Shout's stall at an information market. 'At some point an African man came up to me and said that homosexuality is forbidden by God. I chatted with him for a while and he was reasonably open to discussion.'
A quick survey on campus confirms that there is a 'live and let live' culture among our international visitors. In the Forum we meet a Muslim African student. 'In West Africa, gays are not tolerated', he says. 'If you are gay there, you are likely to be verbally abused or even beaten up.' He is astonished to hear that a homosexual was beaten up in Wageningen. 'I thought Wageningen was very tolerant; there are lots of gays here and there are gay parties...' This student is not gay himself, but thinks everyone should be free to decide for themselves. Lesbianism is something he doesn't understand. 'There are so many men looking for a nice woman, and then the women go off with each other...'
Three Chinese students say they have never seen a homosexual in Wageningen. 'Sometimes you see two very well-dressed boys out together.' But whether they are gay, the students are not sure. One of the girls expresses disappointment: 'I would really like to meet one, but I can't spot them.' The girls respect gays and wouldn't think it was strange if two men or two girls started kissing in front of them. But they do think it's a bit odd when a same-sex couple brings up a child together.
Christian organizations are not always very keen on homosexuality. But Carel and Niko hardly ever get negative reactions from Christian students. Carel even has two good friends who are members of Ichthus and the Navigators. 'They don't judge me. They can see I love Niko. In the end, love is what it's all about.'
Klaas Wieringa is one of these Christian students. It can make him cross when Christians say, 'It is forbidden by God'. Klaas: 'If you say that you shut down all discussion.' Jurjen de Bruijne nods and adds, 'I don't think that as a human being you can say for sure what God thinks of homosexuality.' Klaas is on the board of the Christian student society VGSW. Jurjen is an ex-member. Are they accepted in the society as a gay couple? Klaas thinks individual members all have their own varying attitudes to it. 'I reckon the average member doesn't really know. A small minority will be against. But most members are probably fine with it.' Both lads are convinced that most members do not condemn homosexuality. What are their own views on it? Klaas: 'I think it's important that people are faithful and kind to each other. Sexual orientation is not so important to me.' Jurjen agrees. He adds, 'I don't think you can judge the love one person feels for another person.' Klaas wonders whether gays are really free to do as they like in Wageningen. 'In Wageningen you see a great many hetero couple walking around but I never see anyone showing openly that they are gay.'
So do Carel and Niko sometimes adapt their behaviour to forestall negative reactions? Niko: 'If we are walking down the road past a bunch of youths hanging out, of course we don't start kissing in front of them. There are always times when you adapt to fit in, but that's the same if you are hetero.' The couple see Wageningen as fairly tolerant towards gays. 'There are a lot of highly educated people here and there is a climate of tolerance. As gays we are quite spoiled in Wageningen really.'