AMSTERDAM — On a chilly evening in late February, a small group of queer and immigrant activists gathered on the west side of Amsterdam to prepare, as one attendee put it, “for the apocalypse.”
For months they had endured an increasingly strident debate about immigration ahead of elections on March 15, and they were tired of being caught in the crossfire. The race has been dominated by Geert Wilders, the bleached-blonde leader of the Party for Freedom who polls show could win the largest bloc of votes in parliament. His candidacy is being watched as the next test of the nationalist wave that drove Britain out of the EU and put Donald Trump in the White House.
But the race is also uniquely focused on gay rights, because Wilders has framed his crusade against Islam in part as a defense of national values in the country proud to have adopted the world’s first marriage equality law and has remained a leader on LGBT rights in the years since. And several more moderate politicians have echoed the message that Muslim immigrants threaten gay people.
“If you’re looking for a dramatic shift, I think it’s already happening,” said Manju Reijmer, a 27-year-old born in Sri Lanka who was adopted by a family from a small Dutch town. A 29-year-old named Abdi, who was born in Somalia and fled the country’s war in 1991, said this focus on gay rights is just one of the constantly changing “rules of integration” into Dutch society, which makes it feel “impossible to integrate into a society that does not accept your humanity as a person of color.” (Abdi asked to withhold his last name because he hasn’t come out to his entire family.)
Wilders’s professed support of gay rights once put him out of step with other nationalist politicians in the West, who generally have also been social conservatives. But today Wilders seems like he was just ahead of his time, with politicians from Donald Trump to France’s Marine Le Pen following his lead and saying they are defending LGBT rights by opposing Muslim immigration.
For many in the room, this is just racism dressed up in liberal drag, helping make nationalism respectable again in the West.
Immigrants are constantly being subjected to a “pink test,” said Dino Suhonic, founder of the queer Muslim organization Maruf and organizer of the evening’s gathering. Politicians are “using gay rights, as almost a [trait of] national identity,” Suhonic said, but only when debating the place of “asylum-seekers and the immigrants.” It’s an attitude Suhonic calls “homonationalism.”
“The freedom that gay people should have — to kiss each other, to marry, to have children — is exactly what Islam is fighting against,” Wilders told BuzzFeed News last June in the wake of the attack on a gay club in Orlando, adding that the shooting should force a reckoning with the fact “that we’ve imported so much Islam to the Western free countries." The next month, he brought this message to the Republican National Convention, where he told a Gays for Trump party, “Anywhere in the West, if you allow Islam to be planted on your soil, don't be [surprised] that you will harvest Sharia law, because Islam and Sharia law [are] exactly the same."
Wilders stands almost no chance of becoming prime minister even if he makes a strong showing, and polls suggest his support is declining as election day approaches. He now stands to win about 15% of seats in parliament, but all six other major parties have declared they will not join his Freedom Party in a governing coalition. But he has already won a major victory regardless of the election outcome: setting the terms of the debate about immigration in the Netherlands so fundamentally that other Dutch politicians are picking up his message.
This includes the current prime minister, Mark Rutte, of the right-leaning VVD party, who framed his re-election bid with a letter published in January declaring, “We are feeling a growing unease when people abuse our freedom … [People who] harass gays, howl at women in short skirts or accuse ordinary Dutch of being racists ... If you reject our country in such a fundamental manner, I’d rather see you leave.” He ended with an ultimatum to immigrants that has become a VVD campaign slogan: “Act normal or leave.”
Tofik Dibi, a gay man who is the son of Moroccan immigrants who was a member of the Dutch parliament from 2006 to 2012, often went toe to toe with Wilders on the floor of parliament. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Dibi said anti-LGBT attitudes are a real problem in some immigrant communities, and the issue needs to be confronted. But many of the politicians who are using it to sound the alarm over immigration, he said, “don’t give a fuck about gay rights.”
As Dibi sees it, immigration opponents use the issue as just another reason to suggest immigrants can’t ever be fully Dutch. Dibi said they are also suspicious of immigrant attitudes toward Jews and women, but homosexuality was usually their go-to issue.
“Of all of these tests, the gay rights is the one that is used the most because they know that that’s the most difficult thing within these communities,” Dibi said. In the battle over immigration, “LGBT rights are being used as a weapon.”
Geert Wilders formally kicked off his campaign on Feb. 18 beneath a mottled-gray sky in Spijkenisse, a town of around 75,000 outside the southern port city of Rotterdam.
Wilders, 54, dates his concerns about Islam to the time he spent living in Israel and traveling through the Middle East just after college. He began his life in politics as a social security adviser to the VVD party and was elected to parliament in 1998 as a loyal backbencher. He broke with his party in 2004 over advancing Turkey’s membership in the European Union, and soon became known for lobbing hand grenades against Islam into the Netherland’s largely consensus-driven politics.
“There is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland [who] make the streets unsafe,” Wilders said in Spijkenisse, his pompadour floating above a forest of microphones as reporters shoved each other to get close to him. Wilders had been found guilty of “inciting discrimination” in December for leading a crowd in a chant calling for “fewer Moroccans,” and he has also called Muslim youths “street terrorists” and “Islamic testosterone bombs” waging “sexual jihad” on European women.
“I have one message for the Dutch people,” Wilders said, speaking in English for the benefit of the large number of foreign reporters. “Please, make the Netherlands ours again.”
Wilders generally avoids the press and only rarely appears in public, having lived under 24-hour police protection since 2004 after another high-profile anti-Muslim polemicist was assassinated. So the man who co-founded the Party for Freedom with Wilders, MP Martin Bosma, outlined the party’s position on gay rights to BuzzFeed News.
“Our party platform has never mentioned anything concerning homosexuals except that gays are very much the victim of mass immigration right now — if gays are being beaten up, it’s basically being done by Muslims,” Bosma said as he strolled behind Wilders’s heavy security detail as the party leader attempted to wander through Spijkenisse's Saturday market. “Amsterdam used to be the gay capital of Europe, and gays are going back into the closet thanks to mass immigration.”
Many LGBT rights supporters suspect Wilders’s support of LGBT rights is driven only by political expediency.
Tanja Ineke, president of the Dutch LGBT organization COC Netherlands, told BuzzFeed News that Wilders has generally “not been a very reliable ally,” recently breaking a campaign pledge by leading his MPs to vote against legislation to make it easier for transgender people to change their documents. And, she said, crime data proves that immigrants don’t pose a special threat to LGBT people, although she added that it’s important to “recognize and take serious that acceptance is much lower in the immigrant community, the Muslim community.”
Ineke cited a 2009 study commissioned by the Department of Justice that found that 86% of people accused of violence against LGBT people in the Netherlands were of Dutch background and 14% of immigrant background, roughly equal to their representation in the population as a whole. Another analysis by researchers at the University of Amsterdam of anti-LGBT violence just within their city did find that people of Moroccan descent were overrepresented among suspected perpetrators, but also found that people from Turkish backgrounds were underrepresented and less likely to commit these crimes than people of Dutch descent. Religion was not the issue, the researchers concluded, but rather a “street culture” specific to Moroccan young men that “enforces hyper-masculine behavior.”
Regardless of the data, the Freedom Party’s rhetoric may be tapping into real concerns by some Dutch voters. A recent study reviewing opinion data reaching back to 2002 found about 1 in 10 voters both favored gay rights and opposed immigration, though it didn’t analyze which party these voters supported. (The study did not examine support for transgender rights.) It’s hard to know how LGBT people will vote, since Dutch pollsters don’t routinely ask about sexual orientation or gender identity in surveys. But surveys of Dutch voters find widespread concern about immigration, and half the respondents in a recent Ipsos poll said they considered “non-Western” immigrants a threat to “Dutch values.”
Anxiety about immigration flared in 2015, when the number of new asylum cases doubled to 56,500, the majority fleeing the war in Syria. Today, “non-Western” immigrants make up about 12% of the Dutch population. But the primary targets of the immigration backlash are not the new arrivals. Instead, it’s directed at communities like Moroccans and Turks who have lived in the Netherlands for generations after the first wave arrived as guest workers in the decades after World War II. They are often blamed for making the Netherlands more dangerous, but this seems to have more to do with cultural anxieties than objective safety concerns; reports of nearly all forms of crime — from burglary to sexual assault — have declined steadily over the past decade.
There is a kind of dog-whistle politics being used across political parties, said Olave Basabose, a candidate for parliament from a newly created party to promote immigrant rights called Artikel 1. Basabose, a transgender person whose family came to the Netherlands as refugees from Burundi when she was a child, said she detects a widespread “coded language” targeting LGBT voters that translates to “I’m here to protect you from those Muslims.”
The VVD, which many observers expect will continue to lead the government after the election, has gone the farthest to incorporate this message into its campaign. After the prime minister published his letter warning immigrants to “act normal or leave,” the VVD unveiled a campaign poster that reads, “Slowly but surely, there is doubt creeping into our society … Gay people dare not to walk everywhere hand in hand down the street … That is not normal ... Let us all together continue to make that very clear.”
COC Netherlands’ Tanja Ineke said she thought this was a “sincere campaign,” and that the prime minister is using gay rights “as a clear example of how we look at human rights in our country, and he picks out a subject because it’s one that many immigrants aren’t very familiar with.”
But, Basabose said, LGBT people should be wary of politicians who are using their rights to oppose immigration.
“We all know in history when you give the far right room in history, the next targets are the gays,” Basabose said.
Wilders built his anti-immigration party in the wake of two high-profile murders that left many asking if the Netherlands could preserve its core values while remaining open to the world.
The first happened in 2002, when the first politician to launch a Dutch political party built around opposition to Islam was shot nine days before the country’s elections. His name was Pim Fortuyn, a sociologist and columnist who blew up Dutch politics in the early 2000s by calling for a “Cold War against Islam” in defense of Enlightenment values. He was also gay, and he framed his crusade as a fight to protect his rights as a gay man, talking extensively of his love of anonymous sex in the backrooms of Rotterdam bars.
“I have no desire to have to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again,” he famously told a reporter in 2002. But Fortuyn talked often of having sex with Moroccan men to counter allegations of being a bigot; he once told the newspaper Het Parool, “I'm not a racist. I have friends in all the colors of the rainbow ... I sleep with them. You don’t.”
Even those who helped build his campaign were shocked that his explicit discussion of his sex life seemed to boost his popularity in a country where people were encouraged to keep their private lives to themselves.
He was advised on his bid for prime minister in 2002 by Kay van de Linde, a Dutch-born political consultant who cut his teeth in the US working on campaigns of candidates including former New York mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. Once, van de Linde recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Fortuyn declared during a joint television appearance that he would build a dark room for anonymous sexual encounters under the prime minister’s residence if elected because “my spin doctor won’t allow me to visit the dark rooms in Rotterdam [gay bars] anymore.”
During another TV interview, Fortuyn declared that he could tell what a man drank the night before based on the taste of his cum. Van de Linde worried this would torpedo the campaign, but the next day membership in their new party surged. Rather than shocking people, Linde believes Fortuyn’s bawdiness and sense of humor leant him a kind of authenticity that few politicians seldom match.
“People felt, 'if he’s that honest about his sex life — something I would never have the guts to discuss on television — he’s got to be honest about the other stuff too,'” van de Linde said.
Fortuyn was shot nine days before the 2002 election by an environmental activist of Dutch descent who said he was worried Fortuyn would hurt “vulnerable people.” He was mourned with an outpouring of public emotion sometimes compared to the death of Princess Diana in the United Kingdom. His party won 17% in the election but quickly fell apart without its charismatic leader.
It was a second murder, in 2004, that was seen as an announcement that Islamist terrorism had arrived in the Netherlands and defined the discussion of immigration for the next generation.
That November, a man named Mohammed Bouyeri shot the filmmaker Theo van Gogh as he was riding his bicycle and then slit his throat with a machete. Van Gogh, who had been deeply enamored of Fortuyn, was a well-known anti-Muslim provocateur, routinely referring to Muslims as “goat-fuckers” and co-producing a movie intended as a critique of Islam’s treatment of women that featured Qur'an verses projected on naked bodies.
Bouyeri was the son of Moroccan immigrants but born in the Netherlands, and his ideas about Islam were shaped by extremist literature online and execution videos. He had written rambling letters decrying “enemies of Islam,” including one posted online that was only noticed after the assassination addressed to “the filthy queer Wilders” and calling for the “ruin of the people of Lot.” Police put Wilders under the heavy security he lives with to this day.
It’s not clear whether Bouyeri actually believed Wilders was gay, but the history that began with Fortuyn helped cement the idea that the Netherlands had to choose gay rights or open borders. In 2005, the Dutch government introduced a video to be shown to potential immigrants that included footage of gay men kissing, along with a scene of a woman topless on a beach. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch politician and fierce critic of Islam, told the New York Times when it was rolled out, “The film is meant for people not yet in Holland to take note that this is normal here and not be shocked and awed by it once they arrive.”
The Dutch government literally tests potential Dutch citizens on their attitudes toward homosexuality today. About 4% of questions on Dutch naturalization exams concern gay rights, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs. The ministry would not provide an example of a question currently in use, but a sample test online from 2005 includes this one, which is similar in tone to current sample exams covering other issues on the immigration ministry’s website:
You're on a terrace with a colleague and at the table next to you two men are fondling and kissing. You are irritated. What do you do?
A. You stay put and pretend you don't mind.
B. You tell your colleague in a rather loud voice what you think of homosexuality.
C. You tell the men to sit somewhere else.
It is important to “establish the norm” for Dutch values, said Ahmed Marcouch, a Labor Party MP who was mayor of the district in West Amsterdam where Mohammed Bouyeri lived. Marcouch sometimes deliberately prodded his largely Muslim district on the question of gay rights, including bringing Amsterdam’s gay pride march to his neighborhood in 2009. This ultimately contributed to his ouster from the post, but, Marcouch said, he believes his job in politics is to confront "stagnant ideas." He recalled saying during an argument with a hardline Muslim in his district at the time, “Your freedom to be a Muslim ... is the same freedom as for someone to be gay.”
But for some Dutch politicians, gay rights should come before religious belief. When asked whether accepting homosexuality was a litmus test for being a good Dutch citizen, the leader of the social liberal D66 party, Alexander Pechtold, told BuzzFeed News, “I think that is right. With discrimination, religion is something that you can abandon or not. It is a choice; homosexuality is not a choice. When a person is discriminated against because of something they have from birth, we need to be very vigilant.”
Regardless of Wilders’s personal beliefs, it’s hard to imagine his party could oppose gay rights in this environment. But another of the Freedom Party’s original co-founders, a historian named Bart Jan Spruyt, was a conservative Christian who initially hoped the party would absorb the Netherlands’ small Christian parties into a broad conservative coalition modeled on the GOP. Spruyt even organized a three-week crash course in US conservatism for Wilders in 2005 that included visits with institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
But Spruyt quit the party in 2006, he later told historian Koen Vossen, when it was clear Wilders exclusively “wanted to focus on immigration and Islam.”
Yet Wilders’s movement grew out of some powerful American roots. His style and philosophy is the result of more than a decade of cross pollination with the same anti-immigration movement that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
One of Wilders’s greatest fans in the United States is David Horowitz, a longtime conservative activist who began warning of a plot to Islamize America in the middle of the last decade. Horowitz has contributed more than $100,000 to Wilders's campaign, presented him in a lineup of speakers that also included now–attorney general Jeff Sessions, and helped organize space for Wilders to speak alongside CPAC in 2009 when the conference managers denied him a formal spot on the program.
“We’re surfing the same wave” as Horowitz and other anti-immigration activists in the US, said Freedom Party MP Martin Bosma. “National identity is a very important point to a lot of people.”
David Horowitz likened Wilders’s warning that Islam could destroy Western civilization to Paul Revere’s ride alerting colonists that British troops were marching to snuff out the American Revolution.
“He’s somebody with incredible courage,” making a “last ditch stand for democracy,” Horowitz said. “I think that Wilders is like the Paul Revere of Europe.” ●
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was a Democrat. A previous version of this story misstated his party membership.