by Peter Callaghan
Amsterdam has many nicknames. Venice of the North: due to it’s elaborate canal system. Mokum: a Hebrew word meaning “place” or “safe haven”. Disneyworld for Adults: on account of its vibrant red light district and relaxed drug laws. The Dam: self-explanatory. And last on my far from exhaustive list, The Gay Capital of Europe: in reference to its liberal attitudes towards sex and sexuality, particularly the LGBT community.
I’ve never been. But given that the Scottish women’s national football team has qualified for the Euro 2017 finals in Holland (they open against arch rivals England in Utrecht, followed by games against Portugal in Rotterdam and Spain in Deventer), I am on the cusp of parting with a pretty penny and setting up camp in Amsterdam for the best part of a week so that I can watch most if not all of their group games.
As for the men’s team, even though I’ve not missed a home game for the last several campaigns and joined twenty thousand plus VAT of my fellow foot-soldiers to watch their last away fixture “doon sooth”, I think this quote from the boy in The Sixth Sense sums up my thoughts about their chances of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in The Gay Capital Punishment Capital of Europe aka Russia: “I see dead people.”
But back to Amsterdam’s so-called reputation for being The Gay Capital of Europe. Last week, a married couple were badly beaten up in Arnhem after returning from a party in the early hours of Sunday morning. Their crime? Holding hands. Or rather, their sexuality. For they were, are and will forever remain gay. The lovers were Jasper Vernes-Sewratan and Ronnie Sewratan-Vernes, one of whom lost several teeth after being attacked with a bolt cutter. The haters were five teenagers who have subsequently been charged.
In response, Dutch journalist Barbara Berend sparked a mass show of solidarity for the victims by tweeting: “all men (straight and gay) please to just walk hand in hand”. Hundreds of people took part in a peaceful march in Amsterdam. The hashtag #allemannenhandinhand (“All men holding hands”) has grown arms and legs and, erm, hands. And throughout the country, male politicians, soldiers, police officers, footballers and regular Jozefs have heeded Berend’s call to arms. Good will defeat evil! We shall overcome! Or to use Andrew Lloyd Webber-speak: Love Never Dies!
All of which takes me back to a time when I was just coming out as a gay man and scared – yes, scared – to tell people about my feelings and petrified – yes, petrified – to hold hands with my first boyfriend and terrified – yes, terrified – to kiss him in public. PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) are something which most straight people take for granted; however, despite significant progress in LGBT equality, the same luxury does not apply to most gay couples. Particularly those who live outwith the main cities and towns.
What follows is a short poem on the issue of PDAs, which I wrote about 15 years ago. It’s entitled Apology in that it’s an apology to my boyfriend at the time for not having the confidence to express my love for him in public for fear of “what they might think, / what they might do, if / they see me – us.” I was a coward. The five teenage homophobes are cowards. Jasper and Ronnie, on the other hand (in hand), are not. To quote Robert Burns: “Man to Man, the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that.” #allemannenhandinhand
Sometimes, when I go to hold your hand
in public, or make to put my arm
around your waist, I panic.
Suddenly, I become
of all who surround me –
what they might think,
what they might do, if
they see me – us.
So, sometimes, though less now
than before, I don’t touch you.
Instead, I ever so casually
let my loving gesture
break into a wide reaching yawn,
or I point at something
ever so not interesting
in a shop window, or I simply
stuff my clenched fist
deep inside my trouser pocket
and continue to walk – hand not in hand.