Outside the offices of the Dutch gay news magazine De Gay Krant on the outskirts of Amsterdam’s leather district a rainbow flag was flying at half-mast on Tuesday morning. It stood as a symbol of a community in grief.
Even for this city’s liberal gay and lesbian community the life and startling death of openly gay political firebrand Pim Fortuyn was an odyssey fraught with contradiction.
At 6pm the previous eve-ning Fortuyn, regarded as a major force in the lead-up to next week’s Dutch general elections, had been shot dead in the carpark of a media centre.
When his murder was announced, it was like September 11 again -“ it had that sort of impact on the Dutch people and Dutch politics, Henk Beerten, president of The Netherlands’ oldest and largest gay and lesbian rights group, COC Nederland told Sydney Star Observer.
Dutch police yesterday confirmed that they were holding a 32-year-old Dutch environmental activist as the assassination suspect.
While police refused to identify the suspects, members of Fortuyn’s political group Lijst Fortuyn (The Fortuyn List) have told the press that he is Volkert van der Graaf, an animal rights activist who opposed animal testing and who worked for the environmental group Ecology Offensive.
In recent months, Fortuyn’s outspoken and hotly-debated opposition to Dutch immigration had energised political debate in the Netherlands, escalating Fortuyn’s profile as a rising star of the Dutch political landscape.
Despite Fortuyn’s controversial and seemingly right-wing ideals, the assassination has shocked the Netherlands and has been described as a tragedy for Dutch democracy.
We have no real understanding of what will develop from this murder, Beerten said. Pim Fortuyn launched a new perspective on approaching real social issues in the Netherlands. The other traditional parties are sure to be affected by that. It will change everything.
Fortuyn, a 54-year-old former sociology professor, had stunned his political opponents in recent weeks after Lisjt Fortuyn consistently managed to draw spectacular results in national opinion polls.
The political group was earmarked by analysts to score over 20 percent of votes in the May 15 general elections and nearly half of the 18 to 30-year-olds polled recently in the Netherlands said they would support Lijst Fortuyn.
In socially progressive Holland, Pim Fortuyn quickly became a national sensation after he argued that immigration to the country -“ and particularly immigration from Turkey and North Africa -“ should be slowed and then stopped completely.
This platform, as well as a widely publicised quote from Fortuyn that followers of Islam are culturally backward mobilised the English speaking press to categorise Fortuyn as an emerging figure in the rise of far rightwing politics in Europe.
However Dutch lesbian and gay activists told the Star that Fortuyn’s policies could not easily be categorised as simply left or right wing.
Hans Verhoeven, a writer for Dutch gay publication Gay And Night said that Fortuyn’s much quoted assertion that Islam was a backward culture had been used out of context.
What Fortuyn had said was that if an imam in Rotterdam had been allowed to say publicly that gay people were a threat to society and less than pigs, he should be allowed to say that Islam was backwards culturally for espousing that view, Verhoeven told the Star.
Many commentators have highlighted the apparent contradictions in Fortuyn’s rhetoric. As the New York Times expressed yesterday, he was a child of Dutch tolerance, [who] sought to protect his nation’s values through intolerance.
Verhoeven maintains that Fortuyn was actually standing up to intolerance.
Pim Fortuyn was giving a voice to long-existing, but never heard voices of protest against the growth of religious intolerance against gay people in the Netherlands.
Expatriate Australian gay marketing consultant Ian Johnson, now living in Amsterdam, told the Star that Fortuyn’s far right image had inspired conflicting emotions among gay expatriates in Amsterdam.
We thought, he is gay -“ he’s one of us -“ and he’s looking at winning substantial influence over the national government. The conflict was that his intolerance was specifically geared towards the Islamic immigrant community within Holland, which he espoused were intolerant of people such as himself and that they ought not to be allowed to practice intolerance in a liberal country such as Holland, Johnson said.
So on the one hand the left-of-centre part of one’s views suggest that Pim Fortuyn was not a person that we should be supporting. On the other hand he is standing up for gay rights and women’s rights in the process -“ so is it acceptable to be intolerant of intolerance? Obviously, that point hasn’t been resolved.
However, poll results published in De Gay Krant last fortnight suggested that not all members of the Dutch gay and lesbian community felt conflicted over Fortuyn’s political rise. The results revealed that a large majority of gay voters would support Lijst Fortuyn over the other Dutch parties.
I think there are a number of points that attracted a lot of gay people to his movement. One is that in the last three years there has been a lot of problems with violence against gay people, both verbally and physically by people from Muslim backgrounds. It had been growing, Verhoeven said.
The COC was not as convinced of Fortuyn’s pro-gay political leaning. Henk Beerten said the COC railed against proposals from Fortuyn that a clause banning discrimination in the Nether-lands should be scrapped.
Beerten also maintained that Fortuyn was not in favour of opening up marriage to same-sex couples and thought children should be raised by a man and a woman and not by same-sex couples.
Basically, these were traditional views that we felt were not conducive to gay rights, Beerten said. But I would say the reality is that Fortuyn was more of a conservative than a right wing leader. His push was back to old values, back to the 50s -“ it was nostalgic conservatism.
Despite the highly contested merits of Fortuyn’s political movement, his assassination spurred hundreds of Dutch citizens to pay tribute to the controversial political figure this week.
On Tuesday, supporters held a candlelit vigil and lay floral wreaths outside Fortuyn’s former address in Rotterdam. Meanwhile, hundreds signed books of condolences in Rotterdam’s Town Hall.
Whether you agree or disagree with his views, Pim Fortuyn had the right to express his views as he wished to, a staff member at Boek-handel Vrolijk, a specialist bookstore in Amsterdam said. Last week staff at the store had held a vigorous debate over whether to stock books by Fortuyn.
Johnson agreed with the view that Fortuyn’s ideals de-served fair hearing. Fortuyn’s legacy was that he had managed to energise political debate in the Netherlands -“ that is probably the most objective assessment of what Fortuyn actually did, he said.