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Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. And with it, the first Gay and Lesbian Pride parades of 2001.

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Gay Pride, Brussels, Belgium, May 5, 2001. Lieve Snellings

A Gay Spring In Brussels

by Juan Pérez Cabral

MAY 23, 2001. Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. And with it, the Gay and Lesbian Pride parades of 2001. One of the first of the season was May 5 in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, where thousands of people—the largest crowd ever—paraded through the busy streets of the city center under rainbow flags.

Before this year, marchers were forced to go down deserted streets. One of the differences was the election of Bruno De Lille to Brussels' City Council where the gay activist and Green member became Alderman, a position just below mayor. One of De Lille's promises was to put Gay Pride center stage.

His election reflects a growing acceptance of gay people in the Dutch-speaking (Flanders) section in northern Belgium. The French-speaking region (Wallonia) in the south is usually more conservative. There is also a small German section in the East, a geographical embodiment of Belgium's complicated history as a crossroads. The sections are so different, that Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels were actually made semi-autonomous in 1993.

The increasing clout of the gay community comes after a concerted effort on the part of Flemish queers to cross the often untraversed borders of language and culture, making alliances with French-speaking lgbt, and lobbying French-speaking politicians.

In the 1999 national elections, there was, for the first time, a significant lgbt contingent among the Greens which lobbied successfully for the inclusion of gay issues in the party platform. When the Greens joined the center-right Liberal Party coalition, dealing a sound defeat to the scandal-plagued Christian Democrats-Socialist coalition of the center left, gays suddenly mattered.

Now every Belgian political party, except the far right, has openly gay members. Even the more conservative French-speaking politicians finally turned up at this year's Pride Parade where the minister of public health of the Flemish region, Mieke Vogels, a Green party member, was cheered for her recent promise to include information in the school health curriculum about lesbian, gay, bi, and transgendered people. Word is the country's Minister of Education, a Liberal Party member, will support her.

This may also be the year that Belgium will follow the example of its neighbor, Holland, and legalize gay marriage. When the Liberal Party government took office in 1999 they passed an anti-discrimination law which included equal rights for same-sex couples. The Federal Minister of Health Care, Magda Aelvoet (Green), in investigating discrimination, concluded that the only way to comply with the law was to extend the rights of marriage to same-sex couples.

That position seems to have widespread public support, even though 75 percent of the more than 10 million Belgians are nominally Catholic. The related issue of gay adoption is the only sticking point, especially among French-speakers. Some Belgians were also scandalized in February when police there seized forgeries of a Tintin book showing the cartoon hero having a gay sex adventure in Bangkok.

In general, though, the country has begun leaving behind its more conservative traditions. Perhaps to deal with their own history as colonizers in Africa, Belgium has taken an active role in mediating African conflicts, especially among their former colonies in the Congo Basin. They also took the European Union lead in condemning the rise in racism in Austria. This year the possession of marijuana for personal use was legalized.

The new openness was reflected in the response to the Gay Pride marchers. Straight passersby on the sidewalk often burst into spontaneous applause. "That was such a special feeling, getting applause just because you are lgbt and open about it!" said the photographer Lieve Snelling, who marched. The only anti-gay demonstrator was deflated by a kiss from a marcher.

For Photos: Gay Pride, Brussels 2001

Related links:

Some 16 million people participated last year in Pride events worldwide, according to InterPride, which posts a world-wide calendar of pride events.

For a profile of Belgium by the BBC.

For the scathing, but informative, Belgium tries to reinvent itself.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Europe

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

News, opinion, and weekly headline review of Europe.

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