After this introduction by Ryan, I am going to have trouble sticking to my well-prepared speech. So I probably won't.
You know, I was listening to you Ryan, and I remember Ireland at another time, and my own country at another time. I also remember how I was confronted with my own prejudices, which I did not even know I had. And I still remember how this happened.
I was probably about fifteen years old, and I found a novel that I really wanted to read. I was always fond of historic novels. And this was a book written by Marguerite Yourcenar, Mémoires d’Hadrien. I think one of the most beautiful novels ever written in French history.
I started reading the novel, and it was actually an incredible love story of the young Hadrien, who was deeply, deeply in love. And I hadn't heard the story before, so for me, it was new. And I kept reading it, and I was really completely mesmerized by this wonderful love story. And then, at some stage I discovered: he loved a young man. And not a woman. And then I was quite shocked. And then I thought: why do I react like that?
And that was when I discovered, that even if it be mild, or substantial, or social prejudice: we are all brought up in these prejudices. And that, for me, was a sort of a moment where I thought; well I need to check my own prejudices, also in this area. I thought I did not have any, but reading this book and discovering that Hadrien actually loved Antinoüs, who was a man, led to a shock. Why? So this soul-searching I think is part and parcel of what we need to do in Europe.
If I were to be asked: “What do you think is your major achievement in your political life?”, for me this an easy question to answer. I shall never forget the sense of accomplishment and pride when I was a Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, and we were the first Parliament in the world to vote on same sex marriage.
And you know, you might think – looking at me and seeing the old geezer up here – this might be half a lifetime ago, but no, it is only twenty years ago. And if you see what we can achieve in twenty years’ time: I remember the ridicule we met in the Netherlands, but especially outside the Netherlands: this crazy idea that people of the same sex would be allowed to get married. I remember that vividly. And look where we are today.
I remember vividly, that if I would have told my grandparents, twenty years earlier: "Grandparents, I am going to go in politics, and among the most important thing I am going to do immediately is to show that people of the same sex who love each other can get married". They probably would have called our general practitioner to get me committed. That was something so completely out of their imagination.
If I were to talk to my kids about this today, they cannot even imagine a society where there is no equality before the law for people who love each other, regardless of whether they are of a different sex or the same sex. This is a transformation my society has gone through.
So my message to you is, and this message is important: take a look at all these European societies who have gone through that transformation. Actually, very, very quickly indeed. Ireland is a case in point. But look what happened in a country like Spain. Look at a country like Poland, which for many people, a couple of years ago, would have been beyond hope of redemption because of the everlasting oppression of the Catholic Church. We have had a huge transformation in that society. We have seen enormous developments. And this has happened all across Europe.
But it is not just good news. We have also seen different developments. We have also seen that it is still possible to manipulate people into being homophobic. I have lived in Russia for a number of years, at a time when homosexuality was treated just as it was at the time of my grandparents. You didn’t really mind, as long as you didn’t talk about it. There would be jokes. You know all the jokes. You are the experts of the jokes. There would not be open homophobia. And we have seen that through political, and I have to say religious manipulation, there is now homophobia. And it has become apparent on the streets. It has become something extreme-right gangs see as something they need to do because they have the blessing of the church, or the blessing of the leader. So it is not overviewed. And it is not overviewed because there is just no movement towards a better position. There is still the possibility – and I have to say, in all our societies – of regression.
So the first thing we need to do is to be extremely vigilant. We cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot. And I think that we all can be, and that sometimes we are. We are complacent: “it is not our problem, what are you talking about?”.
And yes it is our problem. Because it is a recurrent phenomenon in human nature, especially in Europe, in times of crisis, in times of political tension, we start judging people not by what they do, but by who they are. And we always see the same thing. Jews get targeted. Other minorities get targeted. And gays and lesbians get targeted immediately as well. And it happens in all our societies. You will see it in all our streets – no country excluded, all across Europe, and we need to be vocal about this. We always need to challenge this.
I raise this because I was asked earlier: Why this specific issue? The next frontier for me personally, not as the Commission’s First Vice-President but personally, in this area, and I call upon all of you to join me in that: the next frontier, for all of us, is sports.
In sports, acceptance is not there yet. If you see for instance in the sport I love, which is football, what has been achieved in the area of racism in the last decade: it is remarkable. Now let’s move against homophobia in sports as well. Let’s make that the new frontier also for activists and those people who believe in LGBTI rights. We need to do that.
You know, homophobia is exactly that. It is fear of homosexuals. And, unless you correct me, as far as I know, it ain’t contagious. And I think we should be telling people that more often. I think a sense of humour in addressing people who have bigotry problems or who discriminate, can be helpful (not to be too heavy handed).
I think it is very important to share with people all the experiences across the world. Look what happened in Malta. Trail blazing. Malta is trail blazing. In a part of the world where this is not something that you would expect, but there it is: Malta. Look at what Spain has done. Look at what has happened all across Latin America. They are overtaking many European nations today. And we should not let that happen. We should stay and still be leaders on this.
Look especially at the challenge we face – and it is a difficult subject to raise –, with some of our new minorities. Where the same bigotry that was habitual in my grandparents’ generation, based on religion or post-interpretation of religion is still imposed on the younger generation, and they are brought up with this. They are brought up with this, and they get two huge problems with that. First of all, many of the young men and women, especially the men, can become extremely conflicted about their own sexuality. And that is a tragedy. But secondly: they project that hatred on gay people in our society, and that is also a big tragedy. So I think there is a huge amount of work to be done in that area.
What will we be doing from the Commission’s side on this? First of all, sharing all these experiences – and I think the Commission should be doing more in making that happen. Fighting for LGBTI rights should be done globally, in all the fora where the Commission can play a role: in the UN, in the OSCE, in the Council of Europe, in all sorts of areas where this is not accepted yet.
I also believe the Commission should go forward, and try to get all Member States in the EU to unreservedly accept same-sex marriage as other marriages. Even if they don’t have same-sex marriage yet in their own country, to at least to have the decency to respect the decision of other countries to have same sex marriage. The fact that when people move to another country they run into all sorts of idiotic problems that married couples who aren't from the same sex never run into, I think that is a disgrace.
I've also heard that the IDAHO-forum has launched a call to the European Commission for a comprehensive LGBT policy approach. It is signed by the governments of 14 Member States. I welcome any approach, as long as it is not just words. I want concrete measures. And frankly, I need your help with that. Because everybody's great at asking for a strategy, but then if you ask, "what do you want concretely in the strategy?", silence. There should be concrete projects we need to bring to the fore in the next couple of years. And I am sure that now that I have said that to you, I will get a host of new projects and I will love to see them. And Věra Jourová and I will certainly want to work on that, also with our colleagues in the Commission.
We will support your work to combat the discrimination of LGBTI people in the European Union, including via our flagship Rights, Equality and Citizenship funding programme and we will give financial grants to the three umbrella organisations – ILGA-Europe, Transgender Europe and IGLYO. (Is that the right way to pronounce it? If you work in the Commission, it's death by acronyms. Anyway…)
We need to re-establish the High level Group on Non-discrimination to encourage the exchange of the best practices, taking away fear, and also showing best-practices, that there is nothing to fear whatsoever.
The Ireland referendum was mentioned this evening. I am still a Christian and a Catholic. I feel very comfortable disagreeing with the Pope on almost everything. He doesn't define who I am as a Catholic. That's my own choice. And that is the relationship I feel I have with God. But I was really astonished and very disappointed and really sad when the Vatican's Secretary of State said that the result of the Irish referendum was a defeat for humanity. I talked about this at length at a lecture I gave in the Netherlands recently, because I feel so strongly about this. Let me tell you.
It was a lecture about a man who should be known world-wide. His name was Willem Arondéus. He was openly gay at the beginning of the 20th century. Can you imagine the courage you needed to do that? All his friends, who weren't homophobic, but didn't want to be confronted with it: "It's OK if you are gay, but for God's sake, stay in the closet." He didn't want to: "this is who I am".
And when he saw that another part of the population would be prosecuted, not for what they did, but for they were – the Jews – he entered into resistance during German occupation. And he raided the Amsterdam Public Records Office to erase the names of many people so that the Germans could not check against false identity cards, to save Jews. He was arrested because he was betrayed. He led the raid. He went to court. He was condemned to death. He was executed. And just before the firing squat killed him, he spoke these four words, which should resound through the ages. He said: "homosexuals are not cowards". This was his final message to humanity.
This message was hidden, for a long time. Because this was not a subject people felt comfortable with, right after the war. Only in the 1980s, people rediscovered the story of Willem Arondéus. Of his heroism. Of what he did for his Jewish compatriots. These are the examples we should be sharing. This is a life we should be honouring. This is a person who deserves to be seen as a hero, by all of society. And not – as was done after the war – be put back into the closet because people felt uncomfortable with a homosexual hero. So Willem Arondéus, a great example.
Back to my faith. I think Desmund Tutu put it really very strongly, when he said: "You know, I don't believe in a homophobic heaven. And if there is a homophobic heaven, I'd much rather go to the other place". So how can you even maintain that God could be homophobic, I don't know. But anyway, still, this can't be called "a defeat for humanity".
Two adult people, who love each other so much that they want to go to an official and say "we love each other so much, we want to put in writing and in law that we will take care of each other, in good times and bad times. We want to make sure in law that if one of us dies, the other one gets what we both have together. We want to say and recognize that we love each other and that we have this bond in law". Two adults who want to do that. That’s an act of love. That is an act of commitment. That is right smack in the middle of the principles of the Christian faith. That is people committing to each other. That is not a defeat of humanity, it is a triumph of humanity.
Anyway, I have taken up too much of your time. I hope you understand that I feel passionately about this issue. Why I feel passionately about this issue. Why I will not rest in the European Commission until we have achieved what we need to achieve. Not because we want to impose our views on other Europeans who don't share them. But because we believe passionately that if this was already discovered by so many nations in Europe, it is about time that all the other nations in Europe discovered the same thing. There is no reason for homophobia. There is no reason to discriminate. There is every reason to grant every single member of the LGBTI community full rights, full respect and full participation in our European society.
On children: I strongly believe that children need two loving parents. Who cares whether these two parents are two men or two women? They need loving parents. There is no proof, scientifically, that you need a man and a woman to be caring parents. Many of us in this room share the experience of marriages that break down. I know many relationships of men and men, women and women, who are extremely caring parents. Who make sure that children have a place where they feel at home. Who make sure that children grow up to be responsible citizens, happy people. The only prescription I have as a parent, follows Oscar Wilde – who also was a parent by the way, of two children – who said the only recipe is this: happy children make good citizens. Please keep that in mind.
Thank you very much.