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Never Again?

Dutch police seize gay archive

The Guide, October 1999

Walk past the slightly dilapidated, century-old mansion in Haarlem's poshest neighborhood and things seem as they have for the past 20 years, since the building became home to the Brongersma Foundation, one of Europe's largest homosexual archives. But the image of only slow-motion demise misleads, for on the morning of August 20th, Amsterdam morals police, on orders from the Dutch Justice Ministry, raided the archive and sealed off the collection in preparation to seize it. Whether they can or not is now the subject of a court battle that pits factions on the archive's board against each other and, in turn, against the Justice Ministry. Meanwhile, Dutch media have launched a smear against the archive's founder, Dr. Edward Brongersma, a jurist knighted by the Dutch queen for his political activism and scholarship. A likely outcome of this very public three-way tug of war? The largest destruction of a gay archive since 1933, when Nazis in Berlin looted and burned the library of homosexual campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific and Humanitarian Committee.

Sure enough, Dutch authorities cited the same reasons for seizing the Brongersma archive as the Nazi's did for burning Hirschfeld's: protection of youth and public morals. Specifically, Dutch police invoked two new laws in the raid-- one bans possession of any images of minors intended to arouse; the other requires doctors, teachers, clergy, and other professionals who know of sex involving youngsters to report it to the police.

The new laws threaten two aspects of the Brongersma Foundation's collection. In addition to some 20,000 books, the archive holds hundreds of thousands of homoerotic images-- ranging from private photographs and commercial pornography to the collected work of artists such as German photographer Hajo Ortil. Many of the images depict youths. The archive also contains some 500 personal sexual histories, often detailing relationships with boys.

For 20 years the Dutch government had recognized the Brongersma Foundation as an educational institution documenting sexual history for posterity. It was open to researchers by appointment only, not a library people might stumble into off the street. But with police crashing down its doors, authorities now claim the archive was just a cover for criminality. Police say they want the collection's erotica and diaries as evidence to prosecute those who have broken sex laws, whether in the Netherlands or elsewhere. In addition, they want its photographs as bait in pornography stings.

From disgrace to grace & back

The archive's seizure comes less than a year and a half after a death of its eponymous founder. Born to a prominent family, Edward Brongersma entered the upper house of Dutch parliament in 1946, where he served for 18 years, and was chair of its Justice Committee. He had worked also at the University of Utrecht's Criminological Institute, and in 1975 was knighted by the Dutch queen. His academic and political success was remarkable, for in 1950 Brongersma was imprisoned nine months for a homosexual offense with a 16-year-old boy. His rebound was a symbol of the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in post-war Holland.

But as the Netherlands turned to the right in the 1990s, Brongersma came under fire once more, his calls for tolerance of intergenerational sexuality meeting increasing hostility. In 1996, in the midst of the Belgium's Dutroux scandal, involving the kidnap, rape, and murder of four teenage girls, Brongsersma spoke out on TV that there was a distinction between such sexual violence and consensual relationships. Some of his neighbors answered by stoning the Brongersma mansion, breaking windows. In April 1998, 89 years old and in failing health, Edward Brongersma took his own life.

Saving by destroying

Years earlier, Brongersma had appointed two conservators for his Foundation's archive-- Dr. F. Wafelbakker, a pediatrician and retired director of Children's Medical Services for the Ministry of Health, and Dr. Cees Straver, a physician, lawyer, and former head of the Netherlands Institute for Sexological Research. It was they who decided earlier this year that compliance with the new ban on kiddie-porn possession together with the new reporting law-- which Wafelbakker helped author-- required them to destroy the archive's photos and personal histories. Failure to do so would not only be illegal, they believed, but would put them and the archive in legal jeopardy, together with those who had donated the material. When the executor of Brongersma's estate, University of Utrecht psychologist Lex van Naerssen, opposed the destruction, the two conservators stripped him of his authority. In August, Van Naerssen went to court to gain back his executorship and block any destruction, and he won a temporary stay. But media coverage of the legal wrangling occurred together with a fresh wave of hysteria following the murder of a Dutch girl. That was when the Justice Ministry pounced.

In the balance

The fate of the Brongersma Foundation archive lies with three judges, who will decide soon whether the police can seize the collection for good, whether the "conservators" can proceed with their plans to destroy it themselves, or whether somehow the collection should be preserved in its current form. Any decision is subject to appeal to the Netherlands's highest court.

But meanwhile, Brongersma has become the Dutch demon du jour, portrayed as a sexual monster and apologist for same. A newspaper urged that those with his erotic predilections should follow his example and kill themselves, while a prominent newscaster, whose politician father helped rehabilitate Brongersma after his imprisonment in the 1950s apologized in the Dutch TV Guide for his family's misjudgment.

The Haarlem raid and the looming threat of the Brongersma library's destruction has cast a chill on people working to preserve erotic art and history.

"We first wait for what the court rules," says Jack van der Wiel, director of Homodok, the largest gay and lesbian archives in the Netherlands, which in the past has also been targeted by state censors. "If matters go wrong and they want to destroy something, of course we will fight against it."

But legal prospects seem dim. The Dutch kiddie porn law, already sweeping, was given unlimited breadth this summer when a court ruled against Rotterdam photographer Donald Mader, whose work has been shown in museums and galleries around Europe. Any image of a minor, whatever its content, the court said, is "kiddie porn" and may be destroyed if it is part of a "pedophile collection."

The Dutch police have readily used their new powers. Earlier this summer, Amsterdam vice cops raided an art show, seizing prints by such internationally known photographers as Duane Michals, Walter Chappell, Will McBride, and Willem Pluschow.

"I don't think the police should be in charge of book burning, especially when it's historically important material," says Max Allen, a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "The purpose of archives after all is to preserve historical material from temporary insanity."

In 1971, Allen was prosecuted in Toronto for obscenity for showing Russ Meyer's film Vixen, which today wouldn't raise eyebrows on cable TV. "How things change decade by decade is quite striking, and what is thought to be actionable and what not," Allen contends. "That's the reason that somewhere someplace, material like this ought to be safe. Historians will be very angry at the police in Amsterdam."

Magnus Hirschfeld's gay and lesbian archive wasn't the only one to fall victim to the Nazis. In 1940, the Dutch Nazi regime seized another collection, compiled over 28 years by Jacob Schorer, a pioneering activist in Amsterdam. The library never surfaced after the war. Schorer reassembled an archive, which became the nucleus of Homodok. As preservationists wait for a court in Haarlem to decide the fate of the Brongersma Foundation, it feels like 1940 all over again.

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