THE HAGUE (AFP) — The Dutch centre-left government has made the fight against homophobia a priority at home and abroad in a move applauded by gay rights activists here.
"Never before has a government done so much for the emancipation of gays," said Frank van Dalen, president of the Dutch national gay rights COC, the world's oldest such organisation set up in 1946.
"Homosexuality has never before played a role of importance in foreign development cooperation," he told AFP.
To form his fourth coalition government, in power since February, Christian Democrat Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende teamed up with Labour. This new centre-left team is focussing more on social issues than its leftwing predecessors.
In a letter last month to parliament about Dutch foreign aid strategy, Development Cooperation Minister Bert Koenders stated emphatically that "the Netherlands will promote equal rights for gays as much as possible."
In 18 of the 36 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, that the Netherlands supports with development aid, homosexuality is an offence, with penalties ranging from a fine to a prison sentence.
The Dutch will plead in bilateral contacts for the legalisation of homosexual contacts, said Koenders, adding: "We will not shy away from difficult discussions."
Relative to its population size, the Netherlands is one of the biggest international donors, giving 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) or 4.2 billion euros (6.1 billion dollars) in 2006.
A few days after Koenders' announcement, fellow cabinet member Ronald Plasterk, minister of education, culture and science who also has emancipation issues in his portfolio, officially presented his plans to set aside 2.5 million euros between 2008-2011 to promote equal treatment for homosexuals.
Noting that while gays and lesbians have the same rights as heterosexuals in the Netherlands, "socially the acceptance is not automatic among certain ethnic minorities or people who follow a more orthodox religious lifestyle."
The money is intended for campaigns targetting young people, mostly Muslims in schools, sport clubs or neighbourhood associations.
"Here again the government is progressing: we have our own minister whereas in previous governments we only had a secretary of state charged with gay rights," said Van Dalen.
"Also for the first time the coalition agreement had a chapter about emancipation of gays."
But Van Dalen said just stating this is not enough.
"The government has taken a moral position without offering a way to implement its stand. Moral leadership is not enough to change the world," he said.
There is still much work to be done to promote gay rights, according to the activist.
"The Netherlands is not some kind of gay paradise," he said.
"According to surveys 48 percent of the population is shocked by two men kissing and 75 percent of people of immigrant origin believe that a teacher should hide his gay orientation," Van Dalen said.
In a letter sent to parliament last week ahead of a parliamentary debate about the 2008 education budget, the COC asked that six million euros be earmarked to fight homophobia in schools.
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