“Leave the island!”
“Go home Dittrich!”
Boris Dittrich, at the time a member of Dutch parliament, was looking out an open window of Aruba’s parliament building when a jeering mob chanting anti-gay slurs, honking horns, and whistling eclipsed the distant sounds of traffic. Boris was set to speak about gay rights before a special session in the Caribbean island’s parliament. While the hatred behind the slurs shocked him, it also solidified his determination to address the issue and make himself heard.
He delivered his short speech on the necessity of respecting gay rights. No one in the special session asked questions or seemed to even consider what he said. They simply moved on to the next topic.
That year, 2005, Aruba’s justice minister threatened to introduce laws banning marriage equality. “People told me he had orchestrated the whole demonstration.”
That was 10 years ago, what seems like an eternity in the long push for LGBT rights. Last November, Boris, a driving force behind the world-first legalization of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands, returned to Aruba, this time as head of advocacy for Human Rights Watch’s LGBT division. He was invited by a lesbian member of Aruba’s parliament to speak to groups across the island, which is expected to debate, then pass, her bill recognizing same-sex civil unions. While there, he spoke with Aruba’s Prime Minister Mike Eman who pledged to support registered partnerships.
Change has come rapidly in recent years for the LGBT community. While being openly gay can be challenging and even dangerous in parts of the world, 21countries – including the US – have legalized same-sex marriage, something unthinkable when Boris and his colleagues began their lonely quest for equality in the Netherlands. Dittrich is now advocating governments worldwide to help protect LGBT people and also in toppling the barriers to same-sex marriage.
It’s been a long voyage for Boris too, from young man ambivalent about his own sexuality to a world-changing gay activist. And none of it may have happened had it not been for a chance encounter with America’s first openly gay politician and San Francisco icon, Harvey Milk.
It was 1975, and Boris had just finished his freshmen year at Denison University in the US state of Ohio. Although he was questioning his sexual orientation, he had a girlfriend, and together they traveled to San Francisco. There, the pair met a gay student who introduced them to Harvey Milk – at the time a little-known shop owner working on gay rights. They chatted a while, when suddenly Milk looked at Boris and said “You – you are gay” in front of everyone. Boris denied it, and shortly afterwards Boris and his girlfriend left. Boris settled into hating Milk.
This changed in the 80s. By then openly gay, Boris was a lawyer in Amsterdam and in a relationship with his partner Jehoshua, who today he has been with for 34 years. One night, he and Jehoshua sat down to watch a TV documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk, which told the story of Milk’s political rise and assassination. “That was the guy who was so rude to me!” he said when he saw Milk’s face.
“I thought, my god, this horrible encounter with Harvey Milk must have happened for a reason. I became so inspired by this documentary, his work and what he did. Instead of hating him I started to admire him, and it struck me that I needed to devote my working life to achieve equal rights for LGBT people. This is meant to be.”
Boris was heavily influenced by the stories of his father, who fled communist Czechoslovakia. “There was always this debate at the dinner table about how unjustified it is that we children were not allowed to see our Babiska, our grandmother” in the east, Boris said. “I was raised with the idea that politicians can make or break your life.” When he grew up he decided to study law, to be where decisions are made. He wanted to have influence on his life and other people.
Boris began picking up anti-discrimination cases, and within a few years he was nominated a judge – the country’s first openly gay one. In 1993, his party asked him to run for parliament, and he agreed. When journalists asked what he would do for the LGBT community, he consulted with several friends and came up with something hugely symbolic. After he was elected, in one of his first parliamentary debates he proposed marriage equality.
It wasn’t an easy ride.
The next few years he beat back all types of arguments. The only Dutch LGBT non-governmental organization didn’t want same-sex marriage, calling it a heterosexual, old-fashioned, conservative institution. Boris spent hours convincing them it was about freedom of choice. Eventually, the NGO’s board turned over, and the new board backed Boris. Religious groups – Christians, Muslims and Orthodox Jews – banned together against him. “They said marriage is a bond between a man and a woman, God is against homosexuality, you know, all those arguments, it’s always the same argument.” His response – churches and other religious institutions don’t need to perform weddings, but the state needs to regulate marriage according to the law.
After the 1998 election, Boris’ party, Democrats 66, became an essential partner for forming a new coalition government. Knowing they had a strong negotiating position, Democrats 66 said it would join the coalition – but only if the coalition partners supported its list of wants. On this list was marriage equality and same-sex couple adoption.
The legislation was introduced in 1999 and passed in 2000, garnering a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
As same-sex couples clamored to be the first to marry when the law came into effect on April 1, 2001, the Amsterdam city council organized a midnight wedding for four couples. “I was a little worried, because the whole world was watching – there were camera crews from CNN and BBC and all over the world.”
The hall was packed. The mayor was to officiate, and he began the ceremony at 11:50 p.m. – the couples had to wait until after midnight when the law came into effect to say ‘yes’. But the mayor was nervous and spoke too fast, wrapping up his speech at 11:58.
“We had to wait two minutes, which is a long time with all those cameras rolling,” Boris said. “We were all watching the clock, then someone started to applaud.” The whole room applauded as the seconds ticked away. The clock struck midnight, and a series of “yes I do, yes I do, yes I do” rang across the room.
Today, 90% of the Dutch population supports equality for LGBT people, although there is still some discrimination, incidents of gay-bashing and bullying. “There’s a whole generation in the Netherlands that doesn’t know what it’s like for same-sex couples not to marry,” Boris said.
In 2003, Boris became the first openly gay party leader. He paid a high price for his role in Dutch politics. Death threats weren’t new to politicians, and Boris received his fair share, some threatening him for being gay. But a new, menacing sense of violence was in the air in the Netherlands, making the threat to Boris all too real.
In 2002, a popular politician who hoped to become prime minister was assassinated. And in 2004, acclaimed Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh was shot and stabbed by a young Muslim man who was part of a militant group agitating against the Dutch government.
One of the group’s members targeted Boris. He was arrested at an Amsterdam train station. He carried a loaded gun, and a map locating Boris’s house was found in the home of the man’s girlfriend. The court sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
Boris had a booth outside his apartment, manned by a policeman 24/7, and armed body guards were added to protect him. When he jogged, one bodyguard ran in front and one behind. “When I went to the bakery to buy bread, first one bodyguard went inside and looked to see if the coast was clear, then I came in, and said ‘I’d like to buy bread.’ It was crazy,” Boris said.
Fretting over what might happen in the event of his death, Boris proposed to Jehoshua. “I said listen, maybe we should get married, not out of romantic reasons, but pragmatic reasons.” Jehoshua agreed and the couple was married in 2006.
Boris never considered lowering his profile, but when he turned 50, he decided that after twelve-and-a-half years in parliament, he didn’t want to run again. It was time for a career change.
At the time, asylum seekers were a hotly debated topic in Dutch parliament. To determine if a country was safe enough to send back asylum seekers whose claim was rejected, the Dutch government used Human Rights Watch’s reports. When the government couldn’t agree on whether or not to send back gay asylum seekers from Iran, the Dutch government asked Human Rights Watch for a letter on the issue. The letter prompted the minister of asylum affairs to change her position.
When Boris saw a posting for an LGBT researcher with Human Rights Watch, he contacted the organization. After the job interview Human Rights Watch offered him the position of global advocacy director in the LGBT rights division.
While Human Rights Watch does advocate for same-sex marriage, the focus is on protecting LGBT people from discrimination and violence. Much of the research is done in countries where homosexual conduct is illegal, like in Uganda and Jamaica, or where it is difficult to be openly gay, like in Russia.
“We support and work in close collaboration with local activists,” Boris said. He is member of the board of advisers of Sexual Minorities Uganda. When Ugandan politicians attempted to introduce the death penalty for LGBT people, Human Rights Watch worked tirelessly behind the scenes to put pressure on the government to reject the law. Boris, together with local and international NGO partners, used both diplomatic contacts as well as leaders in the business community to pressure the authorities. Ultimately, the law was declared unconstitutional. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said it goes against Ugandans’ interests to revive the law, because of international pressure and the fear that businesses would pull out of the country.
He’s also spent years advocating with the Catholic Church. “The Pope has a lot of influence,” he said. “In several countries, priests or bishops say nasty things about LGBT people and it has a negative effect. We think it’s important that the church recognize the dignity of LGBT people, and that it speak out publicly against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
In 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Boris was given an award for being a true ally to Malaysia’s transgender community, and for Human Rights Watch’s sustained support of their cause as they come up against religious police and sharia law. Two hundred people attended the event, which included a beauty pageant and fashion show.
Not surprisingly, many LGBT groups pushing for same-sex marriage contact him. Argentina’s LGBT groups invited him to advocate for same-sex marriage in 2008. He spoke during a parliamentary hearing in New Zealand, in 2012 and served as the guest of honor in Paris’s first gay pride after France introduced marriage equality in 2013. Ireland paved the way to legalize same sex marriage last May, following a referendum, and Boris gave speeches and lectures in Dublin at the behest of local groups, sharing his expertise. Also in 2015 the mayor of Shibuya ward in Tokyo invited Boris to give a talk about marriage equality. Shibuya is the first municipality in Japan where same-sex couples can obtain a marriage certificate, although it is not legally binding. In March 2016 Costa Rica's vice president invited Boris to discuss marriage equality.
Boris and others at Human Rights Watch submitted an Amicus Brief in the US Supreme Court case about same sex marriage, highlighting arguments that were used in favor of marriage equality in the Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. In Germany, Boris organized the founding meeting of German groups striving for marriage equality in the Human Rights Watch’s Berlin office. After being invited overseas by Marriage Equality Australia, he spent time in Sydney and Canberra working on the issue.
And he’ll be there to help them should they need support. “In the nine years that I’ve worked for Human Rights Watch, we’ve have had great impact with our work,” he said. “But so much more needs to be done. Our job is not over yet!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.