Written and Photography by Giulia Traversari
I discovered the Homomonument accidentally, on one of my first days in Amsterdam after my arrival in August to start my Erasmus exchange. I was discovering the city with my boyfriend as every tourist would do: with a guide, a bike, and a backpack. We were consulting the map standing next to a canal, trying to understand where we were. Looking around us, something captured my attention: a big pink granite triangle protruding into the canal, with some dried up garlands set down on it. As every tourist would quickly understand, the binomial granite-garlands mean just one thing: a site of historical interest! I opened my guide to figure out what was representing that bare triangle. According to my Lonely Planet, I discovered that that was a monument built to commemorate all the victims of Nazism, killed because of their homosexuality. First of all, I personally learned something new as, I admit, I wasn't really aware of that tragic passage of our history, concerning the sufferings of gay men and women. When we talk about Nazism, we are used to immediately relate it to the Holocaust and so, to Jews, forgetting than with them, also political prisoners, social deviants, Gypsies, Poles, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, physically and mentally disabled, have been victims of this genocide. Secondly, and this is a spatial consideration, I didn't see the whole monument until two months after, when I decided to conduct this fieldwork there, studying the Homomonument as a symbolic memorial of a human disaster. I will explain the reason later.
Picture 1. One of the three triangles of the Homomonument.
I decided first to get a general background about the Homomonument to arrive better prepared into the field, aware of what the monument represents and the history of the persecution of homosexuals during Nazism. To do so, I read several articles related to different issues. I started reading some historical perspectives about homosexuals in concentration camps and I continued then, reading articles related to the pink triangle and how this equilateral still have a powerful meaning. It was a symbol of hate and oppression in the past, which turns today into being an emblem of pride and fight against prejudice. After this, I surfed on Youtube to find videos about the Homomonument. After concluding my researches, time was ripe to go into the field and to do my observations. I finally interviewed a representative of the Homomonument, to conclude my research with the proper answers to some questions, doubts, and curiosities. I decided to not do the interview before going into the field as to not be influenced by the answers once observing the monument. I wanted to go there prepared but not already aware of everything, to still keep a pure view.
I conducted my fieldwork on November, 27th 2014, between 2:00 and 3:00 pm.
The Homomonument is the first memorial in the world that commemorate all the gay men and women who lost their lives in the Second World War. Under the Hitler regime, homosexuals were persecuted and eliminated just because of their sexual orientation, as they didn't fit into the project of a big, strong Aryan nation. They had to wear a pink triangle on their clothes as a marker that they were gay. The project of the establishment of this memorial had to face oppositions and difficulties since the beginning, as the prejudice against homosexuality was still embedded and the gay and lesbian community was still too weak to start a new fight and to stand up for themselves. In the 1980s, after two decades in which the homosexual community starts to become more conscious of their desire and of the necessity to get out of the closets, the time was ripe to advance with more determination the request to build a monument to commemorate this tragedy.
The Homomonument Foundation was born in 1979 with the purpose of realizing the first monument in the world for gay men and women. The aim was to establish more than a memorial to commemorate all those victims of the past. This monument had to be seen also as a source of inspiration for gay men and women who still suffer and are victims of persecution and harassment in the present. 5 September 1987, after almost ten years, necessary to raise the funds to build the monument, the Homomonument has been officially presented to the population of Amsterdam, set in the core of the city, on Westermarkt Square.
The design of the monument itself powerfully expresses the will of progress with this monument a permanent call for vigilance, against any kind of persecution because of the sexual orientation of a person. Its author Karin Daan, evoking the pink triangle worn by homosexuals during Nazism, projected the monument as composed by three triangles of pink granite, which are connected by a band that creates a fourth triangle within them. The three equilaterals represent the present, the past and the future. They are orientated to point ideally to the direction of significant sites in the city, historically associated with the monument. The triangle, representing the past, points to the Anne Frank House and is placed on the ground, between the paving stones. The triangle symbolizing the present, which protrudes into the canal, is oriented to Dam Square, where is situated the National War Memorial. The last triangle stands for the future and is raised 60 centimeters above the ground, pointing to the COC, the world’s oldest gay and lesbian organization, situated in Rozenstraat. In this stone is been engraves a line from the poem of Jacob Israël De Haan “To a Young Fisherman” which says: “Such an endless desire for friendship”.
Picture 2. Bird's eye view on the Homomonument (WikiCommons)
Experiencing the site
The second time I visited the Homomonument, I went there already aware of what it represents and with a more precise purpose, as it was the core of my fieldwork. I wanted to observe this monument as it symbolizes a massacre occurred more than seventy years ago and to observe how its remembrance creates new meanings and interacts within the present, through this memorial.
At first glance, I realized why I've been not able to see it as a whole the first time. The memorial, in fact, is not standing imposing in the middle of the square, blocking your cityscape visual as the majority of other monuments do. To the contrary, it is part of it, set in the ground of the “Westermarkt”, becoming thus itself the ground, prolonged even out of the square, ending into the canal that flows next to one side of it.
To describe the monument there is a discreet plaque collocated on the canal railing, out of the triangle perimeter. After locking my bike I went near to read which was the description of the monument and trough that, I tried to understand how the creators wanted to present this memorial and which was the main concept behind it. The sign says: “Commemorates all women and men ever oppressed and persecuted because of their homosexuality. Supports the international lesbian and gay movement in their struggle against constant discrimination and oppression. Demonstrates that we are not alone. Calls for permanent vigilance. Past, present and future are represented by the 3 triangles on this square, designed by Karin Daan, 1987". At first impact it is quite strong: reading this sentence you immediately realize that you are not anymore looking at a historical monument that commemorates the past but that you are standing in a site wanted to be a permanent denounce for all those acts of discrimination and oppression that still now, in our present, happen. When you realize that something like that you thought as being far away from your daily life, which you consider already democratic, progressive and fair with everybody, still occur close to you, then you realize that sadly we never learn enough from history. It's a kind of admonishment: we are talking to you, so as you could never be blind again when in your present, you see acts of discrimination. This is the only way to escape a tragic past and to build a better future. The repetition of time concepts like ever, constant, permanent, past, present and future enhance the idea that what happened during Nazism is not an isolated episode of our past but a discrimination that during the years until now still persists, just with mutated forms.
That morning I first walked to discover the triangle which protrudes into the canal, the one representing the present. At its end there were some dried up garlands and close to them, ten red flowers just set down, looking very fresh. They were put there with care in a fan-shape. My first thought was: why bringing new flowers constantly? Who does it? Why? Is it really about remembering homosexuals killed by Nazis or is it to commemorate another kind of more recent tragedy? The fresh flowers really impressed me: someone went there just to offer a sign, ten red flowers meant to say “I do care, I do remember”.
Picture 3. 10 red flowers set down on the Homomonument
After looking at the first triangle, I moved on to the second one, symbolizing the future. To do that I had to cross the street, passing through a lot of taxies parked there, waiting for a call. The street cuts the monument and separates the “present triangle” from the other two. I sat in the triangle of future, which is 60 cm above the ground. I picked that as a point of observation of my site. From there I thought I could have a good overview over the other two triangles, to see at the same time how people approach, see or just bypass the monument. After just a couple of minutes, I realized that that was not a good idea, as a taxi was blocking my view and it was impossible for me to see the triangle on the canal. This hindrance made me reflect on the physical experience that one has of this monument. To see it in its overall is simply impossible to select just one triangle and observe the other two. You have to move and walk along the line that connects the three triangles. Just so you will see the whole memorial. This configuration prearranges your mind for a mental disposition of discovering the site. After seeing one triangle, if you really want to know what’s next, you have to move in this symbolic itinerary through time and through human sufferance. Anyway, even after this consideration, I decided to stay there for a while, to see what was going on from that perspective. I sat there almost thirty minutes. During that time I observed how life goes on around and over the monument. A truck even crossed the monument, people that were going to and coming back from the Anne Frank museum passed walking through the memorial, someone else sat next to me just to take a rest or to eat a snack. A guide with a group of tourists stopped at one triangle to give them an explanation of the monument. Most of the people I saw and interviewed, who were mainly tourists and didn't know what that memorial was about. Still, some were stopping to see what it was and in some cases even consulting their guide or Wikipedia on their smartphones to know more, after the triangle on the canal first captured their attention. Most of the people were just quickly giving a look at the inscription, some taking a picture and then proceed their tour of the city. Others seemed quite to be clumsily embarrassed, ending into an impish smile after discovering for who was the monument. Indeed, in these people, I noticed some modesty and probably prejudice.
Picture 4. The street cuts at the half the perimeter of the monument.
Turning behind me there were some stands, selling souvenirs, flowers, snacks, and above all of them, there was the information symbol. Just in one of them, the "I" of information was pink colored and under it, it was written “gay and lesbian information point”. Hung on one side of the stand, the rainbow flag, symbol of the LGBTQA community (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Asexual). I found it very interesting and nice to have there, related to that precise monument. I entered into the stand and I naïvely asked the seller what did it mean that it was a gay and lesbian information point. He answered me almost bothered indicating me on one corner a lot of fliers and magazines regarding gay and lesbian events in the city. I felt very stupid asking that question, as if “information point” should implicate find a person, there to answer to any additional information to deepen your knowledge about the historical facts concerning the monument or the position of the LGBTQA community related to that. That was probably just the hope of a researcher! Anyway, I took some fliers and a magazine as the seller invited me to do, while I was trying to start a conversation with that man. Despite my efforts to find the best way to approach him, it seemed that every attempt was just making my position worse, making me feel like an unsophisticated hetero wanting to understand better the homosexual world through the wrong, expected questions. I gave up, cursing my English which is still too ambiguous to be clearly understood. I thanked the man and I slipped outside with my fliers. I sat again in the “triangle of future” and I gave a look at the info material that I had taken. Immediately, a sense of perversion crossed my mind. It wasn't at all caused by the image of two people of the same sex kissing: those fliers were full of explicit images of sexual desire and animal-like instincts. Most of the images were degrading into porn. The quantity and the “quality” of those images quite confused me. To answer this and more questions, I met a representative of the Homomonument, who guided me into a deeper understanding of the monument.
The main answer I had from him about the monument is that this memorial is not just a commemoration of the past but even more, a celebration of the present. This word, in fact, celebration, is strictly related to the Homomonument, as it serves as an arena for several manifestations, protests, official moments and also parties. As he explained to me, there are some fixed days in which the monument is the site of official celebrations. One of these is the Queen’s Day on the 30th of April, followed by the National Remembrance Day of the Netherlands on the 4th of May, and the Liberation Day on the 5th of May. For sure the monument is the core site during the Gay Pride and still, it spontaneously gathers people who manifest their indignation every time that an episode of violence or discrimination happens. The representative also explained to me the significance of part of the flowers set down constantly: when a gay person dies, sometimes they asked to symbolically put down some flowers for him or her at the Homomonument. Answering then to my question about the impressive quantity of porn images in the fliers I found at the info point, he first told me that he didn't know about that and that the monument is of course not related to them. In the end, reflecting if this image could enhance stereotypes about gay men and women, he ironically answered that he prefers to think that it is just a way to celebrate diversity.
Talking about the shape and the set of the monument on the ground, he insists that the monument has to be lived and experienced. The words on the flier of the memorial perfectly resume this view: “The Homomonument is consequently a place for both contemplation and for celebration. A place to demonstrate that gay men and women are here to stay and count in society. These two functions do not conflict but rather complement one another”.
What I could observe and discover about the Homomonument is that it represents much more than a memorial for the gay and lesbian victims of Nazism. That is, of course, the deeper and worst passage of history of the homosexual community, but is also the starting point, to keep commemorate all those people that still now are victims of discrimination and oppression, to fight through this monument prejudice and harassment, which are unfortunately not still extinguished. The Homomonument is felt in Amsterdam and in the gay world as a vivid site of union, solidarity, and responsibility, to say loud that they are not alone and that what happened must never happen again.
Dertig jaar Homomonument: 'Nog steeds relevant
dinsdag 05 september 2017 | 19:05
Dertig jaar geleden werd op de Westermarkt het Homomonument onthuld en deze dag gaat niet onopgemerkt voorbij. De tramhalte om de hoek is omgedoopt tot halte 'Homomonument' en er is vanavond een feest bij het monument. Daarnaast wordt er op de Westermarkt een documentaire getoond over de geschiedenis van de driehoeken. Lees meer...
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