I’ve been very lucky this week to spend time with Boris Dittrich who you may have seen in the media supporting our moves towards marriage equality.
The media stories, understandably focussed on this issue, but his story is also quite extraordinary so I thought I would share some of the highlights.
Boris’s father escaped Czechoslovakia and ended up in Germany after his life was threatened for protesting. As a teenager, Boris started to realize he was gay while hoping he was bi-sexual. He got a Fulbright scholarship to the United States, and had a girlfriend. While there he got a letter from his parents telling him they’d had some terrible news, his sister had told them she was a lesbian, and they tried to get her to see a psychiatrist but she wouldn’t and they really wished she was dead. But at least they had him and he could give them grandchildren. At this point Boris decided he would do his best to live up to his parents hopes and be a good straight man.
Then he and his girlfriend decided to go on a road trip to San Francisco. While there at the hostel they met three young Scandinavian students who were also on scholarship, and gay. They told Boris about this community worker they were going to visit who was talking about gay rights. Boris and his girlfriend were supposed to be going to the zoo but Boris and managed finally to convince his girlfriend that this would be interesting. So off they went and sat around a big table at the community centre talking about what was happening in San Francisco. During this discussion the community worker turned to Boris and said “you, you are gay. I can tell.” Boris adamantly denied this and to his shame now made a comment along the lines of “you gays always think young men are gay.” Boris and his girlfriend decided they would go to the zoo after all.
Skipping ahead a few years and Boris is back in Holland practicing as a lawyer and in a relationship with a man. He is at home watching a documentary about gay rights in the US when he sees the community worker who outed him; Harvey Milk. While watching the documentary he has something like an epiphany and realizes he wants to make his work about fighting for gay rights. He becomes a judge and whenever he can takes cases dealing with discrimination.
He was then approached by his party to stand for parliament, and he does. The first ever gay candidate in Dutch history. He is profiled regularly in the media and is asked what he plans to do for the LGBT communities. This takes him by surprise, as he hadn’t actually thought about that so has to think about what he could do. He decides marriage equality would be something ambitious, especially as it hadn’t been achieved anywhere in the world.
His party starts to get nervous about all the media attention and asked him to keep a lower profile on the issue. He argued by saying how can you ask me to represent others when you won’t let me represent myself. He was not put off his mission and over several years he managed to build support around the parliament for the idea, until when it came to the vote about two thirds of the Parliament supported it. What should have been a mere formality then of the Prime Minister agreeing to introduce the Bill was stymied as the Prime Minister refused. At the election very soon after that Boris’s party lost power. Some in his party blamed this on the marriage equality debate. While they lost the election, the two parties that had won still needed his party to gain a majority and asked what they would want in return for getting their support. Not surprisingly Boris put marriage equality on this list. The Prime Minister who had just a few weeks before refused to introduce the idea, agreed willingly as did the leader of the conservative party who had voted against it.
Even with the political support the debate was fierce and Boris was at the top of a political hit list. This resulted in a man thankfully being arrested because he had an uzi and a map to Boris’s House.
Now the law has so bedded-in that when the Christian Orthodox party made it into power with the repeal of marriage equality on their agenda, they held a press conference with their coalition partner and announced they would not repeal the law because it was now an integral part of Dutch society. After seeing so many couples marry and commit to caring for each and being responsible for each other, they could no-longer see merit in repeal.
This is one small part of an incredible story and incredible career that continues in the global sphere today. I feel very privileged to have spent time with the man.