May 9, 2013

Belgium: Skinny-Dipping Farmboys and a Gay Santa Claus

We moved to Rock Island, Illinois in 1968, the summer after second grade.  The people who owned the house before us left a box of books in the attic -- but to my surprise I couldn't read some of them, not even the titles.  I thought they were in a secret code, a clue to the location of "the good place" where men hugged.

Later my friend Bill's big brother, who sang "Men with Beards," told me that they were written in Flemish, a language similar to Dutch spoken in Flanders, in Western Belgium.

I wonder what he would have said if he knew that one of the books was Een Beroemde knapp (A Famous Boy) by gay Belgian author Johannes Kneppelhout.

Rock Island had the largest Belgian population west of Chicago.  There was a Belgian Cultural Center, the Belgian Village Restaurants, rolle-bolle courts.  You could take Flemish at the community college.  Teachers spent almost as much time on "our" Belgian heritage as Scandinavian.  There were a few hints that Belgium was a "good place."

1. In 1310 Jan Breydel and Pietr de Coninck started a freedom-fighting rebellion against the evil French invaders.  Their statue stands in the Market Place in Brugge today.  I imagined that they were boyfriends.

2. In Belgium, Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, has a male companion, Zwarte Pete (Black Peter).  He is  traditionally played by a white guy in blackface, in spite of the complaints of racism.

3. Malpertuis, aka The Legend of Doom House (1971) is a Belgian horror movie. An androgynous sailor named Jan (Mathieu Carriere, top photo) is abducted and wakes up in the labyrinthine mansion Malpertuis,  along with his sister and various gluttonous, depraved, insane relatives (who may be Greek gods), all imprisoned by the mysterious Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles).  Everyone, male and female, mortal and god, has creepy sexual intentions toward him.

4. The Francophone gay couples Tintin and Captain Haddock, Corentin and Kim, and Spirou and Fantasio were all drawn by Belgian cartoonists.

5. The Manneken Pis, a statue of a urinating boy, is the symbol of Brussels.

6. De Witte (1980), aka Whitey, is about a gay-vague boy (Eric Clerckx, left) living in Flanders in 1901.  He plays practical jokes and rebels against the religious fundamentalism of his world, longing for the pure joy of skinny-dipping with his chums.  When his mother discovers his "perversion," she forces him to walk all the way back to town naked, a striking image of a gentle soul laid bare for the world to mock.

7. Tomorrowland, a gay-positive music festival held every summer near Brussels.