By Loann Halden
Originally published on Advocate.com June 30 2009 11:00 PM ET
Even in a country as progressive as Belgium, where same-sex marriage and adoption by gays have been on the books since 2003 and 2006 respectively, Serge Muyters snagged headlines when he came out six years ago. It's not every day that a high-ranking police commissioner discusses his sexual orientation on the record and then proceeds to marry his partner -- a fellow member of the Antwerp Police Department.
Although Muyters decided to step out of the media spotlight five years ago, he agreed to make a rare interview exception for Advocate.com. As the summer travel season heats up, the first deputy chief commissioner spoke about being out on the job and the city he calls home.
Advocate.com: Belgium has some of the most progressive laws for LGBT people in Europe. Are there any areas that still need work?Serge Muyters: Antwerp is very open-minded to all visitors and inhabitants, and the city council supports many diversity programs. In 2013, Antwerp will organize the World Outgames. The only thing that concerns me is that recent research found that one out of 20 gay men is HIV-positive and that young people have a lot of unsafe sex. Due to successful treatment with antiretrovirals, people don't talk anymore about HIV and AIDS. I think it is necessary that Belgium put HIV and AIDS back on the agenda and convince people to practice safe sex.
Police departments are notoriously macho, and certainly, in many U.S. cities, officers aren't leaping from the closet. How did you decide to come out? After I got my master's in criminology, I became a police officer in 1989. The Antwerp Police Department was not any different than most police forces all over the world -- very macho and not really gay-friendly. On patrol all of my colleagues were always talking about women, and I was not interested in that at all. They considered me a workaholic who was only interested in the job. The workaholic thing was true, but I could not tell anybody about my sexual orientation and how I spent my free time. I led, as a lot of gays do, a double life.
In 2000, I became commissioner -- at the age of 33, the youngest ever in Antwerp -- and I was responsible for five districts with about 250 police officers. Everybody considered me a workaholic because we were very successful in getting part of organized crime out of Antwerp. My sexual orientation was never an issue. Even most of the reporters at the local newspapers knew that I was gay, but nobody ever wanted to ask any questions about it. In 2003 a local gay magazine asked me if I would give an interview, and ... I simply said yes. Since the Belgian government passed very progressive laws, I thought it was the right time to come out. Once the regular media found out I outed myself, it was a big issue in Belgium. It was on national TV and I went on a few talk shows. But by the end of 2004 I decided I had to focus on my career and not on becoming a media star, so I stopped giving interviews.
Has being openly gay impacted your career at all? No, it hasn't. In 2004, I became director of operations, and my last promotion was in 2008 when I became first deputy chief commissioner and second in command of our police department. Due to my outing, a lot of other police officers came out, and being gay is not an issue anymore. The Antwerp Police Department is very open-minded toward gays and lesbians.
You tied the knot with Karl Heeren, a fellow police commissioner, in 2004. How did your families and the community react? I met Karl in 2000 when I became commissioner. He was also working in my division. When we became partners in 2001, we decided not to work together anymore, and he moved to another division. When I told my parents I was gay, they were fine with it from the first moment -- my mom told me she had always known. Karl's father was very disappointed at first, but after some time he asked Karl to invite me to come over to dinner. Karl was very nervous about that and told me not to talk about politics or his father's job. The whole evening I talked to Karl's father only about his job and politics and ... he accepted me from that moment as his new son. Our marriage was big news in Belgium. A chief commissioner and a commissioner who got married was never seen before. Our marriage was mentioned in newspapers in France and even in Turkey.
When visiting Antwerp, what are the best neighborhoods to meet LGBT locals? Antwerp has many places where you can meet LGBT locals. At the tourism office in the old town you can get a special LGBT map where visitors can find information about cafés, bars, restaurants, clubs, and even saunas.
Where is your favorite place in the city to unwind? We live very near to the Antwerp Zoo and it is a relaxing place to wander around. It feels like a beautiful garden in the middle of the city and has cozy areas to sit down and relax.
What do you love most about the city? Antwerp is the biggest little city in the world, where you can find everything within walking distance.
When in Antwerp, don't miss the following highlights:
New gay-owned restaurant Raven , serving classic and seasonal dishes from celebrated local gay chef Gert-Jan Raven. Located in Antwerp's main market, the stylish fine dining spot overlooks the old City Hall and Guild Houses.
Popi Café (Plantinkaai 11-12;), a favorite with an age-spanning LGBT crowd for its affordable drinks, relaxed vibe, summer terrace, and special whisky menu. This centrally located bar is the top stop before hitting the clubs.
Lunch by day and DJ grooves at night at Hessenhuis (Falconrui 59;), a small two-floor café/bar set in a 16th-century warehouse. Theme parties are in regular rotation.
Belgium's largest gay nightclub Red and Blue (Lange Schipperskapelstraat 13,), a European hot spot for 11 years. Owner Ludo Smits, queen mum of Antwerp's gays, presides over a sexy mix, from men-only Saturdays to the lesbian Café De Love party every second Sunday of the month.