Bart De Wever comes out against rainbow T-shirts

Speaking in an interview with the dailies Het Nieuwsblad and De Standard, the Mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever (Flemish nationalist), has said that civil servants shouldn't be allowed to wear a 'rainbow T-shirt' during office hours. Mr De Wever says that the T-shirt is a sign that they are gay and that cannot be tolerated.

The mayor points to the coalition agreement in Antwerp that states that external symbols pointing to a philosophical or political conviction or support for a trade union or a sports club may not be worn during office hours. The stipulation also occurred in the last coalition agreement when Antwerp was led by a socialist mayor.

Mr De Wever told newsmen that people who become the face of Antwerp have to observe neutrality: "There are limits to every form of expression. This is especially the case when you are sitting at a counter on behalf of the City of Antwerp. May a woman wear a headscarf? Of course, but not at a counter. Counter officials aren't allowed to wear T-shirts with the words 'our people first' either (a reference to one of the slogans of the far right Vlaams Belang). I don't want somebody with a rainbow T-shirt at a counter either, because in this way a homosexual makes clear that he or she adheres to this obedience. Other people recognise this."

Mr De Wever stresses that he's got nothing against gays: "To the contrary, but I don't think you can sit at a window with a T-shirt like that. No. I am prepared to let modest expressions of individual identity pass, but a customer at the Antwerp City administration doesn't need to know that the counter official is a gay Muslim who votes Vlaams Belang."

"Me something against gays? That is ridiculous."

"If people try to turn this into me saying that I've got something against homosexuality, then that is utterly ridiculous" Mr De Wever told VRT Radio. "I have always defended equal rights for gays and I have consistently defended this view in words and deeds, in writings and in the Belgian Parliament, but neutrality is neutrality and to maintain this you have to identify showy expressions of personal preference."

Bart De Wever's words have triggered a raft of reactions. The main opposition party in Antwerp, the socialist SP.A, supports the need for the authorities to be neutral, but says that neutrality and diversity should not conflict.

Cavaria, the umbrella of gay organisations, is concerned about Mr De Wever's pronouncements and suggests his words clear the way for abuse. A spokeswoman for Antwerp's Pink House wondered how far an employer can go in determining the dress of an employee, while the gay youth organisation Wel Jong Niet hetero suggests that the politicians who are indignant about Mr De Wever's words should drop wearing suits and go to Parliament ‘as themselves’ next week.