Once one of the world’s most progressive countries, the Netherlands could soon see a far-right party in government after an unexpected surge in the polls, which campaigners fear could set back transgender rights by decades.

Ahead of the general election on Wednesday, the Freedom Party (PVV), led by known Islam-critic Geert Wilders, is now neck-and-neck with the largest party in the ruling coalition, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

The PVV has made it clear it does not support what it calls “gender policies” or “diversity posturing” in its manifesto.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the state of LGBTQIA+ rights in the Netherlands?

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, but progress in protecting the lives of LGBTQIA+ people has since stagnated.

The nation currently ranks 14th out of 49 in Europe for LGBTQIA+ rights, according to the 2023 ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, marked down for its lack of protection against hate crime and hate speech, and for conducting intersex surgeries.

The procedure is carried out on people born with atypical chromosomes or sex characteristics to bring their genitalia in line with that expected of men or women. Though it is banned in many European countries, it is still carried out in the Netherlands.

Campaigners are also seeking to expand the country’s new anti-discrimination legislation to include asexual – who experience no sexual feelings or desires – trans and intersex people.

A bill to simplify the process of changing gender through self-determination – or the right to legally change gender without consultation – and lower the age limit has stalled in parliament since 2021.

Acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people remains high, according to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

But a recent investigation by Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer found that online hate against the community has soared over the past three years, in particular more than quadrupling towards trans people.

“There is a cold wind blowing towards the LGBTQ+ community. We are seeing stagnation in acceptance and it’s why we need these parties to stand up for us,” Philip Tijsma of COC told Openly.

Where do the leading parties stand on LGBTQIA+ rights?

The Conservative-liberal VVD, far-right PVV, and Dutch Left (GL|PvdA), a new amalgamation of GreenLeft and Labour, are leading the polls.

A majority of voters support right-leaning parties, but no party is on track to take more than 20% of the overall vote. That means difficult coalition talks and compromises lie ahead.

The VVD, led by Dilan Yeşilgöz since Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s resignation in July, and the GL|PvdA signed a Rainbow Ballot Agreement on Nov. 18, pledging to deliver a series of LGBTQIA+ reforms.

Along with seven other smaller parties, the group promised to ban conversion therapy, grant work leave for staff transitioning gender and introduce an ‘X’ marker in passports for non-binary people, who define themselves as neither male nor female. https://coc.nl/regenboog-stembusakkoord-2023-met-coc/

The GL|PvdA has also promised additional progress in other areas, such as simplifying the transitioning process and criminalising discrimination against all LGBTQIA+ people.

The VVD does not support simplifying the process and does not reference trans people anywhere in its plan for government.

The far-right PVV, like the country’s other parties, supports gay rights, describing it as an important principle of Dutch society when explaining why it does not support the teaching of Islam in schools.

However, the party baulks at some trans rights.

The PVV manifesto says schoolchildren are being “indoctrinated” with “gender insanity“.

The party also pledges to stop local governments cooperating “with gender policies, climate madness and diversity posturing”.

VVD leader Yeşilgöz has refused to rule out coalition negotiations with the PVV, despite telling the Financial Times there were “huge differences” between herself and Wilders. The PVV last supported a government in 2010.

What do rights groups say?

Activists are concerned a right-wing conservative coalition could set back LGBTQIA+ rights by years and leave key issues such as reducing long wait times in trans healthcare and online safety unaddressed.

They also fear smaller right-wing parties, like the Farmer–Citizen Movement (BBB) and Forum for Democracy (FvD), might increase their foothold in parliament.

BBB leader Caroline van der Plas spoke out against the Transgender Act last year, citing safety in women’s spaces and other concerns.A spokesperson for the BBB told Openly that the party “stands up for the rainbow community” and wants to work hard to combat violence and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people.

During a televised debate this month, FvD leader Thierry Baudet denied knowing what non-binary meant and repeatedly asked a person identifying as such whether they were male or female.

“The stakes are big because the anti-trans positions of parties like the PVV, BBB and the FvD will become mainstream and influence how trans people are treated in their daily lives,” said Sophie Schers of the Transgender Netwerk.

“In politics, if it becomes questionable to support trans people, then that will find its way to society. It will set us back decades.”

The FvD, GL|PvdA, and PVV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Lucy Middleton.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.