Gays under pressure in Belgium's moral backlash Anger over child murders switches to Belgium's gays

After the child-murder scandals, the gains of 30 years are being rolled back. Sarah Helm reports

Nobody around the Place Fontainas has anything good to say about Oliver T. He must be one of them - that they admit. But they didn't know him. All they know is that by naming Elio Di Rupo, the Belgian deputy prime minister, as one of his "clients", this fellow prostitute has broken the strict code of silence which is enforced here on the street.

He has encouraged a backlash against gays in general and damaged the male prostitution business. Police patrols have increased, and Oliver T, who is revealed to be a waiter called Oliver Trusgnach, has scared people away from this central Brussels square, where trade is normally brisk from 3pm onwards. It is then that men start leaving offices, shops, factories, ministries, embassies, and stop off, briefly, at Place Fontainas, before making their way home.

"He is a fool, that guy," said one young man, who called himself Jean. "We are discreet. We never talk." He would not say how old he was. Tall, with dark curly hair, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, it was hard to tell if he was 16 or 26, as he stood there on a street corner, under a statue of the Virgin, on the soaring bulk of Notre Dame du Bon Secours. But then nobody this week seemed to know how old Oliver T was either.

In spite of the threat to the government should his allegations prove true, and in spite of all the pages of lurid allegations printed in the Belgian press, not even the police have bothered to establish whether Oliver T was under 16, the age of consent, when he allegedly had sex with the Deputy Prime Minister. And nobody seems to care.

Oliver T is a "victim" - whatever his age - and a new, and potent symbol of moral corruption at the heart of the state. For nearly three months the country has been in shock, following the revelations of the sexual abuse, torture and murder of young girls, carried out, according to the charges, by a known paedophile, Marc Dutroux. For three months Belgians have demanded explanations for how such horrors could have been allowed to happen, and then covered up for so long by bungling police and judges.

Initially, people displayed sorrow, while angrily attacking the Belgian establishment. Simultaneous revelations about a series of political corruption cases, and new evidence in the unsolved murder of Andre Cools, in 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister, deepened the shock. Now, however, all that is left is the anger. Belgium seems determined to find the "guilty man". The "moral" right is on a new crusade.

The case of Eli Di Rupo, an openly gay politician, who admitted he has used male prostitutes but denied his partners have been under-age, has stoked the fires of moral outrage. The gay community all over Belgium is on the alert. Political leaders of the extreme right Vlaams Blok party and the conservative Catholic parties are targeting them, they say.

In the moral confusion, gays fear what the new sanctification of "the family" and "family values" will mean for them. Proposed new gay-rights laws have been shelved. The gains of 30 years are being rolled back, say liberals. Mr Di Rupo, son of an Italian immigrant, is a member of the Francophone Socialists - the party which has been most exposed in recent corruption scandals. The liberals claim the allegations against Mr Di Rupo were calculated to discredit the Francophone Socialists in order to bring down the centre-left coalition government.

And yet the Di Rupo case has nothing to do with the Dutroux atrocities. There is no evidence to suggest Mr Di Rupo at any stage had any responsibility for the Dutroux inquiries or could have been associated with a cover-up. All the youths he may have had sex with, whatever their age, were clearly "victims".

But their tragedy should not be confused with the tragedy of Julie and Melissa, the eight-year-old girls left to starve in a dungeon by Dutroux. He murdered and abused women and girls. "Suddenly in Belgium we are not talking about murders of young girls any more," says Peter Sioen, a psychologist and expert on male prostitution. "We are not talking about political corruption. We are only talking about gays, prostitution and the age of consent."

Since the Dutroux atrocities came to light in August, Belgium has found moral corruption everywhere. The papers have been full of revelations about paedophiles and other depravities, which previously this society preferred to keep hidden.

Brussels is a place where any kind of sex is on offer at the right price. Female prostitution is here for all to see, parading the seedy streets around the Gare du Nord or the wealthy boulevards around Avenue Louise. Brussels, like any big city, has a large gay community, and male prostitution has always been been widespread, although, as Jean would say, it is "more discreet."

The client "profile" shows most of those visiting the prostitutes are family men leading double lives. Politicians, diplomats, priests are among figures regularly identified by researchers, openly approaching the youths of the Place Fontainas.

While Oliver T's revelations about Mr Di Rupo may have emptied the streets for now, the prostitutes still working here believe the rest will soon be back. "Business will be good again," says Jean, as a dark limousine purrs around the front of Notre Dame du Bon Secour.

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