LGBTI students fear violence
You’re lucky if it’s just words
Alex Coppinger was walking outside with a friend, minding his own business, when a few men on motorcycles drove by and jeered at him. ‘They were laughing like hyenas and called me Lady Gaga,’ he recalls.
And that wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. One time, some random teenagers threw a bottle at him. ‘I was in shock, because I was just biking down the street. Usually I’m not confrontational, but that time I parked the bike, threw the bottle back at them and made this little crazy screaming noise to reciprocate their energy,’ says the media studies student.
Alex likes to express himself through unconventional, colourful outfits and fun accessories. This makes him a target for nasty comments. In his home country of Ireland, people on the street would sometimes call him ‘faggot’. Since he doesn’t understand Dutch, it’s difficult to make out what people in Groningen say about him, but what he does understand is that their whispers and pointed fingers are clearly directed at him.
He tries to shake it off, but it feels uncomfortable to be judged publicly because of his identity. Alex has known he’s gay ever since he was twelve years old. Since he started studying at the UG, he has started experimenting with different styles of clothing and make-up. He loves putting himself together and becoming a different character for a day. ‘Dressing up gives me confidence’, he says. ‘But sometimes I feel like it would be easier to wear something bland to avoid criticism.’
The Netherlands was the first country to allow same-sex marriages in 2001 and it’s one of the few countries that allow adoption for same-sex couples, so it may seem like a haven for the queer community. But the Rainbow Map and Index only has the Netherlands in twelfth place in its annual ranking of the legal and policy situation of LGBTI people in forty-nine European countries. The 2021 list was just published on May 17th, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and it shows the Netherlands scoring especially poorly on protection against hate crime and hate speech.
Being called gay is not a problem
‘Being called gay is not a problem’, says Rodrigo González. ‘They could beat you up instead.’ The behavioural sciences PhD student, who is originally from Mexico City, has gotten used to verbal attacks and insults by random strangers. Yet the number of shaming comments have reached a point where he feels discouraged to display any affection towards partners publicly.
He remembers the time that a lady walked up to him at the city beach, noticeably drunk. She asked him in Dutch whether he was gay because of the swimming trousers he was wearing. ‘At first I said “no”, but two seconds later I corrected myself and said I was gay. It’s been ten years since I came out and there is still this fear inside of me of accepting my identity.’
Instead of calling her out on her inappropriate behaviour, Rodrigo tried to rationalise what had happened. She was drunk, after all, or maybe she had psychological problems.
Artificial intelligence student Gilles Lijnzaad recognises burying your head in the sand like that. He first came out as lesbian to his family, but later discovered he identifies as a transgender man. ‘Questioning my gender was like opening up a can of worms’, he says. ‘I put it off for a while and just pretended it wasn’t happening, but you can only do that for so long.’
Questioning my gender was like opening up a can of worms
In the process of embracing his masculinity, Gilles decided to shave off his shoulder long hair. Afterwards, people commented that his hair was so much more beautiful before. ‘I know they meant well, but it still made me feel bad. It felt like I was starting to become myself and not being accepted for that.’
Rodrigo remembers the day he decided to take a leap and wear a skirt outside for just a couple of hours. ‘I was anxious when I went out. I was lucky to not get any comment, but I could feel almost everyone giving me strange looks’, he says. He would like to experiment with the way he dresses more often but feels that this would not be very safe.
For Alex, it has become almost normal that people whisper about his appearance. ‘It makes me feel like a joke, but it could be worse’, he says. ‘I’ve never been hit for being gay.’
And that is a very real possibility for everyone who openly expresses their sexuality. Emi Howard, who works at the UG Language Centre, has a friend who was beaten up outside gay club De Kast while she was with her girlfriend.
‘It was really bad. My friend had to go to the hospital,’ says Howard, who identifies as queer and non-binary themselves. ‘The police’s first response was: “Who was it? I bet it was Moroccans, what did they look like?”’, Emi recollects. The perpetrators were two white Dutchmen.
Anything that is out of the ordinary is risky
Emi considers themselves privileged because they are ‘white and quite masculine-presenting’ and they’ve never experienced physical violence because of their sexual orientation. However, friends have not been so lucky. ‘You have to be careful. It’s happened several times that they left parties that were a safe space to wear make-up and whatever you want, and then got threatened by strangers on the street’, says Emi. ‘Anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t fit in the right box, is risky.’
The way they are viewed by others is always at the back of Emi’s mind. When they were looking for an apartment with their partner, Emi made sure to dress a certain way ‘to be perceived as acceptable’.
The Dutch culture where you’re expected to ‘be normal’ and fit in works against genuine acceptance, Emi feels. ‘The whole idea of being queer is the opposite of that mentality. You can’t have a cultural attitude that is based on this while also claiming to accept everyone’s identity.’
Emi’s partner frequently notices people watching the two of them when they walk through the city, holding hands. But Emi has become immune to the looks. ‘This is how I’ve always lived. I don’t know any other way.’
Rodrigo wishes the Netherlands would have stricter hate speech and hate crime laws. While he’s mainly had to deal with looks and comments, friends of his have experienced violence. That has made him afraid to express himself. ‘You can be who you want to be in the Netherlands’, he says. ‘Just as long as you do it behind closed doors.’