From left to right: Marcel Tiemens, Daniël Hofstede, Priscilla Postma, Floris Harmanni, and Marjolijn de Voogd, all members of LGBT student organization Ganymedes, shared their experiences as gay and lesbian students in Groningen. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Members of the LGBT student organisation Ganymedes say that by and large, they feel very safe in Groningen.
The fact that Groningen has so many students and that the city is generally well-educated plays a role in that acceptance, according to several members.
While group members say they have not been the victims of anti-gay hate crimes, many admit that they hesitate to identify questionable interactions as criminal behaviour.
During the KEI parade, there were several moments where the group was confronted by unfriendly responses from the crowd, particularly in the vicinity of the Vindicat building.
In contrast, the group felt warmly accepted when they participated in the canal parade during the Amsterdam Gay Pride week in August for the first time.
Local and national police forces confirm that victims of anti-gay hate crimes do not always file a report, and when they do, the reports do not accurately indicate that a hate crime occurred.
Reading time: 12 minutes (2,372 words)
The board members stand in a small cluster beside a pillar on the ground floor of De Kast, one of the pubs where Ganymedes members can regularly be found. The building itself is a little tucked away behind the Oosterstraat, although it is only a stone’s throw away from the Grote Markt. The façade of the splendid, white building is illuminated by pink and purple lighting and strands of lights in all the colors of the rainbow.
The association consists primarily of Dutch members, but there are also a few international members. But according to the outgoing board members, not all international students are enthusiastic about their club.
Daniël Hofstede, former vice-president of Ganymeses, says, ‘During the information market for the new internationals, there are always Russian students that come over to us. Sometimes they ask us what we do and then we explain the abbreviation LGBT: lesbian, Gay, Bisexual – and before we have the chance to say transgender, they walk away.’
This year was no different with a few of the Russian visitors at the information market, Hofstede recounts. A little later that day, Hofstede saw one of them hanging around and pointing at the Ganymedes stall and speaking to someone next to him. Eventually, Hofstede couldn’t take it any longer. ‘I approached him and just asked: ‘Did I do something to offend you?’ And he said: ‘No, no,’’
But how do Dutch people react? Priscilla Postma, a first year student of Information Sciences, sees a relationship between how homogenous Groningen is and how safe the city is for LGBT people. ‘Here, there is a lot more integration. There are still farmers who can be a little difficult, but here in the city, I have never experienced any unpleasantness’, she says.
Several members of the student association are of the opinion that Groningen is better in accepting LGBT people than cities in the west. ‘There are many problems with the integration of foreign youths, especially in the Randstad,’ Postma says.
But in an effort not to paint everyone with a broad brush, she quickly adds that a few former Muslim classmates of hers had no difficulty with the fact that she was so open about her sexuality. ‘I told them that I had a girlfriend and they said, ‘In our religion, that is not allowed, but if you are happy, then it’s fine.’’
Other members also think that the number of highly educated people and students plays a part in how accepting Groningen is. Marcel Tiemens, a natural sciences PhD candidate, is convinced that LGBT people are more quickly embraced in an academic setting than in society in general.
‘I think that it helps that I study at university and especially that I am on the science side of things,’ says Tiemens. ‘People there are easier and more open, I think.’
On the edge
Because he grew up in Groningen, he isn’t just referring to his student time when he talks about his experiences in the city. ‘I never feel unsafe in Groningen.’ He only came out of the closet a few years ago. ‘In the beginning, I found it very nerve-racking. I felt very uncomfortable having to tell people, but looking back, that was completely unnecessary.’
No one who the UK spoke with has personally experienced any seriously dangerous moments as a result of their sexual orientation, but some members say that they had a close call during the KEI parade.
‘You will sometimes get remarks’, says former treasurer Floris Harmanni. ‘Like in the KEI week, when we went past the Vindicat building during the parade, along with several other places along the route. The people there were pretty drunk, and then they think that it’s really macho to make remarks.’ Harmanni believes that such behavior stems from a group dynamic, which emerges from a combination of too much alcohol and feeling compelled to act tough. Postma thinks that there is a deeper underlying reason: ‘I think that they act like that because they are insecure and want to show others that they are not gay.’
‘What are you thinking? He’s not gay!’
Quirijn de Geus, secretary for the board of Vindicat, says that the fraternity has always distanced itself from all forms of discrimination since it was founded and that the group deeply regrets if any negative comments were made in the vicinity of their building during the KEI parade.
‘During a big event like the KEI week with so many participants and other people around, we are unfortunately unable to vouch for every person who is in the general area of our building’, she adds. ‘Our organisation welcomes everyone and we strive to convey that. Members of our fraternity come from all over, have different sexual preferences and are all treated equally.’
Before Ganymedes even reached the city centre during the parade, Marjolijn de Voogd also says that another incident had occurred during the KEI parade, although the former external board member admits that she does not lie awake at night thinking about it. ‘Around the start of the parade, we handed out a flyer to a guy. The girl next to him snatched it out of his hands and shouted: ‘What are you thinking? He’s not gay!’ And just like that, she threw the flyer away.’
Last year, de Voogd had already become aware that Groningen is not always safe everywhere for LGBT people. ‘Last year, when a member of our association who dressed in drag was walking from his house to where we were, he was followed by a group of young men who said things to him like, ‘Hey dirty faggot, why are you wearing a dress?’’
Anti-gay violence and the police
While more and more police corps throughout the Netherlands have founded units which focus on the prevention and handling of anti-LBGT incidents, there is no comparable organisation in Groningen. According to the communications department of the police in the Northern region of the Netherlands, there are a few task forces which work with victims from different cultures, but not with LGBT people in particular.
It may not come as a surprise, then, that there are no local figures concerning anti-LGBT violence in Groningen or the Northern provinces. Even if a victim of a crime were to file a police report, it would be unlikely to register it as a hate crime.
According to several agents from the Groningen police, it is virtually impossible in practice to determine whether an anti-gay crime has occurred in the city. ‘There is no checkbox that you can fill in to see that’, says Matthijs Beukema, student contact officer. Even the race and country of birth of a victim are not always included in the statements made at the police station.
Ellie Lust, spokesperson for the Amsterdam police and a prominent member of Roze in Blauw, a capital city police unit that fights against LGBT violence, confirms that the figures provide little insight into the extent of the problem. ‘Amsterdam had long been the only city which kept track of those figures’, Lust says. ‘The national figures are therefore a big problem.’
The Dutch police partially began registering anti-LGBT crimes in 2007. In that year, 234 incidents were registered. In 2013, there were 620, Roze in Blauw reports. ‘Around 60 per cent of all registered incidents are in Amsterdam’, according to politie.nl. Lust says that the number of incidents in Amsterdam from 2014-2015 has stayed about the same and the number of incidents of violence seems to have even slightly decreased.
But all in all, there is a pronounced increase in the total number of incidents in the last few years, according to the police. Roze in Blauw believes that the increase is partly due to LGBT people becoming more conscious of their rights.
Lust also suggests that the tendency to dismiss uncomfortable experiences can lead to the feeling that these outbursts or micro-aggressions ‘belong’ to being LGBT, as if they are a part of living as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Roze in Blauw urges LGBT people to call the police immediately if they experience something which makes them feel uneasy, as this could increase the chance that the police quickly catch the suspect.
With the exception of these uncomfortable moments, De Voogd has never been the victim of any outbursts of discrimination or hateful behavior. Other members of Ganymedes confirm that this has been their experience as well.
But sometimes, the students admit to having the feeling that they need to adjust their body language in order to actively prevent insults being thrown at them, or worse. They also admit that, dependent upon their surroundings, they tend to change their behavior a little, even in Groningen. ‘But it is the same behavior you see from a girl who takes a detour when having to walk past a group of people because she is wearing shorts. I do not think it will change any time soon. It is a slight bit of self-censorship and that is irritating’, Postma says.
‘It is the same everywhere’, Harmanni thinks. ‘If you display your character in an over-the-top way in certain places, you provoke a reaction. You have to be careful with that: don’t provoke more than is necessary.’
Members of the group also say that they have a tendency not to identify small injustices, such as name-calling or being bumped into as anti-gay behavior, let alone criminal behavior (see box ‘Anti-gay violence and the police’).
‘You look so normal’
How you look can influence the way people treat you, too. Postma thinks that this is why people accept her, because she and her girlfriend are both feminine.
‘If you look like a girly girl with long hair and lipstick, then people consider it to be fine’, she says. ‘But as soon as a girl walks around with short hair and overalls or something like that, then people become unpleasant. In the Netherlands, the following applies: if two lesbians are pretty, people just find that interesting.’
The Dutch feel that ‘being normal’ is a great thing, but that actually stands in the way of real acceptance of LGBT people, Postma thinks. ‘It is a compliment here to say: ‘You look so normal.’ In reply to this, you should actually say ‘thank you’. It is a strange culture if people only like you as long as you act normal.’
Tiemens seconds that thought. ‘They mean well, but everyone should be allowed to be themselves.’
To their great fortune, Ganymedes was able to participate in the Amsterdam Gay Pride canal parade for the first time this year. The board members that sailed along with the parade called it ‘so overwhelming that it is almost indescribable,’ A few members even brought their parents on board.
The former vice president Daniël Hofstede was one of them; his mother was by his side, waving to the extremely enthusiastic public. ‘It was really fun’, he says. ‘You stand there on a boat with 120 people and on the walls along the canals, 300,000 people are stood cheering you on for who you are. No distinction is made between gay or straight. Everyone is so loving.’
His mom also thought it was ‘absolutely great’, Daniël says. ‘But in some ways it is also a little irritating for me, because she still talks about it.’ In the meantime, his mother has become a sort of mother figure in the association. ‘All the board members also call her ‘mom’’, he says.
There were 118 people on board and the boat sailed along in the middle of the parade at position 43. Each time they emerged from underneath one of the many bridges, they played a remix of Het Gras van Het Noorderplantsoen, a song about the popular park in Groningen. A local drag queen –Ellen van Ellende- was also on board with a sparkling purple dress that she had made herself for the occasion.
To a large extent, the trip was financed by sponsors such as the RUG, the Hanzehogeschool and the municipality. As such, the ladies and gentlemen of Ganymedes took extra care with their appearance during the parade: they went smartly dressed in white button-down shirts, preppy purple ties and pants – long or short.
Daniël had never visited Amsterdam during Gay Pride before. ‘I have a Frisian background; my parents are Frisian and what’s more, I live in Groningen. You cannot get more down-to-earth than that’, he says. ‘After this Gay Pride, I recommend everyone to go there at least once. There is something in the air, a feeling of acceptance, and for that one day in the year, you are no longer a minority – you are in the majority. I cannot explain it; it is just the way it is. There is something unexplainable.’
Daniël says that Ganymedes is just like all the other student associations: when it comes down to it, it is about partying and sociability. Yet the difference with their group is that members are aware of having a clear, societal goal. ‘There are many students who are not yet out of the closet, and we give them a helping hand’, he says. He therefore hopes that their visibility as an association has increased through their presence at such a big national stage like the canal parade. Next year, they hope to be there again.
Even within the LGBT communities, transgender people form an even smaller minority group. What is it like to be a transgender student? Read Meena’s story.