In the middle of a stay at his mother’s home in Aruba two years ago, Paolo Petrocchi folded all his clothes, placed them in his suitcase and packed everything; that’s how afraid he was that his mother would kick him out, now that he was about to tell her his big secret.
He sat down with her, and she immediately knew that he was going to tell her something important. ‘Is it your health? Do you have problems with your studies?’ she asked. But that wasn’t it. She kept guessing: ‘Does it have something to do with your hormones?’
That’s when he told her he was gay.
Paolo’s move to Groningen in 2005 was a major help in finding the confidence he needed to come out. The 28-year-old describes his decision to move from Aruba to the Netherlands as a push factor. ‘I was very determined to come here at all costs.’ He didn’t feel comfortable living in a country where he couldn’t be himself.
‘Aruba is a very conservative and mainly Catholic island,’ he says, and he constantly felt the eyes of others looking at him, judging his every move. He saw gay people being regularly insulted and, whenever someone would come out, it inevitably triggered a family crisis.
So, he left the island and enrolled in Social Geography and Planning at the RUG. However, he soon realized that he didn’t feel that passionate about the subject and switched to American Studies in 2011. The combination of culture and history seemed particularly appealing, and he was convinced that American Studies would be very important for political matters.
Judging your every move
‘The study made me understand international processes and made me more aware of what is going on.’ Having finished his bachelor, he is eager to start his American Studies master.
Being from Aruba – formerly a Dutch colony but now an independent nation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands – he’s got the Dutch nationality on his ID card. But his arrival still came as a culture shock.
It was his first time away from his home and his family. Even though he was determined and the education system in Aruba is similar, the switch from high school to university turned out to be a big one. University life brought with it a very different climate and culture.
Paolo had to learn to depend on an alarm clock rather than sunlight to wake him up in the morning. The language also turned out to be troublesome. He was used to speaking Dutch in Aruba, but the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands is very different, and it took him some time to become fluent. Moreover, he struggled to understand Dutch humour. ‘It is a different kind of humour in Aruba.’
He soon learned how to be funny by Dutch standards: he sees himself as a funny person, and he couldn’t bear thinking that people would assume he was always so serious.
The most important lesson was about the typical Dutch weather: an umbrella is a necessity for survival in northern Europe, ‘whereas in Aruba, umbrellas are simply toys, because it’s sunny year round’, he says.
And then there was the debate around Zwarte Piet. Even though Arubans also celebrate Sinterklaas and Paolo actively participated in the festivities – including the Zwarte Piet tradition – until 2011, he looks at it differently now.
In the beginning of his American Studies bachelor, Paolo attended a lecture on the American South and learned about black face theatre productions: in the nineteenth century, white performers painted their faces black and acted as stereotypical African Americans. ‘When I saw that picture on the slides, I thought, “that’s Zwarte Piet”.’
He does not oppose the tradition of Sinterklaas and knows that it’s important for the Dutch people, but now, he’d like to see a change in the way it’s celebrated. The 28-year-old understands that changing the celebration may be a long process, and he is happy that one of the major supermarket chains has sought to remove Zwarte Piet from their ads and stores.
Still, all of those things seem tiny compared to the biggest and most important difference for him: in the Netherlands, it’s possible to be openly gay without provoking major debate. ‘No one is afraid to say what they want to say’, Paolo says. ‘And no one is being judged.’
He knew from a young age that he was gay, but living in the Netherlands finally made him feel comfortable about himself and his sexuality. ‘I was able to come out on my own terms.’
When Paolo told his Dutch friends two years ago, he didn’t get a single negative response. His two best friends had their suspicions already, but others were completely surprised. Whether they expected it or not, everyone treated him as if nothing had changed. To his relief, his mother, who is religious, told him, ‘I’m still your mother and I still love you.’
‘You have to love yourself and accept yourself first’, Paolo says. ‘That way, the people around you can do the same.’
Now, after almost ten years of living in the Netherlands, Paolo describes his identity as hybrid. He wouldn’t want to miss the experiences he has made in the Netherlands, but still feels connected to his home country.
‘I do love my country’
He is open to moving to a different country to continue his career, but he would also like to go back to Aruba to make a difference there. Through the American Studies bachelor, he became interested in gay rights in America and, as a gay man, he wants to bring change to the conservative island.
‘Maybe the idea to be involved in Aruban politics and to make a difference is a bit far-fetched, but it is possible’, he says. Changing Aruba’s approach to homosexuality is a personal matter for him: ‘I do love my country, even if it doesn’t love me.’