The Netherlands is often portrayed as an open-minded, pragmatic country. It has earned this reputation, among other things, by passing controversial yet progressive laws much earlier than most countries. This is the case with the introduction of same sex marriage laws put in effect since 2001, making The Netherlands the earliest country in the world to legally embrace these civil unions. Since then, many people have moved to the Netherlands in search of a safer place, a place where they can finally legally be themselves. That becomes evident, for instance, via the 15,000 same-sex couples that have gotten married within Dutch borders.
However, upon interviewing people from different groups and organisations linked to LGBTQ+ rights as well as members of the local community, it became apparent that not everything is as open and safe as it seems.
Within the city of The Hague, many associations dedicate themselves to providing safe spaces for anyone from the LGBTQ+ community who needs support, or an opportunity to just be themselves. Such is, for instance, the case of the Hangout 070, which organises LGBTQ+ events focusing on engaging people of colour as well as immigrants. Their goal is to empower and allow people to shape themselves in their own terms. With that idea in mind, they acquired The House, a place that provides anyone willing to respect their bylines with safety, fun and the opportunity to meet nice people and recharge.
Such community-oriented spaces have also been sprouting within universities in The Hague. For instance, Haagse Regenbogen was created at The Hague University of Applied Sciences to focus on LGBTQ+ employees and students in need for inclusion, appreciation and safety. The creation of Haagse Regenbogen took place after a similar student-led organisation, Proud, dissolved due to the lockdown enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has the founder of Proud and Haagse Regenbogen (who wishes to remain anonymous) worked hard to see both organisations appear and grow, but they also had to watch the group struggle to remain active while counting with few members and little support. Still, during our interview, they stated that there is a need for such an association within The Hague University of Applied Sciences.
If my interviews with the co-founder of the Haagse Regenbogen and a volunteer from the Hangout 070 showed me anything, it was that they, and many of their colleagues, joined these organisations out of a common need. It was a personal search to find something they could not find elsewhere. According to them, it all came back to the idea of safety. This concept encompasses many day-to-day situations that range from being safe while walking down the street and getting appropriate medical treatment to not having to face a backlash and hurtful side comments for being true to yourself. For both of them, as well as other interviewees that belong to the queer community in the Hague, this is not always the case.
Getting medical attention and being taken seriously by a doctor in the Netherlands is a challenge. I have often heard friends, acquaintances, and even seen news media share stories of people who have been refused medical treatment that they consider necessary due to a series of symptoms or long periods of sickness. This is also the case for members of the queer community who want to transition. During their interview, a volunteer from the Hangout 070 explained how they welcomed people who felt alone in their fight against the system. Not only was it related to healthcare not covering the procedures, but also by the feeling that they had to prove they were “trans enough” and “strong enough” to be able to finally access the treatment.
For instance, at Amsterdam’s Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria, one of the first places in the world where children could receive treatment for gender dysphoria, has a transitioning protocol that has six months of tests and therapy before any treatment is considered. From there, patients might need to wait several years before receiving hormone treatments or undergo surgery if they chose to do so.
However, this is not the only situation in which interviewees reported feeling unsafe. The co-founder of the Haagse Regenbogen explained how she feels the need to constantly fight a system that does not support her, on top of snide comments and hurtful jokes from peers and classmates every now and then. Another interviewee (who also chose to remain anonymous) mentioned how they do not feel safe sharing their involvement with the queer community because they know that a significant amount of people will not be accepting. Their fear is that if anyone were to find out, their family and friends would immediately cut ties with them, and they would be left to deal with an already difficult life on their own.
Besides the main theme of safety and looking for safer spaces in these kinds of organisations, there was also an underlying need to find people who understand what one is going through. During many of the conversations, interviewees mentioned that they feel their straight, cisgender friends do not understand –and even dismiss– the worries, concerns and fears that come with being queer. Sometimes, they even mentioned encountering jokes and insensitive comments when they brought up a new relationship, or having a new work position.
The last question of all interviews was what they would like to say to those making decisions and in general the people around them. The common element among all the answers was to not only celebrate how far the Netherlands has come, but also to continue moving forward. There is a Dutch saying that can be translated to “don’t fix what is not broken”, but as the volunteer at the Hangout 070 and the co-founder of the Haagse Regenbogen show through their work: not everything is fine and there is still a lot of room for improvement.
by Ju Laclau Massaglia