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Diversity out of the closet

Photo taken by Jamison Wieser

By guest author Merijn Hattink In the Netherlands we live in an environment where being openly gay or lesbian is a well established right. The gay and lesbian lobby has never been as powerful as today. They open up their  guns -read voices- in the public sphere whenever this human right is under fire.  This emancipation is a tremendous achievement in itself. But whose victory is it, and does it count for all gays and lesbians in the culturally diverse society of the Netherlands?

Last month, Zami (the platform for black, immigrant and refugee women) held a salon in the public library in Amsterdam as part of the events running up to the Gay and Lesbian Pride taking place a bit later. Despite all the good work and victories there are still lots of bumps in the road. The main problem is that the ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ rights lobby has the tendency to look at the issue of emancipation from a very European cultural perspective that assumes that ‘our’ way is the one ‘others’ should follow. We forget that there are also sisters and brothers from beyond the white cultural boundaries with a different point of departure.

Therefore the main question put in front of the Zami Salon was: ‘does the new form of visibility and coming out of the closet that we have achieved in the Netherland restrict or open up new possibilities for black migrant women?’

Before the talking started, a part of the semi- documentary Watermelon Woman was shown. In this film, director Cheryl Dunye -herself an African-American lesbian herself- carries out a research to find out more about the life of Fea Richard.  Fea Richard was an African-American film star  from the 1930s, hardly known and almost forgotten. The more Cheryl gets to know about the woman -for example, that she had a (sexual)relation with a white lady- the more questions arrive. In this way she brings out into the open (old) taboos like interracial relationships, racism and homosexuality.

In the middle they paused the film so that the ladies in the conference room could exchange their own story lines. With a panel of five professionals (Zulile Blinker, Tjoa Twie, Joan Werner, Juul van Hoof and Nathalie Sichtmand) they put five  propositionson on debate. Neske Besk, the master of ceremony, coordinated the exchange between public and panel.

The discussion became a coming together of experience. It showed that being gay or lesbian is not as clear cut as most of us tend to assume. From a typically Dutch point of view, the logical consequence of having a homosexual relationship is that your identity to the outside world is also that of a homosexual. However, this logic is not the same in all cultures and especially not in the Afro-Surinam culture.

Another interesting point made during the discussion was that older black ladies experienced that the Dutch lesbian movement had its own set of rules and codes, such as short hair, openly speaking about being lesbian and fighting for it, their dungarees and more. They had problems blending in with this subculture. They experienced that the white organization was not open to diversity… so the black women felt locked out.

Among themselves they did find a common cultural ground and mutual understanding. They agreed that it is very important for them to get organized together,  but also to keep in touch with and mix with their white sisters’  organizations.

The main question of the day soon disappeared behind the fireworks of the discussion. But in the flow of exchanges and experiences one question walked through all of it: can you see  homosexuality only in one light? There are many ways to look at it; as biological fact, sexual activity, a psychological thing or identity. Are these categories of identifying it really important -the women asked- in the way people experience their sexual preference? What matters more is that there are many different ways of expressing homosexuality and experiencing it in different social (cultural) surroundings with their own set of values and beliefs.

Today in the culturally diverse Dutch society people move in different social surrounding in which they choose the form to express or not, and exchange openly or not their (sexual) identity. Perhaps the young generation goes more with the flow, swings back and forward between the many-in-the-one we are nowadays.  They live in an environment where being (openly) gay is not an achievement any more but one of the many cultural niches you can enter.

Maybe we should get diversity ‘out of the closet’ now, and look for new ways of perceiving homosexuality. Now that we do not have to fight on the barricades any longer maybe it is time to open up more salons to come to a closer understanding.

Merijn Hattink is a graduate of cultural anthropology at the VU and a free lance writer.

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One Comment

  1. Donya Donya

    Hi there Merijn,
    Thanks for your piece. I appreciate the acknoweldgement of the relative openness of Dutch sexual norms, as well as the cultural diversity in homosexuality in the Netherlands.

    However, sometimes focusing on the issues of immigrant homosexuality and “cultural difference” can detract from the fact that severe homophobia still exists among non-immigrants in the Netherlands. Let’s not forget the (more than one) recent gaybashing incidents in the month running up to gay pride — such incidents often have nothing to do with immigrants or cultural difference.

    I’m just saying, the fact that we happen not to be fighting at the barricades any more doesn’t mean that sexual liberation in the Netherlands was ever a finished project. Perhaps that’s not what you meant to suggest, but I just missed equal acknowledgment of this fact. I would suggest that increasing cultural diversity brings to light precisely how incomplete and uncomprehensive the often-celebrated, and supposedly extremely open model of (hom0-)sexual liberation (read “tolerance”) has, in fact, always been.

    thanks for listening,

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