My Life in The Netherlands Before Immigrating to The US in 1992 (part 1.)
(This story originally appeared on medium.com in its entirety on June 23 2016, and was republished on medium.com in 2 parts on January 28 2017.)
(The feature documentary manuscript ‘The Queer Case for Individual Rights: From International Film Student to Queer and Undocumented,’ on which this essay is based, was inspired by Zoe.)
I am writing this as a testament, in case I don’t reach my dream, and in case I will.
According to the US Constitution and its’ preamble all human beings, (“men” but not exclusively Americans,) are created equal, with inalienable rights, which are self-evident.
These include the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, (even private property, one’s person, mind and body, and the fruits of one’s labor being private property.)
The right to life precedes and determines all other rights.
But life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness include the right to move/to be mobile, and to pursue income, and even to pursue love, of the consensual kind.
These are human rights, based on humankind’s ability to use reason to survive; not an American privilege!
My Life in the Netherlands Before Immigrating to the US in 1992
I was born in Leiderdorp, a small town not far from Amsterdam in the Netherlands in 1973, and grew up an only child in even smaller Voorschoten, suffering under my parents troubled marriage, and also feeling myself to be different than my classmates.
In my childhood I never related to the way girls felt and as long as I can remember I felt inwardly male, but was taught that I was female and so should act accordingly, which I couldn’t, creating psychological conflict and isolation. I felt continuously criticized and corrected rather than encouraged and accepted, and not allowed to express my feelings, something I later came to understand as heterosexual and gender-normative people attempting to project a heterosexual orientation and heteronormative gender identity on to me as the exclusive way to be, (“straightening out, and mis-gendering me,”) mostly because not knowing and not understanding and so with a certain fear and judgment.
I experienced high school in nearby Leiden as completely isolated and shunned because of being gay and having an atypical gender identity. My only salvation was a first serious crush on a girl I shared classes with for 4 repressed years with but who gave me my reason to write, for just like one of my favorite writers in high school, Allen Ginsberg, I became a writer because I was in love and wanted to express my feelings.
High school was also during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, when the words AIDS and homosexuality were used interchangeably, and from what I can remember hearing you could practically “catch either” from a toilet seat at a public place, according to the various national and international news channels reporting on this newly discovered virus, and in the Netherlands we were warned about using the public restrooms at Amsterdam’s Central Station in particular.
Sex education was generally explained in purely biological terms, and the words mutual consent certainly never part any conversation, and was entirely heterosexual-oriented, and with the sole function of procreation.
LGBTQ discrimination was not a word yet in my immediate environment, and bullying awareness wasn’t part of the equation neither.
Even in the considerably liberal Netherlands things were still a long way from “getting better” for LGBTQ youth, as the LGBTQ awareness campaign slogan in the US promised years later.
In my early childhood my soccer playing tomboy ways had not been yet frowned on, since everybody in Holland played soccer in their youth, girls included, but in high school my repressed sexual orientation, and my more noticeable gender atypical appearance and behavior, became a problem to my classmates and teachers, as well as to my parents at home.
I always felt and was disliked, and left on the outside by others, even if I didn’t mind spending time alone. And as a child I often spent my time drawing, in favor of playing with dolls or trucks or others altogether, until discovered writing.
Like so many LGBTQ people I was destined from an early age on to leave town, “forced out” of there, to head for the big city instead, any big city really, where despite its own dangers one can blend in more easily, given the sheer crowds and diversity of metropolitan living.
In my own neighborhood one didn’t have to worry about black gangs and black drive by shootings, (which became known to me through TV as existent in the US throughout the 1980s,) nor white “lone wolf” shooters, white serial killers or white police brutality, (nor white rip-off preachers or white cult leaders for that matter,) and crimes were usually committed much smaller scale, or so it appeared anyway, and soft drugs were legal and no war on drugs, or terror, existed.
Nor was there any dictatorship or poverty to flee from in the Netherlands or Western Europe since the German occupation of WWII, and for the first 19 years of my life I had technically been free to travel all over the world, and especially easily through Europe due to its fairly open border policies, (except for the Berlin wall,) and work within Europe as well, even pre-European Union, and all of which I frequently did, and right before moving to the US in 1992 I backpacked through Europe and stayed in North Africa for half a year, all without any real problems.
Although growing up biracial, Dutch Indonesian, in a predominantly white neighborhood didn’t exactly help me neither, as racism still ran deep in Europe as well, and was just expressed differently and more subtly than in the US.
On a few occasions soccer hooligans and Neo-nazi’s had not so subtly told me to go back to Turkey, (usually thinking I was a Turkish boy, when out with my Moroccan girlfriends, since Muslim girls often wore their hair long hair and covered with scarves, and my own hair was often short,) at the same Central Station after hanging out downtown Amsterdam. Moroccan and Turkish immigrants were increasingly moving into our neighborhood, in Voorschoten, and of course Europe at large under similar guest worker programs that Mexicans are so vilified for in the US, and with similar racist reactions from the ignorant amongst the Dutch there.
I do believe my real ethnicity would have proven to become a deeper problem for me personally though if I would have stayed in the Netherlands beyond my teenage years, and not because the Dutch were still racist towards people from Indonesian heritage in my time, as was my mother’s experience upon her arrival, (born a Dutch citizen in the then colonized Dutch Indies,) but because of the sheer conscious realization that would have come to me at a later age that I was the biracial result of the Dutch equivalent of the US’ slavedriver and slave, and so in principle experiencing psychologically the same experience of an African American person in the US, since Indonesia had been a colony of the Netherlands for several centuries, before they had lost it due to being occupied by Germany themselves during WWII, and Indonesia was able to claim independence at last in 1949.
I unintentionally but fortunately escaped that particular idea of racism in the Netherlands, only to get caught in the very real racial profiling problem in the US, towards immigrants of Latin heritage in particular, (as well as Muslims post 9/11,) for which I am easily confused here, and frequently stopped and frisked because of “fitting the description.”
In my youth in Holland kids would routinely get beaten up in the hallways or after class, for anything from “Coke bottle glasses,” to “buckteeth” and braces, and “hand-me-downs” in an increasingly brand clothes conscious youth, I stayed short from getting beaten up on a regular basis by excelling in most everything and without much effort, which usually got just enough attention to overshadow the hostility around my appearance.
I was small for my age, a head shorter than most of my female classmates even, and way more slender than most everybody and obviously boyish looking. I naturally already looked like a boy, and even without trying was “mistaken” for one routinely, but I had already been wearing all boys clothes purchased exclusively at the stores’ mens’ departments by the time I went to elementary school, much to my parents’ embarrassment and discontent, and everywhere I went I stood out like a sore thumb and was frowned upon. (At 5'3 and about 100 lbs. in my mid-40s today, I’m still often mistaken for way younger than I am, with all kinds of consequences.)
This is now being understood as fairly standard behavior amongst transgender and gender nonconforming children but other than the negative stereotype of a “man in a dress” the word transgender did not exist in my world. (There were films that gave me clues, like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ or ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn,’ which focused on trans-women, and which I could not relate to personally, though loving the films themselves, and I only had a clue from an Ernest Hemingway book published post-humously in 1986, ‘The Garden of Eden,’ in which the female character, Catherine Bourne, displayed trans-male behavior, and my suspicion over the years that this character might have been a trans-man basically got confirmed in a book on that particular book, called Hemingway’s ‘The Garden of Eden: Twenty-five Years of Criticism.’ My clues into lesbianism I mainly got through Anais Nin.)
There was absolutely no transgender awareness and acceptance in my family, my environment and just my time in history really, and I was humiliated that way all the time, forced into an exclusively binary existence where I was always supposed to answer the question “Are you a boy or a girl,” (and it still sometimes happens, here in the US too of course, but since Laverne Cox’s rise to stardom has toned down considerably.
The sudden visibility does also come with its own backlashes in the form of hatred on the streets because I’m recognized as “trans” all of a sudden. And this sudden outburst of usually micro aggressions happened as well every time same sex marriage rights seemed to advance in the US.)
After cutting my hair real short in my senior year in high school in 1989 three older guys finally beat me to a pulp, and after losing sight finally of a long repressed crush at school after graduation, the prospect of continuing education locally didn’t appeal to me one bit.
On “career day,” which had seemed more like a 4-year continuous effort to get the boys to take the important “abstract subject matters” like math and science, and leave the girls to the secondary “creative” ones, languages and history that is, certainly not art, and pushing professions on my working class fellow students which divided us into “mechanics and engineering” type of professions for the boys, and “nursing and retail” for the girls, and I wasn’t feeling any of it and experiencing regularly what I’d later realize were anxiety attacks.
Whereas the guys went on to “stay playing with trucks” and became car mechanics out of high school, and girls excluded me for the attention guys bestowed on them, and seemed unfocused on personal goals, starting to talk about marriage and children, I wrote stories and kept journals about my repressed crushes.
I had grown up watching subtitled, un-dubbed, American fare, which seemed like second nature in Holland, my parents influencing me with mostly 70s classics, films by Scorsese and Coppola and Lumet, which would have their first run on Dutch TV in the 80s, and then I started discovering the early independently made films that would laud in a whole new wave of independent film in the US in the 90s, films like Gus Van Sant’s ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape.’
It was mostly in my senior year in high school also that I really discovered the idea of filmmaking as an actual career possibility, mostly during skipping classes to remedy my anxiety, and taking the train to Amsterdam to catch “art films” playing at the art house movie theaters there.
I’d seen flyers in my school hallways advertising to “Study abroad,” “Learn a different language,” “Meet new people,” “Experience being an international student,” or so the slogans went, and I’d also gotten hooked on ‘Fame,’ the movie and the TV show, in the meantime, so I thought it would be the perfect solution to all my dreams and fears if I went to film school in Los Angeles.
While the cool auteur cinema of Europe could feel existentialist to a default, the classics of the 70s Hollywood cinema largely played out onscreen in a gritty New York and east coast, and felt realistic as well as artistic and entertaining, (unlike the over the top 80s that was the Reagan era, globalizing the American film industry evenmore, exporting it exclusively that is and not taking in foreign films itself, and going beyond entertainment to finally just resemble American propaganda.
The American film industry, through its foreign territory sales, has almost exclusively colonized the whole world, creatively speaking, (beyond in numerous other more serious ways, but it often starts with brainwashing and American entertainment has surely done a good job at that.)
I graduated from High School in 1989, at 16, and went to work in factories for the next 3 years to save up the full-time, out-of-state tuition required for a Student Visa, and in 1992 enrolled in the Film Program at Los Angeles City College, hoping to get into UCLA on a Visa- Extension.
I had also found out that college campus jobs were allowed as well as unpaid film production company internships for school credit and that film festivals could be entered to secure distribution, so I had formed from those potential options an idea that I could possibly live and work in the US.
I’d gotten all my information from the American Embassy in Amsterdam and from the organization they had referred me to in regards to taking the TOEFL Test required for a 5-year Student Visa (F-1,) to test my English language skills. I took the English test, the required medical exam, and even obtained health insurance covering my first year in here.
I arrived at LAX airport in Los Angeles on July 14 1992, from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, psychologically practically a runaway but with all my papers in order and several thousands saved up and to be wired by my parents in increments, and checked in to a youth hostel in Venice Beach with a single backpack and some travelers checks.
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And please check out my other articles at medium.com/@gabriellabregman, on mainly LGBTQ and immigration issues and the state of women in film.
Gender-Binary System notes (2016)
Click for Complete List of Articles (2016)
My name is Gabriella Bregman, I am a Hollywood-based writer, filmmaker, producer, currently in post-production of a feature documentary called ‘The Queer Case for Individual Rights,’ through my film production company ‘Queer Women Filmmakers Center, Los Angeles.’
You can find me mostly on Facebook for right now, (facebook.com/gabriellabregman,) where I also maintain a Facebook Group called ‘Queer Women Filmmakers Center, Los Angeles’