Perils and pleasures of growing up gay in modern Dutch society
Gert Hekma Tribute Conference ‘Perils and pleasures’
Contribution by Laurens Buijs
Universiteit van Amsterdam
15/16 June 2017
It is a great pleasure to be speaking here. My name is Laurens Buijs and I work at the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences department at the University of Amsterdam. Last year I also set up my own business as part of a ‘career move’ into entrepreneurship. The topic of sexuality is a red thread in all of my work.
My interest for that topic originates from a very old question I have been struggling with in my own personal life. I have been brought up in an explicitly progressive, secular and leftist family in a village in the south-east of the Netherlands, I went to a school with a progressive and secular ideology, I have always been told that being gay is okay, and still, for me my coming out was a big struggle.
By the time I was 19 years old, I had ‘come out’ to the people around me, but for me this was only the first step in a long process towards self-acceptance, a process that continues to this day. So the question I have always tried to answer originates from my drive to understand my own situation: what was bothering me, and how made that such a big impact?
This underlying “drive to understand” is the fuel for much of my journey through life, also professionally.
As a social scientist, I have participated in studies on antigay violence (my first big study, from which I know Gert), coming out, minority stress, Gay Straight Alliances and sexuality as topic in the national debate on the multicultural society, islam and refugees.
As an entrepreneur, I have set up my own business last year: IncInc. We develop intervention strategies, based on insights on in- and exclusion from the social sciences, for all sorts of organizations, in order to make an inclusive workspace.
I am so proud to be part of this event, a tribute to Gert Hekma, a truly inspiring and awesome sociologist-historian. To pay my tribute to Gert, I will devote this lecture to the way in which he has inspired me in finding answers to this very old and profound question in me: what was bothering me, and how made that such a big impact? In order to explain what answers I found and how Gert helped me find them, I will address two key concepts in my work.
The first key concept is what I have come to call ‘the Dutch paradox’ of sexual tolerance, a concept that sooner or later just pops up in most of my work, and that binds basically all my work together. This paradox points to an odd contradiction in the results of studies on LGBTQ acceptance in the Netherlands: we see on the one had widespread identification with the ideal/the value of LGBTQ acceptance, but we see on the other hand a perpetuation of exclusion towards LGBTQ’s in everyday life. In relation to my own personal old question, this helped me see the tricky ways in which exclusion can endure in a seemingly ‘tolerant’ environment: through forms of what has come to known as ‘modern homophobia’, or ‘modern exclusion’.
The second key concept is something I have started to study more recently, after I read the book The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs in 2015. His work gave me the language to understand how this modern homophobia impacted on my emotional hygiene, the development of my sexual and gender identity, and, most importantly, my self-worth.
I will now address each of these issues to elaborate on them, and to underline how Gert has inspired me in answering the old question.
The Dutch Paradox
A big part of my work is about the puzzling contradictions found in recent studies on LGBTQ acceptance in the Netherlands. On the one hand, the Netherlands comes out on top in international survey research on LGBTQ acceptance. No people in the world has more progressive answers to statements like ‘Homosexual men and lesbian women should be free to live their life as they wish’, ‘I have no problems with the leader of my country being gay’, and ‘Gay marriage should be legalized throughout Europe’.
On the other hand, we see alarming results in the studies on the social position and psychological wellbeing of LGBTQ’s. We see that discrimination and violence are still a structural problem in the Netherlands and in Amsterdam, and there is no reason to conclude any significant increases or decreases in this number.
We see that gays and lesbians report significantly more psycho-social problems than straights: gay youngsters still attempt suicide five times more than their straight peers, and they tend to struggle more with feelings of shame and guilt throughout life.
The Dutch transgender community is particularly vulnerable. Studies show they continue to encounter grave resistance in their social environments. Their elaborate experience with harsh discrimination and exclusion from family members, friends, colleagues and random strangers result in fundamental insecurity and shame. Two thirds of them feels lonely, and no less than 21% attempted suicide at least once.
This paradox, the seeming contradiction between on the one hand the idea of a tolerant people when it comes to sexuality and gender, and on the other hand the ongoing presence of all sorts of negative experiences by the minority groups themselves, is what I have come to call the Dutch paradox.
We see the contradicting results across the board in studies on LGBTQ acceptance, of which we had many in recent years. The first study that seriously addressed the question of how these two findings can coexist is Gewoon Doen (translation: Just act normal), written by Jan Willem Duyvendak, Saskia Poldervaart, David Bos and… Gert Hekma.
Reading this book was a true revelation for me, as it describes in great detail not only the optimistic survey outcomes, but also the many ways in which exclusion can continue anyway. Gewoon doen points at the distinction between word and deed, theory and practice, ideal and reality. The study shows that the Dutch would like to accept LGBTQ’s; they even have come to see it as proof of their modernity. It has become an important value of their shared identity: “I accept LGBTQ’s, and therefore I am a modern citizen”. It has become socially desirable to be pro-LGBTQ.
But in practice, this desire proves difficult to uphold. Studies have shown that many Dutch people — especially men, and within that group, especially young men — often experience all sorts of conflicts in themselves when they encounter LGBTQ’s in everyday life. They often find them filthy, scary, blameworthy, and/or a threat to their masculine identity.
In most of the times, this reaction is not even intentional, with which I mean that it does not originate from a well thought-out homophobic ideology. Rather, it is spontaneous: their reaction arises at the moment they are confronted with it.
Most of them have no trouble at all to rhyme this spontaneous reaction with their value of being gay friendly. Their legitimation goes as follows: “I have nothing against gays, as long as they are not too feminine”, “too visible”, “too sexual”, and especially “as long as they do not think they can hit on me”. Gert, Jan Willem Duyvendak and I also found this particular finding very clearly in our study on antigay violence, where it was often a trigger for physical violence if the perpetrator had the impression he was being seduced.
An important insight that results from this, and that Gert helped to shape, is that homophobia is not at all something from the past in “modern Holland”, nor is it merely a problem in migrant and religious communities. Despite the broad popular support for gay marriage, despite the fact that there’s a national outcry each time reports of gay bashing appear in the press, and despite the fact that we see our entire cabinet, including the prime-minister, with a rainbow flag on a gay pride boat: homophobia never disappeared amongst the broader Dutch public.
Instead, it shifted its shape: a conditional acceptance of LGBTQ’s is present in large segments of Dutch society. LGBTQ’s are accepted, but for a large part only as long as they assimilate into Dutch heteronormative society. The Dutch may identify as gay tolerant, but at the same time they participate in the reproduction of traditional and binary interpretations of gender and sexuality. Understanding these forms of “modern homophobia” were key in understanding how I experienced perpetual exclusion throughout my youth, even in seemingly gay-tolerant environments.
The Velvet Rage
I have explained how the concept of the Dutch paradox helped me to understand how exclusion of LGBTQ’s works in modern Dutch society. I now knew what was bothering me when I grew up: I felt I should be okay with being gay, but I didn't because of modern homophobia. The second part of my old question is: how made that such a big impact? In answering this second part, Gert and his work again proved helpful. In his article Legs wide, voice down (De benen wijd, de stem naar beneden), published in 2007, he shows how the conditional acceptance in Dutch society is internalized by LGBTQ’s themselves.
This study, and many others that followed, shows how LGBTQ’s attempt to meet the heteronormative requirements that Dutch society prescribes. They are involved in all sorts of attempts to come across as socially desirable in their sexual and gender identity, which in the case of young gays means they speak, walk, dress and in all other ways behave like ‘normal men’.
These forced ways of expressing one’s gender and sexual identity leave their mark on the social-psychological wellbeing of LGBTQ’s in Holland. I have talked about the five times higher suicide attempts amongst gays and lesbians in comparison to straights. I have also talked about the particularly vulnerable position Dutch trans-people are in. Results of recent studies on the wellbeing of LGBTQ’s in the Netherlands clearly point at the fact that many of us are deeply marked by our experience of traditional, but especially modern forms of homophobia.
Next to Gert, there is another author that helped me understand how these marks are left on us. The American psychotherapist Alan Downs explains that it is a grave misunderstanding to assume that modern Western societies are fundamentally safer to LGBTQ’s. He argues that also gays who do not grow up in an explicitly homophobic climate, already learn from a young age that their sexual preference and/or gender identity makes them fundamentally deviating.
Downs writes his book based on decades of experience as psychotherapist in the heart of the Los Angeles gay community. There he concluded that also men who celebrate their homosexuality in an ‘out and proud’ way, often still struggle fundamentally with their self-esteem. Even in so-called tolerant environments in which young LGBTQ’s grow up, heterosexuality remains the norm and homosexuality remains a deviation from that norm, as ‘modern homophobia’ in Holland so clearly demonstrates.
Downs argues that this feeling of ‘being different’ leads to more than only repression of sexuality. Already at a young age, he says, the conviction grows that their deviating preferences in terms of gender and sexuality is a symptom of a deeper-set error in their personality. This is fertile soil for the development of a trauma during the puberty of many gay men’s life, caused by an inner emotional conflict between on the one hand feelings of shame because of their own shortcomings, and on the other hand feelings of rage towards society that still does not accept them as full in practice.
This gay trauma, which Downs calls ‘the velvet rage’, is what’s impacting so badly on the psycho-social wellbeing of gay men, even years after their coming out. With their coming out, gays might make peace with the fact that they are attracted to men, but this does not solve their deeper-set self-esteem issues that arose during the struggle with their sexuality.
To the contrary even; Downs argues that coming out in practice does not address the root problem behind ‘the velvet rage’, but often means a mere shift from denial to overcompensation as a survival mechanism. Their shame and loneliness is initially avoided by remaining ‘in the closet’, but after the coming out these painful emotions are often solved by all forms of overcompensation. For example through an obsession with youthfulness and appearance, a glorious career and a wild and fabulous night life with varying sexual partners, an attempt is made to gain respect and validation from others, a survival mechanism to lift the pain of the trauma.
So here I am, now 35 years old, and still working on the old question that I posed when I came out when I was 19: what was bothering me, and how made that such a big impact? It is a question that still does not feel completely solved, but on the other hand I have come a long way in finding at least part of an answer. As I have explained, two key concepts play an important role in my partial answering of the old question: the Dutch paradox and the velvet rage, to concepts I could never have grasped with such depth and detail if I would not have studied under Gert, and worked with Gert.
Unraveling the Dutch paradox helped me understand how excluding LGBTQ’s can perpetuate in “modern” ways, even in environments that are seemingly tolerant and accepting. Exploring the velvet rage allowed me to see how also modern forms of homophobia are internalized, and what kind of psychological conflicts they can cause, even years after ‘coming out’.
These are the results so far of my academic and personal journey in answering the old question in me of how my homosexuality shaped me. In times, this journey was exhilarating and rewarding, for example during the epiphanies I had in understanding myself and the Dutch society from which I originate. But in other times, this journey also was exhausting and depressing, for example when realizing how the two concepts also left deep marks in the development of my own sexual and gender identity.
But I have come out of the struggle much stronger, wiser and more grown-up than I ever was, and this is for a large part also thanks to you, Gert. You were there by my side in all these years. As a wise academic, and as a dear friend, you were always encouraging me to recognize that challenging norms brings you to places that are not only scary and unknown, but also exhilarating and transforming. You helped me to come to terms with my own velvet rage by continuously stressing there cannot be pleasures without perils, and vice versa. From the depths of my heart, and also on behalf of the many other students you helped to shape over the years: thank you.