CONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE: A STUDY ABROAD IN AMERSTERDAM
Zach. As someone who has never been out of the country before, the idea of going to the Netherlands and other countries surrounding the Netherlands was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. On the one hand the opportunity was incredibly invaluable, and on the other, the idea of traveling on my own and then navigating Amsterdam until I found my people was difficult and anxiety inducing. However I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. I was well taken care of by and even though my sweat-and-anxiety-soaked-self was clearly disoriented upon arrival, people helped me out when I asked and some even took the time to talk to me and check on my personal well-being. My first impression of the country I was about to study in for an entire month was very positive. I had arrived and the city seemed to hold up to its reputation as a tolerant and liberal haven of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” but unlike the immaculate facades of the cityscape, this image would not maintain the longer I spent in the Netherlands.
While I was in the Netherlands a good chunk of our time was spent talking about the country’s specific LGBTQ political and social atmosphere. In doing so I began to see how the global image that the city so painstakingly maintains does not quite line up with reality. As much as Amsterdam is praised for its tolerance and its liberal policies towards drugs, these attitudes did not develop overnight and did so with strict stipulations as to what would be condoned by the larger Dutch society. The most striking example of this is the hyper-normative model that LGBTQ people must conform to in order to be accepted. When people refer to Amsterdam as a “gay haven” they mean just that. The city caters to gays and lesbians who fit into mainstream society in a very heteronormative way but doesn’t make room for other “queer” identities. This is such a problem that dominates the political landscape of Dutch politics that LGB identities have been almost fully assimilated while trans and other non-binary gender identities are heavily marginalized.
For a lot of people on the trip, including myself, this came as not only a huge shock but also an incredibly disappointing turn of events. All of us had this romanticized image of Amsterdam which was quickly crushed as we realized how conditional Dutch tolerance is of even LGB identities. When you look at data on acceptance, the boundaries become apparent. For example, a Dutch survey you can find that 95% of Dutch claim to accept homosexuality. Although when asked about public displays of affection 41% said that they disliked seeing two men kiss and 31% said they disliked when two women kiss in public. In comparison, only 8% of people disliked witnessing a straight couple kiss. This contrast is a stark example of how tolerance begins to breaks down throughout the region. For many who live in the Netherlands this system doesn’t serve as a problem and many of the more mainstream lesbians and gays don’t feel that anything needs to be changed. For the self-described “queer” populations in the Netherlands this couldn’t be further from the truth.
As someone who identifies primarily as queer, I soon found that the Netherlands was not for me, but was rather for more mainstream gays and lesbians. The group that I had, for years, fought to be a part of at the cost of my physical, mental, and emotional health; the group that I no longer identified with or wanted to be a part of was the group that was most at home in the Netherlands. Trans people, non-binary people, and even people who didn’t fit the physical characteristics of the mainstream community were not welcome. While I felt a bit of sadness after the romanticized facade of the Netherlands proved false, this did not ruin my time in the Netherlands and in fact I found a group that made me feel more at home than any other group that I’ve ever been a part of.
While in the Netherlands we were given a close look at the gay and lesbian community but we were also shown the Queer community that had developed there. Compared to the United States, the Queer movement in Amsterdam was small, underground, and had very little political power or voice. While the conditions they face are not ideal, they make the most of what they have. The particular Queer group that we became acquainted with was a queer, anarchist, punk collective. During my time in the Netherlands when I needed to escape the intensely academic space I was in I could travel to their community center, buy a cheap drink, and be among people who actually shared similar if not the same kinds of political ideology as me. More importantly, these people shared my queer identity. It brought us together and while I was in the Netherlands their space became my home away from home.
I’m not trying to say that the Netherlands is some awful place that is only pretending to be tolerant but in an increasingly global world it is important to realize that the romantic ideals we hold for certain places are often socially constructed. In this case there is some truth to what is being said about the Netherlands and their tolerance of gay people but this comes at a price and this acceptance does not include everyone. What I took away from this and what I feel others should too is that there is work to be done all over the world, even in the most self-proclaimed liberal areas in the world.