In search of the rainbow

Gender and Sexuality among VUB students

The VUB being a progressive and free thinking institution, has many different clubs and groups varying from sports to politics. Having around five percent of LGBTQ+ population one must think there is also an organization or events that represent these people at our university.

The rain is pouring down from the sky and I am soaked in a matter of minutes. Only the warmth of the bus I climb on dries my clothes. What nasty weather for celebrating international women’s day I think and prepare for the worst. I join the march of the VUB and ULB against gender inequality and sexual violence. The moment we start walking the sun comes out. A strong wind blows away the dark clouds and brings movement into the huge flags and banners. Chanting and screaming through the microphones, backed up by a beat boxer who never seems to get tired. Celebrating this day by standing up for the right of all women seems to be an appropriate way of spending my time. I am also hoping to find some inspiration for my research about the LGBTQ+ community at the VUB and among students in Brussels.

I do not have to wait long, as I am walking towards the city centre I get into a conversation with Micah. As it turns out, they are transgender/nonbinary (someone whose gender identity isn’t exclusively male or female Ed.), pansexual (sexual, romantic or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity Ed.) and very interested in my research. We talk about life, coming out and the importance of intersectional feminism (the complex manner in which different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect Ed.).

The march ends at the central station and people of all ages, colours and backgrounds assemble to listen to the final speeches. Oxfam, Rosa, Comac, the socialist party of Belgium, as well as numerous other organisations fighting for women, LGBTQ+, human rights and equality, are present waving their colourful banners and posters.

Full of positive, empowering energy I meet up with Maaike, the vice-president of BASTA, the next afternoon. She explains to me the concept of BASTA, it is an organisation for Flemish “holebi jongeren”, translating into homosexual, lesbian, bisexual youth. “This includes the whole Flemish speaking LGBTQ+ community until thirty and  internationals are also welcome”, she says. They organise parties, movie screenings and events to get to know each other, keep in touch and be in a safe space, talking about gender and sexuality. She took over the position of vice-presidency after BASTA was on the verge of closing and managed to get it back on track with several of her friends.

“You cannot be a lesbian, you have long hair.”

Maaike is drinking her tea while I take notes and I ask her if she can tell me her story. She talks about being born in Charleroi and moving to Antwerp, being of Italian descent and now studying languages to connect to that part of herself. She fell in love with a woman for the first time at age of thirteen and was finally able to accept her homosexuality when she was eighteen. Her mother used to say: “You cannot be a lesbian, you have long hair.” She laughs when she tells that story. Maaike continues by talking about Tinder and how it is very difficult to find other women who are also interested in women, without using the dating app. “I met a girl on tinder. It has been the longest tinder date I have had so far, it’s been six months. She is my girlfriend now and we are very happy.” She smiles, pauses for a second and explains that in many lesbian relationships, couples do not go out much, but rather stay at home. This is very different from the vibrant gay culture. In Brussels there are either gay clubs or for LGBTQ+ in general, there is no place to go for women to meet up, except specific events and parties. “Gay men are more visible in the city and have a more dominant culture. Lesbian women are harder to find. The length of women’s hair is not an indicator of their sexual preference after all,despite what my mother says.”

“Just because we have laws that protect LGBTQ+ people in Belgium, does not mean that there is no homophobia.”

Maaike, vice-president of Basta

Micah    © Sophie Seydel
Maaike’s facial expression changes and she gets more serious. “The week between the 16th and the 22nd of April will be dedicated towards fighting homophobia”, she tells. “Just because we have laws that protect LGBTQ+ people in Belgium, does not mean that there is no homophobia.”

Laws change but people sometimes take longer

Belgium is one of the most progressive countries in the world, having numerous anti-discrimination laws, allowing same-sex marriage and the right of adoption. On top of that, you can officially change gender without having to change  reproductive organs.

In 2012, four men with a homophobic motive murdered Ihsane Jarfi, a 32 year old guy, who was on his way home after coming out of a gay bar in Liège. It was the first time the new anti-discrimination laws were implemented and putting the perpetrators behind bars for at least thirty years, up to life. This was a big step, as the murder of an individual based on his sexual orientation was now an assault towards a whole minority, which had to be penalised accordingly. These laws show the progressiveness of Belgium, but there is still a long way to go for a universal acceptance among all people.

Only recently, in February of this year, Mr Gay Belgium 2017 Jaimie Deblieck, was ‘pushed to the ground and kicked in a vicious assault in which the attacker called him a fucking homo’, as GCN Magazine reports. The nineteen-year-old was only lightly injured and has replied to the assault with a Facebook post, saying the attacker will regret what he did, as he will not leave this incident as it is. He reported it to the police who are currently investigating the case.

Homo- and transphobia can take many forms and is often difficult to fight, as it can be subtle and subliminal. Going back home from the women’s day marche I was in the metro with Micah, who through their feminine behaviour and their deep voice was attracting attention. A group of men started laughing and making comments that were hard to understand, as they were speaking a different language. It was clear what they discussed, but as we could not understand what they were saying, there was not much we could do.

‘Spectrum’, a gender sexuality alliance

Meeting up with Micah and their two friends, Alex and Hannelore some days later, I find enough time to think about what I want to ask them and what they think the LGBTQ+community at VUB, but also in Brussels, needs.

Sitting at a table in the pre-spring sun, talking about gender equality and recognition, symbols, love, sex, stereotypes and coming out, I see there is so much to ask, to find out and to write on. I keep scribbling in to my notebook, not to forget anything, while the others talk chaotically, switching topics every few seconds.

Hannelore    © Sophie Seydel

Micah, Hannelore and Alex are currently working on starting an unofficial LGBTQ+ group for VUB students. They call it a “gender-sexuality-alliance” with the catchy name of ‘Spectrum’. Saying, ‘every letter is welcome’, they invite everyone with an open mind-set, either with a queer (people who typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity Ed.) background, or as ally, to join.

As there is currently no club or group on campus, the three thought about finally creating a safe space of exchange, activities and just being queer without being misunderstood or looked at in an uncomfortable way. “Sometimes just talking about being queer with other queer people is such a great thing”, says Alex, who wants to be ‘a flamboyant gay’, celebrating the diversity of people, and not having to hide who they really are. “The group should not be based on getting drunk as so many other clubs and gatherings do. It should be about doing whatever you are comfortable with”, Hannelore adds.

The three keep on talking and I try to find out more about each one of them individually, as I am interested in who is behind “Spectrum”. Hannelore, is studying language and literature, doing a preparatory course to become a translator. Asking her about her connection to the LGBTQ+ community, she laughs and says: ”I am asexual (The lack of a sexual attraction or desire for other people Ed.), most probably the virginest virgin to ever virgin!” Showing me a little painted flag of the asexual community on the inside of her phone cover, she explains that asexual people are sometimes also discriminated among the queer community, as so many activities are about getting to know each other to get sexually or romantically involved. Hannelore wants ‘Spectrum’ to be a space where you can talk about everything, and go to pub quizzes together. Asking her about body ideals and expectations she answers: “I do what I like. I do not worry about my shape and being asexual really helps me to love my own body the way it is.” Her green streak underlines the colour of her eyes, matching her necklace, jacket and eye shadow. She is confident and her laugh fills the air when she talks about stereotypes and doubting herself. “I am so over that stage”, she states, really knowing who she is since two years.

Confusion, self-discovery and gender pronouns

Hannelore met Alex at last years Pride Parade, a colourful demonstration of all different identities, sexualities, and preferences one can have, in the section of identity mixed people. She says: “There is always a big section for lesbians and gays, but there are so many more identities to be celebrated. So I mostly join the little subgroups, as they are incredibly welcoming and warm-hearted”. Alex identifies as gender non-binary, bisexual and is mostly pronoun indifferent, but for this article we chose to use the pronoun ‘they’, the same as with Micah. Having been assigned female at birth, Alex went through a lot of confusion and alienation of their own body. Having found themselves in a gender identity and accepting it, they are celebrating their queerness with symbols such as a heart shaped rainbow necklace or talking about it without having to lower their voice or care about what others could think.  Alex loves their black leather jacket, but as tough as they look in it, every time we talk about anything related to their personal story or just anything exciting, their face blushes red. Different to Hannelore, they are very much looking forward to meeting people at “Spectrum” that might want to get romantically involved.

Alex    © Sophie Seydel
The third in the triad is Micah, who studies political sciences and philosophy. They talk a lot about themselves, the world and life in general. Having gone through a long period of finding out who they want to be, Micah gradually became more feminine, wearing skirts and make-up, travelling the U.S. in search for answers about what is inside them. They are very excited to start ‘Spectrum’, to connect people and to find a common space to be able to have political discussions on gender, sexuality and queer theory and to have a network of people who support each other. Forming an alliance, creating a safe space, seems to be a  great desire of all different kinds of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Being acknowledged and getting accepted by the people around us is a very human longing, that minorities struggle with more than majorities. One of the ways the LGBTQI+ community celebrates its existence is the yearly Pride Parade. In this year’s edition the VUB and ULB will unite and together will take part in the marches, celebrating the diversity among the university students. Different pronouns, the categories, abbreviations, letters, gender, sexualities and identities, can cause confusion, but listening to people’s stories will make it much easier to accept and understand it better.

The day of the women’s day march, a little boy stepped up to Micah and asked them: “Es-tu un garçon?”, Micah answered no. “Es-tu une fille?” Micah shook their head again, the boy waited for a second and asked: “Es-tu un mélange?” Micah smiled and said: ”Yes”. The boy smiled back and nodded. He accepted it, walking away with his pink balloon. It’s not so difficult after all.

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