Coming out about your sexual orientation is not very problematic in the Netherlands nowadays. Elsewhere in the world you can get the death penalty for being gay. The volunteers of Shout Wageningen, many of whom are students, offer a listening ear to people who have fled because of their sexual orientation.
After her first conversation with refugees at the Leemkuil asylum- seekers’ centre in Wageningen, Marlies Hofstede stood outside trembling. ‘Two lesbian sisters from Georgia described a demonstration they were involved in,’ says the Wageningen alumna. They showed footage on YouTube of a square full of people, and a bus in the middle. At first I thought, what a good turnout, but then they told me the demonstrators had been chased into the bus by the people on the square. In the bus people were beaten to death; you could see the blood splashing against the windows. Their story gave me a sleepless night. I thought: how am I going to cope if I have to listen to this kind of story every week?
Marloes Hofstede, who graduated from Wageningen University three years ago, and biology student Niko Holstege are volunteers with Shout, the Wageningen lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender association. In the spring of 2013, refugee organization Vluchtelingenwerk came knocking at the association’s door because they needed help with talking to people who were refugees because of their orientation. ‘No one at Vluchtelingenwerk could really help them,’ says Marloes. ‘At that time we were organizing information events at schools and parties and running talk groups for young people who had just come out. We had no experience of counselling refugees. But we thought it was so important that we expanded our activities.’
Shout formed a support committee which responds to requests from Vluchtelingenwerk by going to the asylum-seekers’ centre on the Keijenbergseweg to talk with homosexual refugees. They usually go in pairs, with one of the two being of the same orientation as the refugee. Marloes: ‘It is good for the asylum-seeker to talk to someone of the same sex, and it is good for you to have someone to talk about it with afterwards.’
The volunteers in the support committee hear some terrible stories. Niko: ‘These people have been rejected, mistreated, raped, or their partner has been murdered in front of them. One man pulled up his shirt as we were talking, to show us the scars of the cruel torture he had been submitted to.’
The association has already held nearly 100 such interviews, mainly with people from Uganda, Iran, Russia and Nigeria, where homosexuality is not accepted or is even a criminal offense. Niko: ‘We usually start our discussion by explaining what the situation is like in the Netherlands. We tell them that gays here have rights and do not have to be afraid of the police. That is a real revelation to many refugees.’ Marloes adds: ‘Some of them they are so scared that they still do not dare tell their story. But usually they talk non-stop for one and a half hours. They pour it all out and you can’t get a word in edgeways. It is their coming out, as it were, and that is nice to see. For a lot of refugees their discussion with us is the first time they have been able to talk freely about their orientation. Some of them are very grateful and give you a big bear hug after the session, while for others it is still very difficult to accept.’
After each meeting the pair feel happy to live in the Netherlands. ‘I have known I was gay since I was 12 and I came out during my student days,’ says Niko. ‘Everyone responded very positively to it. In the 12 years I have lived in Wageningen the worst experience I have had was to be shouted at by a few kids when I walked down the road hand-in-hand with my boyfriend.’
Marloes has had one negative experience since she came out. ‘For fi ve years I kept my horse with a strictly religious farmer here in Wageningen. Never had any problems until one day he came to tell me that my girlfriend and I were not welcome there together. He didn’t want any ‘abnormal behaviour’ in front of his grandchildren. He meant the fact that my girlfriend and I would walk around arm in arm. In the end we moved to a friendly stables where my girlfriend is welcome too.’ However upsetting this may be, it cannot be compared to the experience of people in Africa who can be lynched if people find out they are gay, say Marloes and Niko.
The most difficult conversations for them are those with people from countries with a homophobic climate, says Marloes. ‘People who have fled countries like Uganda or Nigeria, where homosexuality is a criminal offence, stand a good chance of being allowed to stay here. Their stories are horrific but they do get to make a fresh start here. People who have fled Russia or Morocco are often sent back. Homosexuality is not a crime in those countries but it is still very difficult for a homosexual to live there. When you hear what they’ve been through it is terrible to know that they will have to go back to that life. Their stories always hit us harder.’
Niko talked, for example, to a 19-year-old gay man from Morocco. ‘He had fallen into the hands of human traffickers and got involved in prostitution. After being arrested by the police he ended up at the asylum-seekers’ centre in Wageningen. We talked to him a couple of times. At some point he had to go back to Morocco after all. He hadn’t had any education, he came from a devoutly religious family, he had no money and no prospects. That boy had come too far out of the closet to go back now. How is someone like that supposed to manage? That made me feel so terribly powerless that I questioned what I was doing it all for.’
Marloes: ‘Everyone finds themselves in the position at some point that you have been deeply touched by someone’s story. It is very hard but the next time you are more distant. I fi nd it worrying how immune I have got to their stories. Sometimes a few words are enough for me to know: you have had this or that experience. Unfortunately you need that emotional distance to be able to keep it up.’ Photo: Guy Ackermans