There is a thriving community of LGBTQ+ people in Leiden, one that was once scattered and divided. The efforts of Leiden Pride, a local organization that aims at creating a safe space for queer individuals to connect and support each other, brought it together. It is the community we also belong to and that we want to empower in order to achieve the true and full liberation of all LGBTQ+ people, as well as other oppressed people, from economic and political abuse. On February 25th, the Climate Crisis Coalition and Leiden Pride organized a workshop on the interconnection between queerphobia and the climate crisis, and the necessity to take action against both in conjunction. The discussions we had were so enlightening to sparkle an enormous reflection on the meaning of revolutionary change within the LGBTQ+ community. We felt it was necessary to share the results with you, in a series of three articles. This is the first of them, and we dedicate it to Angel and the rage we feel for her sudden and unjust death.
We often hear talk about climate justice, but almost exclusively with regard to environmental racism. This concept encapsulates the racialized nature of the injustices perpetrated within the climate crisis. Not as well-known as environmental racism is instead the gendered and sexualized dimension of climate justice. We shall call it environmental queerphobia.
Similar to black communities, LGBTQ+ people too are bearing the consequences of global warming and land destruction more than our (white) cishet counterparts, by reason of the structural queerphobia that state and market actors perpetrate against us. By being subjected to several forms of exclusion, discrimination, abuse, and oppression, queer people are made more vulnerable to exacerbated violence during a crisis, such as economic crises, natural disasters, as well as the imminent ecological collapse.
Struggling to find an example of this newly introduced concept? The LGBTQ+ people attending the workshop were not. On the contrary, they quickly recognized the COVID-19 pandemic as a proxy of what would happen – and in some part of the planet, is happening – during an ecological catastrophe. The case of the gay community in South Korea was mentioned: “There were COVID outbreaks in several gay clubs, putting a lot of negative focus on the queer community. Because of this, queer people who attended these clubs did not want to undergo any COVID tests since it could result in them being outed.” Conservative media outlets and churches were fast at scapegoating the queer community for the spread of the virus, and cases of leaking of personal information were also confirmed, causing LGBTQ+ people to put at risk other people, and possibly deterring them from seeking medical help when needed. A narrative that so closely resembles the one used against our community during the HIV/AIDS pandemic to give us chills.
Generally speaking, LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to experience heightened unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and have no basic necessities, access to healthcare and support networks during a crisis. How would that look like in the Netherlands, the country boasting a very high (95%) degree of tolerance (sigh) of same-sex relationships? Despite the Netherlands’ reputation as a particularly gay-friendly and progressive country, here too queer people are discriminated against and systematically abused by political and economic institutions. Three issues were highlighted during the workshop: queerphobia in academia, systemic medical malpractice against LGBTQ+ patients, and discrimination of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
Pinkwashing and Greenwashing at Leiden University
Systemic oppression and exploitation are a daily reality for LGBTQ+ people. It then comes as no surprise that those attending the workshop had plenty of experiences of systemic discrimination to share with the rest. One many in the room felt familiar with was queerphobia in academia, more precisely at Leiden University.
“Just today I was trying to talk about my master thesis topic with one of my teachers, and when I said that I wanted to focus on queer people, they said, literally, ‘LGBT people are not a vulnerable group’”, said a student of Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University. A quite disappointing statement for a professor who we would expect to be better attuned to the concerns of vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ+. Sadly, this is not a matter of encountering a homophobic teacher once in a while. Statements like the above perpetrate both public and private spaces, and yes, Leiden University too. As such, they represent an abusive practice aimed at silencing the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Queer issues and authors are systematical excluded from curricula, the specificity of our concerns and viewpoints overlooked, whereas opposite-sex romance and traditional gender roles are repeatedly normalized and talked about as the universal standard.
Silencing queerness does not usually happen in plain light, but can be spotted in a few subtle practices. So, for example, neither the annual report of the university nor the LGBT+ Network webpage make mention of well-defined LGBTQ+ issues or thought-through plans to address homotransbisphobia among students and staff, beyond the usual “increase the visibility of the LGBT+ community within the university”. Concomitantly, the pretense of supporting LGBTQ+ rights passes at Leiden University through symbolic actions, first and foremost the tokenistic display of the rainbow flag on special occasions, followed by some sporadic and inconclusive seminar events on diversity and inclusion. Either has ever led to a more profound questioning of how the culture and certain policies at Leiden University reinforce heteronormativity, or to addressing the material and psychological barriers encountered by LGBTQ+ people who want to pursue a university degree.
What they do, instead, is bringing “rainbow points” for the university to look committed to gay rights. This has become increasingly more decisive at attracting a larger number of students to the campus, and, thus, impactful at increasing the university’s revenues. Meanwhile, 2021 marks the fourth year since a group of (queer) students has demanded the introduction of gender neutral bathroom across the campus. A proposal that, rainbow flag after rainbow flag, has been largely ignored by the university administration. In 2016, Leiden University announced it would test the proposal in Plexus, on a floor that hardly sees students throughout the day, but apparently never moved on from such a testing phase. On the one hand it is true that the introduction of gender-neutral bathroom remains mostly symbolic and immaterial, but on the other hand it would at least change the experience of trans and non-binary students on campus, making it an important step forward to improve the psychological well-being of our community.
No different from corporations’ tactical use of the rainbow during pride month, these practices also represent a form of abuse of the queer movement at the advantage of our cishet oppressors. Especially the white straight elderly sitting on the board of Leiden University that in 2019 refused to make a public statement against the Nashville Declaration. At the time, the anti-LGBT document was circulating in the Netherlands and brought to a wave of backlash against universities when professors across the Netherlands were found among the signatories. Altogether, this shows that Leiden University has not seriously committed to our cause, but is instead exploiting us for their own interests.
The same tokenistic attitude Leiden University reserves to the LGBTQ+ community, it uses to promulgate its pseudo-commitment towards sustainability. As explained in the initiative Never Mind Warm Sweaters, the University’s focus still lies on cosmetic campaigns that responsibilize individuals over institutions. While every February 5th students and staff are asked to wear warmer clothes to get through “Warm Sweater Day”, an event that aims to raise awareness about climate disruption by reducing the heating in university buildings, the University accounts remain under the control of Rabobank, a major investor in the bio-industry. Researchers at Leiden University also work for corporations, such as Shell, that are highly and notoriously involved in human rights violations and land destructions across the globe. What is more, the University has not disclosed the full extent of the nature and scale of investments, and partnerships with the fossil fuel industry.
As creators and gatekeepers of knowledge and innovation, universities have a great impact on society as a whole, and especially on reinforcing certain values and determining toward what aims our collective knowledge ought to be directed. At the moment, Leiden University has clearly decided to prioritize the interest of private corporations that further the climate crisis, as well as to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from discourses that concern it directly. It is, therefore, complicit in our abuse by the hands of the state and the market, and also in the exacerbated threat the LGBTQ+ people will experience in the advent of an ecological catastrophe. This is why the initiative Never Mind Warm Sweaters is so important, and we too call for Leiden University to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, but also to stop the tokenistic exploitation of the identity and struggle of LGBTQ+ people.
LGBTQ+ Let Dying by the Dutch Healthcare System
The devastating effects of ecological destruction on people’s health and the functioning of a country’s healthcare system often go unnoticed. That is until hospitals are on the verge of collapse and governments realize that they have not prepared the resources necessary to face natural disasters of huge proportions. Besides, since our capitalist economies persevere on the incessant reproduction of wealth, governments remain reluctant to protect people’s health in the advent of a natural disaster if that entails closing businesses. These are not simply probable scenarios, but instead the reality that is unfolding before our eyes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, also in a fairly rich country as the Netherlands.
The direct causes of the fragility of the Dutch healthcare system are to be found in the years of budget cuts that occurred under the direction of the Rutte II cabinet. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, austerity measures heavily impacted both healthcare and social security, two sectors deemed expendable by Rutte and his ministers and €5bn was the amount subtracted from hospitals, GPs, and other care centers between 2012 and 2017. Whereas a poorly financed and badly managed healthcare sector is obviously dangerous for everyone, oppressed communities are usually disproportionately affected, as they are at once in increased need of assistance and discriminated against when seeking that very same assistance. LGBTQ+ people are particularly victims of this dynamic.
For one, LGBTQ+ individuals in the Netherlands face health disparities linked to societal stigma, and the denial of civil and human rights. This explains why there are high rates of psychiatric disorders, chronic conditions, substance abuse, and suicide within our community. To give an idea of how serious the situation feels from our perspective, almost all of our queer friends and acquaintances, as well as theirs, have suffered some kind of mental disorder, ourselves included. Concomitantly, healthcare providers reject us, put forward intrusive questions and comments, and do not listen to our complaints with the due respect and attention.
“It’s a very weird kind of experience to come into any kind of healthcare, you know”, said a person present at the workshop. “I am wondering how they (GPs) gonna react to me. […] If I go there for any issue they gonna ask ‘but what are you exactly?’”. “How they gonna react to us” was unfortunately discovered by a queer person I know a few weeks after the workshop: upon disclosing their sexuality, their male cishet care provider reacted saying “yes, but you must have liked and had sex with at least a ‘member of the opposite sex’ in the past”. Situations like these ones can easily lead to care avoidance, misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis, and malpractice.
Above all, LGBTQ+ people experience the too often-fatal burden of infinite waiting lists and countless intakes, especially when seeking specialized care, and even more so during emergencies. It appears that the greater the complaint that is put forward the more difficult for members of our community to receive assistance. While a shortage of providers is commonly imputed for the delayed treatment of urgent and serious cases, to blame are mostly the insurance companies.
According to the Netherlands Court of Audit, the main problem is that care providers make more and faster money on patients with milder disorders, whereas they risk financial losses if they accept severe cases. In fact, the average prices mental healthcare institutions and their insurers stipulate tend to be more than enough to treat patients with mild care needs, but too low to cover the cost of more intensive treatments. Therefore, to take care of those who need it the most and most urgently, who are disproportionately LGBTQ+, end up representing a financial risk in this country, and not the shared concern calling for increased efforts it would be if we were living in a society based on solidarity and prioritizing life over profits. That is to say, in the event of a catastrophe we will become a financial and social weight too troublesome for the rest of society to deal with, a collateral that the rest of the Netherlands will be willing to sacrifice for the sake of its comfort. Universal healthcare and the end of insurance-based economies are the only way out from this abusive and deadly mechanism.
Our Trans Sister Angel Was Murdered by the IND
In the discourse over migration and its impact on our economies, politics and culture, Western countries still refuse to acknowledge and address their own culpability for the displacement of communities that are forced to migrate. One of the main drives of migration is environmental degradation, which is in turn caused by economic development with its putting profits before environmental protection and communities, as well as by warfare with its disintegration of entire countries. It goes without saying that a big part of these economic and military interventions are controlled and incentivized by corporations with headquarters in Europe and European countries, the Netherlands included.
Consequently, for many communities outside of the bloody borders of Europe, climate change is a very palpable threat. “I was born in Curaçao, so for me the climate crisis isn’t an abstract issue happening outside of Europe. It is a very concrete and present threat to my family, my home, and my livelihood. It is not something that I can take lightly. Climate struggle for me is personal, because it is murdering my fellow people and devastating my land, as we speak”, shared our comrade during the workshop. According to recent estimates, the Caribbean islands are predicted to be greatly impacted by sea level rise in the upcoming 30 years. The portions that are already below the sea level, or slightly above (mostly coastal areas) will risk to disappear or suffer enormous erosion, meaning that some 30 million people will soon find themselves without a place to call home, or, especially those employed in the tourism industry, without a source of income.
While we need to discuss this form of environmental injustice from the lens of racism and anti-migrant policies, it is also important to recognize that a considerable number of asylum seekers are LGBTQ+ and that their experience while moving is exceptionally traumatic and life threatening. Hence, as the climate emergency worsens, the survival of our fellow queer migrants will be increasingly jeopardized. There are several reasons why this is the case, and many of those are imputable to the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND), as the story of Angel shows.
Angel was a trans refugee from China. On February 26, 2021, the day after our workshop, she committed suicide by jumping under a train in Echt. She came to the Netherlands seeking refuge and a fresh start in a place she believed was safe for LGBTQ+ people. Instead, she was raped in the asylum seekers’ center in Baexem and repeatedly harmed, physically and psychologically, by the Dutch asylum system.
It is not enough to say that Angel’s suicide was preventable. Angel’s account of sexual assault was not taken seriously and nothing was done to investigate the attack. Most importantly, Angel was never provided with appropriate psychological support and decent living standards during her stay in the asylum seekers’ center. That is why the IND is guilty of the death of Angel, as it is of the suffering of countless other LGBTQ+ refugees that it harasses on a daily basis. Abuse starts from the very moment LGBTQ+ asylum seekers step into this country, and accompany them throughout the endless procedure of obtaining legal papers.
A typical practice of the IND is to reject asylum seekers who “do not look gay/trans enough” based on westernized and stereotypical accounts of how we are supposed to behave and experience our sexuality. In 2009, when the IND asked a Pakistani man how he understood to be gay, he said he simply liked having sex with men. However, the assessor could not accept the idea of being gay in Pakistan without going through any internal struggle, or experiencing a painful coming-out. In their opinion, the applicant’s homosexual identity was insufficient, the IND did not believe he was gay and rejected his asylum claim. This is not an isolated case, but one of a series of stories whose plots repeat itself time and time again. According to the COC, some 500 people ask for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation every year. The IND rejects 40% of the claims, 85% of those because officials judged the applicant not gay enough. Figures are likely worse for transgender applicants.
If passing IND barriers to entry is difficult, surviving Dutch refugee camps is close to impossible. The conditions are inhumane for everyone, but even more so for homosexual and transgender people, as they experience violence by both fellow refugees and camps’ authorities. Inside the camps, discrimination, denial of protection, mistreatment, verbal and physical assault against LGBTQ+ migrants have always been commonplace. LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are often placed in centers that do not respect their gender identity, sometimes with people from their own country, and thus end up facing the same abuse they were escaping from. Just last year, around August, a heterosexual woman in the asylum seekers’ center in Gilze attacked our sister Happy, a Nigeria lesbian woman, with boiling water, which caused major first and second degree burns. If that was not enough, our sister was later on course of being deported on account of being #NietGayGenoeg (not gay enough). She was still healing from her burns. Isolation, longer waiting times, heightened risk of sexual abuse, all compounded with xenophobia, racism, islamophobia depict a dim situation which will undoubtedly get worse with the worsening of the climate crisis.
A dim situation is certainly the correct way to call the experience of the LGBTQ+ community in the Netherlands, as shown by the three cases that were pointed out during the workshop. One that calls for immediate resistance. But in order for us to build strong movements and carry on effective resistance, we must learn to identify the multiple sources, internal and external, material and conceptual, of abuse of both (LGBTQ+) people and land. Only then we will understand why and how the queer liberation movement must unite with the climate justice movement, as well as with the struggle for the liberation of all oppressed communities around the world. This is what we will explore in the second article of this series, “Freedom”.