On media, masturbation and the struggle against dichotomy: a Merry Queer Mess speech

The end of the year is a time for lists and reminiscing. It’s a time to pause, to reflect, to look both back and ahead, and to learn and grow. I don’t like it.

Listing is a tradition invented by media because media love easy content and lists are the easiest form of content. I don’t like lists. I don’t like the forced reflection, the false implied hierarchies. I don’t like the notion that a period is bound by arbitrary dates. Listing is a form of canonizing and I tend to not like canons either. Canons represent the accepted and thus the status-quo. Brr.

Radio 1 came up with the idea of reflecting on 2017 by listing discussions we no longer want to have in 2018. The ‘we’ is not the we that is present here, the ‘we’ is the mainstream, the ‘gewone Nederlander’. Apparently, gay rights is a discussion that the ‘we’ no longer wants to have. As such, I was asked to explain – or maybe I should say: defend – why the gay rights agenda is still meaningful, by commenting on the success of the RTL television programme Gordon Gaat Trouwen.

Gordon himself took the high ratings as a sign of elevated acceptance of homosexuality in the Netherlands. I argued that it’s a clear example of what Laurens Buijs has called the Dutch Paradox: Dutch people do well in terms of acceptance on survey questions like ‘do you accept homosexuality’, but a large part would still rather not see two men kiss. Similarly, homosexuality is more accepted when gay people act like straight people, for instance by getting married and living a monogamous life with no further reference to any sexual behaviour.

Yesterday I was called by BNR Nieuwsradio. Their creative angle on the end-of-year-lists was that 2017 was the year of bubbles. The housing bubble, the bitcoin bubble, the filter bubble. They proposed that there was also a ‘gender bubble’, because gender was a theme that caused commotion this year.

A gender bubble? I told them I didn’t feel it. “But there’s been so much attention for gender and sexuality this year” they objected. Media-attention equals inflation. Not seeing the irony in calling this as a bubble is media’s painful lack of self-awareness in a nut-shell.

But then I started thinking. Do I not live in a gender bubble? Is our beloved Amsterdam not a free zone that might be labelled a bubble? Here, we are away from the Radio 1-listeners who think we shouldn’t make a fuss over the right to sexual diversity; here we are away from the angry mob who feels that being addressed on the train as ‘travelers’ instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ is an offense and a sign that the world as we know it is coming to an end.

Don’t we – and here the ‘we’ does refer to people like you and me, people who enjoy the idea of a Merry Queer Mess – don’t we flirt with the idea of a Republic of Amsterdam, where the sexists and homophobes  and racists are not welcome? Don’t we joke about building a fence around us to keep the haters out? Isn’t that the meaning of a bubble?

Amsterdam is the refuge for queer kids who want to escape the stranglehold of Dutch villages and towns. I wrote that in a column for Folia a few weeks ago, in response to the notion of a gap between what have been called ‘the pushers from Amsterdam’ and the good & honest people of ‘de regio’ – everything that is not Amsterdam.

Right wing commentators in the media promote this notion: the idea that the elite resides in Amsterdam and that this elite is force-feeding its left wing, cultural-marxist agenda on law-abiding, hard-working citizens who don’t need any of that crap. That crap meaning: gender inclusive clothing at the Hema and a celebration of Sinterklaas that doesn’t include a racist caricature.

Of course this is total bullshit. The political elite in the Netherlands is right-wing with a dash of religious fundamentalism. They have been voted in power by the majority of Dutch citizens, who are like them: right-wing with a dash of religious fundamentalism. The media are not on our side either, as the two examples that I started with suggest. Media tend to stoke things up – to exacerbate the problem. I wanted to use that word because it’s sounds like ‘masturbate the problem’ and I think that also fits. It’s all so self-satisfying.

If only we lived in a gender and sexuality bubble! The reality of course is that the Netherlands are small. Many Amsterdammers were born and raised in its towns and villages. We go there to sit in a circle for our mums’ birthdays, we go there to ‘gourmetten’ for Christmas dinner. There is no clear distinction between Amsterdam and the rest in that sense.

The reality is also that Amsterdam is not the safe haven I’d like it to be. The fact that many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people move to this city does not mean that there is no violence against them here. And just because homosexuality is more accepted in Amsterdam, doesn’t mean that everyone here feels safe enough to be out.

Moreover, the city is changing. We are overflown with white middle-class double income straight people, who bring forth a monoculture that’s not that different from the towns outside. The number of sexually deviant spaces in Amsterdam has been in steady decline – I’m talking here about darkrooms and cruising zones – not in the least because the municipality doesn’t really like sex (see also what they’ve done to the Red Light District).

To speak of Amsterdam as a bubble is to speak of privilege. It’s becoming more and more expensive to live here. Moreover, not all queer people want to move here. Some like living in small villages, by the sea or the forest of whatever else nature has to offer. And neither should they all move here. When I visited San Francisco I was surprised by the pride locals took in having the Castro – a gay district. You shouldn’t want a gay district, you should want a gay city, I thought. Likewise should Amsterdam not be a queer bubble. We should want a queer country and then a queer world and then a queer universe.

Besides, queerness defies the idea of a bubble. Queer to me means messing (!) up boundaries, it’s about fading the lines around boxes, it’s about problematize identity categories by showing how the assumptions upon which they are based are falsely normalizing, homogenizing, naturalizing. It’s about producing and/or noticing other ways of living, of moving beyond heteronormativity.

The most depressing list of all was the election of the ugliest word of the year. The Dutch people spoke and chose ‘genderneutraal’. Now there is nothing particularly ugly in the sound of genderneutraal. It’s the politics behind it that the majority of Dutch people find ugly. In the debates about it, and about similar issues related to gender and sexuality, the media constantly create dichotomies, dichotomies like Amsterdam vs de regio; simple reductions that are meant to incite more commotion by opposing two sides. That commotion only serves more media masturbation.

My Christmas confession is that I too have sinned in this process, because I like to be confrontational. But I don’t want to be complicit. We need to queer this thing up. We need to create a different kind of ruckus, a different ado, more modes of being, and more and different forms of protesting the ugly system through which heteronormativity reinforces itself. Spreading queer culture is a crucial way to do that, and that’s what tonight is so wonderfully about. So go forth and complicate, deviate, fornicate.

This speech was written for and delivered  at Merry Queer Mess, organized by Léon Kruijswijk.