‘The frustrating reality is that acceptance of LGBTQI+ people is progressing in small steps’

Students Rachèl (HU) and Willem (UU) participate in Canal Pride. Photo Kees Rutten

Rachèl Verhoeven (22) is a Pedagogy student at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and will sail on the boat. As a member of the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), she helped organise the catering and the afterparty. Willem Vos (23) is an Art History student at Utrecht University, and will cheer on the boats from the streets. As a student member of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) programme, they were offered a spot on the boat, but Willem decided to donate the spot to another student. “I’ve got an active position within the university, but many students don’t know what we as UU do for LGBTQIers. I really hope someone new will learn about us this way.”

Willem says students don’t always feel represented by the university. “Or they don’t see what it does,” Willem says. Although the atmosphere at the university is open and accepting, there are non-binary students (like Willem) who may feel ‘unwelcome or unsafe’ in some situations. Students have to be registered at the university as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, they mention as an example. Although Willem does mention the university is ‘very seriously’ looking into the possibility of improving gender registration, and wants to ‘immediately’ adjust this ‘the best way it can’ in its systems.

‘Here we are’
The Utrecht Canal Pride is the annual boat parade. Its aim is to increase visibility and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, including people who identify as lesbian, gay, queer, transgender, or non-binary. The participating students also want to use their participation to increase visibility as LGBTQI+ community at their respective educational institutions – because that can be improved.

“There are barely any students who know that my position exists, or know where to find me,” Willem says, referring to their position as student-member of the EDI. The EDI as organisation is also an unknown entity to many students. “On Coming Out day, an interview with me was published on the EDI site, and on the university’s Instagram and Twitter,” Willem says. It didn’t reach many people: it “didn’t get a lot of response”. Aside from the goal of Pride increasing the visibility of the community among UUers, Willem states that more needs to be done. “We want to signal to the university: get to work on this.”

HU students are also unfamiliar with the GSA, says Rachèl, speaking from experience. Rachèl accidentally found out about its existence after three years of college through a friend, who’s an active member herself. She herself hadn’t been looking for it. “The GSA is a place where you can be who you are,” Rachèl says. Students see each other in GSA meetings, and share experiences and issues they encounter, and give each other advice: “Have others experienced this and this, and how do they deal with it?”

EDI versus GSA
Rachèl: “You’re stronger as a group, and you can achieve more.” There are 17 HU’ers in the GSA, a both students and employees. With days like Coming Out Day, Purple Friday, or events like the Canal Pride, Rachèl hopes more students will become familiar with the GSA. “Students tend to occupy themselves with things that are needed for their studies,” she says. “Through student associations, study associations, or events like Pride, we’re better able to reach them.”

The UU’s EDI programme is more formal: with a steering group – consisting of students and employees -, meetings, memos, and an advisory role to the Executive Board. “They do really listen to us,” Willem says. “But the university is such a sluggish machine, with so many employees, so change is slow.”

Slow process
That can be frustrating, Willem admits. “I joined the EDI two years ago, but I do wonder how much I’ve achieved. What has really changed? Not much. There are only small steps. That, unfortunately, is the reality of being part of such a large organisation. My biggest achievement is that Purple Friday is now a thing at the university.” On that day, the second Friday of December every year, students wear purple to show solidarity with LGBTQI+ people. Rachèl says: “But you can’t really gauge small changes. You don’t always hear it when people have started to think more or differently about sexuality and inclusion.”

The UURainbow network is also a part of the EDI umbrella. “The different – and very separated – faculties make it difficult to reach students as an umbrella organisation,” Willem says. As a result, the UURainbow network mostly consists of teachers. Rachèl says there is more connectedness at the HU, which makes it easier to promote the GSA. “But it’s still a challenge for us as well.”

Both Willem and Rachèl feel comfortable at their respective educational institutions, although it took Willem some time to find out how open the university was. At the progressive, open-minded faculty of Humanities, where a society-critical atmosphere is present, they quickly felt free enough to be themselves. “Now I’m doing the minor in Governance at another faculty, and I feel like there’s such a different atmosphere there,” Willem says. “Everyone is probably very accepting, but as a non-binary person, I feel vulnerable more quickly. Every time I have to decide: will I tell people or not? It’s a risk calculation based on self-protection.”

Although Willem feels accepted within the university, it isn’t as self-evident outside its walls. “I consciously choose to look male, for my own safety. Although I did attend my hockey club gala wearing a dress and high heels and jewellery.” That went well, and there were ‘only’ two incidents. A group of non-members started a discussion, “because surely it was a ‘joke’.” “I also asked two team members to cycle home with me, because I was scared to death of being out and about like that.”

“It’s easier for me,” Rachèl says. “I’m a bisexual cis woman.” At her Pedagogy study programme, she feels safe to be herself, but at the HU too there are differences in how open people and places are. “Most teachers are understanding, but I do hear stories of students who have indicated multiple times: I’m non-binary, these are my pronouns; but sometimes it’s hard for teachers to take that into account.”

Despite all the serious points Rachèl and Willem raise at their colleges, they mainly want the Canal Pride to be a celebratory occasion. The boat parade was organised by and for teachers and students who volunteer for the LGBTQI+ community. “We want to thank them, and shine a light on them,” Willem says. There has been a great many positive responses to the HU-UU boat: more than there is room for on the boat. “Friends who don’t even study at the HU, texted me to say they wanted to join us,” Rachèl says. There is only room for eighty people on the boat. “I had to disappoint them, unfortunately.”