It’s a Sunday morning in Rotterdam’s Scheepvaartkwartier neighbourhood. Westplein square has not yet completely awoken when Welmer de Groot gets off his bicycle. When he enters Grand Café-Restaurant Loos, which is still quiet at this hour, he orders a cup of mint tea. “This neighbourhood reminds me of when I was first introduced to Rotterdam,” says De Groot, explaining why he suggested having our conversation here. Nine years ago he first arrived in Rotterdam to attend Erasmus MC’s induction week. He stayed at the Maritime Hotel in Willemskade and has loved coming here ever since. “I have nothing but fond memories of this neighbourhood. It occupies a special place in my heart.”
Welmer de Groot, 29, is a medical student at EUR. He is currently in the foundation programme (i.e., doing an internship). In addition, he works for the Dutch Ministry of Defence and chairs Erasmus Pride, the university’s LGBT+ interest group. “For Erasmus Pride, this year is all about a re-launch. We wish to attract more staff and have embarked on a few promising projects, such as organising an event during Rotterdam Pride, in association with Rotterdam’s universities of applied sciences.”
Conversation within a Christian community
During this year’s Rotterdam Pride, the annual celebration of sexual diversity in the city, all student societies flew the rainbow flag, except for the Christian society NSR, which refused to do so. De Groot, who grew up and had to come out of the closet in a Christian community himself, criticised NSR for its refusal to fly the flag in an open letter.
Why did you write an open letter about the rainbow flag to NSR’s board?
“I regard the raising of the rainbow flag as a show of support for the LGBT+ community. NSR indicated that LGBT+ students are welcome at their society, but did not show its support in a visible way. They said they would rather have a personal conversation, but they don’t seem to realise that broaching the topic of homosexuality is hard within a Christian community. Flying the rainbow flag is a way to demonstrate that you welcome the conversation.
“I’m from a conservative Christian family in Frisiaand I have first-hand experience of how hard it is to come out. As a young LGBT person you often lack role models in your environment, and you have difficulty finding someone to talk to. That’s why visible support is very important, particularly in an environment that is not LGBT-friendly.”
What was your adolescence like?
“My whole being revolved around the fight to be allowed to be myself. I noticed I was attracted to men when I was about twelve. My church said that, although homosexuality is quite common, it’s just a phase you grow out of, and if you pray hard enough, it will pass of its own accord. And I really did hope I’d grow out of it until I was sixteen.
“When my friends were starting to get into relationships, I had to keep finding excuses as to why I didn’t have a girlfriend or how I felt about girls. I got to a point where I thought: this isn’t right, I can’t live like this. So I started looking for answers to the question as to why I was who I was. And that’s when I began to accept who I was. All in all, it took me seven years to come out of the closet. I didn’t tell my parents until I was nineteen.”
How did your parents respond?
“As conservative religious people go, my parents are fairly progressive. My father was fine with it, but my mother had a hard time coming to terms with it. It took her years to get used to the idea. The Christian community definitely didn’t help. They all believed that if a man is gay, his mother has been too dominant in raising him. So it weighs heavily on her heart.”
Did that contribute to your decision to leave rural Frisia?
“Yeah, I’d kind of had it with Frisia and religious environments. Most of my school friends left for Groningen, but visited their parents every weekend. I thought Groningen was every bit as oppressive as Heerenveen. I wanted to increase the distance between myself and home.”
Returning home earlier from Afghanistan
De Groot found that distance in Rotterdam, where he embarked on a degree in medicine in 2009. Shortly afterwards he started working for the Ministry of Defence. In 2013 he was deployed to Afghanistan in his capacity as a specialist security guard for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The mission was supposed to take four and a half months, but De Groot came home earlier due to problems between himself and his colleagues.
What happened in Afghanistan?
“I’d been allocated to the most conservative group. Right from the first day, my roommate said: ‘I don’t want to share my bedroom with a gay guy.’ I was shocked to hear that. I’d never encountered such explicit revulsion before. I’d made my bed and put my stuff in the container that would be our bedroom. When I entered the container later that day, all my things had been thrown off my bed. My roommate was erecting wardrobes with a colleague so as to divide the room into two. He had created a small room of his own inside the container.
“Even though it was relatively safe in northern Afghanistan, we did work with weapons and we had to go on patrols together. In other words, we had to be able to rely on each other completely. Such deployments are like a pressure cooker. You are constantly on your colleagues’ lips. You have long and intense shifts, so emotions are quick to flare, and things really turned south for us. This created a highly complex situation. Our conflict escalated so badly that I eventually decided to go home.”
Did your return to the Netherlands feel like a defeat?
“No. Actually, I only felt relieved. I would have liked to finish the deployment, but considering the circumstances, going home was the right decision. I could have insisted on being in the right and kicked up an almighty fuss, but what good would it have done me? That guy would only have been confirmed in his opinions on gay people. I would have become an enemy who was picking a fight with him. I actually wanted to do something constructive.”
Diversity causes friction
Shortly after his return from Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence offered De Groot a position in a study of acceptance of homosexuality within the organisation. “What happened in Afghanistan was not really about accepting homosexuality, but rather about accepting differences,” he says. For that reason, he ended up expanding the study, focusing not just on homosexuality in the armed forces, but on diversity and inclusiveness. “The study resulted in an interesting conclusion, namely that masculinity is considered very important within the organisation,” says De Groot. “They’re trying to offset this masculinity by increasing diversity.”
What does diversity mean to you?
“Generally speaking, diversity comes with creativity and adaptability, which may result in increased productivity. At the same time, diversity causes friction, so it’s vital that you can explain in some detail why diversity is important to your organisation.
“I’ve noticed that the representative bodies of minority groups often choose to behave like victims: we need your sympathy, because we are different and we are being oppressed. I find it hard to relate to that kind of attitude. I prefer stressing the added value of diversity. The idea that diversity is something you can celebrate suits me better.”
Isn’t that a utopian ideal?
“Not at the Ministry of Defence. They are very good at showing what value diversity adds to their work – for instance during missions. Back in the old days, platoons would consist of merely men. But if you only send men to an Afghan village to obtain information from the locals, you will only get a limited number of sources, as male soldiers are not allowed to talk to the local women. Which is bad, because there are a lot of women, and they have a certain knowledge of their environment. In other words, diversity is vital to the success of the mission, because female soldiers allow you to reach the local women, which makes your work much more effective.”
What could Erasmus University learn from your study on inclusiveness in the armed forces?
“EUR is diverse, but not inclusive. The Diversity & Inclusion Office’s objective is to ensure that everyone feels at home here, but that is impossible, because you feel most at home with people who are like yourself. Diversity lays bare differences and always results in friction. Universities should celebrate diversity, in the sense that they should demonstrate the added value of diversity, so that everyone will appreciate diversity.
“Of course, you do have to make places available where people do feel at home, such as societies for people who share the same cultural background. There is nothing wrong with that, because it makes people feel at ease, but they can’t always feel at home in diversity. In between the differences, the university should actually focus on unity. What ties us together? What is it that makes us Erasmus University? If you really seek to be an inclusive university, you must create types of education in which diversity is a functional component.”
What do you mean by that?
“Diversity must have a noticeable function. For instance, take the armed forces again. The group of reservists with whom I attended my first training programme was highly diverse – aged 18 to 48, male and female, all sorts of cultural and educational backgrounds. As a team, we were set an assignment in which our various skills came into play. The group leaders made a point of using all those skills, because they knew that everyone would get a chance to show off their talents and everyone would be able to contribute something related to his or her specific knowledge and background.
“I think diversity is something that needs to be dealt with tactically. You can make a conscious decision as to when to utilise diversity and when not to utilise it. You don’t have to go for radical diversity in every situation. For instance, you should not endeavour to make all toilets gender-neutral, because most people prefer going to a gender-specific toilet. But you do have to make a few gender-neutral toilets available for people who don’t feel comfortable using conventional toilets.”
That sounds very pragmatic.
“It has to be pragmatic. Diversity and inclusiveness can be approached from two perspectives: the ethical perspective or a technical approach. I have more affinity with the latter, which involves the minority and the dominant majority. In order to get the dominant majority to accept diversity, you must speak their language and explain why diversity is in their best interest. In actual practice, the pragmatic approach tends to be the most effective.”