Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.
In the end, I think we all have a common denominator. After all, everyone is labelled by others.
In this collection of personal stories, interviewees talk about the stereotypes they encounter in everyday life. Others are quick to attach labels to them, but often forget that a person cannot be summarised in one word. This is het story of Stijn Gijsbers, Medical Advisor Cardiovascular, Metabolism & Renal at AstraZeneca. His relationship with the word ‘homo’ is sensitive. In his youth, he was often teased with it. Therefore his response on how he labels himself is ‘homosexual’.
A year after I started working at AstraZeneca, one of the colleagues I had built a friendship with said something interesting. We were sitting together at work with some others when a photo of my weekend came up on my phone. Not an unusual photo at all, mind you. It showed me sitting on a scooter, wearing a pink jumper while making a mad face. But one of the colleagues was shocked. She didn’t recognise me at all. “Is that really you?”, she asked. To which this friend of mine said that there are two Stijnen: an Office Stijn and a Private Stijn. Two completely different people. When she said that, I recognised that. Because in my work, I find it important to maintain a certain professionalism. Although I value humour in the workplace, I am focused. I set the bar high and can therefore leave a serious impression with people.
But what colleagues don’t know is that I play in plays, for example. I was in a regular company for a while. The last play I took part in was Oedipus, a classical Greek tragedy. A spicy play, though. It was about a man who killed his father and married his mother. The subtitle was Are you who you think you are? I played Kreon, the protagonist’s brother-in-law. This was a very calculating character, cunning and out for power. The stage directions were to make him dirtier and dirtier, and dirtier. That’s not necessarily in my nature, but that’s the fun part of acting. The pretending, and that you are only concerned with the here and now.
I look back most positively on my role as Ares in another play. For myself, I had the idea that it should be a brute, really a god of war. I struggled with that, but the director gave me good advice. She said a character always acts from his own idea of what doing good is. Even a god of war does that. That’s an important lesson I learnt from acting. And I try to apply it in everyday life, when, for example, I don’t understand someone right away or disagree with them.
So there was that distinction between OfficeStijn and PrivateStijn. Now it is much less so. […] Whereas five years ago I said I was ‘going to Amsterdam’, now I frankly say I’m going to Gay Pride.
So there was that distinction between OfficeStijn and PrivateStijn. Now it is much less so. At work, for instance, I talk more about my hobbies and my private life. Also about the parties I go to. Whereas five years ago I used to say I was ‘going to Amsterdam’, now I frankly say I’m going to the Gay Pride. But for a long time I didn’t want to let my sexual orientation define me at work. I was also always very happy with my white coat when I did my internships at the hospital. Then I was ‘the doctor’, felt the same and was approached the same as everyone else.
Has it ever been different?
Definitely. I grew up in Groesbeek, a village near Nijmegen. But whereas all my friends said they wanted to live there all their lives, I knew very quickly that I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I didn’t fit into a village culture; I like the anonymity of a city much better.
Despite that difference, we had a pretty close group of friends. We did a lot together. For instance, our first holiday abroad together was one of those typical teenage trips to Alanya. We even had shirts printed especially for that that said ‘Groesbeek is our hometown’. But actually Groesbeek didn’t feel like my ‘hometown’. We grew further and further apart later in life. They were all in local carnival clubs and football teams, for instance. But I wasn’t one of those, so I soon felt like the odd duck.
In my primary school period, I was also bullied a lot. For quite a long time too, from grade 3 to grade 8. It was five years of suffering. After all, others thought we were incredibly rich at home. And thought it was weird that I was a fan of the Spice Girls, always had girlfriends instead of friends I played with, and that I didn’t play football or was good at sports. Before I knew it, I was the target.
Whenever I came home or got into my mother’s car, I would burst into tears.
Being bullied had a big impact on me. I bottled up my feelings and often couldn’t think about anything else. Whenever I came home or got into my mother’s car, I would burst into tears. The message I got from my parents then was that if I just learned well and persevered, I would leave all the bullies behind. Then I could do what I wanted later. Looking back, I think this advice helped me a lot. After all, I still don’t give up easily.
What I also struggled with during that time is that I found out in junior high that I fell for boys. I know exactly when that was. I was walking down the street in Nijmegen at the time and thought, ‘that’s a nice boy.’ Immediately followed by the thought: ‘what was I just thinking? What was that?’ After that moment, I went through a lot of phases, from denial to self-acceptance and everything in between. The pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fall into place until around the age of 15, when I had met a girl. I had heard through the grapevine that she liked me. We then dated for a fortnight, if you can call it that at that age. I also kissed her for the first time. But I distinctly remember standing in the bicycle shed afterwards and knowing that it really didn’t do enough for me. The remarkable thing is that she also came out of the closet later in life. Maybe we were each other’s experiment.
At 16, I officially came out of the closet. That actually went pretty well. I had very few negative reactions. The first person I told it to was a good friend of mine. I remember saying I was into boys, and a shock went through my body. In fact, it almost made me nauseous. From the nerves, and from the feeling that I couldn’t go back now. From then on, it was real, because after all, she knew. But she actually reacted lollygaggingly. Like ‘Okay. Next hour we have maths right?’ And I just responded full of emotion that it was something big. But she said it wasn’t a thing for her. It was fine. And then we walked to maths class.
How do you look back on that time now?
This may sound heavy, but somewhere I understood why they bullied me like that. Because that was before I had come out of the closet, but already sort of knew it about myself. So basically they were right when they called me ‘gay’. But of course I don’t approve of their behaviour.
For example, when I was asked by a colleague to join the diversity and inclusion working group, something gnawed at me. The reason I had doubts eventually became the reason I joined that working group.
Should I really want to be that office gay?
So with the word ‘gay’, I didn’t necessarily relate well. Still not quite. When I came out of the closet, I didn’t phrase it that way. I said I fall for boys, not that I’m gay. Because with the word gay, I had been scolded all these years. But I’m not ashamed of it, even though it has a negative connotation for me. It’s more of a label that I myself fear. For instance, when I was asked by a colleague to join the diversity and inclusion working group, something gnawed at me. I doubted. Should I really want to be that ‘office gay’? That gay guy who comes back to talk about diversity? After much thought, I realised that I was afraid of how others would see me. I knew this fear was not good. The reason I doubted eventually became the reason I joined that working group. I want to remove those barriers, to stop being afraid of others labelling me ‘gay’. Why should I be ashamed of my sexual orientation?
With the working group, we organised a webcast about the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month last year. At the time, I very consciously chose to say in my introductory text that I am gay. To say those words out loud on camera to colleagues so literally was very intense for me. Even though I make no secret of my orientation at work.
Afterwards, I spoke to several colleagues about the broadcast. None of them mentioned that I had said I was gay. It was mostly about the content, and everyone was positive about it. So that they would label me was mostly something that was in my head.
Some said they had learnt so much from it. They said their children could already tell all sorts of things about the subject, but they themselves had no idea. Others said they thought it was too long, such a one-hour webcast on LGBTQIA+. I can understand that somewhere. If it doesn’t concern you directly, an hour can be long. But then I prefer to think of the person for whom an hour was too short. Then I do it for that person.
The culture at AstraZeneca has improved anyway through diversity and inclusion activities, such as that webcast. That culture was already very open, and now even more so. Don’t get me wrong, because we still have some hurdles to overcome in that area. The staff still remains a rather theoretically trained homogeneous group. That may change a bit, but we are already working on that. Because I think it’s important that something happens in that area.
People also need to be exposed to it so the norm shifts.
Have you seen Showponies 2? That’s a theatre show by Alex Klaasen. At one point, there comes an act where he has two male actors kissing each other for five minutes as an experiment, because he read somewhere that 35 per cent of people find it difficult to see two men doing that. That moment stuck with me. People also need to be exposed to it so that the norm shifts.
I do admit that I avoid these kinds of situations myself. Walking down the street holding hands I have never done. I wouldn’t kiss in the middle of the railway station either. I don’t feel comfortable with that. There was once a programme on TV in which they used a hidden camera to follow two boys and two girls walking hand-in-hand on the streets of Utrecht. Within fifteen minutes they had already received such nasty remarks at their heads. I’m just not waiting for that. Why would I seek that out? On the other hand, I would kiss my date in an alley near the train station. Too bad it has to be this way, because it could be different.
For instance, a few years ago I went with a group of friends to Sitges, a small seaside town just below Barcelona. In summer, that is overrun by gay people; it is sometimes called one of the gay capitals of Europe. We had a super fun holiday there. And because it was so close to Barcelona, we also thought it would be fun to take the train there. I had been there before and knew it was a fun city. But after we had lunch there and walked around a bit, we said to each other: let’s just go back. Nobody really enjoyed Barcelona. Sitges was much more fun, we wanted to go back to ‘gay land’. There, you didn’t have to worry in any way about who you met on the street. You sat there on the terrace among like-minded people, which made you feel so free. That was so nice to experience.
Do you ever go back to Groesbeek?
Only when I visit my parents, but they live on the outskirts of the village. It is. I did live there for the first 19 years of my life, but I’m definitely not a Groesbeker. Never really been one either. One of the first questions someone from Groesbeek asks you is ‘whose gïj d’r ènne?’ Which family are you from? But if, like me, you are not from a Groesbeek family, you are an import. And I also spoke Dutch, not the dialect.
Now I’ve been living in The Hague for almost 10 years. What I really like is that there is so much more diversity. Not only among people, but also in the arts and culture on offer. It makes me very happy. In Nijmegen, for instance, I went to the theatre a lot less, but in The Hague you have more opportunities for that. The threshold is also a lot lower with parties. And the beach is nice and close by. It doesn’t have to be quite an undertaking to get a holiday feeling. I can get there in no time by bike.
I now consider myself lucky to be gay and happy with the life I have now. There is a thought experiment related to that, do you know it? The question is: Suppose you could take a pill to become straight. Would you do that? If you had asked me that when I was 16, I would have taken that pill immediately. Without thinking about it. But now I wouldn’t do it for a million. I’m so happy with who I am now. My life is so much fun, I never want to lose that part of my identity.
I think we as humans are programmed in such a way that we are quick to put labels on each other.
At least I don’t see myself as ‘that gay guy’ anymore. I think people judge me on a lot of other things or put other labels on me. But as long as a label is not judgmental, I’m okay with that. I think we as humans are so programmed that we are quick to put labels on each other. We may like that pigeonholing, and I don’t mind that. I am more concerned with how two parties in a conversation deal with those labels.
For example, I did my internships with a strict Christian colleague. A very nice girl, but I knew she condemned me for who I was. And vice versa, that was also the case: I also had my prejudices about her. But at one point the two of us had a conversation that has stayed with me so well. We talked to each other so openly about anything and everything, without judgement. We both knew that we wouldn’t convince each other of our point of view, but that wasn’t the intention either. The aim was to seek understanding for each other. So I asked her, for instance, whether the fact that I am gay bothered her in our dealings. Because she did have an opinion about that. She then said that it is something I do, and not what I am. That she thought I was a good person. To which I said that what I do stems from who I am. You can’t separate that, I think. But she didn’t agree with that. So we didn’t come together in that, but by the end we understood each other a bit more.
So I actually think we should have that kind of conversation with each other more often. And should dare to ask each other difficult questions. But I know there is a culture of judgement these days. I think it’s a very bad development that someone can be punished for his statements. Some statements cannot be condoned, of course, but sometimes there is too little attention for the other side of the story. It would be good if there were more room for understanding each other, and less the feeling of ‘if you’re not for me, you’re against me’. The worst thing you can do is stop communicating.
In my case, the mutual understanding after such an open conversation has brought about more resignation and the realisation that, as a marginalised group, you are allowed to demand solidarity and respect from those who fall under the prevailing norm. But people may also say they are not prepared to do so . That is not a nice message, but one has the right to say so.
Everyone gets labelled by others.
In the end, I do think we all have a common denominator. After all, everyone is labelled by others. There are judgements and convictions attached to that. Expectations of certain norms and values. In the feeling this evokes in all of us, we can find each other.