Professor Nanna Verhoeff and Professor John de Wit talk about Coming-Out Day, visibility (including their own) and various types of diversity

‘Today is about celebrating the differences between individuals’

Hoogleraren Nanna Verhoeff en John de Wit zitten in een stoel en praten samen over Coming-outdag en diversiteit.
Professor John de Wit and Professor Nanna Verhoeff

It is important for members of the LGBT+ community to be visible in society. On this point, role models (and professors) Nanna Verhoeff and John de Wit are in total agreement. ‘There's really no need to make an announcement in class: ‘Hey, by the way, I'm gay,’ says Verhoeff. But what is the best way to address the matter, then? Verhoeff is Professor of Screen Cultures & Society at the Faculty of Humanities, while De Wit is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. In connection with Coming-Out Day, I spoke with them about the rainbow flag, why it's important to keep drawing attention to diversity and about their personal situations, which cannot be viewed independently of their professional roles.

Why is Utrecht University flying the rainbow flag today?

‘The University has raised the flag to lend visibility to the diversity of its people, their sexual orientations and their gender identities,’ Verhoeff says. ‘By doing so, UU is expressing its desire to provide a safe and inclusive working environment for everyone.’ De Wit: ‘This is the University's way of showing explicit support for the importance of diversity. Today is about celebrating the differences between individuals.’

Why is it still important that we work to raise awareness of these differences?

‘Although of course everyone is equal, this often proves otherwise in practice,’ De Wit says. ‘Few people tend to discriminate a gay man, “just for fun”. Yet there is an implicit norm within society that a man is masculine-presenting, heteronormative and cisgender.’ Verhoeff has also observed an increase in social tensions within society. ‘All around the world, the rights of women and LGBT+ individuals are under pressure. We must therefore continue to speak out in support of minority groups. Diversity is and remains a political theme.’ De Wit: ‘In the Netherlands, people are free to be who they want. As a result, many people tend to overlook the challenges faced by members of the LGBT+ community. Some LGBT+ individuals find it difficult to talk about their partner at work when the partner is of the same gender. And many Dutch people are still uncomfortable when it comes to affection and sex between two men or two women. They would prefer to ignore it and not discuss it at all.’

Few people tend to discriminate a gay man, “just for fun”. Yet there is an implicit norm within society that a man is masculine-presenting, heteronormative and cisgender.

Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences

What other diversity-related trends do you see in society?

‘Some people are tired of hearing about all kinds of groups struggling for recognition. Those people sarcastically ask if we forgot any letters in the LGBT+ alphabet soup,’ De Wit says. Verhoeff: ‘Despite the fact that we're showing that diversity is a powerful thing and has the potential for infinite variety. This is what makes the LGBT+ moniker such a strong one: it shows that you have an entire alphabet to choose from. You might think it's a bit silly to add new letters, but to me that just reinforces the idea that diversity is itself diverse. We are emphasising the differences between individuals, no matter what those differences are.’ De Wit concurs. In addition to 'diversity fatigue’, Verhoeff and De Wit see the progress in the Netherlands as well. De Wit: ‘I think the wealth of attention to gender diversity in recent years is a positive thing. As a result, even the average citizen is now informed about this issue.’ Verhoeff is hopeful with regard to the younger generation. ‘Among young people, I'm seeing a way of thinking that is more fluid rather than based on a binary or predefined boxes.’

What actions is UU taking in terms of diversity?

‘The University has a climate in which diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are viewed as the most natural thing in the world,’ according to De Wit. ‘UU is also a place where you learn to think in a way that fosters diverse perspectives,’ Verhoeff continues. ‘We teach our students to think critically about the principles of inclusion and exclusion, as well as about the diverse nature of diversity itself.’ ‘University employees are working on initiatives through the UU Rainbow Network. Today's Coming-Out Day event is an example of one such initiative,’ De Wit says.

And what is being done at the administrative level?

Promoting diversity is among the assigned tasks of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion steering group. Diversity is also specifically addressed in the content of the learning pathway for administrators in the Academy. De Wit: ‘I'm pleased with this, because that makes it one of the fundamental agenda items for new administrators. Yet it remains challenging to ensure that diversity with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity remain front of mind for the people who work in that area.’

What will it take to achieve that visibility?

‘You can't always tell a person's sexual orientation or gender identity just by looking at them. It is less visible, in other words,’ De Wit explains. ‘If you want to improve the ratio of men to women at the upper levels of your organisation, you can count how many female professors you have. In the case of LGBT+ diversity, by contrast, you have to make those efforts explicitly visible.’ ‘Like with this interview,’ Verhoeff points out. De Wit also adds that he himself has become more open about his sexual orientation. ‘For a long time, I didn't feel like it was necessary – but now I share more of my personal side. After all, I am in a position to be a role model.’

The day after our wedding, my partner gave her inaugural lecture. On that day, we simultaneously celebrated our personal and professional situation: two women, two professors, working at the same Faculty. I thought that was quite special.

So the personal and the professional aspects intersect. Can you tell us a little more about that?

De Wit conducts research into sex between men. ‘Due to the nature of my work, I feel like there's a bit of a spotlight on my personal life. That idea of: who else would focus on this topic except a man who is attracted to men? It's not an issue for me now, but I found that a bit tricky to navigate when I was younger.’

Verhoeff beams as she thinks back to a certain December day, two years ago. ‘My partner gave her inaugural lecture the day after we got married. I thought it was quite special how we were able to celebrate our personal and professional situation together on that day. Two women, two professors, working at the same Faculty. It was a kind of coming-out for our relationship, which had only recently become common knowledge in the Faculty.’

What can employees and students do to contribute?

The idea that visibility is important is something Verhoeff and De Wit wholeheartedly agree on. ‘This requires an environment in which people are unafraid to be visible and where they are willing to act as visible role models,’ according to De Wit. Verhoeff feels that visibility in education as important as well. ‘There's really no obligation to make an announcement during your lecture: ‘Hey, by the way, I'm gay.’ But allow that identity to be reflected in the topics you address and the words you choose. Use an anecdote that begins, “Marietje and her girlfriend...”. Give it a try! Make an effort to be substantively diverse and make yourself visible, too. In De Wit's experience, people are eager to show goodwill. Yet living in a diverse society also calls for critical self-reflection. ‘I see a great deal of naivety,’ Verhoeff adds. ‘So for now, try to go the extra mile just to make sure you're not placing anyone at an explicit disadvantage.’ De Wit: ‘Don't assume that your own lived experience is universal. I mean, does anyone actually fit the incredibly narrow template of the so-called norm? Aren't we all, in fact, diverse?’

Text: Marjolein Keltjens | Image: Bas Niemans