Young immigrants being gay


This article was published in Gay News 206, October 2008, pages 22, 23 en 24

Hidden Pain

Raja is a 22-year-old transsexual of immigrant background. For seven years her family kept her locked up because she was seen as an embarrassment for the family and the community. She was forced to break off her education. Via internet she contacted Safe Haven (Veilige Haven), a shelter and counseling service for gays of immigrant background in Amsterdam, hosted by Schorer. Raja is suicidal and has a mental illness for which she has been in therapy.

Safe Haven

Safe Haven meant a lot to her. Together with the people there she planned her escape to freedom, away from her family. The organization took care of her housing, her passport and a bank account. They also assisted in applying for unemployment benefit and even supplied an advance payment. Safe Haven also offered psychological assistance and they held conversations with her about religion and culture. She was matched with a buddy and they organised meetings with the Gender team of the Amsterdam VU University and with people with similar experiences.

Achmed is of Turkish origin and also 22 years old. A Dutch aunt who knew he was homosexual more of less forced him to tell his parents, which he eventually did, together with her. But his parents couldn’t handle it and, as more and more family members got involved, the pressure on his parents to respond to his revelation increased steadily. At one point his parents wanted him to denounce his sexuality and threatened with violence if he didn’t.

Achmed contacted i2Rotterdam, a volunteer project to support gay immigrant youth in and around Rotterdam. They advised him to move out from his parents’ house so that he could handle the situation more independently. But they couldn’t find proper housing for him and he missed his parents too much. After a short period Achmed returned to his parents and accepted that they forbade him to go out. He broke off contact with i2Rotterdam. They don’t know how he’s doing.

Double Bind

Five years ago organizations like Schorer and i2Rotterdam first received signals that a large percentage of immigrant young people had problems with homosexuality. A first analysis showed the main dilemma: gay young people of immigrant origin feel the need to own up to their sexuality but they don’t want to lose contact with their families. The term used to refer to these people is ‘double binders’,  people who manage to maintain two totally separated social networks. They also found a group that could not cope and got in trouble through drug use or prostitution. The first project in Rotterdam had the aim to make sure that ‘double binders’ wouldn’t become outsiders.

The Ministry of Public Health allocated funds for new projects in Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Tilburg. Together these four projects are now called:“Four Cities Project” (Vierstedenproject).
The largest project  was realized in Amsterdam with Safe Haven. People could visit the information desk. In case of problems with family, temporary shelter could be arranged. Like in the case of Raja, Safe Haven could assist in case of financial problems or immigration procedures. Safe Haven has reached out to over two hundred people, three-quarters of which were boys and young men.

Information Via Chat

In The Hague the counseling and information service was provided mainly digitally. The project was called HalloHolebi. They developed a website with chat function where people can log in and chat with a volunteer who is able to supply a lot of information and advice; they can also dial a mobile phone number to make an appointment for assistance. Such conversations can be about various issues: how to deal with your family, or whether the Quran permits homosexuality. But also more regular issues like STDs or love affairs can be topics of conversation (“I’m in love with a Turkish girl in my class, what should I do?”) “Addressing difficult things via a chat room is easy,” says Charlot Pierik, who coordinated the Four Cities Project. “Everybody chats, the threshold couldn’t be lower. The target audience considers it very safe.”

Rotterdam developed something similar. The i2Rotterdam site copied The Hague’s chat function, in fact, they share it so you can either get to chat with someone from Rotterdam or from The Hague. They also created a virtual living room. Personal counseling also was taken up: sessions took place with about thirty young people who were in need of support. Empowerment was a crucial aspect of the work in Rotterdam: groups of men and women were established to support each other, especially when the family situation is tense, or when ties have been severed. Some groups were lead by young people who had undergone similar processes themselves.

Tilburg conducted a survey to establish the size of the problems of gay young people with immigrant backgrounds. Gay, migrant, women’s and welfare organizations were all involved in the development of local gay policies. Other cities, which have no information on the actual situation, can copy Tilburg’s example. “It’s usually the first thing that needs to be done,” says Charlot Pierik. “Every mid-size community with a certain percentage of immigrant population has these issues, that’s for sure.”

No Desire To Come Out

Meanwhile seventeen other municipalities have started to work on their gay policy. These frontrunner  cities are headed by Zwolle, which has started a survey like Tilburg. It is of great importance to get this subject on the agenda of social workers and politicians, followed by  training of social workers to address the specific needs of gay young people. Gay organizations have also something to learn: the blunt straightforward model of the West is not always suitable for other religious or social groups. Not everybody is ready to come out or join the Gay Pride parade.

After three years the Four Cities Project has formally come to an end and a report was published: “Dubbel en dwars” (Double Check) with the results and many recommendations. The projects in the four cities have not come to an end. Safe Haven will be continued. In The Hague the COC will take over the counseling service. In Rotterdam shelter and counseling will also continue, albeit in a more modest size. It is a pity though that in this latter city, the number of counselors of immigrant descent has decreased from twelve to three.

“I hope that the atmosphere around the subject will gradually become less tense,” says Charlot Pierik. “This seems to be happening already. I follow the topic forum at and there the messages are becoming more positive. Like: you shouldn’t ridicule people who have come out. It’s being discussed more often and that in itself is very positive. Some people have indeed come out in their circles and don’t mind sharing their experience - but they do not want to go on television or have their picture in the newspaper. Slowly but surely we’re getting an idea of the iceberg of pain and hurt beneath the surface. Slowly but surely we are also able to do something, to help. Quiet diplomacy is taking place now, something is brewing. The Four Cities Project was the start of that.”

The two cases at the beginning of this article are from "Dubbel en dwars: Naar hulpverlening-op-maat voor allochtone jongeren (m/v) met homoseksuele gevoelens". This report was published by Movisie, Utrecht.

Jos Versteegen