Being trans in the city or in the countryside: the search for home

By Mars Planting

Visibly trans in a small Frisian village? That’s possible, as the documentary Mevrouw Faber shows. This movie follows the transition of Harriette, a Frisian trans woman. Many articles about the documentary emphasize her countryside roots: ‘even’ in the countryside it’s possible to just be transgender. Apparently people assume that this is more difficult in the countryside than in the city. But how much space for diversity is there in the countryside? And are the lives of trans people really that great in the city? In this article I dive into the statistics, share my own experience as a non-binary Frisian, and talk to three trans people from different places in the Netherlands about their experiences in the city and in the countryside.

The stats

According to a recent study by the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Bureau, the majority of trans people (69%) live in a strongly urban municipality. That is more than the amount of cis people who live in these areas (55%). It seems from these numbers that trans people are more likely to choose to live in the city. This reinforces the idea that people who are trans ‘belong’ in the big city. The Planning Bureau suggests as explanation for these statistics that cities offer more space for diversity, more anonymity and a better infrastructure for trans people.

If we look at the locations of transgender organisations and trans healthcare, it becomes clear that these are indeed often in bigger cities. Most organisations for trans people are located in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Even taking the number of inhabitants into account, the amount of organisations is disproportionate: Amsterdam as a city has a population of 821.752 people and has more than five trans organisations. Meanwhile, the provinces Zeeland and Drenthe have no trans organisation at all, with populations of respectively 383.032 and 492.167 people.

However, it is debatable whether the city really is better for trans people. The amount of reports of discrimination are on average higher in cities than in rural areas. Besides, even in the city anti-trans violence is not uncommon. In April 2020, for example, a trans woman was abused in the metro of Amsterdam.

What we’re missing in this discussion about the differences between the countryside and the city for trans people, are the experiences of trans people themselves. What are the pros and cons of being trans in the countryside or in the city, according to them? And how do they find a place to call home for themselves?

(Image An Smid)

Mars (hen/hun), Badhoevedorp

Small town queer

I myself am from the province Friesland, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a small town of three thousand inhabitants. When I was seventeen, I read about the concept of ‘non-binary’ online. The more I read about it, the more I found myself in those stories. I was no longer reading about others, I was reading about myself.

I was a typical ‘small town queer’, who wanted nothing more than to escape my town and travel the world. To leave the village where almost no one around me knew what non-binary meant.

After secondary school I moved to Middelburg (Zeeland) for my studies. The international university college there was very queer friendly, but still there was no queer group to get together, also not outside the university. That way, I still did not know any out trans people in my first year.

Finding community

During my studies I finally got the chance to travel: I went to Seoul, South Korea, for one semester. Here I got to know trans people for the first time. With them I could show the part of myself that I had previously hidden. I had older role models as an example, people around me who understood what I was going through, and I could have conversations about gender identity without feeling self-conscious. A world opened up for me.

After my time in Seoul, I understood that it is important to me to have other trans people in my life, also through organisations. That is why I looked up trans organisations online and that is how I found TNN (Transgender Network Netherlands). When I saw that they were looking for writers for their website Transgender Info, I immediately contacted them. After a short interview I was accepted. This volunteer work allowed me to write articles while I still lived in Middelburg, and every now and then I went to Utrecht for a meeting.

That was three years ago. Now I live in Badhoevedorp, a village close to Amsterdam. This is the perfect combination for me. I feel at home in a quiet area, but I am also within reach of my second home: the company of trans and queer people.

Hridija, (hij/hem), Amsterdam

Finding a place at the House of Løstbois

Hridija, originally from Calcutta in India, moved to Amsterdam in 2019 to pursue a PhD in Philosophy of Mind and Cosmology. I video call him when he is visiting his family in India. Thousands of kilometers between us, he shares how Amsterdam has become an important place to him, where he found a queer community and with that more confidence as well.

Especially House of Løstbois, the only drag king house in Amsterdam, has made a big impact on him. He found the House by accident, during a drunken night. ‘I found a door and I just went in. There was a drag performance going on and I didn’t know then that drag kings existed. I was amazed and wanted to explore it myself,’ he tells me.

Then he found out what House of Løstbois was and what it meant to be a drag king: ‘It’s like a drag king family where we perform and express not just masculinity, but variations of masculinity. We reimagine it, criticize it, make fun of it and remake it. There are no rules to the game. It’s like a drag house, but it’s also like a family.’

This found family means a lot to him: ‘Performing as a drag king at House of Løstbois is one of the biggest things that happened in my life, because it helped me engage more with the queer communities of Amsterdam.’

‘The people I was engaging with gave me the courage to be more expressive about my pronouns and my identity. That is one of the most important contributions that the city has brought me.’

My housemate wants hormonal balance in the house

Hridija has lived in India, Ireland and England, but Amsterdam feels the most liberating to him. ‘The way I can freely express myself in Amsterdam is overall a very positive experience, compared to other countries where I have lived and especially compared to India,’ he says. In India he is asked whether he is a boy or a girl on a daily basis, while he has never been asked that question in the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, there are negative sides to it as well. The freedom and security that he experiences, is mainly within the queer spaces of Amsterdam. Outside those spaces, it can be more difficult.

‘From a city like Amsterdam you would expect a lot more open-mindedness, but I still think many places in Amsterdam operate at a binary level,’ he says. ‘For example: one of my housemates wanted to maintain a ‘hormonal balance’ in the house. Meaning we should have two boys and two girls. This housemate never used my correct pronouns. I realised that even after explaining what trans means this person would keep on misgendering me and creating a binary system in the house. That was difficult.’

Bea (she/her), Mheer

Bea has lived in Mheer for twenty-four years. Mheer is a small town in Limburg with a population of nine hundred and sixty people. Now she lives in Germany, where she is restoring a watermill with her boyfriend. I call her during her lunch break about her time in Mheer. How did she end up there? After her transition in The Hague it was difficult for her to get a job, she tells me. When she found a job in the south of Limburg, she wasn’t about to let that go: ‘I was just so happy that I had found a job.’

She never hid her trans identity in the village. Those who hired her at her new job knew about it, and the news spread quickly. She already noticed this during the viewing of her house:

‘The owner of the house asked me: “The people here are saying that you have a transgender history, is that right?”’, Bea tells me, ‘I responded proudly: ‘That’s right, but now I am Bea and I just want to buy this house.’

The only trans in the village

‘I was the first transgender person who ever even came to the village. The only trans in the village, to put it like that,’ she says, laughing. That worried her a bit, even though she had heard that Mheer was a tolerant village.

Fortunately everything went well, especially because she contributed to the village community and the church: ‘I quickly became a member of the support committee of the harmony and later also of the workgroup Kruisen en Kapellen, which maintains crosses along the road. My efforts were appreciated, and that’s the advantage of a small village: because I worked hard and was a nice presence, the gender aspect became less important.’

Sometimes she does feel more pressure to be active in the village life: ‘Every now and then I get the feeling that I need to be extra alert for chances to add something to the community and contribute something positive. I kind of have the feeling that otherwise, something might go wrong.’ But she mainly just likes doing it: ‘It’s also a pleasure to mean something to the village community.’

The snowball-incident

She did still get harassed sometimes, especially by the youth of the village. ‘I will never forget the incident,’ she begins. ‘It was a strong winter with snow. Suddenly, someone threw many snowballs against our door. It kept going almost the entire evening.’ When she found out who the boys were and told one of the mothers what had happened, the boys were immediately brought together to apologize to her.

That’s another advantage of a village, she says: ‘In these kinds of situations it is easier to intervene more effectively.’

Never to the city again

After twenty-four years in Mheer, she is now living in a small village once again. Wouldn’t she rather go to a city? ‘No,’ she says firmly. She feels better in a village: ‘In a village you are seen in multiple ways. In the city you can easily be put in a certain box. But if you are a little active in a village, then the boundaries fade and it doesn’t really matter what your gender identity is anymore. The village people will see the different aspects of your personality.”

Hans / Laura (hij/zij/hen), Amsterdam

Hans, also called Laura, has lived in Amsterdam for 31 years. When I call her, Laura explains how she already had a preference for ‘womens’ clothing as a teen and doubted her gender identity at the time. Still, she only became more open about this when her mother passed away, twenty years ago. ‘I thought, you only live once, I am going to wear the clothes that I like.’ She has a passion for women’s clothing, she says. ‘I feel at home when I wear women’s clothing.’

Amsterdam is not as tolerant as you may think

Laura does not yet know if they want to physically transition or not. In this decision, their own feelings are the main factor, but reactions from their environment and from people on the streets also play a role. She still struggles to be herself in Amsterdam at times:

‘Amsterdam has the name of “the city where everything is possible” for many people, but my experience is different,’ she tells me.

She often gets comments about her appearance: ‘I am tall and I have a full head of hair. I just stand out. And if you stand out, people will look at you more critically, and quickly have their judgement ready. Even if they don’t know you.’

Sometimes it almost gets violent: ‘Once, a guy at a bar started pushing me and almost started hitting me. The situation was de-escalated just in time.’

The at times hostile reactions to Hans’ visible gender non-conformity is one of the reasons that he considers transitioning. ‘It is not always easy to do it ‘halfway’ like this,’ he says.

Rather alone, but in the city

Laura has been wearing ‘womens’ clothing for twenty years now, but only went to a meeting for trans women four years ago. She did go to queer clubs like de RoXY and de iT in the 90s, but she had never been a part of the queer community. And she still isn’t: ‘It is nice to be with like-minded people, but it’s also a lot of searching. Where is it really fun and cozy?’

Finding a trans community is not her priority: ‘I can have fun on my own as well. I love to get dressed up at home, for example. To do something crazy with my hair and put on a beautiful dress.’

What they do like about Amsterdam is the anonymity they experience there:

‘In a small town you stand out more quickly and you get stared at. In Amsterdam people are more direct: if they disapprove or dislike you, then you’ll get a mouthful. Still, the city’s advantage is anonymity. In a village I’d be an attraction.’

Conclusion

It is clear that the countryside can be a difficult place for trans people because you’re less anonymous and more visible. On the other hand, trans people in the city also don’t always have it easy, as Hans’ experiences showed. Because of the anonymity in a city it is easier for violence to take place, whereas the heightened visibility in a village can offer certain protection in some ways because inhabitants know you.

(Image An Smid)

The response of the people in your town or city is also influenced by other factors besides its degree of urbanity. Factors like how ‘visibly’ trans you are, if you’re non-binary or binary trans, the kind of neighbourhood you live in, and the people around you.

Finding a place to call home can be a difficult journey. For everyone, but especially for trans people; they often have to take into account their transness when they think about where to live. Many things have yet to change, in the countryside and in the city, before this extra worry can fall off our shoulders.

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