A bus (or two) lies between us and the Groningen airport, and a little over an hour and lovely aerial views (including the patchwork farms of Flevoland and an Amsterdam fly by) lie between Groningen and Southend airport, and another hour and some train and Underground stops lie between Southend and the heart of London. When I heard that my very favourite podcast - Another Round - would be doing a live show in London during the Shout Out Live festival, Elger and I decided to go and use that excellent occasion to make a little trip of it. Hamlet and the RAF museum also happened, which made both our geeky hearts beat faster. Two of our favourite people on the planet and their daughter, who is quickly becoming a favourite person too, recently moved from Canada to England, so we spent a couple of days on the outskirts of Nottingham to help warm their new home with some shared beers. It rained a lot, and I took some pictures.
Marja Lust is a police officer in Amsterdam now, but she used to be a time traveler. There’s a seven hour time difference between Amsterdam and Minneapolis, where she lived in the early ‘90s, but she always felt like she was traveling even further into the past as she flew west across the Atlantic.
A volleyball scholarship at St. Cloud State University brought Marja to America – she had been playing the sport with her twin sister, Ellie, since they were kids. While Ellie played in the Dutch premier league in the late ‘80s, Marja was a member of the university’s team, the Huskies. During her stay in Minnesota, Marja started dating a police woman in a nearby city. One afternoon, they went for a drive together. Marja, in the passenger seat, stretched out her long arms, casually draping one behind her girlfriend’s headrest.
Her girlfriend turned to her and said, “Mar, please don’t.”
Marja asked, “What?”
Her girlfriend said, “I don’t know who will see us driving through town.”
“She would always say, ‘I’m already that bitch in blue, I don’t want to be that dyke bitch in blue,’” Marja said.
That drive was already 20 years ago, just a couple of years longer ago than the event which inspired the foundation of Roze in Blauw Amsterdam, the Dutch LGBTQI police force of which Marja and her twin sister Ellie are prominent members.
Back in 1998, of the 13,000 men and women competing in the Amsterdam Gay Games, more than 200 did so under false names: in their own countries, they feared for their lives because of their sexual orientation and couldn’t afford to be associated with the event.
The Amsterdam police corps, including Ellie Lust, had a lot of respect for the risk that the athletes took by coming to their city. They wanted to make sure that they felt safe and welcomed by the police in Amsterdam. The result: the Pink in Blue network, a task force dedicated to investigating and preventing crime against gay and lesbian people. Pink has been a color synonymous with the gay right’s movement since the Second World War: Nazis labeled lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender prisoners in the concentration camps with a pink triangle badge on their striped uniforms.
The slogan of the Gay Games that year was “Proud to be your friend”, a motto which Pink in Blue adopted as their own and still uses today. Through Pink in Blue, Marja and Ellie are public figures, and they aren’t dyke bitches in blue: they’re unabashed lesbians in blue. Marja is an investigator and Ellie is a spokesperson for the Amsterdam police, and they both protect and serve LGBT men and women through the task force.
Amsterdam is often called the Gay Capitol of the World, thanks to the Netherlands becoming the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001. The canal-ringed city is consistently on top ten lists for gay-friendly destinations, but four years after passing that legislation, the assault of Chris Crain, an American journalist, and his boyfriend in 2005 violently revealed that intolerance definitely existed in the city. “It became clear that Amsterdam was not as safe for LGBT people as they thought,” Ellie said.
“Around that time, Amsterdam recognized that the outside world should really be reflected in the police force,” Ellie said. “It was truly a white, straight, male police force when I started [in 1987]. Even now though, some men have the audacity to say, ‘So, when will we get a white men’s network?’ - that is bullshit.”
If Ellie calls bullshit, people listen. Nowadays, she is pretty much a national celebrity: she was a break out star in the Dutch reality show ‘Who is the Mole?”, is a regular contributor to the Dutch equivalent of “America’s Most Wanted” and has a dedicated fan base. All the same, she admitted to feeling like she really had to prove herself when she first became a cop. If she was the best at everything she did, she figured no one would mind that she was a lesbian. “I was overcompensating. You try so hard to position yourself as a good person, a good police agent and a good athlete in the hope that that makes the fact that you’re a lesbian less bad.”
As they were growing up, she and Marja both held themselves to unrealistic standards, in addition to being endlessly compared with one another. Even though they tried to distance themselves from one another as teens, they both realized when they were about 19 that neither of them had ever brought a guy home. After that revelation, Marja said they rediscovered each other as friends rather than as sisters. “I actually think that I was born as a twin because I needed Ellie in that sense. We were able to be supportive and identified with each other so much - our first ‘coming out moment’ was with each other.”
When they eventually came out to their family, Ellie thought their dad was not-so-secretly happy to hear he would always be the only man in his daughter’s lives, but neither of the sisters felt that their mother really understood. “If one of her friends were to ask her about whether either of us was dating anyone, she would quickly reply, ‘Oh, no, the girls are so busy with volleyball,’” Ellie said.
“I think she wanted to protect us from sadness and the complications that the outside world would bring. You’re always going to come across people who aren’t okay with it, and she didn’t want her children to have to deal with that kind of conflict. It came from a place of love.”
As cops, they get to fight back against the conflicts and complications that LGBT people face. Anti-gay crimes began to be registered in Amsterdam in 2007, when 234 incidents were reported - 79 involved physical violence. Nowadays, there are actually more incidents being reported: in 2013, there were 620. Marja attributes that to LGBT people becoming more aware that Pink in Blue exists and recognizing that the harassment they encounter is actually criminal behavior.
“Most people who come to us wouldn’t dare to approach the police otherwise. That’s nothing against our straight colleagues, but it’s just how these particular victims feel,” Marja said. “LGBT victims can speak more easily and openly with someone who is like them. There’s just so much less to explain.”
Ellie said, “I definitely think through the work we do for Pink in Blue that we are heroes for others. People think we’re fantastic. They look up to us with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘You’re our police.’”
The sisters grew up watching ‘70s cop shows together in the living room of their home in Oostzand, a suburb of Amsterdam. “I loved ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Cagney and Lacey,’ and ‘Hill Street Blues,’” Ellie said. “If there is such a thing as a calling, I’ve always felt that I wanted to be a police officer.” Having been bullied as kids added to Ellie’s convictions: “We were identical twins – we are identical twins – with red hair, freckles and glasses. Marja had braces too, so she was even uglier,” Ellie deadpanned. “Other kids picked on us, but that instilled in me a very strong sense of justice.”
Marja agreed. “I think Ellie was born to become a spokesperson. She is really in her element within the police - I don’t know any better police spokesperson than her.” Marja’s own interest in becoming a cop was a little less noble, at least at first. “For me, I just thought cops were tough, walking around in that uniform. You always got to be where the action was.”
While their career choices and their looks are almost identical, now that they’re adults and no longer forced to wear matching outfits, it’s a little easier to tell who’s who. Marja’s hair is a variation of the natural red that they were born with, and her timbre is soft. Ellie’s hair is platinum blond and her tone is likewise just a little louder than that of her sister, but they have the same disciplined physical bearing and their shared resting facial expression exudes an unmistakably bad ass vibe.
Their most important similarity is an unerring vision of a more equal future for LGBT men and women. For the twins, Amsterdam is not enough, though. The Netherlands is not enough. “I am very grateful that I was born in a country like the Netherlands and still more so in a city like Amsterdam, where we have the freedoms that we do,” Marja said.
Ellie and her colleagues are trying to spread their best practices far afield with other police agents around the world, hoping to get them to reach out to their own LGBT communities. “Sometimes it’s just ridiculously difficult, though,” Ellie said. “Last year, I was in Albania and I found myself thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’
She knows, though. “We want it in every country. It would be so wonderful if, through the slogan ‘Proud to be your Friend’, all LGBT people in Europe could recognize the police who are their allies,” Ellie said. Marja tempered those ambitions with a dose of realism. “Our real goal is that, eventually, we can bring about a light bulb moment for someone.”
“One spirit at a time,” Ellie agreed.
“Yeah, change one mind at a time. Sometimes, we just can’t think or hope for anything more than that,” Marja concluded.
On the streets, Pink in Blue provides security at Dutch gay pride events, but often, Marja and Ellie end up directly participating: the police have a boat in the Amsterdam canal parade in August and always take part in the smaller Pink Saturday pride event each June. On Remembrance Day, every May 4, a few blocks away from the crowds of thousands and the laying of wreaths in the Dam square in Amsterdam, a parallel and more intimate ceremony is held: marching two kilometers in solemn formation, crossing the iconic brick bridges and progressing along the canals, a cadre of nearly 100 LGBT police officers walks onto the Homomonument in the shadow of the Westerkerk to remember the gay, lesbian and transgender people who were casualties of war.
While veteran and civilian losses from all wars are remembered on this day, the Second World War looms largest. The location of the LGBT ceremony makes it impossible to forget the persecution by the Nazis: the three pink granite triangles forming the monument are embedded into the cobblestones between the Prinsengracht and the Keizergracht, the canals flanking the Anne Frank House. Marja and Ellie, along with their colleagues, stand at attention while drag queens and politicians walk down to the triangle beside the Keizergracht to place their flowers, doubled in the polished reflection.
The twins were both on duty during a protest against a state visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin in Amsterdam back in 2013. Neither of them could shoulder more than a few feet through the friendly throng of thousands without being pulled into a tight embrace by yet another protestor festooned in rainbows.
The visit happened in the lead up to the passage of Russia’s now infamous anti-gay propaganda laws, and the protest in Amsterdam was the largest pro-gay demonstration Putin had been confronted with anywhere in the world to date. The final event of Putin’s visit was a state dinner held at the fortress-like Maritime Museum.
Across the harbor on the East Dock, photos of an Andy Warhol vision of the macho Russian president in campy blue eye shadow were held aloft in a sea of colorful flags and cardboard hearts with dildos glued on to them -- all in direct view of the museum, where Putin and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte were attempting to dine in peace. “They had to move the state dinner somewhere else inside the museum because the protest was so distracting. That was awesome,” Ellie said proudly.
Their volleyball instincts kicked in when a cluster of balloons drifted up to where they were standing side by side above the crowd: they took turns spiking it back down while keeping an eye out for demonstrators trying to scale the wall for a better view of the event, cracking each other up in between with a level of inside jokes that only identical twins can achieve.
We made a bunch of our favourite people travel a not insignificant portion of the world - in one case, flying for the very first time - to watch us get dressed up and hang out on a beach for about 20 minutes (also known as a wedding). Good thing every sunrise, sunset and moonrise was a thing of joyful tears-inducing (okay, maybe that was just me) beauty, and every meal was better than the last, and the t-shirt store and Brew Thru were within such close grasp.
(Seriously though: I still can barely believe that so many people love us enough to come from so far to be with us. That's a whole lot of love.)
Schiermonnikoog and Texel, and the boats and birds and lighthouses and people and photos that love them.
This is where l write some gently reflective text about how lucky I am to do this work in an uncertain media landscape, and how it does my soul good to take more photos in addition to writing (assigning, proofreading and translating) oodles of words. All of that is true, and I am crazy grateful for getting to do what I love. But I'm just eager to let my favourite words and images from the past year speak for themselves right now.
Here are a couple of articles whose words I am very proud of:
Academic discrimination: Professorship at the RUG is much whiter and male-dominated than Dutch society at large. Can – and should – the university do better?
Children's Ombudsman: RUG professor Margrite Kalverboer was named Children’s Ombudsman of the Netherlands this spring. In her new role, she will continue to work on behalf of children in general and young asylum seekers in particular.
Below are photos and articles that I am equally proud of.
One year with SSH: SSH has been responsible for providing housing for internationals for over a year. The company successfully opened two new properties in that time – Frascati and Hoendiep – but their plans to improve the heavily criticised housing situation for internationals have faced several challenges in the past 12 months, and many residents have yet to see any difference.
Friending Jessica: Jessica Winters, the outgoing head of the RUG’s marketing department, has been the brains and heart behind how the university presents itself to the outside world for eight years. ‘I love this university, all the good things and bad things.’
Academic Friesland: The RUG/Campus Fryslân is taking shape, and the ties with the Frisian knowledge institutes Dairy Campus, Wetsus, Tresoar, and the Fryske Akademy are being strengthened. But what those institutes actually do and what they can offer students is not clear to everyone. (text by Renee Moezelaar)
'So much science': David Reitze, executive director of LIGO, became famous as the ‘we did it’ guy from the press conference heard around the world announcing the detection of gravitational waves in February. The event has been deemed Noble prize-worthy. But Reitze says that with a team of a thousand researchers, ‘a Nobel prize for this would be great, but who do you give it to?’
RUG under construction: From Zernike to the Ebbinge quarter, university-related construction projects are becoming a reality. The Energy Academy Europe is joining the Linneausborg, Bernoulliborg and Zernikeborg at the Zernike campus, and the Proton Therapy Centre and The Student Hotel are changing the skyline at UMCG and the Ciboga terrain. The UK visited the construction sites over the past few months to get a sneak peek at the up-and-coming buildings.
Bells for Bowie: Following the iconic musician's death, Groningen's carillon player Auke de Boer used the bells in the Academy Tower to honour David Bowie’s music.
Groningen: gay friendly?: Ganymedes, the student association for gay, bi- and transsexual students, made its debut at the Amsterdam Gay Pride canal parade in 2015. But what is it like to be LGBT and a student in Groningen?
A transgender student's story: She has always known that she was female, even though she was born male. But it wasn’t until Meena*, a 28-year-old student at the RUG, arrived in the Netherlands in 2008 that she found the words to describe who she was. ‘I finally looked through the looking glass.’
Although the students interviewed for these stories, which were published last year, insisted that Groningen had always felt safe to them, the city was also the site of a shockingly violent attack against a lesbian couple outside one of the few gay bars in April. The city responded by organising a march for Love and Respect, which was attended by hundreds of citizens. Many of the same people walked a similar route in recent weeks to remember the LGBT men and women killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting.
It has also been a year of violence that has shaken European cities awake - in a year of ongoing violence across the world - and Groningen honoured the victims of the attacks in Paris and Brussels by illuminating local landmarks.
This colourful gallery is from the Night of Art & Science 2016. There were concerts, a planetarium, mind melding with other species, and drag queens.
And here are some photos that were taken throughout the year at moments that were visual enough to stand on their own.
The picture above is of the king of the Netherlands, Willem Alexander, getting super pumped up about plugging in two cables that do nothing.
Bonus: my favourite shots from the @ukrant instagram feed (that were taken by me. What an exercise in ego all of this is, huh?)
Every few years, my birthday falls on the fourth Thursday in November for Thanksgiving. As a kid, that meant that school was always closed in the days around my birthday, which was cool for getting to sleep in, but a bit of a bummer in terms of trying to ever celebrate my birthday with my classmates. My family always made sure my birthday never got subsumed by the bigger holiday, and I didn't have to blow out a candle on a slice of pumpkin pie, but I do strongly associate foods in casserole dishes and meats that take hours in the oven to prepare with getting older. Since I've been living in the Netherlands, that has meant an undeniable urge to buy cranberries, search through my email for recipes from my mother and, yes, eat something containing pumpkin as the year winds down.
Because 2015 was one of those years that my birthday and Thanksgiving would overlap, I recognized that as a recipe for homesickness, so I decided to act on my thankfulness that one of my good friends from UNC and one of the most hilarious humans ever, Catherine, is living in Madrid with her husband, Ben. They're both working there as teachers, and living in the capital city of Spain has made them a popular destination for friends and family all summer, so Elger and I held off until this past week to pay them a visit in their sunny home. We didn't have any Thanksgiving-associated dishes - in fact, we ate a whole mess of curries on Thursday, followed by Venezuelan food the next night - but being with my favorite person in the presence of one of my all time favorite people who is married to one of my new favorite people was wonderful, beautiful, delicious, cathartic and just really great. Thank you, Ben and Catherine, for your hospitality and the very welcome distraction!
We ate a lot and ate it much later than the holy Dutch dinner time of 6 p.m., and it was amazing - I had olives so fresh and so green (green) that I actually genuinely loved them. I am not an olive person. Obviously, now that I've turned 31, I am finally worldly enough to appreciate olives. Reina Sofia's collection of 20th century art, Guernica most overwhelmingly of all, helped me to better understand what the country has been through and how it coped. My Spanish came back in fits and spurts, but there were spikes after getting some mighty powerful coffee into me. It was great, and we will be back as soon as possible - it's nice to have found the place in Europe where the sun lives.
My family is intense: intensely funny, intensely loving, intensely thoughtful and intensely loud. Despite the majority of my life thus far having been spent in the same household, being in their presence nowadays is the exception rather than the rule, and reuniting typically feels like setting off aerial fireworks in the living room. To give an illustrative example of the trip, I wound up playing Cards Against Humanity at three different times, and I never once won.
My Dutch life is awfully quiet by comparison (although my friends here are known to play politically incorrect cards games fairly regularly), which is mostly a really nice thing, but I love my family for that intensity, and I recognize so many ways in which I am a product of that environment in myself and my siblings. It's weird and it's heavy to be so far away, and it is both in spite of and because of the strong emotions that going home evokes that I will always do just that, but I do remain hopeful as always that the folks I love the most will return the favor and fly over here so that they can see what life is like here in this parallel universe of my own making, too. Having a camera in hand made sure that I was able to stop and focus for at least a few hundredths of a second at a time in the whirlwind of it all.
After a bit more than a week in North Carolina, Elger and I headed up to Toronto, Canada to spend the tail end of our North American trip with two of our closest friends, Inge and Helen. We were basically tourists, being drawn to Niagara Falls (and all the Vegas-like trappings that surround it) and chasing views of the CN Tower all over the sprawling city. The Pan Am Games were being held there during our visit, so sails and public transport were all getting in on the action.
We Bristol'd and Caerleon'd. We ate, drank and walked. We found an accidental Rothko in the hills and a Banksy on a wall. We saw lovely friends and met lovely new ones. We found color absolutely everywhere.
Just for the heck of it, Elger and I travelled to Edinburgh for three days before Christmas with two of our good friends and their champion traveller of a son. We EasyJet'd and AirBnB'd our way to the stony city, which is 360 degrees of lovely of spires, swooping streets (full of quirky thrift stores and useful brick-a-brac, like RAF roundel cufflinks), wind gusts, reassuring hills and shockingly short daylight hours. Aside from my tendency to walk on the right side of the sidewalk and thus into oncoming pedestrian traffic by the left-side-driving Scots, it was a nice, meandering holiday in a city that somehow felt like home, especially after I scored a blue flatcap (at the airport, in the midst of haggis and a mind-boggling assortment of tartan.)