UAntwerp will be participating in Antwerp Pride 2022 with a personalized float including a live DJ set.
This year Antwerp Pride celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. For this special edition they look fifteen years into the future and go in search of 'Queertopia': what the ideal LGBTQIA+ world will look like in fifteen years.
This idea intrigues us at UAntwerp as well. As an actively pluralistic institution, we wish to provide a stimulating environment for all of our members - both students and personnel. Also in our research, education and services we actively work on a positive social contribution around diversity and inclusion. This way, our personnel and students are helping to build a more inclusive future.
Consistent with the theme of Antwerp Pride 2022, we decided to highlight five scientific lines of research in which queerness is the focus.
Maxim Delodder (Linguistics and Literary Studies) examines "how to be gay" in contemporary French literature. "Proust is a doomsayer. He thinks that gay men fall for 'real men,' who in turn fall for women."
His master's thesis was about masculinity in French literature, but afterwards Maxim Delodder realized that he actually wanted to talk about homosexuality. For his doctorate, he takes a close look at contemporary French authors. Their main characters are homosexual and write from the first person point of view, but how their layered identity is represented and how they experience their sexuality is different each time.
Delodder very deliberately chooses books written in the first person singular because this is "a very direct way for the author to write from his own identity." As a researcher, Delodder questions how homosexuality is expressed, but also "what the author doesn't say and what is hidden."
Within his research, he sees a clear dichotomy. "In the 1990s, AIDS is still very present in the literature, because it is still a much more active epidemic at that time. From the year 2010 to now, homosexuality is described more as a way in which I recognize myself. Of course, I also read those books from the 90s with the eyes of someone from the PrEP era (Pre Exposition Prophylaxis or HIV-inhibiting pills, ed.), I know how the world has evolved since then."
Books about AIDS I read with the eyes of someone from the PrEP era.
Central figure and common thread in his research is "the sailor" - a tough, powerful, positive, free-spirited figure - think Jean Paul Gaultier's perfume bottles or Village People's song "In the Navy. "The sailor is a stereotypical gay man who has appeared in literature since the early twentieth century," Delodder said. In addition to the figure of the sailor, he also examined texts from the Muslim and Jewish communities to see how homosexuality was described there. "So far my work is fairly well done, in my final year I also want to look at how sex is described, because for example also apps like Grindr have their repercussions in literature."
If there is one book he would recommend, it is Jean Genet's 1947 "Querelle de Brest. "Every time I read it, I change my mind about what the book is about. Querelle is never actually given a finite label and that is precisely what I like about it. The language Genet uses consists of very civilized French combined with French from the street in the 1940s, which works very well. Antwerp also appears in the book. Querelle steals gold and jewels everywhere and is said to have a hiding place in the tower of the cathedral."
When asked if it's a good thing that queer literature is marketed as such, Delodder doesn't give an unequivocal answer. "As a reader I like books about homosexuality to be among other books, as a researcher I think 'stick a rainbow flag on it and just highlight the uniqueness of the book'. Yes, I do like the Pride and the idea of showing what you stand for. Marcel Proust, for example, in his work creates the idea that gay men are doomed because they fall for 'real men' who in turn fall for women. But when I look at myself and those around me, that's not true. Someone who is openly who they are has a kind of pride about them. Just that is very attractive."
Dean of the Faculty of Law Frederik Swennen explores how family law changes when we dare to question the foundations of relationships and parenthood. "Why don't we recognize relationships with more than two people?"
"There are two major institutions on which all of family law is based: the formation of a couple and parenthood," Prof. Swennen explains. From the year 1999, when the Christian Democrats were no longer in government and we got a purple coalition, the government took steps to open both institutions to same-sex couples. From 2003 gay couples were allowed to marry, from 2006 adopt and from 2014 co-motherhood was introduced: the female partner of a woman who has a child with donor seed, automatically becomes a co-mother.
What's in a name
And yet today, those adjustments are far from covering the bill, because in today's law, being in a relationship means being in a couple, having a sexual relationship and living together. "That model is totally outdated," says Swennen, "why not recognize relationships that involve more than two people, polyamorous relationships, non-sexual relationships, co-housing with friends or LAT relationships?"
Then what would happen to relationship law? Then you could marry more than one person, inheritance law would change, it would be easier to buy a house with three friends, and you could get tax breaks, work furloughs, or care leave with respect to people other than that one romantic partner. What Swennen proposes as a solution is a modular system, where the person involved can choose which layers to add and which not.
The concept of parenthood also needs to be challenged, according to Swennen. Although much more is now possible through medically assisted reproduction, we remain stuck in the concept that a child has two parents who also have or have had a relationship with each other. "For example, you can only adopt with two if you are a couple, not with three and also not if you are not a couple," says Swennen.
Objections to this are being raised in the meantime. A few years ago there was a ruling by the Constitutional Court in Belgium. Two twin sisters were both single and living together. One had a desire to have children and became pregnant with the seed of an anonymous donor. When the other twin sister also wanted to adopt the child, they ran up against the limits of family law, because the women were not a couple. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court ruled that this was discrimination. So the child did officially receive the twin sisters as mothers.
Now the legislator can still do something, soon it will be too late.
Whether things are currently moving forward in family law? Swennen calls it future music. "The legislature didn't get going after that ruling with the twin sisters. The classic objection is that such alternative constellations make it too complex for a child," Swennen says, "but romantic couples who have a child together don't always think carefully about that decision, platonic parents often do."
What about the idea that a child needs two reference figures? "In different historical periods, as for example during wars, grandparents also played an essential role in parenting," Swennen believes. So the classic family of father, mother and children is certainly not the only valid option, according to him.
Meanwhile, according to Swennen, the legislature is driving itself nuts with adoption waiting lists for gay couples and the question of whether surrogacy should be allowed or not. "But," he says, "we'd be better off questioning the fundamentals, because if a gay couple can have a child with a friend or with a surrogate mother, and there's a legal template for that, as with classical parenthood, then that problem solves itself."
Swennen sees this period as an opportunity in which legislators can still do something, before it's too late. "Now people are fixated on the details. The legislator makes rules to fix one leak, but the water is running out of ten other holes."
What Swennen advises people who have a child in a non-conventional way? "Talk things through very carefully and, if necessary, have them legally recorded with a lawyer or notary, but not in an overly rigid way, because in life both relationships and parenting are in motion."
Thalia Van Wichelen (Communication Studies) investigates how gender and sexual diversity is best shaped in Flemish children's media. "Gay characters used to be depicted very stereotypically, now very normatively," she says.
"In my time, in terms of representation, you had Alberto in Samson & Gert and Steve in W817," starts Thalia Van Wichelen, who is writing her PhD on gender and sexual diversity in Flemish children's media. "Today in mainstream media you have much more representation and that is gradually seeping through to children's media as well."
Less resources, less diversity
Van Wichelen's research is threefold. In recent years, she examined which examples of gender and sexual diversity can be found in Flemish children's media, but also how they take shape. For this second part, Van Wichelen spoke with several programme makers and also with Annemie Gulickx, the network manager of Ketnet. "VRT has a diversity policy in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Ketnet tries to show that diversity in a very correct way, with a child psychologist, a children's panel and people from the LGBTQ+ community. It's different for commercial channels, they have to make do with fewer resources and you can see that in the results."
When we ask more profound questions, we often come up against walls.
Does Van Wichelen think that this representation is carried out well today? "In terms of quantity, diversity has certainly increased. In the past you had fewer characters and they were portrayed very stereotypically, such as Alberto, a hairdresser with feminine features who sings opera. Today, gay men are portrayed in a very normative way, based on the idea that they are also male. In Ghost Rocket, for example, there is a very sporty, masculine boy. The girls try to pick him up, but the plot twist is that he actually likes boys. I think the challenge for children's media is to show not just one thing and not just another, but diversity within diversity."
Exposing children to partnerships that deviate from the heteronormative is not yet seen as 'appropriate' by all parents. For the third part of her research, Van Wichelen therefore talks to the public. "Many parents think they are progressive, but when we ask more profound questions, we often come up against walls. A non-binary character, or a transpersonal character as in 4eVeR, meets with more resistance than, for example, a gay couple. This also applies to showing affection. Children, on the other hand, like the different forms of gender and sexual diversity, as long as it is made understandable to them.
Sven Van den Bossche (Linguistics and Literary Studies) investigates which narrative strategies are used in Dutch fiction to talk about transgender experiences. "Those convincing stories from the gender clinic don't cover the load. Everyone has doubts."
In his research 'Born into the wrong story', Sven Van den Bossche studies how transgender experiences are described in Dutch narrative prose from the year 1960 to the present. That starting date is not coincidental, it is the moment when the first gender clinics saw the light of day in the Netherlands. To this day, these are important institutions that help shape how trans people talk about themselves and how others do so. However, according to Van den Bossche, the stories from the gender clinic do not cover the load: "People tell their life story there to a psychologist in a way that is convincing enough to qualify for a transition," he says. "They all feel, so to speak, that they have always and completely been the opposite sex since the very beginning, which in turn is a very binary description." According to Van den Bossche, everyone has doubts from time to time, "because that is part of being human." He wants to look for the complexity in literature, "because there, much more is possible."
A novel like 'Mijn lieve gunsteling' by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, for example, uses animal metaphors to talk about a trans experience. "We divide animals less into men and women, their gender is less relevant and therefore, as a reader, you also break free of that deep-rooted categorisation", says Van den Bossche. In the book, we also have to deal with an unreliable narrator, a sick mind even. And yet this narrator also makes all sorts of things possible. "The narrator creates a strange, non-prescriptive world view, which gives us as readers a different perspective on gender."
Andreas Burnier's 'Het jongensuur' is a book that every secondary school should read. What is special about this novella about a child who has to go into hiding during WWII is the story development - because each subsequent chapter of the book goes back a year. The trans experience in Marikan Heitman's 'Wormmaan' is also special, according to Van den Bossche. "Gender is described there as a very natural and symbiotic process, which is connected to the people around you, it is shaped by the culture and customs of the environment and can also be changed." Van den Bossche's research will run for another two years.
Nicola Brajato (Communication Studies) explores how alumni of the Antwerp Fashion Academy question masculinity during their creative process. "Fashion is an excellent field of research against which to read social change."
"Let's not underestimate fashion," Nicola Brajato starts. "Fashion is deeply intertwined with our identity. It is part of everyone's life and by dressing you make choices about how people will perceive you." He studies how designers reflect on masculinity, sexuality and the male body after they graduate from Antwerp Fashion Academy - a school that is still internationally known as the place for conceptual, experimental, avant-garde fashion. Brajato also works closely with MoMu for his research and has access to their archives. "Fashion is an excellent research field to read social change against."
His research goes back to the 1980s, when Belgian fashion was supported by the government with subsidies and competitions and the campaign 'Fashion, this is Belgian' first saw the light of day. Before that, the focus was mainly on Paris, but from the 1980s on, with new people at the helm of the academy, fashion in Antwerp took on a more individualistic slant. In 86, the Antwerp Six started exhibiting in London, later also in Paris. "These were times when economic, political and cultural institutions created a very specific network for designers," says Brajato. Retail was gaining a foothold, but the Antwerp designers went for small, experimental runs. They didn't have big budgets for ads in fashion magazines; these were DIY times. "Antwerp became a place for resistance to the normative, also in terms of gender, body and sexuality," says Brajato. The mainstream idea of masculinity was written off, challenged and mocked by the designers of the time. "Walter Van Beirendonck created very strong, extroverted looks, like a middle finger to the ideals of the bourgeoisie. But you also had Dirk Bikkembergs, who eroticized the male body with archetypes like the sportsman and the adventurer. Both designers clearly showed that masculinity is a plural concept."
Brajato finds the practice of "tailoring" to be a particularly interesting research topic, since a tailored suit is reputed to be the typical, normative masculine look. "Walter Van Beirendonck challenged that practice and made it his queer interpretation," he says. The way the male body was and is depicted in fashion campaigns is also the subject of Brajato's research. He calls Raf Simons a game changer. "Unlike what was prevalent in his day, Simons put the lean male body in the spotlight," he says.
According to Brajato, designers such as Demna Gvasalia, Bernhard Willhelm or Glenn Martens also reflect on gender in fashion in an interesting way, because they deliberately make less of a distinction between women's and men's fashion, but rather seek a way to make gender fluid fashion, cuts where cross-pollination occurs. "They don't design clear lines in one direction, but lines that cross along the way," says Brajato. He also explains how the younger Lisi Herrebrugh and Rushemy Botter, the people behind the brand "Botter," deconstruct and rebuild the concept of tailoring. "Their work is situated around black cultural identity, but also around environmental issues. It shows that the Antwerp Academy is still producing real talents who have an interesting vision of fashion."