Stef Leenen

Intern NDT2

I believe that no matter what, dressing up in drag would have happened at some point in my life. It was my boyfriend at the time and the Amsterdam gay scene that inspired me to take the first step. The first time I dressed up was for a Halloween party in 2015, my ex helped with the elaborate make up and costume and the Amsterdam gay scene offered me the space to feel accepted. Even though I didn’t dress up in drag for this party, the extreme makeup and costume did inspire me to explore that world and try new things. My love for dressing in drag doesn't particularly mean I want to be a woman, I am merely exploring the boundaries of gender. Besides the interest in exploration, finding confidence in this loud and extreme form of expression is the most exhilarating feeling. This feeling runs very close to how I feel when I am performing on stage as a dancer. You are putting up a show and all eyes are on you. Because of the open gay scene in Amsterdam, there is a stage for this. A stage with an amazing audience of people who have respect and admiration for all the effort and time you have put into your appearance. Even though it feels like a performance, I am still me: Stef. I don't see it or use it as an escape, it is rather an extension of who I am.

I am so grateful for the fact that I was born in the Netherlands and raised by loving parents who never questioned my search for identity and the expression that came with it. I was brought up with the notion that being who you want to be is not a privilege but a basic human right. Of course, this doesn't mean I never had to struggle. I have felt judged, criticized and misunderstood by people who don't take the time to try to get to know me.

There are cities in the Netherlands where I would never go out dressed in drag, for the sake of my own safety. I am judged, even by woman sometimes, when I shop and try on clothing in the women's section. I have accepted that unfortunately all humans are judgmental but I believe that poor judgement is based upon fear and that fear comes from the unknown. Believing in this train of thought makes me very eager to explain being gay or dressing in drag to anyone who does not understand. I come from a Small Town where most of the people are close-minded when it comes to the lives of the LGBT community. But can you really blame them? I travel the world and visit Amsterdam often, I am constantly exposed to diversity. To the people in my home village, I am probably the only gay person they know. And they don't even really know me!

When I walk the dog in my trench coat, they stare at me in shock and label me as "too extra". I want to make a change by simply sharing who I am and why. I am very patient and open when people ask me questions, no matter how extreme these questions can be. A friend of my brother once asked me what it feels like to fall in love and if it feels the same as him falling in love with a girl. I asked him in response how he felt falling in love with a girl, how did he feel seeing her for the first time? After discovering our mutual understanding of love and falling in love, he asked me a bunch of explicit and very personal questions regarding sex. I was completely open and honest because I knew he genuinely had no clue. And at least he asked! Most people stay distant and let the fear of not knowing breed, resulting in poor judgement and sometimes even hate.

The path to equal human rights is a hard one, and the world has a long way to go. But I think it is also important to celebrate the fact that people like me are able to openly express themselves and that, because of the attention in the media, awareness is being raised. I hope to inspire others to take the first scary step in depth of freedom and expression of oneself.

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