LGBT History Month Interview with Union President Astrid Smallenbroek

37 mins read

Questions by Stuart Graham

Answers by Union President Astrid Smallenbroek


Just to start things off, how would you describe your relationship to the LGBTQ+ community?

Em, so I probably wouldn’t consider myself super active within the community although I would say that a lot of my friends define into that community. I suppose a part of their identity is associated with that so I guess within that context there is a bit of a culture within my friend group that is more LGBTQ+ focussed. But in terms of specific events run for LGBTQ+ people, I don’t really do to that many and I think part of the reason that’s case is because there aren’t a whole lot of them in Stirling, so actually I imagine that if I was in a place that it was more accessible to go to those types of events then I probably would be going to them a lot more. But I suppose, the shorter answer is it’s not super strong but it’s still kind of there in my life.

You mentioned there you had a lot of friends who have close affiliations with the community despite maybe not having those close ties yourself, is that something you intentionally sought out or did you just find that the people you ended up being in social circles with were LGBTQ+ and what would you say were you motivations there, whether conscious or not?

Yeah, so I think basically some of that probably happened quite naturally and some of that probably happened when I was a student and more involved with the LGBTQ+ community on campus. Some of that was accidental but I think I also do subconsciously gravitate towards people who have similar lived experiences as me. So because I am not straight I will have had specific experiences that straight people wouldn’t have had and you will kind of bond over that. So I think that’s always, that does influence who do you end up spending more time with.

So going back to early in life and the first images you began to see of the LGBTQ+ community, what would you say were you first impressions and at this time how did you regard the community before you maybe began to put yourself within it?

I think growing up my parents were always quite open about all of that so I remember one time, when I was around five or six years old, I was basically adamant that I was going to marry my mother because she was someone that I loved. My mum said you marry someone you love and I said ‘Well I’m going to marry you’. She chuckled and said, ‘No you’re not, that would be weird’, which is totally fair. But basically I was entirely like ‘No, No No. We’re going to get married, you can just divorce my Dad, it’s not going to be a problem’. But yeah, she turned around at that time and was like ‘Well, if you do marry a woman that’s absolutely fine and we’ll still love you no matter who you date’ and all of this so from a very early age this was just the fabric of my relationship with the world that there was nothing wrong with being gay. And probably the first interaction that I had with anyone from within the LGBTQ+ community was actually through my parents friends who were gay, but again it was very much gay and lesbian people that were portrayed and probably Trans, Non-binary and Bisexuality wasn’t really well represented in the world around me. That probably only happened more towards my teenage years, I understood that a bit better but I think probably the concept of being non-binary or transgender wasn’t really clear to me until I actually made it to university and I actually think that’s a really shame because people are completely able to understand those concepts and are probably going to be kinder to those around them if they understand all of that. Whereas this othering doesn’t really help but unfortunately that was the society I lived in until I came to university.

So you mentioned that your parents were rather progressive and had LGBTQ+ friends, was there then a disconnect between how your home life was in terms of understanding LGBTQ+ and the social life you were experiencing, like the school you were attending? Was there a disconnect between your attitudes and other kids attitudes and what was that experience like?

So I think obviously language has a very big part to play in how we perceive things and when I was a teenager loads of people around me would use language like “that’s so gay” or whatever and that was definitely still an insult but it wouldn’t make sense to me really why it was an insult, like the thought process behind that was never really explored. I think in that regard my parents would never use something like that as an insult but it was something that was thrown around, I probably used it myself as a child. So yeah, I think there was a real disconnect there and I think there was my immediate friend group when I was growing up, all of them sort off had similar values as me, probably because their parents’ had the same kind of viewpoint. But there were definitely children there that probably didn’t but that was never made overtly clear which i find interesting in itself and I don’t really know why that was. Also looking at the people I interacted with outside of my age group there were definitely people there that were homophobic and things like that and I always kind of knew that was wrong but obviously, well maybe not obviously, but at that age I didn’t really have the emotional, or literacy or just general eloquence to be like ‘That’s really not okay and you can’t behave that way and here’s why’.

So I think something that I notice right now is how much of an advocate you are for the community, even back during the time when you were a lot younger and you had a progressive attitude but there were these kids outside of your age group that you mentioned, did you think looking back now that was the same level of advocacy? Was there a lot of speaking out or were you still figuring yourself out?

No not really. So actually it took me a while to realise I liked more than one gender, for a very long time in my life I was just kind of, well I’d never really been opposed to dating someone that was also a woman, I wouldn’t be opposed now to dating someone who was non-binary. But that concept obviously hadn’t really fully realised but I think definitely at a younger age I didn’t really feel confident enough to speak out about some of that stuff and definitely when people were being overtly homophobic I kind of felt like ‘Oh, I know that’s wrong but I don’t really know how to put that into words’ and I found that quite difficult. And actually sometimes I still find that difficult and quite intimidating people express themselves in that way.

Moving a little bit forward then, when did you personally start questioning yourself and start beginning to investigate and act on your curiosity?

Probably when I was about 16, was the first time. This is actually really interesting because one of my friends was talking about this and she was saying that when she was a kid she always just thought that she was really idolising of all of these women and then she figured out later on in life that actually she just had a bit gay crush on them [laughs]. So I think I probably, definitely had some of that when I was younger where it just didn’t really click for me that, actually, I like this woman more than just a friend. But the first time was probably when I was around 16 years old and I just really liked this girl in my class and I guess I was like ‘Oh, I like you more than a friend, so I guess that means I’m not straight’. But it wasn’t really a very difficult process for me I think just because I did have that supportive environment and I didn’t know why but for some reason in my mind I was never like ‘I’d never date a woman, I am straight and that’s part of my identity’ so it was never really ingrained it me that that would be bad or that wouldn’t be me.

So internally I guess you had this lack of struggle which is maybe a bit odd for LGBTQ+ people, but was there any external forces that made you feel like there was more complexity to simply sliding out the closet as most people aspire to do? 

[Astrid laughs]

So I think coming out to my parents was, that was still difficult for me even though I knew that they would be okay with it. So it was quite nerve wracking and I kinda then told my parents and all of that was completely fine but I think the first time I experienced discrimination, basically, was that there was an administrator at one of my old schools and she was absolutely lovely to me before I’d started dating my first girlfriend and then when we started dating she just got… well… really rude towards me and not very pleasant. I’d gone to my parents about this saying this really wasn’t okay and I’d really appreciate it if they’d speak to the school about this cause you know it’s really not very pleasant to have someone behaving that way towards me and it’s because of my sexuality, so that’s discriminatory. So my parents basically turned around and said ‘Well, you know, that is life and that is the way the world is sometimes. You’re just going to have to deal with that’. They wouldn’t go in and speak to the school and that kind of really gave me a big blow because I was always going through my life believing that they would be completely supportive of me and I’d never even considered that they’d ever say no to this request actually because it just seemed to me like it would be the right thing to do. So yeah, it was just a bit of a eye opener I suppose. And there’s been other times where you know you’re holding someone’s hand and you get people who give you funny looks or whatever which is, well a bit shit but what can you do.

You say that there were there events in which there was this “that’s life” mentality, would you say that fed in in any way to your motivations to run for Union President? And also be highly involved in inclusivity and diversity and stopping these sort of negative things in the world?

Yeah so I think a big part of why I ran for union president was because I had a really fantastic time while at university and that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have my own kind of hurdles to jump over and things like that. I realised there was people around me who possibly didn’t have as supportive a family, they maybe don’t have the kind of financial support that my parents were offering me so actually I’m coming from a very privileged position and not everybody will be. So I think it was that idea that I’ve had it really really good and sometimes I’ve still struggled so people who maybe don’t, maybe aren’t as privileged maybe would have struggled more and this will just be more difficult for them cause they don’t have access to all of these resources of all of this support. So actually that’s not fair and that’s not the way the system should be so I wanted university to be a great experience for everyone, regardless of your background, regardless of your sexuality, it doesn’t matter you should still be having a good and fulfilling time at university. So I suppose my own ideal was that this was the way the world was at the moment but that doesn’t mean it needs to be like that tomorrow and actually you know you can be the difference [laughs]. You can be the change.

And jumping back a little to starting university before you ran for president. When you came here how did you perceive the LGBTQ+ community to be different than that in a mainstream education setting?

I suppose a lot more people were a lot more vocal and kind of more expressive in their sexuality. At my school it wasn’t really a secret if anyone was gay or anything like that but, well actually for some people it was [laughs], but it wasn’t like there weren’t out kids in my school. But actually coming to university it just seemed to not really be a thing. So it was kind of like ‘Oh, you know, you’re gay, that’s fine, we’ll just chat about your life’. But yeah within school it seemed to be much more of a defining characteristic, which is weird cause I feel like at university people express themselves a lot more in a way that they’re… what’s the right word… not showing it off but…. Em…

Performing their identity?

Yeah they are performing their identity but its not really a big deal to them at the same time so it’s kind of, it’s a bit of a weird juxtaposition.

Did you feel that seeing all this, well, performance that you wanted to do that? Is there any time when you felt like because this was the environment you existed in now you were more overtly or more outwardly queer or gender experimental?

Yeah I definitely think so, especially when going to queer events and things like that I definitely had a bit of almost imposter syndrome, where I was maybe a bit like ‘Ooh, I’m not like dressed the right way or maybe I’m not like doing this enough or doing that enough’. Like what’s the right way to em…. Do I wear a full face of makeup or do I not and it’s this really stupid idea that being queer or being gay or being a lesbian needs to look a certain way when actually you are all just people and if you choose to [laughs] express yourself in one way that’s absolutely fine, if you express yourself in another that’s also absolutely fine. But yeah, that was a bit of a struggle for me in terms of, em… especially now that I’m dating a man, a lot of people will automatically assume you’re straight and when your dating a woman everyone will just assume you’re gay. I think that was really frustrating for me because I felt that it was just a part of me and I feel like you’re just ignoring the other part which isn’t quite fair to me. And I suppose the way that you express yourself and the way that you dress and things like that obviously have an impact on how people see you, but equally if I’m dating a woman I’m not going to dress one way to show that I’m actually a little bit straight, if I’m dating a man I’m not going to dress another way to show that I’m actually a bit queer [laughs].

So with dating a man do you find yourself having conversations a lot with people where you’re not so much correcting them but constantly outing yourself even with your romantic partner possibly next to you?

I think I don’t really discuss a lot with people specifically what my sexuality is the first time I meet them if that makes sense. So that assumption is probably there but I don’t necessarily correct it because I think I’ve gotten a bit more, I don’t know what the right word is, you know if you’re first meeting someone you’re not really gonna be like “Oh and by the way this is my partner but also I’m a bit queer” [laughs]. So I think sometimes yes I definitely do and around certain people I probably do that more so within more queer settings I will probably play that up a bit more to show that I am actually part of this… well I’d like to be this community, and you kind of want and in with that. But probably not so much in terms of people that I work with and things like that, not really but if it came up it’s not really something I would hide.

As president, you probably go to a lot of meeting and encounter a lot of people, how do you feel with the possibly quite problematic culture of assumptions? How do you feel like you’re constantly combatting assumptions made around you?

So I think it’s the way you play on those assumptions. So sometimes I will pretend I am a stupid woman to ask a question that’s actually quite confrontational but make it sound like ‘Oh, I don’t actually know what’s going on so could you just explain to me x,y and z’. But actually I know exactly what’s going on and I’m asking that question in that way to make it sound a lot less confrontational. But I think in terms of representing more than one minority in that sense, that is difficult because you equally don’t want to sit in a meeting that’s very formal and stick your hand up and say “As a queer woman this is my opinion” cause equally I don’t really represent of all those people [laughs]. As a woman I don’t represent every single woman. So what I try to do is just be mindful of ‘how would this impact the LGBTQ+ community’ and ask those kind of questions to get people thinking about it rather than me constantly having to be the one that is giving the answers to those questions. But I’ve actually found that the university or at least the people I’ve worked with in terms of supporting LGBTQ+ students have been quite switched on in that regard so that’s been really good to see.

Writing your manifesto, how did you feel like including these kind of not promises but mentioning throughout that your presidency would include a strong feeling of supporting minorities where maybe Dave Keenan’s didn’t go directly to minorities but more towards mental health?

I think it’s something that I felt like I was, well I am really passionate about; equality, diversity and inclusion. So it just made sense for me to stand on a platform that was all about the things I was passionate about rather than adding stuff in that I really didn’t feel as strongly about so wouldn’t fight as hard for. It was kind of like if I’m going to make all of these promises then I want them to be promises that I’m willing to put work into and put effort in to make that happen.

You touched on the whole equality, diversity and inclusion, how do you see leaving the role you are going to take that forward?

So I think I have tried to sort of embed a lot of the work that I’ve done of the past few years within the union’s structure. So we’ve written, currently finishing off, our equality, diversity and inclusion students’ union strategy so that will outlast me. But there is also just small changes that we’ve made throughout the union like forms and things like that where they ask for your gender rather than your sex and we’ve added in a category for gender non-conforming or non-binary people. So I think just in terms of small bits and pieces that I’ve added in and hopefully kind of reinvigorating the equalities steering group and equalities zone as well, that will go quite a long way to kind of push that a bit more to the forefront even if the next president after me isn’t necessarily as equally passionate about those issues as I am.

But yeah, it’s probably the part of my work that I care the most about in terms of really wanting to push that forward, so it’s not one I’m willing to just have fall away when I go.

Personally for you, how are you going to move on from the union as we’re having to say goodbye to you? And how do you wish to continue the voyage in equality, diversity and inclusion?

I am hoping to work in the sector of equality, diversity and inclusion. I’ve got my eye on a few specific organisations that I would really like to work for that do some really great work. But we will see what comes up in terms of jobs [laughs]. But basically working for a place that really values equality, diversity and inclusion would be my dream basically, I don’t really want to work for an organisation that would use that as a tick box exercise because I don’t find that very fulfilling at all. Hopefully that will be my path away from here [laughs].

And say in 10 years time, looking back at your time at Stirling in post and everything that will happen after this, what would be the ideal thing you would have done? What is a goal for Astrid?

I think it’s quite similar to what I’ve done here, so making a tangible change for people that’s positive and especially minority groups if I can continue doing that but in the outside world outside of, well, it may actually be inside of the university sector but definitely making a tangible positive change for people, probably minority groups then I would have done a good job and will be happy.

You mentioned that the things that made you really happy here were the thing in which you saw things change and it was really awarding, what kept you motivated to find those days? Cause there are the great days where you see things change, but what kept you motivated when bad things happened in the union and you didn’t see the exactly outcome you wanted play out?

I think you kind of have to take a step back cause you are making a change that is very real in terms of people’s lives but sometimes it really helps to say ‘Okay, that’s not the outcome I wanted but maybe this is taking a narrative that I had not expected and I didn’t want this issue to be viewed this way but now it is and it’s just like completely going the wrong way’. So actually taking a step back and knowing that’s not what I would have like but really is this a disaster? How much is this really going to impact people? And more often than not it’s not like, well that’s not ideal but it can still be fixed. So you kind of just need to take a step back, take a deep breath and say ‘That’s not what I wanted but it’s also not the worst outcome ever’. And then kind of thinking back to maybe that didn’t go the way I would have liked it to but x, y and z were good things that happened.

Do you have one specific memory from Stirling?

I probably think it would be this year, when the current LGBTQ+ equalities officer passed the motion for the gender neutral bathrooms. And the reason why that is, is because the first time a similar motion was passed I was a seconder for that motion so it’s something I’ve been working towards ever since I was a student. Sarah came to me and said I want to put another motion forward and I said “Okay, here is the one that got passed”. And when the older one got passed, the person who wrote the motion had asked me to second it basically broke into tears when it passed, and at that meeting we had to ask randomers to come into the room cause we didn’t have enough people to pass policy basically because the General Meeting wasn’t very well attended. So like we’re dragging random people in from the corridor being like ‘Just stay for two minutes, put your hands up when we ask you to’. Which is probably not the most democratic way to do it [laughs] but we’ve got better engagement now so it’s okay. But kind of seeing that motion pass with Sarah putting it forward kind of brought it full circle almost and it definitely brought a happy tear to my eye so that was really good.

So you have you have one message to the students of Stirling as you depart from your position?

I think, to always remember that the students’ union is here for everyone, so whether you are within a minority group or not we are always here to help. If you come to us with a project or something like that then we always want to help you implement it so it’s that thing, before when I was saying I saw a lot of things that maybe could have been barriers to people having a good time while in Stirling, and actually if you see one of those barriers and you think that it isn’t fair, come and speak to us because nine times out of ten we’re very very willing and able to help. Just try and do your bit and make the world a better place for everyone [laughs].

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