Speech Mayor Halsema opening Freethinkers Festival

Freethinkers Festival 2023

26 Oktober 2023
Mayor Femke Halsema

Good evening everybody,

It’s good to be here at the opening of another edition the Freethinkers Festival, on the eve of the city’s seven hundred and forty eighth anniversary.

This year’s theme is: Amsterdam Queer Capital?

With a question mark at the end.

Answering the question with a clear yes is presumptuous.

But it certainly is an ideal we cherish.

And this evening about trans literature is contributing to this ideal.

The Dutch novelist Connie Palmen says that we live in the age of trans.

I quote:

“What once most clearly determined a person’s fate – the country and body in which you were born – has gradually lost its fatal grip on a human life and has made way for a tempting and yet frightening freedom. The tormenting unfreedom of fate has made way for the terrifying freedom of choice. Fate has become plot.” [1] [End of quote].

When fate becomes plot, we need fiction writers more than ever.

So I warmly welcome Torrey Peters to Amsterdam!

I also welcome the age of trans.

But I think we’re not quite there yet.

To truly have an age of trans, we need not only the possibility of being of trans, but also the acceptance of trans.

This means embracing transgender people and the whole queer community, and standing in solidarity with their struggle for equal rights and complete acceptance by society.

But like Connie Palmen, I’d also like to advocate the idea of trans as a broader concept.

The idea that not everything is fixed.

That not everything is black or white.

That things can change and will change.

And that both unfreedom and freedom can make us anxious.

In other words, a true age of trans is filled with empathy and tolerance.

The empathy and tolerance that great literature can teach us.

Frankly, I worry about the lack of empathy and tolerance.

In the world, and in this city.

People who deviate from mainstream society because they’re queer, because of their convictions or background, still suffer from ongoing discrimination.

This is sometimes subtle, sometimes far from subtle.

Attempts to educate people about transgender issues, for example, are often met with the hostile reaction that this is an ideology being forced on society.

This reaction completely lacks empathy for people who really deserve it.

Let me be clear: transgender people are strong and don’t need our pity, but they’re vulnerable when they become the object of hate and nobody stands up for them. Hate because of who they are. The choices trans gender people make, to transition, or as in the novel by Torrey Peters, detransition, are choices they make to become who they are.

The queer community, migrants and other minorities face this kind of hate because of who they are.

But Amsterdam is a city made up of minorities.

Our city runs on empathy and tolerance.

It would be ruined, as it has been in the past, by hatred.

When I refer to the need for empathy and tolerance, I can’t ignore the situation in Israel and Gaza, and the effect it’s having on Amsterdam and other cities. Please allow me to say a few words on this.

The City of Amsterdam has condemned the brutal attack by the Hamas terrorists. It has called for attention for the dire situation of the people in Gaza and is contributing to humanitarian aid.

The Israeli government deserves harsh criticism for violating human rights and international law in Gaza and on the West Bank.

Jewish people, here and elsewhere, cannot be blamed for the wrongdoings of Israel.

They deserve our empathy.

They feel vulnerable.

They feel vulnerable when fellow citizens refuse to condemn Hamas.

Or when they see dog whistles like “one ummah, one flag, one army, one solution.”

They feel seriously threatened when they hear calls for the destruction of Israel.

And they’re terrified when they see social media posts praising Hitler and the gas chambers.

I stand for the freedom to protest, and freedom of expression.

It’s almost impossible to stop anonymous social media trolling.

But in this city, which didn’t prevent the murder of 60,000 Jewish residents 80 years ago, I will not be silent when antisemitism rears its ugly head.

I call on everyone who has feelings of solidarity with Palestinians to also show empathy towards Jewish people.

Please make a distinction between the government of Israel and Jewish people.

I call on everyone to look beyond the positions people take in this conflict and see the basic humanity that we all share.

A man waving a Palestinian flag is also a son and maybe a loving father and a an inspiring teacher.

A woman wearing the star of David around her neck is also a daughter and maybe a caring sister and  a lifesaving doctor.

Their tears both spring from deeply felt sorrow.

Supporters of the Palestinian cause and members of the Jewish community initiate dialogues and promote mutual understanding.

Despite their sometimes strong disagreements, they are doing everything they can to prevent the conflict from flaring up here in Amsterdam.

We should all support these efforts.

We should all, to the best of our ability, reach for our empathy and our tolerance.

Dear guests,

The age of trans as an age of empathy and tolerance hasn’t arrived yet.

But together we can bring it a step closer.

In view of world events, listening to great writers seems like a small step, but it is a meaningful step.

Because writers can infect us with hope.

Enjoy the evening, baby.

Opening Vrijdenkersfestival, 26 oktober 2023. Foto: Viktoryia Kharytonava / De Balie