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Letter from Brussels: Role Models

by De Ket in Columns & Opinions , 20 maart 2019

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Dear Neighbors to the North, Last year, Boudewijn Van Spilbeeck, the fifty-eight-year-old journalist at the News Service of Flemish commercial broadcaster VTM, announced that from that moment on, he wanted to go through life as a woman. By now Bo has completed all her operations and transition, and is back at work full-time.

BoFrom the moment of the announcement of her transition on, her employer has regularly followed it. VTM wanted to make the subject open to discussion, and rightly so. The Flemish umbrella organization of GLBTQI associations, Cavaria, presented the VTM News Service with the annual Media Award. Rightly so.

This award, however, is in sharp contrast to the everyday reality of transgender people in Flanders. The intentions of the VTM News Service, to make this subject open to discussion, is noble, but it remains to be seen whether this is actually effective in real-life situations. It is quite possible that Bo’s story actually is the exception to the rule. Care worker friends welcome the attention given to the transgender problem, but see the precarious situation of transgenders in their daily work. They are ridiculed and discriminated against in the workplace and are disinherited and expelled by their families.

Even after their sex operation and transition, the majority of trans people have to make permanent use of psychological counselling and still form an important group of people who see no other outcome than to step out of life. Not to mention the estimated two percent of transgender people who regret their irreversible operation.

As it looks now, things worked out for Bo. The question remains how the situation of other transgender people will evolve in the positive sense. The worrying fact is that on social media a lot of critical voices can also be heard about Bo’s media exposure and transition. Some people call it overkill. They are also critical of the “noble intentions” of the extensive media attention. It often looks like a kind of person cult, a deification of Bo as a transgender and as a journalist, a role model. There have indeed been months and weeks where you saw Bo almost every day in the Flemish media. Often with the same story, but from a different angle. Then there was a book published, as well as the umpteenth report. Few stood still at the possible side effects of all that media attention. Too much attention often provokes even more aggression and dissatisfaction among those who are not that keen on transgender people. It could turn out to spark even more aggression towards transgender people. Only time will tell.

In an ideal world we do not need role models such as Bo. Fortunately, they are there, but everyone with some common sense knows that only the role models themselves seem to benefit from it. Madonna was and is a role model for millions of girls on this planet, but the only one who really benefits is Madonna. Here and there a Madonna follower has a hit or two, but we are still waiting for a worthy successor to Madonna. You may also wonder whether a role model like Bo should only continue to bring the positive side of the story. It is not because everything goes “according to plan” in her case, that this automatically is the case with other transgenders.

My point is that this media attention is not balanced. Perhaps there are too many positive notes, in which the majority of Flemish transgender people may not even recognize themselves at all. You would almost also want to become transgender yourself if you get too wrapped up in the Bo hype. It is a statement from the many reactions in various forums. Life isn’t just all good news, let alone in the life of a transgender - as Bo’s life can’t just be all roses and sunshine. But they want to bring the “positive story.”

Admittedly, I am of the rather rational type, and although I can let myself be emotionally involved in a story or character, at a certain moment reason takes the upper hand. Fortunately. And I secretly hope that Bo’s story will also apply to all trans people, now and in the future. However, nothing is pointing in that direction. It is unfortunate for all those other transgenders that were and are not that privileged.

Yours sincerely,

De Ket

* People in Flanders struggling with suicidal thoughts or need to talk, can call 1813 for free or chat via the suicide hot line via




In the New Issue of Gay News, 334, Juni 2019

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