“EQUALITY IS A VERB”
Interview: Paul Hofman
Activism is something that has been in Tieneke Sumter’s (57) blood ever since she was a child.
At the beginning of the sixties, she was born in Suriname as the child of a lesbian mother. She moved to The Netherlands with her mom when she was six years old and she was really happy there. She develops her will to fight against injustice here. “I give more than 100% for LGBTQI+ people.’’ That she’s going to be an ambassador for Pride Amsterdam didn’t surprise the people around her.
Her daughters are really ecstatic. It was a token of appreciation for her effort for minorities. She is more down to earth about it herself. “I have to admit, when they asked me to become an ambassador, I had to gasp for air.” What drives her? “If I see something that I disagree with, then you’ll hear me about it.” She is stubborn and determined. “I think it’s important that we as the LGBTQI+ community are visible. That she is a role model is something that fills her with pride. “If I could only save one life, I’d do that.” She never forgets the human element.
Her resumé is outstanding. She spends her earliest childhood years in Paramaribo and was six years old when her mother decides to move to The Netherlands. “My parents weren’t living together anymore.” Tieneke spends a big part of her childhood being raised by her mother. They end up in the Staatslieden neighborhood where she had a peaceful childhood. She falls silent for a bit when she tells us that at the end of high school most black kids got the advice to go to the Domestic Science Academy. “My uncle was outraged. Because of him I ended up in a comprehensive school in Osdorp.” It turned out to be a golden opportunity and Tieneke gets the chance to develop her talents. It is the swinging 60’s. She is enjoying life as much as she can. Ever since she was a little girl, she dreamed about being a teacher. But will that dream come true?
IT’S IN THE GENES
After high school Tieneke goes to the Amsterdam Social Academy to participate in the study of artistic and social-cultural science. “That’s what I wanted. Giving people advice and make a living out of it.” She laughs. Her social skills are something that developed at an early age. “It’s in my genes. If you can do something for someone else, then you have to do that. That’s the motto of our family.”
She’s only seventeen when she came out. The moment that she became aware of her feelings towards girls is something that she’d never forget.
NO BIG DEAL
“I was in Portugal with some friends of mine. Back in The Netherlands a girl from the group gave me a kiss on my cheek.” She looks at me in awe. “That’s when I knew for sure. This was it.” She got into a relationship with that same girl. For her mother it wasn’t a surprise. Like mother, like daughter, they say.
Tieneke tells us that she was never fully in the closet. “I think my mother always knew. Especially when my friend and I were always together.” At the start of puberty she was in love with her teacher. “That was something I didn’t pay a lot of attention too.” When she looks back, she realizes it was no big deal.
When she told her mother, with whom she has a strong connection, she was scared for a moment. “That was because I could go through the same experience that she had. She thought that I could get discriminated against.” Her mom becomes her biggest supporter. “She and I were really close.” Slowly but steady she gets accepted by her family as a lesbian. “My mother had a big social life where in she stood up for Mati-women.”
Tieneke explains: “The Mati-role is seen as normal in the Surinamese community. Matis are women that have sexual relationships with women (too). They don’t’ identify with homosexuality. Here in The Netherlands your sexuality is linked to your identity. In every Creoles family you have a Mati, like some sort of aunt. “It’s accepted for the biggest part in the Surinamese community. That’s not the same for men.”
She is staring off into space and then says: “Around my eighteenth birthday I started putting my effort for the interests of Surinamese gays.” As a student at the Academy her social engagement comes naturally. In only a year she became the figurehead of the organization and after a further year at the program she returns to Suriname. It’s in my blood after all, she laughs. “I had done a bit of activism projects before I went.” With her energy and dedication, she makes an impression. That she went back to her home country wasn’t despite, but because of her internship year in Suriname.
The December murder at the start of the 80’s had a big impact on the country that had just become independent. “I’ve always wanted to come back. My mother always thought, I am visiting in The Netherlands, but my home is in Suriname. That was the same for me. Suriname is my country, it’s the place where they buried my umbilical cord.” The military coupe is something that leaves a mark on her.
She lived in Suriname until 2016. “You can be whoever you want to be in Suriname, but you don’t say it out loud.” Luckily, a lot has changed in recent years. Tieneke becomes a CEO of an organization who puts effort into violence against women and is active in another organization against the sexual harassment against children. She is a wanted guest in the public debate.
Meanwhile, she traveled back to The Netherlands in the midst of the nineties to follow the program of organization, policy and management. Back in Suriname the entrepreneurial Tieneke set up her own training and advice company who focuses on projects that work at the intersection of healthcare and welfare. In 2008 she finished her master’s degree in public health. “It was an amazing time.”
Together with her ex-girlfriend she raises two children. “I was never judged for that, we were fully accepted. Since 2021 Suriname changed for the better at the front of homosexuality.” She is still a little critical though. “We’re still a little behind when it comes to laws and regulations. There is still a lot to learn there. But the support of the business industry and the middle class is big.” She is happy about those improvements. “The awareness about how gays are first of all fellow human beings who have the right of a valuable life, where they don’t have to hide their sexuality, is truly growing.”
She was standing at the basis of the LGBTQI+ platform in Suriname. It’s a network of co-operating LGBTQI+ organizations in Suriname, she explains. For her contribution to the emancipation for LGBTQI+ in Suriname she receives the MATIE in 2017. That is the Milestone Achieved Towards Internalizing Equality. Besides that, she does a lot of voluntary work: She is the board member of the Caribbean and Latin-American LGBTQI+ organizations who lobby at the Organization of the American States.
In 2016 she goes back to Amsterdam. Her youngest daughter wants to be a baker which is a profession that doesn’t exist in Suriname. “I went back for her. Above that all, I thought by myself that if I wanted to do something, now was the time.” It was a big step, I notice. “I am an adventurous person, it wasn’t a big step for me.” She goes to work at COC Nederland for a year. “I became a project manager for the Caribbean area.” But sadly, her contract ended.
Tieneke looks at the floor. She seems vulnerable. It’s obvious that she misses her girlfriend. Then: “It’s my biggest dream that she is at Pride.” Her girlfriend is incredibly proud of her. “We all take Pride in Tieneke.”
The message that she will convey at the upcoming Pride: “Equality is a verb. We have to do it together, inclusivity comes from both sides. We have to start talking to each other.” She can’t wait to bring her message as an ambassador. A powerful woman who can ‘man up’ at Pride.
Pride Ambassador since 2021.