Thomas Jacobs: “Belgium is like a safe haven to me.”

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Thomas Jacobs: Belgium is like a safe haven to me.

We meet Thomas in a chatroom on Facebook Messenger as is the standard these days. When he appears on the screen, we see a welcoming look and heartwarming smile beaming from under his trademark beanie. Together we had a quaint, little conversation about historiography, politics, Walnut, MS and living abroad as an American.

People Magazine: Hello Thomas, how are you doing?

Thomas Jacobs: “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

People: You work at Ghent University at the department of history, correct?

Jacobs: “Indeed. After I finished my studies at The Blandijn (Campus of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy in Ghent, RG), I was offered a job as a teaching assistant. My job encompasses teaching the next generation of historians as well as doing some research of my own.”

People: What are you currently researching?

“I’m currently researching the changes in diplomatic policies during the 1650’s. It’s really interesting to see that with Cromwell’s (Oliver, RG) regime came a whole array of new diplomatic standards to engage with foreign diplomats. The research I’m doing now is also a good example of why I love researching Early Modern history: You get to deal with the introduction of modern phenomena like overseas expansion, diplomatic warfare and the early scientific method, while also dealing with many superstitious beliefs, such as the existence of dragons and witches.”

People: You seem to be very passionate about history. Where does this passion hail from?

Jacobs: “
I always liked to think that my father is responsible for my love for history. As a Cherokee, he always told me that ‘everything I learned about history in school was wrong’. By the time I was ready to head off to college, I figured I would put his assumption to the test.”

People: Did he turned out to be right?

Jacobs: “Mostly (laughs). The biggest discovery I made while studying in Belgium, was how subpar the historical education of the average American is. American history classes are often focused on the American perspective, which makes the whole substance very narrow.”

People: Is it difficult for you to be enthusiastic about your job during these trying times?

Jacobs: “Absolutely not.”

People: Why’s that?

Jacobs: “Because there’s still so much we can learn from looking at our past! Take this pandemic, for instance: a colleague of mine is making a comparative study between the role of the Ghentian local government during the cholera-pandemic in 1849 and the COVID-pandemic now. Her research indicates that government could combat a pandemic more efficiently because they could simply impose more drastic rules than any local government could do nowadays. Truly a noteworthy discovery, considering the hygiene of the average 19th century citizen of Ghent.”

People: Let’s talk politics. I’ve seen your vlogs: you’re quite the opinionmaker.

Correction… I’m very opinionated. (laughs)

People: In your vlogs you stated that Joe Biden was only ‘marginally competent’ to be in office.  What do you mean by that?

Jacobs: “It goes without saying that I’m not a Biden-fan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we will witness the return of ‘Obama-era politics’ and we’re getting rid of the orange menace that’s currently occupying the White House. But as a member of the LGBTQ-community (Thomas identifies as a transgender woman, RG), I’ll only be satisfied with Biden’s office if they go all the way for the LGBTQ-members of the American society. He also once voted for The Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which a lot of people tend to forget.  Joe Biden may be liberal in the economic sense of the word, but to me, he’s a very right-wing politician. In America, I hear people screaming about Joe Biden being a socialist, but that is far from the truth. Not by European standards.”

People: Do you have any Trump-supporters in your family?  

Jacobs: “Unfortunately, I do. I have some Trump-supporters in my family, but the most avid of them all would be my mother.”

People: Given your political views, that must lead to some difficult situations, right?

Jacobs: “It really does. It is very hard to keep in touch with family-members who don’t respect LGBTQ-lives while you’re LGBTQ yourself. That is also the reason why my last visit to Walnut (Thomas’s hometown in the State of Mississippi, RG) was a downright horrible experience.”

People: How come, if I may ask?

Jacobs: “Because of the transphobia. Where I come from, there’s a lot of trans- and xenophobia. I was literally denied service at several bars and diners because of me being transgender. The worst part of it all is that this is completely in accordance with Mississippi law. Put it together with a lot of relatives who aren’t accepting of me being trans, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. On the bright side, this trip made me also more appreciative of living in Belgium. Europeans are much more acceptant of trans-people. I feel like Belgium has become a safe haven for me.”

People: What was it like for a ‘pure-bred’ American such as yourself to come and live to Belgium? 

“I was a bit disappointed, at first. We Americans have this perception that every Belgian city is as beautiful as Bruges (laughs). After living in Aalst, a city that scarred by the Industrial Revolution, I learned that this was not the case.”

People: But there were some positive aspects, were there not?

Jacobs: “Absolutely. Everything here is so much healthier. Take bread, for instance. The bread here is actually made out of real dough. It’s like having biscuits for lunch every day. And of course, there’s the more general acceptance of trans-people, which is always good.”

People: Do you think of Belgium as your home?

Jacobs: “That would be taking it too far. While I do feel more welcome here, I always like to think of myself as a guest. I’m not a Belgian, nor a European for that matter.:

People: Thank you for your time.

Jacobs: “You’re welcome.”