Michelle Solorzano Daly and Kelly West: On Creating a Community for LGBTQ Women and a Business Together

Gay/Lesbian / Wednesday, August 1st, 2018
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Michelle Solorzano Daly and Kelly West were two gay women who both ended up in Austin, Texas, for a fresh start.

After a career-ending accident in the Army, Daly was sent to Texas for medical treatment. She decided to stay and buy a house even though she didn’t know anyone, and since she was no longer subjected to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she also came out as gay.

West was an event planner originally from Austin who had lived elsewhere for many years. When her relationship of 10 years unexpectedly ended, she moved back home to start over.

The two met through friends at a brunch, and while Daly was immediately interested, West needed time to recover from her breakup. The pair became friends and were given the opportunity to help plan a speed dating event for gay women in Austin, and it was such a hit, they decided to host a women’s night at a bar. They were unsure about turnout, but 125 women showed up. They decided to begin hosting free monthly ladies nights in Austin to help foster a safe space and community for LGBTQ women. They hosted these events under the moniker “The Lesbuntante and the Boss”: “The Lesbutante” is West, a former sorority girl, and “The Boss” is Daly, an Army vet and MBA.

While they don’t make a dime from these events, several years later, they still host them monthly to give female-identified LGBTQIA people a safe, fun space to gather. Attending their events was personally very helpful to me during my own coming out process. The pair doesn’t look at these events as just parties, but as a way to make friends, meet potential matches, and feel a part of a community since there are no lesbian or female-focused bars in Austin.

After a few years of doing these events together, West healed from her breakup and Daly came into her own as a gay woman, and the two became a couple. As of two weeks ago, they’re engaged. In addition to hosting these monthly events, the couple hosts annual events during SXSW and Austin Pride. This year, they’re hosting Austin Pride’s Official Womxn’s party, Year of the Womxn, on August 10 from 8 p.m.-1 a.m., plus a Pride float in the Austin Pride Parade on August 11, a post-parade party at Moonfire Lounge from 9 p.m.-2 a.m., and a Sunday rooftop pool party for womxn on August 12 from 1-6 p.m. at Azul Rooftop Pool & Lounge at the Westin Hotel downtown.

In addition to throwing these community events, West, 46, and Daly, 40, also run a lifestyle business called Daly + West. They handle everything from event planning to home designing to wardrobe consulting.

This is Michelle and Kelly’s story of coming out as gay, starting businesses together, and creating a safe space and community for LGBTQ+ women in Austin.

Profiles in Pride: To start, Michelle, what was your journey to realizing you were gay and coming out?

Michelle: I came to the realization I was gay in my mid-twenties when I was in the Army, but I didn’t come out until I was around 32 because of the Army. I was dating a lot of men, and it just wasn’t really working out, and I always wondered why. Why did I not care that I would sleep with them and and they wouldn’t call me, when my friend would be crying in the corner because the guy they slept with didn’t call them?

I ended up dating straight women as my first two girlfriends. They had both been friends of mine. When I hooked up with them, I was like, “Oh, OK!” From that point on, I was looking back at my life and thought, “Oh, that’s why that was that way.” Or “that’s why I was so upset when my friendship with that girl ended, because there were always more feelings there.” I had been very naive.

I went to private Catholic school my whole life; I was very sheltered. I really did not know I was gay even though I went to an all-girls high school. Then once I figured it out in my mid-twenties, I started dating a girl when I was about 26. It was all under the radar since I was active duty military and I was between deployments. It was during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I was watching a girl in my unit get dishonorably discharged for being gay. She got caught. They already didn’t like her to begin with, so they were looking for something to push her out on, and I feel like by now she’s gotten it overturned, but that was very scary. There was a lot of homophobia in the military, and at least in aviation where I was, it was a boy’s club.

My relationship with that first girl ended because she was straight; she wasn’t going to fully commit to me. Then I dated another straight girl, and that was a heartache, too. Both of those relationships were two to three years long and great lessons that I needed to learn. Then I ended up having a big accident in the military where I got injured, including a severe traumatic brain injury with a stroke in my right frontal lobe, and I had to come to Texas for treatment.

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West - creators of a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Michelle (left) and Kelly (right) at the Archer Hotel in Austin. Photo by Marina Cohen.

I got really depressed while I was recovering. I was in San Antonio, Texas, for a 90-day inpatient treatment for my traumatic brain injury and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). What some people just don’t understand about my brain injury is that it affects my entire life in such a way that I need constant support, and someone like Kelly to help me navigate certain situations that cause me grave stress and panic.

During that time, I just had an awakening. For one, I realized I had to change my life and my lifestyle. I had to stop drinking. Because of my injury, if I wanted to be a productive member of society, I was gonna have to change everything. That’s when I realized, if I’m gonna have to do all that shit, then I have to be happy, and the only way I’ll be happy is if I’m going to live out as a gay person.

I ended up moving to San Antonio for a year and a half after the inpatient treatment because I did so well and was going to do outpatient there. While I was living in San Antonio, I went home to D.C. for Christmas and I came out to my parents at Christmas Eve dinner. They were in utter shock, though my sister said she already knew. I think my parents were in denial; they had a hard time with it. Every parent usually does. I realized that just as long as it takes us to come out, they need some time to warm up to it too, because it’s different; it’s a game-changer. Now they’re amazing; they love Kelly and it’s no big deal.

Then I got all my disability straightened out, and because I kept coming to Austin and loved it, I decided to move here when I was 34. So I closed on my house in August 2012, then I came here to Austin and I immediately just lived out as gay.

I had long hair at the time and presented a lot differently because I was still not fully myself. I was just happy to be able to be gay. Everything happens in due time. Fast forward to the following summer, June of 2013, I meet Kelly at a brunch and we decide to do Lesbutante & The Boss that fall. So it’s like I came out and I came out with a bang. I can never do anything in a small way.

PIP: Awesome! Kelly, what’s your story of coming to terms with being gay and coming out?

Kelly: Mine is really boring! I’m always a go-with-the-flow, subtle kind of girl. I eventually figured out, as my mom puts it, that I “prefer the company of women.” For a while I had no inkling about it, but after my freshman year of college, there was a woman I met that summer, and I just really wanted to be around her. It took me a really long time to actually embrace the fact that I was truly a lesbian. I thought I just liked certain people for a long time.  

I’ll be honest; I never really came out to anyone. I’ve just always lived the way that I felt was appropriate for me. I never came home and said, “Mom, I’m gay.” If I was dating someone, I would bring them home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. I never felt like I needed to have that conversation with any of my family or coworkers.

I work in the design field, so it’s pretty easy to just be yourself; you don’t have to hide a lot of that. It’s an open forum of “be you.” So with my parents, I just always lived the way that I wanted to be seen. A long time later, my mom asked me, “Why didn’t you have a discussion with me?” I said, “Mother, that wasn’t necessarily the way I wanted to do that. I didn’t feel like my sister had to come home and say that she liked to date really tall men or guys with blonde hair.”

Kelly West, creator of a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Kelly West. Photo by Marina Cohen.

For me to say I like to date women makes me point out that I’m different, and I don’t feel that I’m any different or that how I want to be is any different. I’m not making a big deal out of it, because it’s not a big deal. This is who I am and this is who I love.

I feel like a lot of times when you come out, people immediately go to your sex life and want to know how that works, and I didn’t want to have that conversation with anyone in my family. I don’t want to know how they like to have sex, and I don’t want them to know how I like sex, and that’s only a small part of my identity as a gay/lesbian woman.

It wasn’t some political statement or anything, it’s just how I felt was the best way to deal with that. My mom said it makes total sense, and that’s kind of how she explains it to her friends. “That’s just who she is.”

For the longest time I lived in Lubbock, Texas, and I wasn’t part of a large gay scene. I had lots of gay male friends from working in the design field, but I was always the lone lesbian. It was a very quiet life; we didn’t have Pride, and I worked as a wedding planner, so I could never go anywhere in June. So I never celebrated or attended Pride until Lesbutante & The Boss was born, when we did our first Pride float in 2014!

Michelle: Me too, I never attended a Pride until I moved here, and we did a float!

PIP: That’s awesome! So how did you two get together?

Kelly: We met at a brunch through some mutual friends, and I had just had a really serious breakup. I got “lesbian power dumped,” as I like to call it. I was in a relationship with someone for 10 years, and she just all the sudden decided she didn’t want to be with me anymore. I packed up my stuff and moved back to Austin and started over, and that was five years ago this June.

I was pretty beat down and defeated. I met Michelle and some other friends that day, and I was really closed off to dating. She was really good at always being supportive and kind to me. We were friends for a long time, and we had some other mutual friends who decided to host a speed date. They met at a speed date, so they wanted to put one together to honor it and pay it forward.

They got a space but had no idea what to do with it, and I had been an event planner for most of my career, so I said I could do it. Michelle wanted to help me because she had a huge big crush on me and wanted to spend time with me!

Michelle: Just so you know, the day I met Kelly at that brunch, I said to myself, “One day this girl is gonna be my girlfriend.” I’d never met a lesbian like her. Being from the East Coast, Texas was never on my radar. To me, it was Hickville with cowboys; all I knew of it was from my very country Texas friends in the Army. My nickname in the Army was “Silver Spoon” because I came from this private school world in D.C.

I’m very attracted to feminine lesbians, and I just have a very specific type. So when I met her, she just reminded me of a lot of East Coast things. She had this big purse and huge sunglasses. Something about her just made me feel comfortable. I hadn’t met a lesbian like her yet. So from that day on, I just wanted to be next to her, so I did whatever it was. I had never done an event!

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West, who built a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Photo by Marina Cohen

Kelly: What was funny is when we were hosting this speed date, we had it in our minds that we’d have a business together offering lifestyle consulting, where we’d help people with matchmaking, dating advice, clothing advice, and finding your best true self. Never did we think we’d be doing events for women!

But we hosted that speed date, and afterwards about 20 or 30 of us went to a new place at the time called Chicago House, and they had just opened a wine room on the top floor. We were all sitting there, and everyone said, “Why can’t we have something like this once a month where we all get together and hang out?” I said, “Why can’t we?” We asked the Chicago House manager what it would cost to rent the space upstairs. They said if we came on a Wednesday, they’d give it to us for free.

So on December 11, 2013, we had our first event. And 125 women showed up! There was no Tinder — it was just Match and okCupid. And this was when Facebook event marketing was really new, clunky, and awkward, yet 125 people showed up. We began doing this monthly.

By March of the next year, we had a kickoff party at SXSW, and 300 people showed up. At that point we were like, “I guess we’re doing this!” There was definitely a void in the landscape. All the bars for women had closed, and there were no other social events or community for LGBTQ women. So we just dove in head first. Then that Pride, September of 2014, we did a huge Pride party and we had a float in the parade. We had no idea what we were doing.

M: But we pulled it off!

K: I’ve never felt anything like that; it was a rush. We built this little thing we’d thought was going to last two months, and there we were in the Austin Pride Parade with the only all-female float.

Also, we’ve always been trans-inclusive, and gender non-binary inclusive, because those are the people who don’t have space and places. We wanted to make sure that everyone felt included, and that’s been one of our messages. That’s why this year we changed it to Year of the Womxn with the X, so it would be inclusive of everyone.

Fast forward five years later, this our fourth year of being the official party for women for Austin Pride. The first year we were not official and we didn’t know what we were doing, but they noticed us and the next year they asked us to host the party, which was a really big deal.

Michelle: What’s really nice is they trust us and give us full autonomy, because it used to be mainly men on the Pride board, and they’d rather have the women run the party for women.

Kelly: We’ve always had a pulse point on what’s going on with the LGBTQ+ women’s community here in Austin, and they wanted to use that in with the ladies and give something for them, by them. We’ve grown it every year. We love the Sellers Underground bar as our home base for our monthly parties, but it’s not big enough for what we wanted to do for Pride this year for Year of the Womxn.

We wanted to do something for us, about us, and by us. We wanted to do something larger. Austin Pride is really on board with us. They give us seed money and help us get faces and places, and let us run with it, which is amazing. We wanted to do something that was visible to everyone, which is why we wanted a parking lot to get out of a club and put it on display and say “Austin Pride is completely supportive of the women of this community.”

We want everyone to take notice; we’re here and this is who we are, and we’ll be the spotlight of the party for Austin Pride. So we’ll be in a parking lot at the corner of 4th and Congress. It’s 18,000 square feet of event space, which makes me feel like we’re crazy! We’ll bring in a stage, lighting, a bar, and food vendors, so we’re creating a festival mood that’s really lively. Chulita Vinyl Club is our opening act, they’re local and inclusive and they spin real records. They’re incredible. Our headliner is the international DJ Citizen Jane from Miami; she’s amazing too.

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West, who made a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Michelle and Kelly right after their recent engagement in Amsterdam. Photo by Anne van Zantwijk

PIP: And you’re doing a float at Austin Pride this year too?

Michelle: Yes! We’re renting a tricked-out firetruck that has a rooftop deck, and DJ Citizen Jane will be spinning on the top of it. We also have the ability to have 150 women walking with us. We’ve already sold at least 50 tickets; we usually sell out, because Pride is Pride. People who don’t go out go out on Pride. We’ve also been able to add a fourth party that we are calling the “L&B Official Post Parade Hook Up” from 9 p.m.-2 a.m. at Moonfire Lounge (310 Colorado St.).  

The night of the Pride parade, all of the gay bars get super packed super quick. The lines are outrageous and not worth the wait because even if you get in, it’s impossible to get a drink. What we’ve done every year is pick a bar near the area so we can all meet up there. This year we were approached by a new bar around the corner from the gayborhood, so we are excited to have something official, and it’s free for anyone 21 and up.

What we have also been able to add for Pride this year is a rooftop pool party at the Westin Downtown pool, Azul. It’ll be Sunday, August 12 from 1-6 p.m. I’ve been trying to make this happen for years. They’re not giving us pool exclusivity, but on the weekends, they allow the public to go up there. They normally charge $25/head, so they’re taking care of that part and allowing us to be there. We could have bombarded them, but I wanted to do it the right way and get them on board with us, because I want to build a relationship with them and do it every year. They will be donating a portion of the proceeds to Austin Pride non-profit organization. 

In 2015, we were working with this other girl who added a pool party elsewhere, but it was douchey and some men were very inappropriate, so I wanted to make sure we were somewhere extremely gay-friendly that knows what will be happening. I’ve always said part of the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing for Year of the Womxn and making it a big deal is because Kelly and I have always been in the business of providing a safe space for women and their friends to be able to be themselves. We have to create them because they’re not available to us.

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West, the women behind a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Photo by Marina Cohen

PIP: Definitely. I know that beyond these events, you two have a lifestyle business called Daly + West. Tell us about it!

Kelly: We created that to put everything under one umbrella. Part of the problem is when we go out anywhere, people ask me specifically, “What do you do?” I hate it — what do you mean “what do I do?” I can do everything!

Michelle: She can do everything, and everything very well — that’s the problem!

Kelly: I spent the majority of my career doing event design and event planning, but I always had a side thing for interior decorating, which is part of design. I can’t call myself an interior designer since I don’t have all the letters that go after your name. But when you work with these clients and do weddings and parties for them for years, you get to know them really well. So if they wanted to refresh their house, I’d come over and do paint and pick and all those things.

When I moved here, I worked for myself, and it was like I was schitzo. I’d be like, “I can design your house, I can design your party, I can help you pick out your clothes. I do some graphic design, too.” So I seemed like one of those flighty weird people who had a ton of jobs because she couldn’t keep one, but it was really that anything that had to do with design, I handled, with Michelle’s help.

So we created Daly + West to umbrella everything. We call it “lifestyle by design,” so any of those things you need touched or refreshed or looked at or designed, we can do. Michelle is a disabled veteran, so she doesn’t have the ability to work, but she helps me a lot with everything. She manages the business operations, because I’m horrible about doing my billing.

Michelle: Kelly is the doer and I’m the everything else. When it comes to Lesbutante and the Boss, for example, I’m the one beating the pavement, getting sponsors, asking people for money, and that kind of stuff. Kelly is the one who makes everything look beautiful.

Our strengths are so opposite; that’s why we work so well together. Because we align together and have completely different strengths. I’d still call myself a novice at events, but I always look to Kelly for all the answers since she’s the one who’s been doing it for 20+ years. In the last five years, I’ve learned so much from her, it’s ridiculous. It’s amazing. If Kelly was ever sick or something, I could punt little things here and there for her.

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West, the faces behind a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Michelle and Kelly right after their engagement. Photo by Anne van Zantwijk

PIP: Definitely! Kelly, you mentioned earlier that when you came to Austin, you came back. Are you originally from there?

Kelly: We moved here when I was a little kid from a small town in Eastern New Mexico, and my parents still live in the Austin area. I lived away for a long time, with the intention of coming back. I had that big yucky breakup, which at the time was awful and earth-shattering, but it was actually the greatest thing, because that break created that opening for me to come back and create the life I wanted to here in Austin.

I never would have gotten to do it that way had that not happened. It was one of those things that was unexpected and hurtful and awful, but was so important and so good for me. I’m actually very thankful for it now, because it created a space for me to actually come and be who I always wanted to be. I used to tell everyone, “If I could just get paid to be myself, it would be so great.”

So when I got to be here and live here and I met Michelle and created and crafted this life, it was insane, because I actually do get paid to be myself, which is to come and help people make their life better, prettier, easier, however you want to look at it. And we created this place of community that I never experienced before, that I never had the opportunity to be a part of, and we got to create it the way we wanted to be.

Michelle: Yeah, and I missed the camaraderie of the military, so when I moved here, I thought to myself, I don’t work, how will I meet people? The only way I could meet people was Match and okCupid. I did just that; I dated some and made some really great friends off there, but I needed more. So when Kelly and I met and started doing those events, by the third month, there were 300 women and we looked at each other and were like, “Well, I guess we’re doing this!” It’s been like that ever since. I’ve heard that there have been tons of people who tried to start things, but they had full-time jobs and couldn’t really follow through. It takes a lot of time. People don’t understand what it takes to just put on one little Saturday.

PIP: For sure. Is there anything else you want to share before we go?

Michelle: Another thing I wanted to tell you about is how much I’ve changed over the years. I had a big haircut in August of 2015, and when I finally cut my hair, I was petrified and excited. One of the things that I loved about Kelly is I felt like I didn’t have to explain myself to her. With me being a disabled veteran, a lot of people are like, “What do you do? You’re 34 and you don’t work?” It was something I was very insecure about, because people thought I was just a bum.

I felt like I needed to build something. And as a retired person, I’ve been busier than I was in the Army. It’s crazy seeing those people now who were like, “What are you gonna do?” and who were really judgy. This is what I did.

One last thing about Kelly — she really helped me. I was like, “I want to dress like this, I want to wear bowties, I want to cut my hair.” Kelly was the first person who was like, “That’s OK! Let’s figure it out.” There’s a lot of judgment in the dating pool of the lesbian community.

Kelly: There’s judgment everywhere in our community from the outside, and we also tend to judge each other from the inside about what we want. I think a lot of people wanted Michelle to maintain that feminine edge.

Michelle: But for me, I felt like there was a disconnect. Everybody thought I was so great with the long hair. When I cut my hair, my mom was devastated. My hair was beautiful, but I was sick of blow drying it. I also wore a full face of makeup, because if I didn’t, I looked extremely washed out. The funny thing is, I cut my hair and now I don’t wear anything but an SPF moisturizer. When I cut my hair, a lot of people messaged me and said things like “I always thought you were hiding behind your hair.”

Michelle Solorzano-Daly and Kelly West, creators of community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Photo by Marina Cohen

PIP: How interesting! In closing, how do you think this community for LGBTQ women that you’ve created has helped people?

Michelle: At Chicago House, that upstairs wine bar was great because we could have a private party up there. I’d always stand at the top of the stairs and greet everybody. People would say, “I don’t want to go out alone, I don’t know anybody,” and people would be like, “No way, there’s this blonde at the top of the stairs and she’s gonna say hi to you and probably give you a hug and welcome you and it’s totally cool.” That became my schtick, because I never had anybody do that for me — I was all alone when I first moved to Austin.

Kelly: Yes, they’re parties and social things, but we always did it under the guise of creating a community. One of the things that we do really well is welcome people. We still stand at the door even though it’s at a nightclub. Some people think it’s a little weird that someone says hello when you walk into a club, but other people embrace it. We always have our friends there, so when we know someone’s coming by themselves, or we can tell they’ve wandered in and don’t know anybody, we immediately grab somebody we know and introduce them and welcome them so they don’t feel alone. It’s intimidating to go places by yourself. If you’re new to a city and don’t know anyone, it’s hard to meet people. We’ve really tried to create a platform and place and a space for people to get out and about and mix and mingle and find whatever they’re looking for, romantic or friendship.

Michelle: People think Austin is a big city, and it is growing, but it has a small-town feel and everyone knows each other. So we train people, if they see a new face, to go up to them. I do it; I say, “Hi, are you new? I’m Michelle.” I do that at least one or two times at every one of our Saturday events, and the people are so taken aback by the kindness, it’s almost sad. Why is the world not like that? We’ve set the example that way. We don’t make money off of the events. They pay for themselves and that’s that. We did it to have something accessible where women can go to and meet. We figured out the equation, which is once a month, otherwise you water it down. Because women don’t go out as much as men, and they nest when they get in relationships.

Kelly: We also typically don’t make as much money as men, and we just don’t go out to the same bar every night.

Michelle: There are tons of people who have met at our events, some who have gotten married. We have tons of stories like that. Friend groups have formed. We try to make it anti-cliquey; usually the really cliquey ones weed themselves out.

PIP: Absolutely. Your events were so crucial for me when I was just starting to come out and barely knew any other queer women in Texas. I went and met people from so many walks of life, all of whom made me feel so welcome.

Michelle: That’s the beautiful thing about it; everybody has a different story. I learned a lot of lessons in my baby lesbian year, as I call it. It’s harder when you come out later.

Kelly: That’s why we do these events. We don’t make money off of them, which is totally OK with us; that’s the premise we set up. We charge money for bigger special events like Pride and SXSW, but we kind of view it as our community service. We want to be able to create that space. Sometimes we get frustrated or it feels too hard, or we have real life get in the way; I have a job, and Michelle’s job is to take care of her body and mind from her military accident, and then she had cancer. Sometimes we’re like, maybe we should think about this.

Then we’ll go to one of our events and somebody will say, “It made a huge difference and I needed that, and how else was I going to meet people?” And immediately it’s like, that’s why we do it. That refresh of being in the community always reminds us why we do what we do. It gives us that push to continue. We’re crazy people with so much on our plates. But we love doing it, and we love being able to create that place.

Michelle: I’ve got to tell you, when I first had my first surgery in October of 2016 when I found out I had cancer, my mom was here and I spent a week in the hospital. The outpour from the community was insane. I was getting flowers, chocolates, etc. from people I barely knew. My mom was in awe and in shock, because she knows what we do, but she didn’t know the full extent of it. Actions speak louder than words, and it was a revolving door of visitors. My heart was full. It just proved that when you do something and something bad happens to you, people will rally around. It’s so nice what we’ve built…it’s hard work, but I’m really proud of us.

Michelle Solorzano Daly and Kelly West, the creators of a community for LGBTQ women in Austin
Michelle and Kelly in Amsterdam. Photo by Anne van Zantwijk

The last thing we wanted to add is that we just took a European vacation of a lifetime to Amsterdam, Istanbul, Poland, and Barcelona. I proposed to Kelly in the beginning of the trip on a private boat ride through the canals in Amsterdam as we cruised under the Magere Brug Bridge, a.k.a. the skinny bridge. Legend has it that if you kiss under the bridge, which we did, you will stay together forever.

I proposed immediately after the kiss and she said yes! She was completely surprised, and it was absolutely amazing. I had hired a professional photographer to capture the moment. The planning with the help of our best friend Jason McQueen who lives in Amsterdam was tedious and nerve-wracking, but so worth it.  We were able to celebrate the rest of the trip. We returned exactly a week ago today, and now we are closing on a new construction home, moving, then hosting four of the largest womxn-focused parties over the Austin Pride weekend from August 10 through August 12.

Learn more about Michelle and Kelly and keep up with their events on their website, LesbutanteandtheBoss.com, and their Facebook page.

Featured photo by Anne Van Zantwijk

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