Elephants. Coming to terms with queer identity in Poland
I’d like you to follow me in a very short mental exercise. You’ve probably done it before, or at least have heard of it, but it doesn’t hurt to try once again. Close your eyes, and imagine an elephant, as vividly as you can. It can be any color, gray, yellow, black, whatever is on your mind. My elephant was pink. Keep this image in mind for about 30 seconds. After that, try not to think about the elephant. For the next minute, try as hard as you can to suppress the thought of the elephant from appearing in your head. For how long can you manage to avoid thinking about the elephant? How many times do you fail?
It was hard for me to forget the pink elephant. I tried so hard to suppress the pink elephant. I was sick, I thought, so just like with most of diseases, time will cure me out of thinking about the pink elephant. I’ve heard people saying that the pink elephant is just a phase, and I trusted them. I tried to abandon the pink elephant using methods of meditation, affirmation and self-talk. Above all, I hated the pink elephant and anything that would even slightly remind me of him. I did my best effort to conceal the fact that, deep inside, there was ever even the slightest thought about the pink elephant in my mind. I could never forget the pink elephant.
I first came out to my parents when I was six, and it wasn’t quite successful. It was a sunny, lazy summer weekend, and we just had our traditional Polish Sunday family dinner. This was a time in my life when I didn’t know what “gay” really meant. But it sounded foreign. It sounded really cool and funny. I wanted to be that way.
So on this day, after dinner, when my friend called me on the phone, I greeted him: “Hi! I’m gay!” in front of all my family members. No one said a word. My older sister had a few laughs, after which she quickly turned into silence. My mom took me out for a “private talk.” She already knew.
“Are you crazy?” she said quietly, seriously. “Do you want other people to think that you’re a deviant and a pervert?” So maybe it wasn’t that cool and funny. I went back into the closet and didn’t leave it for a long time.
I wasn’t given too much time for innocence in childhood. The group of friends I hung out with the most were all slightly older than me — and more “educated.” A lot of times we would come to one of their houses and watch TV. Quickly, some of them would change the channel to the “erotic” stations. Every time they saw a female nipple, they would yell with awe and excitement. I was confused. But I still would yell along.
After the exciting TV session they changed their topics of conversation to other boy groups in the neighborhood. Of course, they needed an enemy — and they found it in a boy on the other side of the street.
“He’s a faggot,” one of the guys said once. I asked him what that meant.
“It just means that he’s stupid and a sissy,” he explained. Since I knew it’s really not good to be a sissy, soon I joined the kids in calling other kids faggots. I still had no idea what that meant, though.
In my family, the Sunday brunch usually involved tea, French toast and endless rants about politics and social controversy. As a 10-year-old kid, I could understand most of these conversations, but could not form a personal opinion. One day, I was listening to them talk about gay marriage. I slowly started to understand what this is about, and the conversation instantly presented me with a ready-made opinion on the matter.
“Why not legalize pedophilia? This is gonna be the next step!” my father said.
“Soon, you’ll be able to marry a photo of Marilyn Monroe” my cousin bounced back.
My sister was the odd one out in the family. She politely tried to question the alleged damage that two people living in a stable, consensual relationship could do to the traditional Christian social values.
“It’s all about blurring boundaries of the normal and the deviated,” my cousin replied. “But we won’t accept that. No one is gonna make us believe that two plus two is five, or that two men sleeping with each other are a family. We know better, our Catholic morality is stronger.” One of my uncles joined the discussion and said he has nothing against homosexuals, as long as they exercise their deviation secretly and with shame.
Secretly and with shame: lesson learned. It might take a lifetime to actually unlearn it.
In 6th grade, all Polish kids have their first Greek mythology class. It was a moderately fascinating topic at that time. We were sitting in a circle, reading very old poems and pretending to admire Zeus, Athena and Aphrodite. Our attention span decreased minute after minute. The teacher suddenly yelled at us: “Pay attention!” She paused, then continued:
“These Greek figures were gods, the Greek people actually worshipped them, just like now we worship God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit!”
Some part of my brain has experienced a switch. I started to ask questions: what is mythology? What is religion, for that matter? What if those Greek worshippers were right and Christians are wrong? If two people believe in two different gods and both think they are right, who is actually right?
What if all the phenomena condemned by the Church are actually favored by other churches? Is there a single reason why the Catholic mindset should truly, objectively, be considered more valid than millions of others?
That’s how I became a sinner.
I started to read on my own. I would hide in my room, and use the tiny little screen of my first ever mobile phone to read books about atheism, evolution and sexuality. I often skipped dinner or didn’t do my homework just to read. This didn’t go unnoticed by my parents. They would often ask me to give them the phone, or go outside and play football.
But instead of running around a field and kicking a ball, I preferred to go on exhilarating Wikipedia tours. Article from article. Evolution, natural selection, genetics, recessive genes, reproduction, sex, sexual selection, sexual dimorphism, homosexuality.
I stopped here for a moment. This article felt different. It wasn’t sheer curiosity; I felt that I had to read it carefully for self-preservation. I read it twice. The definition read: “romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior between members of the same sex or gender”. Just that. At the back of my head I could hear additional definitions I’ve heard like: “disease”, “gender identity disorder”, “unnatural tendency”.
The article debunked all the biases and unsupported convictions that I’ve been immersed in for so many years. If it’s a disease, then why does trying to cure it actually lead to suicides? If it’s such a sin against nature, why are there gay animals?
How relieving doubt can be.
In Poland, religion is not taught in Sunday schools or churches, but in regular public schools, sandwiched between classes of biology, physics and math. We are a secular country by law, so if there happens to be a rare kid who is not of Catholic parents, they have to be assigned a general class in ethics. My views in this case weren’t institutionally valid, so I followed along with the Catholics.
In our textbook, there was an “adult” section. Since we were already 15 years old, we could try to talk about preparation for fulfilling a role in marriage and family.
During the class, one could, for example, learn about natural methods of family planning, the dangers of using a condom, the afterlife consequences of intercourses before marriage. We also had a section on media awareness. Dangers of the Commercial Pop-Culture, the chapter title read; following was the list of said dangers, among which was “stories are often created by people of questionable orientation”.
I was mystified by the phrase. “Teacher, what is questionable orientation?,” I asked after class. “It’s …it’s homo!,” she said. “What makes it so questionable?”
“This… this can be cured,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
I laughed her off, awkwardly, angrily. I did not want to listen to her, so I left the classroom. Later on, I felt really guilty for being so disrespectful towards an adult figure. Now I still somewhat regret it, but for different reasons. These views don’t deserve respect. These views kill people. And there is nothing funny or negligible about it.
I decided to come out of the closet, and it was very irresponsible. Most of my time in middle school, I was a very reclusive kid; I hardly ever hung out with or talked to other kids. I had few friends, which gave me a sense of isolation, as well as a liberating sense of having little to nothing to lose.
I just said it to people. Some of them were shocked. Some of them were outraged. Some thought I should be taken care of. Some kept asking me if I really mean it, suspecting I came out as gay for publicity. One girl after hearing that walked 10 feet away from me and and loudly announced the news to everyone else at school. Another guy posted “Don’t approach me” on my Facebook wall. Some kids just called me a faggot.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I faced the elephant in the room. He was real.
One summer, our class went on a trip to Cracow. We lived in a student hostel, where there were plenty of residents from the UK, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and other “degenerate” countries.
It is not that often that you have a chance to talk to foreigners in Poland. One day, a group consisting of two big dudes and three loud girls from Britain sat and talked in the kitchen. A few of my girl friends and I sat next to them. We started talking about relationships, Polish girls and guys, and inevitably the conversation turned explicitly sexual. I sat quietly most of the time, only taking time to introduce myself.
Suddenly one of the British guys called me out: “Since you’re gay, how do you like Polish guys?” I interrupted: “Excuse me, but… how do you know?” Everyone started laughing, he felt slightly embarrassed, so he approached and hugged me saying “it’s totally OK”. His girlfriend wanted to explain the situation to me. “It’s just because you’re so… nice” — she said, making a gently bent wrist gesture.
When you’re gay, chances are others know. Even if you are fit into the stereotype of what it means to be a man, you might (or might not) be somewhat less fluent in the “normal”. Being able to own it, I felt at my most powerful.
In the first year of high school, I came up with a crazy idea — to make a fashion show. The idea sounded crazy and cool enough for my traditional, 100-year-old high school. A lot of my classmates shared this excitement, and wanted to make this happen by collective effort.
What I did not expect was the backlash this idea would get from the school’s vigilant right wing. They wanted to prevent this “homosexual gathering” from ever happening at this allegedly noble institution. Some boys started approaching me on Facebook insinuating that I am in fact managing a prostitute show for kids. At some point, perhaps to help us keep our family values in check, one of the guys spammed our fan page with Japanese anime porn.
After this whole situation, the thoughts were more unpleasant than ever. If someone asked me whether I was gay, I would say “yes”. But I pledged to be forever single. I insulted my gay friends about their whoring around. I expressed mild disgust in anything that could be considered too openly gay. I was “almost not gay”, or at least aspired to that. I was scared that if I made “steps” and kept making “next steps”, I would go one step too far, and I would turn out to be one of the “bad gays” that my uncle used to talk about.
My old high school classmate invited me for coffee. He hadn’t really talked to me before, but recently we met by “accident”, and we had a great time complaining about stuff. He was a mechatronics student, working at the theater. A really good guy. But quite frustrated with his surroundings, especially with what he called the “bro culture” prevalent on his campus. We met up a few times since then, and became kind of friends.
When we met, we small-talked for a while, but then we shared a remarkable silence for quite a few minutes. I knew he was about to tell me something, and I knew almost exactly what it would be. But I stayed quiet. That was his moment. He came out as bi, and I said “OK, that’s cool”.
Except that it wasn’t. He was brought up in a conservative household, he’s been very effectively taught that homosexuality is disgusting. I said: “Disgust is in the eye of the beholder. Fuck all the people who are disgusted by the real you. They’re not important to you anyway”. He said it’s unnatural, and I replied: “Everyone lives unnatural lives. Including all those fucking whiners”. He was unsure of everything he said. We had a lot in common.
After our talk, he seemed a bit more comfortable. The thought, yelling at me You ARE a gay and you ARE disgusting, was still quite haunting. But I didn’t want to show that even the slightest. Not this time. I desperately wanted him to avoid the same fate. There’s a difference between having a fear, and giving it validation. There’s a difference between experiencing hate, despair and doubt, and letting them take over. This difference is called awareness.
I was short on awareness. I needed a reality check. I was at a point in life when even a slightest, misinterpreted sign of social disapproval from my college peers could turn into 3-day-long emotional breakdown. The person who was with me throughout this whole time was my boyfriend. He kept telling me to get my shit together. Tough love.
My big weakness was that I feared showing affection in public places. Whenever my boyfriend saw me in the hallway, I would awkwardly avoid kissing or hugging. He obviously noticed that, so at some point, he asked:
“Are you ashamed of me?”
Did I ever really, internally, deal with my attraction to same sex? Was I really so embarrassed of myself that I would ditch my closest friend in order to not get rejected by some people I didn’t even have to care about? I said:
“No, no way… I just don’t want the other people to think…”
“…think what?,” he interrupted, disappointed in advance.
“That we are like, too open,” I said.
He walked away. “What does that even mean, too open?,” he mumbled. I thought the same. You know you have a problem when you are worried about things that you don’t even believe in.
Living as an openly gay guy for so long, I still haven’t dealt with even the simplest consequences of it. As the family, friends, school, church or even complete strangers kept condemning “the gays,” I developed a phobia against self. I tried to suppress the haunting thought about it in many different ways.
None of them worked. Perhaps, I came back to the starting point. I have never really gotten rid of my fears. I have not, and maybe I never will, deal with the internalized homophobia that has been so pervasive in my life. But I decided to stop giving it validation. I’d rather give it to a pink elephant.