In Poland, roughly 50% of the population does not believe that homosexuality is normal. As an openly gay man living in Warsaw, Tom Shay'an is reminded of this everyday.
How was your childhood?
As a child, I always felt different from other children, a misfit. I'm grateful for having an open-minded family, but at school we were taught to not stand out in the crowd and instead blend into society and be discreet. I was extremely sensitive, a bit flamboyant, maybe childish but definitely different from the other kids. In fact, I was bullied because I was a misfit and saw the world through different lenses.
When did you realise that you were gay?
I realised I was gay when I was in high school. I was lucky because I went to a good high school in Warsaw where the teachers were open-minded and mature. Some kids made jokes about me being gay but I feel like that happens everywhere in the world.
The only issue I encountered at school was with a history teacher who would constantly give me the lowest grades. Even my classmates always backed me up. I came to realise a couple of years later through a teacher’s assistant, that he was openly homophobic and I guess that might have explained his attitude towards me.
How did your parents react when you came out to them?
At first my mum said that I was gay to be more popular in high school. Her second reaction was to blame herself. So for many years I avoided the topic until I had a boyfriend who lived in Scotland and I was flying to his place every month. Eventually we decided to move in together and get a flat in Warsaw which was a reality shock for my parents.
Surprisingly they were supportive even though I’m sure they were disappointed inside but I can only judge them by their actions, and all I can say is that they were very supportive. They helped us move, invited my boyfriend for easter celebration and so forth. I’m lucky and grateful for their support and I know that most parents in Poland would not have been as supportive as they were.
Are you openly gay at work?
Of course. I am an energy healer and a fortune teller. It’s my passion. Since I was young I’ve always known that I wanted to be the master of my life and do what felt right for me. I started my career as a fortune teller, ten years ago, and I was on top of rankings on online web pages. Unfortunately other fortune tellers were posting lies about me on internet forums just to discredit me as a person. And one of the arguments was that I’m gay and that’s why clients should avoid me. I can take care of myself so I wrote emails to the administration on the forums. I used legal arguments, and posts were deleted but I was so surprised that even in the spiritual community being gay is frowned upon, here in Poland.
In 2012, I was on a fortune telling TV show and said in front of the camera live: “I’m saying hello to my partner, hey Gregory, I love you.” It took a lot of strength but I was the happiest person on the planet for doing that.
Are gay people accepted in Warsaw?
We have to remember that Warsaw is the capital, so even if there is a level of homophobia and aggression, it’s incomparable with the rest of the country. In smaller towns or villages, being gay is completely unacceptable which is why many gay guys have wives and are closeted all their lives.
Unfortunately, Poland is not a country that embraces diversity. Sometimes it’s complicated to be a gay guy on the streets of Warsaw, to wear whatever you want, to be more feminine, more masculine or express yourself beyond what is expected of you. You must fit the norm as taught in school.
I also think that gay people in Warsaw ‘come out’, but are mentally still in the closet. They still have to check boxes, be strong men and behave and act like men.
Also, many guys are still afraid to hold hands and I think it’s because of our culture. I believe that deep inside even they think it’s not decent to do that.
I still don’t understand why people are so grey, everyone looks the same. It changes step by step with time but I wish the streets were more colourful and not only for pride.
Have you ever been a target of homophobia ?
Yes unfortunately it happens quite often. For example, one day I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing and guys in a car rolled down the window and screamed ‘faggot’ at me. I was never hit by anyone but I know that it could happen anytime.
I also experienced a haunting situation when I was going back home on a night bus. There was a drunk guy sitting opposite to me and he was screaming ‘faggot’, ‘faggot,’ ‘faggot’, every ten seconds at me. I remember my whole body was shaking and my thought process was: ‘am I safe? Is he going to hit me?’ I was thinking that as long as he was just screaming at me I could handle the situation by just ignoring him. Then an older man stood up and walked up to the guy. I remember feeling reassured, protected and grateful. In my mind I was finally safe, someone stood up for me. Unfortunately this man simply told my aggressor that if he sees a ‘faggot’ he must go tell him straight to his face instead of screaming it in the bus and disturbing everyone.
My heart dropped. I went back home crying and it turns out that the older guy had hurt me the most with his reaction. I couldn’t believe it. It really hit me. The bus was full and no one cared. No one stood up for me.
In Poland we are told not to react in general. It’s a miracle when someone reacts when other people are hurt on the street. In fact, in Poland verbal aggression is not considered aggression at all.
How do you act in these situations?
Well, I try to overcome my fear because I only have one life. It’s up to me how I live it and what I’m going to do with it. I don’t want to be a scared person all the time. Obviously I would love to live in a space where there are no consequences for being yourself, but I’m not crying about it, It’s my conscious choice. I’m not saying it’s very stressful but it’s up to me to hold it in and fight my fears.
How does the edia portray LGBT people in Poland?
LGBT have been more present in the media these past years although it’s nowhere close to where I believe it should be at. Unfortunately today we are governed by the right wing party so obviously diversity is barely shown on Public TV. We call it “National TV” because it’s full of propaganda and right wing messages so if you follow politics here you’ll know that the right wing isn’t in favor of LGBT people, on the contrary.
However LGBT people are somewhat present on commercial channels. I think we are stereotypically portrayed as flamboyant, artsy, a little bit different and I don’t like it myself because I do believe that we have to show people that gay people are normal common and even though they may be colourful, or different I think they should be portrayed in a more common way.
But I believe this misrepresentation is not specific to Poland. It happens on a larger scale. International TVs tend to portray gay couple where the focus is not on the narrative but rather on the fact that the character is gay.
In regards to famous Polish people I have to say that I’m so disappointed with how few coming outs we have had throughout the years. I think when you’re thinking of gay celebrities, actors, dancers, you would count 5 or 6 of them being openly gay in Poland, and the rest are all rumours and these people will never come out. I find it disappointing. I think that when you have a name, it’s a shame not to use it so that gay people can look up and identify with you but also help educate those who know nothing about homosexuality. I do believe that when you’re honest with yourself and with the world you can only win more. And even though you lose job or two, a gig or two, in the small count, when you think in the bigger picture you’re a winner. And I do believe more money will come when you’re honest, even though you lose one or two gigs along the way.
What would you say to kids who have to deal with homophobia?
I think, first of all you have to remember there’s always a choice. You can build your own family, choose people who support you and love you. Don’t be a victim even if sometimes you’re persecuted and bullied. Being a victim is a state of mind. It’s up to you not to close yourself in a bubble of suffering just try to understand other people and I think it’s the basis of tolerance. People are homophobic for a reason, people are homophobic because of something. And I’m not trying to excuse them, I’m giving you the tools to understand them so you’re hurting less. Because it’s unbearable when someone calls you a faggot or hits you for it. But try to see a hurt human person in that monster calling you a faggot. This may help take your pain away because the insults reflect that person’s own demons. And just don’t be a victim.
Even though we are hurt in life, we suffer, it’s up to us how we interpret the situation which is occurring in our lives and acknowledge that you’re hurt, embrace your emotions, but don’t be a victim. Say to the world ‘i’m hurt’, ‘it hurts’, but don’t have this victim vibe.
Because I do believe you’re stronger than that and in the bigger picture at the end of the day you will be a winner after all.