This #IndiePride Spotlight post focuses on BJØRN LARSSEN’S CHILDREN.
My Pride by Bjørn Larssen
My books have been nominated for various awards and submitted to contests. Sometimes I won. Mostly I didn’t. It didn’t matter a lot – although the gold medal awarded to Storytellers hangs where my imposter syndrome can always see it when I look up from the screen. When I saw my name on the list of Queer Indie Lit nominations, though, something changed. After a minute of stunned silence – how did this happen? is this definitely my name? – my skin began to itch with desire. I wanted this one because I was scared.
I was born in communist Poland, where everyone was normal, unlike the morally corrupt Americans and me. I was eight when I realised I wasn’t like other boys. Was I a girl? I tried on my Mum’s dress and I couldn’t take it off quickly enough. That wasn’t it. I was some other sort of abnormality.
When communism unexpectedly imploded, people woke up poor, confused, and too free to know what to do. The Catholic Church was the only institution they trusted and clergy knew nothing united people better than a shared enemy. And so, in 1990, they announced that The Homosexuals have infiltrated Poland. The only way to prevent them from destroying the society and making Baby Jesus cry was to follow and finance the Church.
In a totalitarian regime invisibility meant safety. Queer people knew that better than anyone else. After decades of hiding they weren’t trained to speak out, and even if they were, they’d need to find an institution stronger than the Church and its indentured servants – sorry, the government – to back them. There was again one narrative for one nation, only previously the nation was enslaved and now it was completely free, which made things very different.
I learned that gay men existed from my stepfather’s porn magazine. My initial reaction was a massive wave of relief – so this was what I was, and I wasn’t the only one (even if they all lived in America). I had no other resources, though. There was no internet. I couldn’t buy gay magazines – I was thirteen and had no idea they existed. I didn’t know about underground organisations like Lambda either, due to them being underground. I found out a gay café briefly functioned when I read it was shut down due to repeated acts of vandalism. My education, like everyone else’s, came from the Church.
I was evil. Disgusting. Sick. A pedophile. I caused AIDS. The only insult worse than “queer” and “Jew” was “faggot.” People like me did unspeakable things in clubs with no signs on their doors. I didn’t need to attend the church (I never have) to learn all this. Newspapers, radio, TV, neighbours, schoolmates, teachers, politicians ensured I wouldn’t forget what I was.
In 1993, a happening took place. A few gay people with masks on their faces appeared in a public space, existing. It was neither a parade, nor an expression of pride. It was suicidal courage. Those people made themselves seen. They asserted space in public. Everyone knew gay men were always naked except rainbow feathers sticking out of their bums, and since no such people were seen prowling the streets, it meant Our Children were reasonably safe. But the sneaky gays misled everyone by putting on clothes! The backlash was monumental. Clothed or not, gays had no business existing outdoors.
I was sixteen and still hadn’t actually met anyone who wasn’t either straight or closeted. I thought those people were incredibly stupid. They put all of us in danger of being seen! Now everyone knew the Church was right! The only silver lining was that they didn’t say anything, as far as I knew. That would just be the end, even if I couldn’t tell of what.
A year later Neil Tennant, the Pet Shop Boys vocalist, came out as gay. I loved Pet Shop Boys. I loved the music, the lyrics, the… the everything. And there was my idol, as famous as famous got, coming out. Telling people the truth when he didn’t have to. Now they would know, they would… would…
Inside my mind a little click-buzz marked a neuron path rewiring itself.
Maybe existing where people could see me wasn’t so unthinkable if Neil Tennant could do it.
I was twenty when I met my first boyfriend in 1997. He went to church every weekend to confess that he was sinning, i.e. seeing me, and switched off the lights when we had sex, so that Jesus wouldn’t see. I didn’t love him, but I didn’t know that, nor did I know that the sex was awful. What I knew was that telling Mum might mean ending up on the street, told that she no longer had a son. Those stories were amplified, warnings: don’t you dare.
I was also raised not to lie, though.
While telling Mum every time I went out, which I had never done before, that I was “seeing a friend” technically wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t truth either. I’ll tell her when the right time comes, I thought, but unfortunately the dumb brain had more to say. There was no such thing as “the right time.”
Mum cried and asked me if I would get AIDS. I told her the truth – I didn’t know. We used protection, though. As she sobbed wordlessly I realised I had known I was gay for seven years. She had learned a minute ago and her knowledge was limited to the narrative that made me an AIDS-spreader. The question could have as well been “do you have sex with children?” and it wouldn’t have been my Mum’s fault.
I was extremely lucky. I didn’t end up on the street. My brothers were surprised, but not disgusted. Mum said a few stupid things. So did I. I split up with the boyfriend, got a better job, moved out, met someone else, discovered what love felt like and, soon afterwards, what heartbreak felt like. I also discovered antidepressants and that when you hold your boyfriend’s hand in public people will throw rocks at you. I introduced him to Mum, we all had ice cream, and went for a walk in the park. When drunken cadets began to throw beer cans at us – yup, we were holding hands again – it was Mum who hissed “walk slowly and ignore them.” In a twisted way, it all went really well.
Over family dinner, I told everyone why I’ve been so happy in the last few months. They loved me exactly as I was and wanted nothing but my happiness, they all said. Encouraged, I brought my boyfriend over for xmas and it was lovely. I couldn’t believe my luck for whole two weeks, which was how long it took my aunt to tell me that if I wanted to attend Grandma’s birthday, I had to come on my own.
I didn’t think of it as “pride” when Mum begged me to come alone “just once” for Grandma’s birthday and I said I wouldn’t do it, because once I’ve done it once, things would stay that way forever. I was on confused autopilot. Why…? They said… they were… surely…?
Invisibility meant family, too.
I discovered I didn’t know how to kill myself.
In 2001, the first “proper” Pride parade took place in Warsaw. The TV showed close-ups of drag queens when reporting on the gathering of homosexuals. In 2003, the news showed close-ups of drag queens interspersed with shots of screaming skinheads as the speaker reported how many got injured and/or detained. There was no Pride parade to be watched in 2004 and/or 2005, because the president of Warsaw forbade “promotion of homosexual lifestyle.” The discussion on the radio mostly focused on the suffering of a caller complaining that he couldn’t beat homosexuals up, because the consequences were the same as for beating up people. The host commiserated. I switched off the radio and continued searching for a job. In Amsterdam.
I believed that twenty years later Poland would become a place where everyone could be free. (I was spectacularly wrong.) I just didn’t want to wait that long. Mum was neither upset nor surprised when I told her I intended to emigrate. “There’s nothing for you here,” she just said.
Running away wasn’t a display of pride. I didn’t care. The captain should be the last to leave a sinking ship, but the ship was doing perfectly fine and the captain was drowning.
Gays didn’t infiltrate Poland, but Poland infiltrated me.
After years of therapy I almost internalised that Amsterdam wasn’t Warsaw. There was no “coming out” here. I gradually learned that I could say “this is my boyfriend” without having to follow this with “…and if you have a problem…” since literally nobody had one. I no longer had to filter myself, watch my words, wonder what people think, scan my surroundings before kissing the man I loved.
I still did, though.
The day I married Husby was, cliché or not, the happiest day of my life. Hand in hand, dressed in our weirdest best, we walked home, our photographer friend documenting my seemingly permanent grin. 99% of me buzzed with joy and happiness. 1% was on guard, waiting for someone to yell at us.
And then someone leaned out of the window and yelled at us.
“You look great, guys!”
I have never felt more proud in my life. This was my day, my place, my husband, the most incredible man that had ever been born was MINE. I had it in writing now. And yes, we looked great.
In Amsterdam, that is. When we went to visit my Mum in Warsaw, Husby’s transparent shirt and my kilt stayed behind.
Don’t kiss me, don’t hold my hand, watch your words even in Dutch. Don’t walk too close to me. Before you put your hand on my leg in the bus, check who sees you. Never forget that our wedding bands don’t matter here. Legally we’re strangers, both of us unmarried. If you land in a hospital, I won’t be allowed to make any decisions on your behalf, possibly won’t be able to see you at all. Invisibility is safety. Only for a week. Then we can be proud again.
When I was working on Children I was…nervous. In the book I re-tell selected Norse myths from the point of view of Magni, son of ultra-masculine Thor, and Maya, ward of Freya – the Goddess of love. Magni is gay; Maya – asexual and aromantic. Certain people like their Norse Gods served blonde, heterosexual, and hateful towards everything that isn’t. I met some of those people in Poland. Their swastika tattoos did not symbolise divinity and spirituality. Those are not nice people willing to peacefully discuss differing opinions. I was sent a death threat once, and while I laughed it off – I found it a year late in Facebook’s “Other Messages” inbox I never realised existed – I haven’t quite forgotten.
I thought of changing the book to make it – safer. Maybe it didn’t need to have two queer MCs. Perhaps Magni could only be gay in his heart, off-page. Was it necessary to make Loki genderfluid? I shared those worries with another author, who responded with a question. “Do you want to write a safe book, or do you want to write the book you want to write?”
Safety meant invisibility and I had spent way too much time being invisible.
I permitted 1% of me to worry while the other 99% worked on a book I would be proud of. No compromises were made. Magni and Maya are exactly who they wanted to be. I pushed the fears – the internal Poland – aside. I mentioned Magni loving a man in the blurb, then took that part out, because it was there as an indirect content warning. It wouldn’t be there if Magni loved a woman. No more hiding in the closet – and no more hiding in plain sight. They’re here, they’re queer, and they are not sorry in the slightest about the inconvenience.
I had tears in my eyes when I won that Queer Indie Lit award. When I had promised to myself to never defile my covers with stickers or badges I hadn’t expected to be moved so deeply. I did not travel from Warsaw to Amsterdam. I went from being afraid to… still being afraid, but where you can see me.
It’s not the sticker I am proud of, it’s knowing I deserved it.
Gods make lousy parents.
All Magni wants is peace and quiet, but when your father is the God of thunder, you don’t get to live the life you want. When Thor destroys all his son knows and loves, Magni vows to bring prosperity and end the violence… forever. But can you escape cruelty in a universe built on it, or the shadow of your father when everyone calls you by his name?
Maya, her rage more powerful than she knows, wants freedom to pursue her own destiny. Neither torture nor blackmail can make her obedient or pretty enough for Freya, her foster-mother and Goddess of love. Fighting for independence and revenge, can a mere human win a game where Gods dictate the rules?
Check out the rest of the books and authors being spotlighted for #IndiePride, go here. For the book reviews of the ones I’ve already read and reviewed, go here. For the Goodreads list of the books, go here.