Bjørn Larssen author spotlight

Pride Nights at Queen’s: Bjørn Larssen — We Exist

As we near the end of the month, we look back in gratitude to the authors who’ve made Pride Nights at Queen’s possible. Looking back is as much a part of Pride as looking forward, but in our struggle to build a better future, we make the mistake of shunning the hurtful past, disdaining those who pave the way for our liberation. Often, in our ignorance and fear, we forget them. Today, we remember them.

Pride Nights at Queen’s welcomes Bjørn Larssen, with a fantastic guest post about his experiences of both the past, present, and future of queer.

Pride Nights at Queen's
Meet the Author
Bjørn Larssen

Bjørn Larssen is a Norse heathen made in Poland, but mostly located in a Dutch suburb, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one, following this achievement several decades later with his first book containing multiple sentences and winning awards he didn’t design himself. His writing is described as ‘dark’ and ‘literary’, but he remains incapable of taking anything seriously for more than 60 seconds.

Bjørn has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland. He owns one (1) husband and is owned by one (1) neighbourhood cat.

Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal winner (‘Storytellers’)
2020 Stabby Award Nominee (‘Children’)

Find out more about Bjørn at http://www.bjornlarssen.com

Guest Post

We exist

It is 1989. I am 12. Madonna’s Like a Prayer is released and each copy of the album contains a leaflet explaining the basic facts about AIDS. Warner Bros. agree to include it – a year after releasing an album where Sam Kinison states that “AIDS came from gay men involved in bestiality.”

I know very little English. I don’t understand the information, but I still try to read it again and again. It’s important, I can tell it is, but I don’t know why, not yet.

*

It is 1990. I am 13. I find my stepfather’s porn magazine which, for some reason, has a two-page spread on the horrible plight of gay men. I pay little attention to the dramatic passages. I feel as if someone threw a bucket of happiness in my face.

Under the communist rule, until 1989, “there were no gays” in Poland. (It would take Poland many more years to figure out that LGBTQIA+ has more letters than just G in it. So far, they got all the way to T.) The erasure was so thorough I didn’t realise being gay was a thing that existed. After years of only knowing something was wrong with me, broken, thinking that I should have been born a girl but somehow not feeling good about that either, I have an explanation. It might really be a homophobic one, the angle melodramatic, but it’s the biggest relief I have ever felt in my life.

I am gay. And in America there are more people like this. I will go to America one day. Even though they have AIDS there and here we don’t.

*

It is 1997. I am 20. I know what AIDS is. I speak English, although not exactly fluent. I still haven’t seen an actual living gay person apart from Elton John, Neil Tennant, and drag queens at Pride parades. I can’t relate to any of them.

The Friends episode, “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” is playing on the biggest Polish commercial station at prime time. My cousin and my brother are watching; they’re 16 and 12. They laugh. I laugh. Because it’s hilarious. In my head, though, I am on the verge of passing out. I love Friends because it’s funny. I love this episode differently.

In the early 90s I spent a lot of time raising my baby brother, born in 1991, after our stepfather did a disappearing act, taking my Mum’s money – and many other people’s. I am yet to hold another man’s hand, kiss a man on the cheek (uncles not included) OR MORE. I haven’t outed myself to anybody. And there, on Polish television, I am watching a lesbian wedding, and when the two brides hold hands I need to drink some water. 

I had seen The Crying Game and Young Soul Rebels before, both aired at 2am and very much adult movies. This is prime time TV. Everyone I know watches Friends. And there is a wedding of two women in it. Neither my cousin nor my brother say anything that would hurt me. It’s not censored. It doesn’t matter that those are women, not men. They are neither Elton John-level celebrities, nor flamboyant drag queens (I don’t know yet about the existence of drag kings.) They’re just…like me? 

We exist, they seem to be saying.

You exist.

(Video: ‘We Exist’ by Arcade Fire)

*

It is 1999. I am 22. I have my first boyfriend. Suddenly I spend a lot of time out of the house, which I have never done before. I keep lying to Mum that I’m going to a pub with my friends, many pubs, actually, and many friends, I only drink water, of course… I despise lying, especially to my Mum. I keep forgetting what and when I said to whom. On a whim, on a random evening, I decide to come out.

I know there might be a price to pay that I can’t afford. Children land on the street for being gay. The closest my Mum got to watching something with homosexual people in it was the first half of the first episode of Absolutely Fabulous, which she didn’t like. I’m prepared for questions, I think, I hope. I have known for nine years. Then Mum cries and asks: “Will you get AIDS and die?”

I don’t want to lie any more. I don’t know. Facebook doesn’t exist yet. MySpace doesn’t exist yet. But I know that gay men spread AIDS, because the public radio told me. The clergy told me we’re disgusting. Sick, the politicians counter, very sick, infectious if seen. And all gay men constantly dress in drag. Since you never see drag queens around, public TV points out, there is really no such thing as “gays.” Lesbians exist exclusively in porn movies.

I live in constant fear that they are right.

“We’re doing all we can not to,” I say, my voice shaky as I realise I should have done this during the day. If she throws me out of the house now, in the late evening, I won’t have time to find a place to stay. Shelters, my feverish mind whispers, there are some hostels… somewhere… you should have looked them up…

Mum cries some more. She has no other questions. She asks to be left alone. But I don’t have to leave.

Eventually she says all the right things. She loves me just as I am. She just wants to see me happy. She wishes she’d have grandchildren, but there are still my two brothers. We hug. She cries some more. I remind myself I’ve had years to understand (and I still don’t). But it seems to have gone well.

I tell my brothers and they don’t say anything bad, and they assure me it’s fine and they accept me and everything.

A few years later I’m head over heels in love and I want to share that happiness. I tell my aunt and my grandmother, and introduce them to my boyfriend. They are very nice to him; to us. Afterwards, my grandma never asks me about anything more personal than what’s on TV and how work is going. My aunt flat-out refuses my boyfriend entry to her house. Mum begs me to just come on my own and not mention it, for the good of the family. My cousin is less subtle – I’m an egoistic piece of shit that’s breaking the family apart. I am only allowed to be gay as long as they don’t have to see it. I cut myself for the first time. I gain 15 kg on antidepressants. I don’t see most of my family again until my grandma’s funeral.

I exist. 

But I shouldn’t.

*

It is October 1, 2019. I am reading an Out.com article: “As a recent news item involving a squashed gay-themed storyline reminds us, Friends is still really, really homophobic.” The lesbian wedding is the worst part. “Friends did air a lesbian wedding, between Carol (Jane Sibbett) and Susan (Jessica Hecht), but it primarily served to underscore how uncomfortable Ross was with his ex-wife’s new relationship. In addition to notoriously not allowing the newlyweds to kiss — in fear of upsetting censors — the episode also featured Chandler propositioning a lesbian wedding guest, and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) blurting out, ‘Now I’ve seen everything!’ during the ceremony.”

I remember that bit. It was hilarious and mindblowing, because I haven’t seen everything either; I’ve seen nothing. Poland is ruled by the Catholic Church. I couldn’t believe they were allowed to hold hands – I thought women only held hands as, you know, friends. The ‘now I’ve seen everything!’ bit was hysterical in context. It was a comedy series. The point of it was to make fun of everyone and everything. For 1997 it was absolutely groundbreaking. Twenty-two years later I have forgotten most of what I have learned at the university, but I remember the lesbian wedding.

I became a Dutch citizen in 2015 and got married in 2016. When my husband and I visit Poland, we get special insurance, because for the Polish authorities we are two single strangers. If he has an accident, I can’t visit him in the hospital. Only his brothers, who live in the Netherlands and don’t have any contact with him, can. The insurance guarantees that both of us will be flown home, together, if the need arises. In Poland, Husby and I are only married inside the Dutch consulate.

There are no lesbian weddings in Poland. Or registered partnerships. There is a lot of visibility, though. Which is convenient. But not for us.

*

It is June 12, 2020. A Polish presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, is holding a rally. “There are attempts, ladies and gentlemen, to convince us that LGBT are people, when it’s simply an ideology. If someone has any doubts whether it’s an ideology or not, they may look at history and see how the LGBT movement has been built around the world. […] It’s a form of neo-bolshevism.”

Duda has little else to say during his campaign, because Poland handled Covid exceptionally badly and the economy is tanking. So he comes up with something that will appease the Catholic Church and help him gain their support. Supporting the “traditional family” and “keeping the LGBT ideology away from Our Children.”

On July 12, 2020, Duda gets re-elected.

Ten months later, Netflix Poland censors The Mitchells vs the Machines, turning Katie Mitchell’s girlfriend into her friend. In the original version, Katie’s mother asks: “Are you and Jade official, and will you bring her home for Thanksgiving?” In the Polish edition, the question is “Is Jade really so great and will you bring her over for the holidays?”

*

It is June 15, 2021. Hungarian parliament votes, 167:1, on a new law against pedophilia. But not before the right-wing governing party expands it somewhat. “Under amendments submitted to the bill last week, under-18s cannot be shown any content that encourages gender change or homosexuality. This also applies to advertisements. The law sets up a list of organizations allowed to provide education about sex in schools.” That homosexuality-encouraging content is, for instance, a rainbow flag. An ad with a same-sex couple. A children’s book with a queer character is now adult content. A rainbow flag is adult content.

Friends will not be shown on Hungarian TV before 11pm. Neither will Bridget Jones’s Diary. I have no idea whether Will & Grace was ever aired in Hungary, but it sure won’t be any time soon. The Mitchells vs the Machines is now adult content, because Katie wears a rainbow badge. Sailor Moon, DuckTales, She-ra and the Princesses of Power, SpongeBob SquarePants are now adult content. The PM of Luxembourg, who is gay and married, remains a mystery. Can Hungary make another country’s Prime Minister adult content?

There is the Internet, you’ll say, and you will be right. However… yes, you can look up anything you want online, but first you have to know what to look for. The goal of those laws is to push children and young adults into that isolation I used to live in back in the 1990s. Discriminate so thoroughly we won’t be able to imagine a different life. Stop us from becoming aware we exist. Not everyone speaks English, lives in a big town, or even has Internet access.

I can’t imagine what I would feel like if I were 13 now and this happened. I can’t imagine how I would feel hearing that anyone who opposes the rainbow flag ban supports pedophilia. 

*

I like to think I didn’t get stuck in the 1990s. I see things differently now than I used to back then. Absolutely Fabulous would never happen today, unless Fox News hired Trump Jr to write comedy. The fat jokes and casual racism of Jennifer Saunders’ Edina, who is meant to be an awful person, make my teeth break out in hives. But when I watched Absolutely Fabulous decades earlier I saw Edina’s (white) gay ex-husband bringing his Black boyfriend to dinner. It all ended in shambles, because everything Edina and Patsy touched ended in shambles. I don’t remember any of the plot or the dialogue. I was in process of finding out Black gay men existed. Can you imagine not knowing that? Living in a world without any queer Black people visible in it?

Before the grown-ups ran, baby steps had to happen; in order for there to be great, first there had to be mediocre. Those series, books, movies made 25 years ago are now judged by 2021 standards by people who were often not born yet. But they were the slivers of hope and joy for us, Gen X-ers. “You exist,” they said in their clumsy way, normalising our presence bit by bit. There would be no It’s A Sin without the clinical sexlessness of Will & Grace. There would be no full-blown queer characters with actual personalities, had “sassy gay friends” not paved the road. That lesbian wedding in Friends made my brother and cousin laugh rather than spit hate. It gave me more hope than anything I had seen before. Deeming it homophobic erases my experience, that of someone who grew up in an extremely intolerant country.

In 2006, I left Poland. I moved to Amsterdam. Changed my name legally. Tried to evade the question “no, but where do you really come from?” I thought that it would take 20 years to really normalise my existence, or yours. I was wrong. It got worse. It keeps getting worse.

*

On June 23, 2021, the Polish minister of education and science, Przemysław Czarnek, says “individuals who attend [Pride] are people who do not behave according to standards, normally. […] Someone who demoralises, promotes various kinds of deviations, does not have the same public rights as a person behaving in accordance with standards and norms, one who does not demoralise.”

On June 26, 2021, Poland’s deputy minister of justice, Michał Woś, announces that the Polish government is working on a “ban related to promotional and propaganda activities of the LGBT community.” Another minister is working on “sex change ban.”

I am writing this one day later. Not 25 years. One day. Very soon, there will be no queer people in Poland, same as in the 1980s, in time of communism.

I won’t exist.

You won’t exist.

We won’t exist.

If you’d like to help Hungarian LGBTQ associations, you can do so with donations on the links below:

Háttér Társaság: website | donation

A Család az Család (Family is Family): website | donation

Budapest Pride: website | donation

If you’d like to get in contact with Bjørn, you can find him on social media:

Check out Bjørn’s latest release, Children.

Cover for Children by Bjorn Larssen. A blue, dreamy background where we can see a forest in the backdrop. In the middle, a raven, wings open, imposing.

Follow the Asylum’s 2021 Pride event here!

She was very young the first time her parents put a book in her hands (most likely an inventive way to shut her up and keep her still) and have not found it in her to stop reading since. Oral tradition has a special place in her heart—it was due to her grandparents' speech storytelling that her love for languages and stories was ignited, and so she has grown to love fantasy and sci-fi above all, as genres particularly influenced by folktales.

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