Julia(n) is one of many people involved in organising Rainbow Friday, an initiative that supports the LGBT community and helps them find their way in schools. In their opinion queer activism is often the target of hate speech.
Rainbow Friday is a nationwide happening that supports LGBT+ youth in schools. This year it takes place on Friday 27 October under the slogan "Safe Space" and is being organised in collaboration with the LGBTQ+ Friendly Schools Ranking initiative.
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I spoke to Julia(n), a 16-year-old activist from Konin, about queer activism, binary nomenclature and teachers’ support.
Rainbow Friday 2023: Interview with Julia(n), an activist from Konin
Maja Kozlowska, vibez.pl: You come from a small town. Do you think your school is LGBT-friendly?
Julia(n): There is a problem with that. Seemingly yes, seemingly no. Quietly - yes. There are teachers who don't have a problem with LGBT. I also have a lot of queer people around me who everyone respects, but officially there is disagreement with a lot of actions supporting the community. We had some unpleasant incidents in the past. Last year we had a tolerance day which wasn't even about LGBT. One teacher's car was scratched purposefully and now many people are afraid and don't touch these topics. It's not openly talked about, so if someone doesn't have the courage to show up, the school doesn't help them.
Are LGBT people visible in your school?
I think they are and many of them are my colleagues. I don't often see open homophobia either.
You mentioned that teachers try to support LGBT people, but only quietly. What do you mean by that? How does this support manifest itself?
Mostly, when someone likes someone privately, they know their preferred name and use it. There is always the problem of coming out in front of the whole class. There is one teacher who is very open and shows it even in her choice of clothing. She wears pins supporting LGBT community. There are also supportive posters hung in her classroom. These are small gestures, but they are visible and highly valuable.
Do you think it's easier for students who happen to be taught by such teachers?
I don’t think so. It's not that much of help. It's nice, but in class you can't always count on the teacher to treat you the way you want to be treated. This support comes from their character rather than from their teaching position.
What do you, as an activist, expect from the teachers and school management?
I want teachers not to be afraid that if they do something good for the LGBT community they will be punished. Currently they are afraid of that, so usually they don't act. I would like the school to be more open, so that teachers can take a real interest.
How do straight ally students support LGBT+ community in your school?
It's hard for the LGBT+ community to break through the wall of "feigned absence" from school, so it's hard for allies to support it on a large scale. Mostly it's small gestures that are very valuable and important, like speaking in the impersonal form when they first meet a queer person or asking for his or her pronouns if someone wears a visible LGBT+ symbol. Sometimes it manifests with them objecting to homophobic incidents, even during the lessons when someone says something homophobic, they loudly disagree. It really is heartwarming.
I think everyone is already familiar with the issue of homosexual and bisexual people. There is also a lot of talk about transgender, but non-binarity is still something uncommon. How do you, a non-binary person, function in school?
In the beginning it was very difficult. I didn't want to use my name or my preferred pronouns at school. I wasn't outed, I didn't want to do a coming out in front of everyone. The school is like one big organism, so it's difficult to live in it and hide from any part of it. A distant friend might hear about it. A teacher might hear about it.
I currently live in such a way that I use my preferred pronouns among friends but I stopped bothering in front of my class. I speak in a way I’m comfortable with. In front of teachers I continue to use pronouns they are accustomed to, i.e. she/he. I don't know what would happen if I started this topic and I'm a bit afraid of doing so. It's not just the issue of pronouns, because I live in a very binary world on a daily basis. There are days when it can be more painful because the dysphoria can be really hurtful, and I constantly hear gendered forms like "schoolgirl" or "girl". When I'm in a group of girls and someone who knows about my identity still uses those particular words, it's difficult for me too.
It also works with using feminatives. People think they are better because they are inclusive and pro-feminist. But when they refer to me using such forms, they achieve the direct opposite effect, because it makes me feel down. I always explain it to myself that their intention wasn’t bad and wonder why should I ruin my day by worrying about it. It takes time to adjust. The most important thing is to respect yourself.
I recently came across an opinion that Polish language is problematic and that it simply sounds ugly to non-binary people.
It is problematic. Even when talking about yourself you realise there are some words that you can't conjugate, no matter how much you want to. For example, "a friend". "A friend person" sounds awkward in my opinion, to say the least. It does get in the way, but it's not something that's insurmountable. It's not such a strange language. The neuter grammatical gender in the Polish language exists so it’s reasonable it could be used while talking about people as well.
It's about getting rid of the concept that new words sound bad. There are plenty of words in Polish taken directly from English that older generations don't understand. But even they can live with that, so why not with newly coined Polish words?
How and why did you get involved in the organisation of Rainbow Friday?
I really like the team behind it. I'm an activist myself, so I observe the actions of others, it's important for me. I know what it's like to do something when nobody supports you. There's rather nothing going on in my nearest area in terms of LGBT+ rights, and I watched GrowSPACE for a very long time, mainly because I managed to meet a member of the group. I thought, sure, sure, I've got time, I'll do it!
However, it is a form of activism that is very vulnerable to hate speech. They are, in my opinion, the most frequently attacked group of activists and there is incomparably more aggression towards them than, for example, people who are activist in the field of disabilities. This bothered me a bit and this is what I was afraid of. Rainbow Friday helped me because it's an opportunity to get support and help, no matter where you live.
Did you personally get the kind of feedback from them. Were your actions noticed?
Someone told me that I was the first non-binary person they had met. That they learned a lot from me and that I opened their eyes. It was strange, because I was just being myself. When I came out, I didn't know a lot of LGBT people. It wasn't until I came out that I found that others around me were afraid and that there were quite a lot of them. It was good for me to open up, my friends immediately noticed that I felt better. A friend told me that before coming out something about me felt odd and now suddenly everything became logical.
And what helped you the most in coming out?
The first non-binary person I met. It was at a camp, completely by accident. This person also used the same pronouns I took up and taught me how to use them. We had heard of non-binary people, of course, but reading about it and experiencing it are two different things. I thought that non-binary people live in between the mould and have to break it. And that person wasn't doing that at all, she was wearing dresses, exposing her cleavage. In my head that was attributed to femininity, which is not the case at all. Just because you feel good in your body doesn't mean you have to accept that you belong to group A or group B. This had opened my eyes.
This year, Rainbow Friday is being held under the slogan of "Safe Space". Do you think LGBT-friendly spaces are needed?
Yes. If I'm going out on my own and having a dysphoric day I need such space. It's important for me because any comment about gender or even checking my ID card can be devastating. If I'm going out with a group of friends, I don't pay as much attention to it because it's the group that's important and I feel comfortable with it. There are a few LGBT-friendly places in Konin and that makes me happy. I can name at least three right now.
How young people can benefit from initiatives like Rainbow Friday?
Such initiatives allow the people who organise them to open up. Often you are organising something for someone while going through a struggle with yourself. Exactly something like that sparked activism in me. Before that, acting for others was scary for me, almost impossible to think about.
They are for people who are part of the community but don't feel attached to it or don't know that such groups are around them. Actions like Rainbow Friday will not cure anyone of homophobia, they are not that influential unfortunately. But surely insecure people are supported, they get help, find a safe space. And it is also entertaining for those who create such actions. Activism make them feel happy.