By Pixie Frączek, Wiola Jaworska, Dominika Struzik, Ula Krasny
Gestalt therapists in Poland are becoming exposed and open up to the issues of the LGBTQIA+ community. This process is slow and turbulent at times, and the reason for this remains not at all clear. Some therapists choose to specialise in working specifically with the gender, sexuality and relationship diverse people (GSRD) which for some other therapists becomes a cause for concern, as they see no reason for such special focus claiming being themselves sufficiently open and tolerant. These ‘open-minded therapists’ seem to state: Since for me this client is like any other client, it can only mean that their situation is not significantly different from that of any other client of mine, so any specialism in this area is entirely unnecessary.’ Still, it is worth pointing out that no one is troubled by such areas of special focus as for instance therapy with traumatised people or those who represent ethnic minorities, to mention a few. Leaving aside the question of logic of such a conclusion, these therapists, in doing so, seem to overlook the right of each and every member of LGBTQIA+ community to the space where they could feel that they belong, and expect to be treated and related to in a unique way that they deserve – with understanding and acceptance of their culture and lifestyle choices.
Opponents of the ‘LGBTQIA+ specialisation’ argue that their own phenomenological approach enables them to work effectively enough with all the clients irrespective of who they are, so such a specialisation is not required. The same phenomenological approach they employ does not prevent them from claiming to know better what LGBTQIA+ people need, which is clearly what the GSRD individuals would do better without, being treated by a therapist who does not recognise their individuality and is most often ignorant of their unique needs. As a result, LGBTQIA+ people find themselves moving from the world, where there was no place for them, for the reason that they were so inadequate/ inappropriate/ different, to the world where there is no place for them because they are just like everyone else, normal/nonspecific/ indistinguishable.
‘Some time ago I had the pleasure of translating into Polish an article by Michael Clemmens and Arye Bursztyn on the embodied self in the field of bodily culture. As I was translating it, I realised the extent to which my early identification as a queer person, my embodying of culture, was radically different from that of my heterosexual cisgender colleagues. That earlier awareness has inspired the present article. Its aim is not to offer an overview of the specific embodiment of LGBTQIA+ culture in Poland – one can’t possibly depict a culture using a few songs or images – but rather to offer a few glimpses into this world. Our world.’
‘One of my earliest memories? My father calling me by a male name. Such an occurrence didn’t surprise any of my other relatives, but instead it was treated as any other “family play”, which seems to be funny to them. As the oldest child, my parents expected me to be a boy. This happened at the time when the word “gender” didn’t yet exist. Girls were girls and boys were boys. That was it. I was manifesting boyish behaviour and when I was about 8 or 9 years old my non-conforming gender was something that I began employing in a more conscious way. Why was I doing that? Because I observed that boys were allowed to do more things than girls. Because boys were boys! Because when you are strong and bold you do not have to be polite or modest. You do not have to meet rigid expectations of the adults. You are the fighter and you are enough.’
‘My gender did not exclude me from being a parent. I made a conscious decision to become a parent. I am “mum/dy”. Because I am still unconventional and not fitting, my youngest child (11) knows how to respond to their classmates’ questions, such as: “Why does your mum look like a guy?” or “Is she a lesbian?” His gender is, on the other hand, very girlish.’ ‘As a therapist, I say it again and again, that we are not the same group of clients as the cisgender or heterosexual people. We are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat. My identity had developed when there was no internet, which made it impossible for me to identify or define myself, or understand my gender. I felt not accepted and often rejected by my school staff (teachers, who were mostly female) who denied me to be me, as a non-cis-girl, which was happening in many varied situations. The terms such as gender roles and gender identity were not known in the 1980s. Nobody was open to my boyish gender expression and boyish outfit/ mannerisms/ behaviour. In this mental mess, I tried to make out “who I am” totally on my own.’
‘My story is not about the sexual practice. My story is not about the same-sex experiences at the high school. I tell my gender story in which my embodiment was one of the most difficult experiences of my entire life. My body – not “passing”, and not adapted to the existing requirements or expectations at the school and in the society at large; my shame of not enjoying my womanhood as other girls/women do.’
‘Unfortunately our modern society behaves in a fixed pattern. It is simply easier and clearer to tag or decide who you are. All behaviours that deviate from the mainstream are seen as unnatural and threatening. During my teens, most rejection directed at me came from girl colleagues and female teachers. My unconventional temper, behaviour different to those of any girl of my age and my individual style were perceived as strange and unacceptable, and rejected. In contrast, I had found enormous acceptance within the boyish and male groups, where my potential girlish traits were rather meaningless. Being between two social worlds brought me a lot of suffering and confusion. Amongst girls, I felt I didn’t fit in. I was also not fully accepted by boys – I hated football and so I would join them only for some activities, not the others. This bodily burden has led to my increased aggression and a big “NO” against the entire world.’
‘Today, the words, like “butch” or “gender queer”, that I use to define myself, are well known amongst professionals such as psychologists, therapists, counsellors and sociologists. The richness of labels and sub identities enables placing everyone somewhere on the gender and sexuality spectrum; which was not the case when I was in my teens.’
‘All forms of rejection because of who you are lead to distress and harm. Your identity is something you cannot change, modify or adapt to the requirements or norms you encounter. The series of consultations that I underwent with my school psychologist, in my youth, was basically unhelpful, as he was only telling me, “You shouldn’t do so and so…. Instead, you should do this and that….” He had no questions and no self-doubts – I received no support.’ ‘The first time that I felt like I was among my “own tribe” was during my 9 months’ stay in Amsterdam, in 1993, among queer folks at one of Amsterdam squats. It was a very transgressive and transforming time in my life. Nobody expected me to be someone else than I was; nobody wanted me to meet their expectations. Nobody asked me, “Who are you?” It was the time when I felt I am “legal”, I am valid; I can be who I am. I was not judged by my gender. I met similar people, who were freely experiencing their identities and genders.’
‘I have lived in Poland for most of my life. This is where I live at present and the current situation seems to me more dangerous than in my childhood/ youth. The teenagers I meet in my therapy practice treat their gender labels as their third name. Asking questions, enhancing curiosity about their identity, reading about it, discussing it among each other is part of their daily practice. The gender/identity becomes a kind of social bond connecting folks with the similar gender and/or psychosexual orientation. It is my impression that this is possibly the best way to find an answer to one of the fundamental questions, “Who am I today, how am I transforming?”’
‘I know who I am. Now, I want to share my experience and knowledge with others. Despite the long time that has passed since my youth, I am scared every time I walk passed a group of people who ask each other loudly “What is it?”, “A man or a woman?” Occasionally, in such situations, I feel that I can never “pass”, that I have not adapted. Now and again my body and my appearance are not correct and not proper, but then, I find support and understanding among other non-normative people, who also struggle with their visibility and acceptance. It is crucial for a therapist to remain sensitive to the needs of LGBTQIA+ people of different ages, with very diverse gender stories. This is in fact the single biggest challenge for any therapist who has never had to fight to be accepted in their own identity.’
‘What is my dream? That’s that the terms like genderqueer, agender or fuck gender would not be necessary. No more need for explaining who I am and why. No labels, no sub identities that most often are basis for further hostilities. It is not my need to explain what my gender is. I come out to people who are important in my life and close to me; not to all.’ ‘Are you not sure what my gender is? It is okay. By having this experience you can more or less know where I am from and where I live.’
‘Because I was accustomed to thinking of myself as a heterosexual girl/woman for the first dozen years of my life, I have received from the culture numerous introjects related to this identity. However, over the last thirty years or so, I have revised at least some of these introjects in terms of their usefulness in my own life. Simultaneously, at some point I have also discovered queer pieces within myself, which has led me to broaden the field of perceiving my own identity. In my experience I am both a guest and a native in both worlds.
From the embodiment typical for a heterosexual woman, as it seems to me, I moved towards new areas of identification associated with being a lesbian and later also a pansexual person.’ ‘The symbols of non-heteronormative women’s culture (mainly lesbian culture) are close and inspiring for me because they integrate values that are important for me. However, at some stage, I stopped embodying this part of my identity. In retrospect, I think that remaining embodied in the culture of heteronormative women was (and is) safer for me. It protects me from various forms of violence and exclusion. This may seem absurd in the world so dangerous and full of oppressive behaviour towards women, but until my non-normativity remains invisible to others I hope to be at least protected from that impulse for violence.’
‘I became aware of my need to hide after a recent dog walk with my partner – in a space I had previously considered safe and homey. A male stranger was pestering both of us in a way that I perceived as patronising and pushy, and when we made it clear to him that we didn’t feel like talking with him any longer, he reacted angrily and shouted, “Women! Stop being so hysterical!” I ended the conversation and turned my back, showing my backpack covered with rainbow pins and various LGBTQIA+ symbols. The atmosphere abruptly changed, and the insults he now shouted towards us referred to being a non-heteronormative woman; not a hysterical woman as before. The man touched the sexual realm as he began threatening us
with the corrective rape! He also shouted about not fulfilling the social role of women and also (and this hurt me the most) about how we were not from here because we were DIFFERENT. In his mind, we certainly didn’t live where he met us because we didn’t fit in. So he denied me the right to a safe place near my own home!’
‘All through this event, I went somewhere into the far reaches of my retroflection. I also regretted having a “rainbow” backpack – because it’s better, safer, easier to be hysterical than a “lesbian”. I longed to be seen again as I usually am – as a cis-gendered hetero woman. The absence of a phenomenological attitude towards myself as a person (i.e. assuming that I am a heterosexual woman because I stereotypically look like one, embody one) protected me from discrimination and violence of a different kind. So, in a system already oppressive towards women, I have found a niche where it is not yet as painfully uncomfortable as in a system oppressive to non-normative women.’
‘Or rather, this was my belief, because such “survival strategy” had not given me the invisibility or safety I longed for. When a man came at me threatening to hit me, I was shielded by my partner, whose embodiment portrays queerness more than mine – seemingly further from the norm, but at the same time empowered to draw the line that I failed to draw. It turns out, that my perception arose from the embodiment of that very culture – the illusion that the heteronormative woman, the rock of the “normal family”, is protected by society and is not threatened by violence. My body – often full of life and energy – responded to the situation of physical danger with a familiar freeze and dread. A distant voice in my head told me of my weakness – some deficiency within me as a woman in the face of a man’s physical superiority. This experience brought me not only to become disenchanted with this introject – but to discover in the first place that it was in me at all, in my experience, even though on an intellectual level I had rejected it a long time ago.’
‘As a psychotherapist, I take from this experience the idea that our embodiments are full of illusion and magical thinking. The culture we absorb displaces the fact that until every person regardless of their identity and embodiment is safe, no one is safe. What I mean by this is that the oppressive society may pick on each and every identity and discriminate against it. So your identity doesn’t really matter in a system that is oppressive to anyone – you yourself can become a victim anytime. My “betrayal” of the queer identity part in favour of a seemingly safer system brought me, in the first instance, to frustration and fear. And secondly, the realisation that no embodiment can protect me from violence. And, what is even worse, that my power, the source of which is the coherence with my own identity, can be taken away from me.’ ‘Meanwhile, the disembodied, lifeless backpack went back “into the closet”.’
‘I was on holiday outside Poland. I had a good time, full of lovely freedom and space. In the country that I visited, there were rainbow flags hanging in many places. But instead on the private windows or balconies, like in Poland, they were hanging near government offices, next to regional and national flags. There were also many other “rainbow” accents, like for instance the rainbow statue, a bench painted in rainbow colours. It was obvious that the bench wasn’t painted recently; most likely, it had stood there for a good few years, but there were no signs of damage or vandalism.’
‘When I returned to Poland I felt a significant change in my body. Some kind of nervousness, tension, clenched jaw, shallow breathing. While I was wondering what was going on, I was looking for a specific reason. But nothing like that happened. I realised that the symptoms I was experiencing in my body were connected to the tension I felt whilst living in Poland – understanding and relief came, but also some fear. I realised that this was how my body felt all the time, every day, but I stopped being aware of this experience as it had been a familiar and enduring feature in my life in Poland; it felt like nothing special, and so I had just become accustomed to it. That scared me. The state of constant tension has been familiar to me even before I recognised I was a lesbian. But I connect it to the whole process of coming out and living in a heteronormative, homophobic environment where self-discovery was extremely difficult. I experience exclusion, self-aggression, and minority stress on a daily basis. This is my everyday life. This everydayness is also embodied.’
‘A friend of mine once told me about her experience. She is in a mixed-gender relationship. She is also a lawyer. A few years ago, when she went to the Equality Parade, she took with her a rainbow bag and various equality badges. She experienced this event as very special, full of positive energy. She felt her body loosen up, relax. When walking back home she began feeling a lot of tension in her body and felt scared. These sensations were related to the fact that she was carrying the rainbow symbols with her. She decided to hide them in her backpack so as not to “provoke” any homophobic attack. She told me how vulnerable she had felt while walking through the streets of Warsaw with a rainbow bag. Her heart rate increased, her breathing became shallow and she was walking at faster pace. We also talked about the relief she felt when she hid her rainbow insignia. She realised how privileged she was to be a cisgender woman walking hand in hand down the street with her husband every day. It was a poignant experience for her, knowing in particular that LGBTQIA+ people cannot simply hide their rainbow accessories. They have to live with this tension every day.’
‘Quite recently I led a workshop for parents of LGBTQIA+ people. One of the exercises in this workshop was to take on the role of a person who is not the same as most people – as if they would have a trait that is not socially accepted. While discussing this exercise, we talked a lot about internalised homophobia, minority stress, shame, and guilt. I observed the bodies of those participating in the exercise change. When I asked about how they felt in their bodies while impersonating LGBTQIA+ people the answers came fast. There was tension in the body, shallow breathing, headache, increased caution as if the muscles were preparing to run away. Some of the participants hashed their voices and were more reluctant to speak, as if they did not want to be seen as much as before this exercise. The strength of their reactions in the body surprised everyone. We talked a long while afterwards about how important it was how we feel in our bodies, whether we have any privileges, whether we conform to the expectations imposed on us by society and culture, in which we are raised.’
‘Cultures, religions, and social situations have a significant impact on how much tension and stress I carry. Some of these situations are recognised more, some less. I am very familiar with the feeling when I am among a group of people and suddenly someone starts talking about LGBTQIA+ people. I am familiar with the statements in my presence that “they should do this or that,” or “let them do what they want at home,” or “I have nothing against them, but do they have to make such a fuss.” People who make these statements sometimes do not even know that there is a lesbian among them. What I feel in my body in such situations is a growing tension and shame. As if I have to hide something, to protect myself.’
‘Today, I am more aware that it is not my responsibility. I remind myself to breathe and not take responsibility for someone else’s homophobic/transphobic statements or behaviours, often due to their lack of knowledge. This brings some relief and relaxation into my body.’
‘An important part of the process of cultural embodiment for me is my identification with. I identify with something (introjects) and naturally integrate it into my body-movement repertoire. I think the situation for LGBTQIA+ people of my (and older) generation in Poland was difficult in this regard because we did not have affirmative role models to identify with within our culture. When I was forming my views on this subject and discovering who I was in the world, and I was a 5-6 year old little person at the time, I didn’t know any LGBTQIA+ people. If I heard anything about being a gay person, it was in the context of perversion, disease, or sin. I remember programs where LGBTQIA+ people were presented with blurred faces and altered voices to make it difficult to identify them. I remember crying a lot, having stomach aches and not being able to sleep, so I made a deal with the Catholic God that I would sacrifice my life for others so he would not kill me.
Internalised homophobia became my second skin, just below the surface of the first, and very literally restrained my movements. I continue to recognise in my body the trace of this imperative: “above all, do not to touch.” Don’t touch, don’t infect, don’t contaminate! This sharpened my attentiveness to the space and the people in the field, and allowed me to develop a whole repertoire of ways to avoid touch (taking a seat on the edge, bending my body, freezing, turning away, etc.).’
‘I am fresh out of various workshops and group meetings, and the observation of how difficult it is for me to be seen and evaluated through the filter of a cisgender understanding of femininity is still vivid in me. The femininity I am talking about is not a phenomenon that can be explored, but a specific cultural form that a person should fill (so I step back, freeze or bend so that it does not touch me). I also get this experience from my own therapy. I lack gentle enough words to describe how these categories are not my categories, these values are not my values, and this culture is not my culture. The words that come to my mind are hot and can be shaming, and it is not with these words that I want to be touching the world.’
‘Paradoxically, perhaps my situation as an LGBTQIA+ person was somewhat easier than others. I didn’t get a double bind: “You’re okay, but….” I was given an unambiguously negative message that offered no hope, so I ended up placing myself outside of that culture and outside of the world of humans. I symbolically left a world that rejected me, and I went from being a deviant to an outcast. Later, when adulthood brought freedom, I-body began to build my worlds-in-the-world, and as their builder, I developed upper body musculature. My arm and abdominal muscles, developed intentionally and consistently, emboldened me to push, reach, grasp, and pull in the acts of creating my world and protected me during the clash of cultures.’
‘The cultures I live in now more often interact than clash. I would like them to interact, adapt and become reconciled. I’d like to take in a place that welcomes me and doesn’t make me cut off this or discard that; deprive me of choice. I am paying attention to how I touch the world. I am learning to attach myself to it (afresh). I am learning to dissolve my tensions, ease my coarseness, and calm my watchful body. More relaxed, but still ready to protect myself at any moment or lock myself in rigid armour of muscle, strong but numb.’
Wiola Jaworska, psychologist and Gestalt therapist. Her work is based on educating individuals to make conscious decisions about their sexuality. She works with LGBTQIA+ people; and those involved in BDSM or Kink lifestyles and polyamorous relationships.
Dominika Struzik, Gestalt psychotherapist in training. She practices in the Centre for Psychotherapy Przestworza in Kraków; she works primarily with GSRD clients.
Ula Krasny, counsellor and Gestalt therapist. She is a founder of the Gestalt Club group and electronic library of Gestalt articles in Polish: BibliotekaGestalt.pl (http://bibliotekagestalt.pl/).
Pixie Frączek, counsellor and Gestalt therapist. Her practice is aimed primarily on GSRD and LGBTQIA+ clients. She has contributed to the work of Grupa Stonewall in Poznań and Sex Work Polska, where she has been running support groups and workshops for communities affected by social rejection. Being an activist and feminist has significantly influenced her everyday clinical practice.