In Warsaw, a Ukrainian drag queen talks about queer life and refugees
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a catastrophic refugee crisis in Europe. About 4 million Ukrainians left for neighboring countries, almost all of them women and children. Poland took in the bulk of these refugees, welcoming them with open arms. However, LGBTQ+ refugees reportedly faced discrimination and other challenges, which is not surprising given Eastern Europe’s endemic distrust of sexual and gender minorities.
To get a glimpse of queer life in the area, I spoke with Warsaw’s most prominent Ukrainian drag queen, Himera, whose boy name is Stas (he asked that we only use his first name to protect his safety). We met in his downtown Warsaw apartment where, sitting next to a wall overflowing with wigs and clothes he had sewn himself, he shared some examples of how LGBTQ+ refugees are struggling. to protect themselves in a hostile environment.
“LGBTQ+ life in Poland and Ukraine is both easy and difficult,” says Stas. On the one hand, widespread prejudice makes life difficult for many. However, this bias also imbues local LGBTQ+ communities with a deep sense of solidarity. Activists constantly rely on each other, creating strong and highly organized social networks well suited to support incoming Ukrainians.
“The LGBTQ+ community is united, organized and supportive. We’re trying to make it easier for LGBTQ+ refugees to navigate the new reality,” he says.
Some of the main gay organizations in Warsaw, such as Lambda Warsaw, compiled a list of city volunteers who would be willing to welcome LGBTQ+ refugees. This list enabled Stas, who is fluent in Polish and Ukrainian, to direct incoming refugees to shelter.
Stas says these national efforts have been boosted by overseas fundraising and awareness initiatives. “My Polish drag queen friend, Peas, who moved to the UK, is hosting an event in London. She was very stressed and sad about the situation in Ukraine and felt that the queer community in London was not talking about it much.
In an effort to garner attention and support, Stas and Polka Dot hosted an Instagram Live chat where they raised funds in partnership with representatives from KyivPride and Pivot, one of the largest LGBTQ+ organizations in Ukraine. The money raised was given to the two organizations to strengthen their support programs for refugees.
International reports have explained that trans women are often unable to cross the Polish border: Ukrainian male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country and, as many trans women are registered as men on their legal documents, they are also subject to this restriction. However, this is not the only obstacle faced by trans refugees.
“I personally helped a couple move to Poland. One of them was a trans man – I wanted to put them in touch with someone who transported people from Lviv to the border,” Stas explains. Lviv is a city in western Ukraine, about a two-hour drive from Poland, that has become a hub for fleeing refugees. Some of those arriving in Lviv are struggling to get transport to the Polish border, given the influx of people leaving the country.
Although Stas wanted to help bring this couple to Poland, he knew it would be difficult to vouch for the carrier he hired – what if he hired someone who came out as transphobic? Would that put these refugees in danger?
He had to ask the refugees a number of uncomfortable and intrusive questions – if the trans refugee could go “stealthy” and pretend to be cisgender, they would be much safer.
Although Poland is known as a homophobic country, especially compared to the rest of the European Union, Stas didn’t seem too concerned about the safety of LGBTQ+ refugees once they arrived in Warsaw. “I have never experienced physical violence. Warsaw is a bit of a country within a country, it’s more avant-garde than some other cities in Poland, as we saw in Bialystok two years ago.
Bialystok, a city in eastern Poland of around 300,000 people, hosted its first Pride Parade in 2019. The parade, which included around 1,000 marchers, was attacked by far-right nationaliststhrowing rocks, glass bottles and flash bombs.
Stas says that while he finds Warsaw safe, he has also done his best to integrate into a supportive environment, so his experiences may not reflect the experiences of everyone in the city.
Stas continues to help refugees by volunteering as a translator.
Curious to know his personal background, I ask Stas about his own story. It’s something that’s been on my mind ever since I saw his instagram, filled with flawless makeup and outfits that looked like they were ripped from fashion magazines. He had mentioned that he had grown up in Ukraine but had not lived there for almost seven years. What was his childhood like and how did he end up in Poland as a hyper-feminine, poised drag performer?
Stas recalls that growing up in a small mountain village in western Ukraine, homosexuality was simply never brought up. So, until the age of 12 or 13, he sincerely thought he was the only homosexual in the world. The internet helped him realize that there were others like him, but still he was filled with shame and self-loathing.
“I was trying to convert, go out with girls and ban myself from watching gay porn. I thought gay porn was what made me gay, so I tried watching straight porn. It It was hard not being able to tell my parents. My dad was very homophobic. He made jokes about gay people and said they weren’t good people and shouldn’t exist.
Stas then won a competition organized by the United States Embassy in Ukraine, which allowed him to go on exchange to the United States for a year. During this time, he was exposed to a whole new spectrum of people, which helped him realize that someone like him could be accepted and loved.
Her drag career began when she was 17 years old. After finishing his first year of university, his parents offered him a trip to Paris. He didn’t have much money and had budgeted for four days of vacation, but on the day he was due to leave, a protest closed the airport, delaying his departure for another four days.
“Four extra days in one of the most expensive cities in Europe was not a good position,” he recalls. Stas had no idea where he might stay, but the actor he rented his Airbnb from offered to put him up. This meant that Stas would have to share the older man’s bed – Stas was terrified. “We all know how a lot of these stories end,” he says. “Fortunately, this person was very nice and never attacked me in any way.”
Stas was depressed by his predicament. Completely broke, he refused to do anything and slept as much as possible to pass the time. However, it turned out that her host was not just an actor, but a drag queen. They looked RuPaul’s Drag Race together – it was the first time Stas had seen something like this. He thought, “Why are these men dressing up as women, and why are they doing it so badly?”
Stas had a revelation – it was something he wanted to do. He put on a transparent skirt and blouse and went to a club. He described it as the most avant-garde thing he had ever done in his life at that time. He realized that he was done with pretending to be “masculine as shit” and that he no longer wanted to deny his femininity.
It planted a seed in his head, which sprung up a year or two later when he fully embraced drag. “That’s why my drag looks like this – this hyper glamorous killer that you would see in Hollywood, like Angelina Jolie.”
He had been an art student all his life, which he channeled into his work, sewing his own clothes. “When I do burlesque, you can’t do it in ordinary clothes. The costume should be unzipped the correct way. The layers should come off, piece by piece, the right way round. I sewed my first costumes without knowing how to sew. I was just, like, measure here and cut there and maybe it’ll work out.
His father did not accept his orientation, but his mother was much more open; in fact, she was enthusiastic about his flirting. She asked if her son could help her put on her makeup. Stas suspects that part of her always knew he was gay, due to her background in the arts, and that she saw drag as just an extension of her childhood creativity.
Both of Stas’ parents are medical professionals, which makes them highly regarded in their home village. However, the inhabitants of small villages like to chat. When news of Stas’ drag came back to the village, many neighbors started insulting Stas’ parents behind their backs.
Stas says that because of this, his mother learned who his true friends were. The bullying he suffered as a child had made him “bulletproof and indifferent to assault”. Now his mother, like her son, has also learned to be resilient. “Me being a drag queen, having to walk around the city at night, dressed as I am, I get a lot of shouting. It’s not something I care about or listen to. I hear it but I don’t absorb it.
His family remains in Ukraine, but since they live in the west of the country, which has not yet been ravaged by war, they are safe for now.
Being queer in Eastern Europe is not easy at the best of times, let alone in times of war. If Stas’ experiences reflect the welcoming nature of Warsaw’s LGBTQ+ community, then queer refugees making the long journey to the city will find themselves in good hands.