I felt so relieved
Coming out stills marks a turning point in the life of most LGBT individuals teaching us an important lesson about the importance of trust in human interactions.
Talking about the coming out process of LGBT individuals in European countries that have not yet introduced gay marriage and civil partnerships often provokes the stereotypical image of individuals solely trying to survive in a hostile environment. And although this image is partly true it only reflects one dimension of today's life reality of LGBTs in Europe.

Manuel and Sven Normann, researchers and photographers from Berlin, Germany, collected twenty-eight stories of LGBT men and women in their coming out process during their journey through twenty-one European countries since summer 2016.

The story of Tomasz, a 23-years old student living and studying in Poland's second biggest city Krakow, is one of them. Despite prejudice and stigmatization of LGBTs and growing polarization of the society for those who emphasize traditional and those who emphasize universal human values in recent years, free movement and the use of social media apps have changed the process of coming out especially for younger LGBTs.
Church was not only about religion, it was about community.
„I often came here for prayer and confession", Tomasz says when we enter the Holy Trinity Church at the Southern end of Krakow's old town. Grown up in a catholic family in a small town not far from the Polish-Ukrainian border, the church has played an important role in his life for a long time. After completing his bachelor's degree he even volunteered in a missionary in Ethiopia where he worked in a health center for several weeks. A journey which he describes as one of the best and fulfilling experiences in his life so far. "Church was not only about religion, it was about community", he sums up his engagement not hiding that his attitudes towards the church have changed in recent years.

Coming out means speaking about one's feelings of same-sex attraction with others and not hiding one's sexual identity form friends and family. Psychologists describe the process of coming out as a development process that involves a variety of strong emotions of shame and fear but also of curiosity and hope. For many LGBTs it marks a turning point in their life and is at the same time a highly unpredictable situation. And before they can even think about telling their feelings to close friends and family members they need to accept the fact for themselves. This was not different in Tomasz' case. His attempts to overcome his feelings through religious practices like prayers and confession rather increased his inner tensions. "It made me feel guilty", he recalls.
My mum told me that I´m a role model for my siblings.
Tomaszs' situation changed when he went for an Erasmus exchange semester to Lisbon in Portugal which opened a totally new world to him. The more tolerant environment and the existence of a publicly visible gay community encouraged him to be open about his sexual identity leading to a totally new experience of friendship. A wall in his student apartment in Krakow, decorated with pictures and maps of Portugal shows the special meaning this experience still has for him. And so does the Portuguese wine he serves to his guests.

The LGBT community has always been a frontrunner in the development of social media apps that allow homosexuals to connect with each other irrespective of the limitations they face in real life. Tomasz speaks about his first but short-dated relationship with another man, student parties, a fully new attitude to life and a new experience of self-confidence that resulted from this. For him Krakow was far away at that time. But with the end of the exchange semester came the reality check. Nothing had really changed in Krakow and at on the other hand it was clear for him that nothing would remain the same.

Back in Krakow Tomasz continued to meet with visitors, students, and expats, that he got to know through social media apps to keep his spirit of a free world. New contacts but also positive reactions of friends finally inspired him to take an important but difficult decision.

He went back home to his parents and told his mother that he is gay. What sounds so simple in the aftermath required hours and days of weighing pros and cons, developing strategies, imagining potential reactions, thinking about how to convey the message and at the end putting the deep and good relationship with his mother to a test.

His mother reacted as he had deep inside of him hoped she would: "My mum told me she loves me no matter what, and that she's is proud of me and I´m a role model for my siblings.".
I felt so relieved.
"I felt so relieved", he describes his feelings after his mother's reaction. However, coming out affects the whole family, putting his parents and his siblings also in a coming out situation at school, at work, and in the neighborhood. This means for Tomasz that the process is not over yet. Negative comments about "faggots" in a tram or similar situations still create uncomfortable feelings. The same feelings occur in discussions with old friends from church groups who support the current Polish government's conservative positions on gender and homosexuality.

But coming out is a process of opening up to others and this is a precondition for creating trust. "I don't know how my old friends will react when I introduce my boyfriend to them one day", he asks himself. But he believes that it might change their mind.

Tomasz' story reveals that the guarantee of free movement in Europe and the use of social media are essential drivers for social change, but that its impact is not necessarily visible on the political level where the rise of populism creates a widely shared image of a dark European future. Learning from positive coming out experiences might help us to better understand that lasting social change is a result of positive human interactions.
Manuel and Sven Normann
Students M.A. Sociocultural Studies, Viadrina University
Lichteran - Telling Stories, Berlin
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