Photographers Alexandra Butuceanu and Katarzyna Drążek in a conversation with Robert Kocur aka Polka Dot, drag queen, performer.

I met Robert a while ago. I was with my friend Kate, she was about to take some photos of a Drag Show, so she asked me if I want to come. I said yes, because it was something I have never experienced before. The show was in an underground grungy place in Central London. Robert was in the bathroom, preparing the make-up, hair and everything for the performance. The thing that struck me when I arrived there, was the positive vibe he had, the smile on his face and the openness he presented.

Photo: Alexandra Butuceanu

Soon, the show was on. His performance had a powerful impact on me, because I was being introduced to the world of drags, a world I didn’t know much about, except the Rupaul’s Netflix Show. It was a really magical and wonderful experience and I felt welcomed there. My anxiety was all gone, I felt good, positive energy from everyone there, no hate, no judgement, no inhibition. 100% genuine, pure expression. Which is weird when you think about the fact that the people there wore “masks”, in terms of make-up and clothes.

Robert performed a Eurovision Polish song from 1994. It was a really romantic one, ’90s vibe kind of tune. He was wearing a white cape which had these really hateful comments drawn on it. Soon, the cape was thrown out just to reveal the body, the dress and the shoes.

The show continued with a documentary named “Never Again: Fighting the Polish Far-Right“, made by activist Dan Glass, which made me understand more about the LGBT+ community in Poland. Totally recommend you watch it. It will give you a more detailed insight into the Polish situation.

First thing that came into my mind was that the images and the ideas presented in the documentary were similar to some things that were happening in Romania and across Eastern Europe. This made me wonder: why is that? Why is so much hatred directed at someone who doesn’t cause harm to anyone?

Of course, this conversation can go deeper to religious, political and social aspects that affect behaviour, but I was wondering: what can make this change? Why do people need a scapegoat to release all their frustrations, when the real problems lie in themselves? Probably because it is much more simple this way. You find the “problem”, you eliminate it. It gives you validation for your own mental and behavioural convictions.

Photo: Alexandra Butuceanu

Recently, in Poland, they wanted to establish a law which would punish sex educators with up to 5 years in prison.

I remember in Romania at some point, the political situation was so bad. The socialists were beginning to take power, the biggest church in Europe was being built in the centre of the capital city while “The Family Coalition” (Coalitia pentru familie) was created to raise signatures to ban gay marriage in the Constitution. They were also proposing taxation of celibacy, ban of adoptions by single parents and discouraging sexual intercourse between unmarried persons. The petition didn’t win, but it is absolutely grotesque that something like this was approved by the Senate, getting over 10.000 signatures. We are talking about a European Country in 2016. Recently, in Poland, they wanted to establish a law which would punish sex educators with up to 5 years in prison. Also, it is very common to put an equality sign between gays and pedophiles in the same country.

Photo: Katarzyna Drążek
Photo: Katarzyna Drążek

These are the big manifestations of the hate, but what about the day-to-day hate messages and actions done by regular people, people who are not in control of the law? The question began to flourish in my head, why do we need to create a problem when there isn’t one in the first place?

After the documentary, some LGBT+ activists came on stage to do a Q&A with the audience. I found out that there are lots of people that want to help change the situation in Eastern Europe. However, I noticed that these changes, these pro LGBT+ events are mostly done in their own community, so it is really hard to have an impact outside of it. Most people might not “hate” the gays, but they might not be interested in their situation, because it doesn’t affect them in any way.

As I stood there, I thought about growing up in post communist Romania, in Bucharest, behind the concrete grey buildings, in an area where people judged me as a satanist because of my musical choices. What if I was gay and didn’t hide it? How would they treat me, and how would their actions affect me psychologically? The point I’m trying to make is: try to do a mental exercise and try to see things like they would affect you. It would make you understand more about it.

There is still a big majority of people who fight against gay people and spread the hate around, but then again, I am thinking that this kind of people, the ones who tell you that you are weird, crazy and you are shit, their convictions are meaningless if you are not around to validate them. This is what I appreciated in Robert. The performance was him, he was the performance. How many people accept themselves as who they are, without playing a certain role in society?

Me and Kate decided to do a photo shoot to illustrate this idea: Being who you are, who you want to be, and the beautiful process of transformation, where you can just enjoy the music and let things and people just be.

Photo: Alexandra Butuceanu

Alexandra/Kate: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what are your recent activities/shows in London?

Robert: Hi! My name is Robert. I’m Polish living in London for the past 6 years. I’ve moved here for a gap year and it turned out to become my second home 😉 in the meantime I’ve completed MA in Promotional Media at Goldsmith. At the moment I’m starting working in digital marketing and open to different opportunities.

Who is Polka Dot?

Polka Dot was born more or less 2 years ago. It’s the drag part of myself. I don’t call it alter ego because it’s part of my identity. I call Polka an extension of Robert. It all started when I discovered drag shows in East London. One of the first I’ve attended was The Shay Shay Show – a super open and welcoming space for all LGBT+ performers. I slowly started to experiment with makeup and some female garments and liked the fact that people were not judgmental but actually encouraging this way of expressions. Then a friend of mine told me about Bar Wot – an LGBT+ open mic night at Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I’ve prepared a mashup of Britney and Beyonce songs (how clihé haha) and performed in front of an audience for the first time.

Before stepping on the stage I realised that well now I need to have a name so they can announce me. I came up with the name Polka Dot as it’s a play on words. For an English speaker it means a pattern but Polka in Polish means female Polish whereas Polak means male Polish. So therefore I am – Polak by day and Polka by night. That’s how Polka Dot was brought to life. Polka’s style is young housewife of an older guy. She’s bored with him so whenever she goes out she likes to dress up and show a bit of her skin. The least clothes the better. She is known from her Hollywood smile and warm heart.

Photo: Katarzyna Drążek
Photo: Katarzyna Drążek

When did you start doing Drag Shows?

As mentioned above around 2 years ago I’ve started to attend drag shows as Polka Dot. Very recently together with Jack Cullen and Dominik Ścigała we’ve created Slav 4 U a first ever Polish Drag Show in the UK. I host it in English, and majority of songs are Polish. Slav 4 U is a celebration of Polish pop divas (we call it P-POP, why not making it a thing, innit?) and Polish culture. The event aims to show that even though Poland is damn homophobic we still have a vibrant and talented LGBT+ community. We realised that just like me thousands of other Polish queer people left the country and moved to London. We give them the opportunity to feel like at home with the difference that here you can simply be yourself! Our first event was a massive sold out success so we are bringing it back in February for all the Poles and English speakers hungry for a piece of our queer pierogi.

Photo: Alexandra Butuceanu

What influences and inspires you?

I think for inspiration I go to different drag shows. I love seeing other queer artists coming up with amazing ideas. That’s how I also see what audience likes to see. I have a background in musical theatre so you can see this influence at my shows. I focus mostly on the acting part and showcasing variety of emotions on stage. You don’t come for my shows to see immaculate make up but to see me losing my mind on stage when my husband cheated on me! From the drag scene one of my first inspirations was mentioned above Shay Shay – a brilliant Californian drag performer living in London. For the makeup I like to have the semi natural look – for those I go to YouTube channel of Alexis Stone. And of course as majority of drag queens I’m no different if I mention here RuPaul’s drag race. Let’s face it, that was my first time seeing drag artist on a screen and living their life!

Why did you leave Poland and when?

I’ve left Poland in 2013. I just freshly graduated from my BA and all of my friends went straight to do MA. I wasn’t sure what I wanna study so thought I would do a gap year. I’ve chosen London because of the language. My second motivation for leaving Poland was of course homophobia there. As a queer person (and a drag artist to be) I just couldn’t fully express myself without being judged or assaulted (the second thanks god never happened to me). Only in London I started to feel that I can be whomever I want to be and people accept it and actually celebrate the differences we all have. I think that’s why I’m still in London after 6 years.

Would you return to Poland? Do you think you would be accepted there?

Yeah that’s a tough one. I love Poland and I’m a proud Polish… I’m Polka Dot for fucks sake! But with the current government which is very right wing and allowing all the homophobia, transphobia and other hate towards minorities I don’t think I would feel welcomed there. It’s pretty sad because I would love to do what I’m doing in London back in my country. Don’t get me wrong there are drag performers in Poland as well and I admire them for their power to face all of the hate towards them daily.

You can’t please everyone, but you should definitely please yourself.

I don’t think I want to sacrifice my happiness and freedom I get in London for the limitations I would need to apply in Poland just by being myself. But I always say “never say never”. I truly believe Poland one day will become more tolerant and maybe that’s when I’ll come back. For now I’m happy to visit my amazing family there few times a year.

Photo: Katarzyna Drążek
Photo: Katarzyna Drążek

How does it feel to be you in a world where conformity and “living in the norms” are imposed on people, especially in Eastern Europe?

I don’t like norms especially those that restrain a full self expression of a person. As mentioned above, “I wouldn’t be happy to stick to the “norms” in Poland and that’s why I moved to London”. But even in London one can’t be fully themselves. Sometimes you just need to do what makes you happy and stop caring about what others say or think. As long as what you’re doing doesn’t hurt nobody you shouldn’t stop what you’re doing. You can’t please everyone, but you should definitely please yourself.

How it is seen from your perspective, the war between Extreme Fascists Far right people and the LGBT+ community?

I mean it’s ridiculous that extreme far right (which is unfortunately on a rise in Poland) want to dictate others how they should act or behave. It breaks my heart when I see footage from Polish pride with all the hate thrown on the goers by people around. I still wouldn’t call it a war at least that’s not what the LGBT+ Community wants. We want to be accepted and loved as another member of the society.

What do you think it should be done in order to reduce the xenophobic mentality?

Education, education and once again education! Replace religion classes in schools with some ethics classes or cultural classes. And in general focusing on the similarities between us rather than differences.

Have you ever been the victim of xenophobic people? If yes, can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Fortunately I have not been a victim of xenophobia. It might be because I’m always smiling and having the empathy towards people.

Do you think Eastern Europe will reach one day, a decent level of acceptance of LGBT? Do you see some changes in people’s behaviours regarding this?

I truly believe Eastern Europe will reach one day a decent level of acceptance of the LGBT+ Community. I mean European Union sooner or later will start putting penalties on the countries that are in anyway “…phobic” towards minorities. It’s not possible to be a member of EU, accept all the money and grants they give us and hurt the citizens of your country – it’s just not right. The change will come but of course it’s a complex process. I’m positive that within my lifetime I’ll see Poland being more accepting and welcoming. I’m sure about it.

Photo: Alexandra Butuceanu
Photo: Katarzyna Drążek

What message would you have for people who wear the battles of acceptance of their sexuality and don’t have enough courage to come upfront? What about those who are living in Eastern Europe and are feeling oppressed by the system and the people around them?

Be yourself. I know it’s easy to say by me – who left the country because I didn’t feel accepted. But seriously by being yourself we create brighter future and educate others around us about differences. People fear the unknown. If they don’t see a gay person in their life, they will see us as aliens. If you ever feel lonely and not accepted, contact some non-govermental organizations helping LGBT+ people. They devote their life to help us!

Also surround yourself with people that understand you and accept you – those people are your rock you can rely on. I surely couldn’t be who I am now without loving parents and amazing friends. But of course, even my parents were a bit sceptical when I came out. But take your time and have an honest conversation with whomever you really care for. Conversation is a key.

What message would you have for those who are spreading hate messages and calls for violence against LGBT+ people?

Remember that you’re not hurting the LGBT+ Community. You’re hurting another human being. Be open for conversation, listen to the other side ask questions, try to understand. We don’t want to harm anyone, we want to live and be happy like anyone else. We all live on this planet together and whether you believe in God or in other powers, we’ve been put here all for a reason. Let’s help each other living the life we all want.

Model: Robert Kocur / Polka Dot

MUA: Joanna Lewandowska

Photo & Text: Katarzyna Drążek & Alexandra Butuceanu

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Romanian writer based in Cyprus. Co-founder CVLTARTES. Author of "Hailbringer: A Romanian Folktale"