I feel like I need to start by offering a disclaimer. For those
readers who have become accustomed to reading about the sights, sounds
and cultural intricacies of the places I visit, this chapter of my
travelogues will be a little different. This is about my first
extended stay with my boyfriend's parents. It's the kind of story
that could have happened in any of a thousand different places. But
as it just so happens, this particular story takes place in the small
town of Bojnice, Slovakia at the foot of one of the most beautiful,
colorful castles that I've seen in all of Europe.|
I briefly met Helena and Jan last summer when they came to Boston to
visit Tomas, but the extent of our interaction was limited to my
driving them to and from the airport. This time around, Tomas was in
Slovakia to get a new passport and visa, so I arranged to stay with
him and his family for 12 days.
Given that Tomas and I have now been dating for well over a year,
Tomas has already had plenty of time to portray me in a positive
light, so I really didn't have to do much to win his parents over.
Regardless, everyone involved was trying incredibly hard to make a
positive impression. Helena cooked extravagant meals every day,
artfully designed to accommodate my American palate based on Tomas'
review of my culinary likes and dislikes. Furthermore, Helena and Jan
carefully engineered a tour of central Slovakia, including a private
tour of Bojnice castle for just me and Tomas, a late birthday present
arranged with Jan's assistance.
On my side, there was a lot of pressure to demonstrate my immense
enjoyment of every meal and every place that we visited. Thankfully,
this didn't take much effort, as the food was genuinely delicious and
the places beautiful.
Thanks to Tomas' assistance, I managed to learn a number of useful
Slovak phrases - "thank you," "good day," and "it is excellent!"
Regardless of the situation at hand, my awkward use of Slovak always
seemed to be a source of entertainment and prompt a flattering
discussion about my perfect accent.
After jumping from hostel to hostel for a month, I was struck by the
immaculate condition in which Helena keeps her household. As someone
who tends to drink straight from the milk bottle and put my feet up on
my coffee table, I felt like I had to watch my behavior carefully
despite Tomas' assurances that as the guest of honor, I would be
quickly forgiven for any behavioral infractions.
At night, Tomas and I stayed at his grandmother's home. In a show of
overwhelming generosity, she timed her vacation to the Czech Republic
to coincide with my arrival in Slovakia so that Tomas and I could have
a private place to stay. Other than his parents, Tomas' grandmother
is his only relative who knows he is gay. She's been supportive of
him from the very beginning, which is remarkable considering the
culture she's been raised in. It's unfortunate that I was unable to
meet her during my visit as she sounds like a fascinating woman.
Being together with Tomas in Slovakia raised some fairly serious
ideological issues regarding our relationship. For a time, Helena and
Jan, who have been enormously supportive of Tomas, were still somewhat
reluctant to have Tomas come out of the closet in Bojnice. While they
have greatly eased their concerns over the last several years, they
still fear that if he identifies as gay, Tomas may suffer
discrimination or even set himself up as a victim for a hate crime.
Unfortunately, some of these fears are well-founded.
The people of Slovakia are in general consensus that the country
doesn't have a problem with discrimination - largely because they have
never been exposed to diversity in any form. Everyone has the same
color skin and speaks the same language. But this devoutly Catholic
country lags decades behind western Europe on issues of tolerance.
One of the most bizarre sights I observed at the Bojnice zoo was the
unapologetic stare of the visitors as a small group of Muslim women
passed by - an anomalous sight in this small, homogeneous town. As
recently as 2000, the Slovak Minster of Health publicly condoned
reparative therapy as a means for "curing" homosexuality. Helena and
Jan, as reputable doctors, published letters in the local newspaper
to counter his absurd assertions.
To Tomas, it is painful to be unable to publicly acknowledge our
relationship. He doesn't want to live behind a facade of lies and
wants to be able to distinguish his genuine friends from those who
would reject him if they knew the truth. Furthermore, by hiding our
relationship, Tomas recognizes that his silence only serves to
perpetuate the ignorance and hatred of the status quo.
Slovakia is a terrible place to grow up gay and doesn't offer a lot of
desirable employment opportunities. And while all of Tomas' family
lives in Slovakia, it is highly unlikely that he will return to live
there after his schooling. As Helena, Jan and I sat in front of the
American Embassy in Bratislava waiting to see if Tomas would be
granted a new visa, Helena confided in me in her simple English, "My
feeling is I want him to get a visa - even though I know he will leave
As Jan and Helena grow increasingly comfortable with the idea of Tomas
coming out of the closet in Slovakia, it is inevitable that he will
eventually disclose his sexuality to more of his family and friends.
Maybe he will finally get a chance to change a few minds about what it
means to be gay and be a courageous example of honesty and integrity.