Heartbroken mother candidly shares how homophobic hate in Poland drove her gay son to death by suicide
“I ask myself: what is this country in which one must die to be happy?”
This heartbreaking question has been playing in Katarzyna Koch’s mind ever since her son, Michał, took his own life – and it’s one he must have asked himself, too.
On June 1, Michał Demski hanged himself in his family garden, unable to cope with the rising tide of homophobia in his home country of Poland. He was just 30.
Devastated by his loss, his mother is refusing to remain silent. She spoke to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza about the constant persecution that led to her son’s death, a product of the homophobic rhetoric proudly espoused by president Andrzej Duda.
“My son was no ideology. He was the most normal in the world. Much more normal than all of them,” she said. “Such people destroyed my son. Day by day and step by step.”
Michał was a talented young man with a promising modelling career that had taken him around the world. But he couldn’t see a way to live as a gay man in his own country as it turned its back on people like him.
The attacks started when he was just a child at Catholic school, when he wore a rosary on his finger like a ring.
“For this rosary he was bombarded with homophobic insults. From that moment the persecution began,” Katarzyna said. “He was bitten. Children expressed everything in a vulgar way. He endured it very badly.”
The vicious bullying only got worse in high school. “Every insult hurt him terribly. He was sick of it,” Katarzyna remembers. “Even here in [our home town] Malbork, the store said to him: ‘Why did you come here, you f**king faggot?'”
A contract with a modelling agency after high school gave Michał a release, and an opportunity to escape to Warsaw where people were more tolerant towards the LGBT+ community. Michał was whisked to Milan for fashion week, followed by Japan and then on to China where he was signed by two separate agencies.
But his newfound career couldn’t ease his internal battle with his sexuality, and he lived constantly with self-hatred. His family always accepted him, Katarzyna says, “but this acceptance was not enough.”
Michał went to a psychiatrist but was unable to reveal that he was gay, and was simply prescribed benzodiazepines for stress. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end as he sank into an addiction that would control his life.
“At some point he became anaesthetised,” Katarzyna told Gazeta Wyborcza. “These prescription numbers were countless.
“Many addicts often have cross addiction, [and] Michał had it for about four years. He started drinking alcohol with these drugs. He combined it with benzodiazepine to make him anaesthetised even more.”
As his addiction worsened Michał began getting epileptic seizures but was still unable to shake off the drugs no matter how hard he tried. For the next few years he was in and out of rehab centres, and by December his mental health grew so bad that he attempted suicide.
Then came coronavirus. Michał was spiralling out of control but was told he couldn’t go to a rehab centre unless he isolated himself there – and the centre lacked the housing conditions or staff to support him.
“When I took him home, he was crying. Finally, he found a place where he felt safe, but fate treated him in a mean way,” Katarzyna said.
“At the end of May, he was once again challenged on the street by [homophobes]. It was a terrible situation. And that was a really powerful blow to him. He returned home very agitated and said he had enough, that he could not stand it anymore.”
Looking back, Katarzyna realises Michał was preparing her for his death.
“On May 26 he took me to my mother’s cemetery. I was tired but he insisted,” she said. “At the cemetery, he told me it wouldn’t be long. ‘What, Michał?’ I asked. He began to tell what grave he wanted, what funeral he wanted. But he had joked so often, so I didn’t think he was serious.”
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Now wracked with grief over her son’s suicide, she is determined to confront the politicians leading the charge against the LGBT+ community in Poland.
“I am very afraid that if the power in the country does not change, if Andrzej Duda, who has such an attitude towards LGBT+ people, wins [the presidential election] there will undoubtedly be more victims like my son,” she said.
“I would like to tell them that God can forgive them… they will surely also be accounted for and God forgive them because I can’t. I really can’t,” she said.”All that today’s politicians do, including our president, is return to the terrifying fascist past. These are the same mechanisms and will undoubtedly come back.”
She confesses that the only thing keeping her alive now is the knowledge that Michał is in a better place. “But every day I ask myself, what is this country where you have to die to be happy?”