Team Poland's Olympic rower Katarzyna Zillman used the opportunity of her silver medal performance at the women’s quadruple sculls to publicly thank her girlfriend.
Her public expression of gratitude was both heartwarming but also a daring and courageous act considering that her homeland is now controlled by a right-wing government that is among the most oppressive for the LGBTQ+ community in Europe today.
"I called my girlfriend," Zillman told Wirtualna Polska following her victory. "This is Julia Walczak, a Canadian woman. I showed her the medal, she confessed to me that for the last two weeks she had been one big bundle of nerves. And today she was relaxed. For me it is also a day of great relief and relaxation, after five years, when every day I thought about the race for the Olympic medal and the moment when we will win it."
Zillman also revealed the other person she called "was mommy, who I had to calm down because she was still very emotional and cried."
Coming out as LGBTQ+ carries great risks in Poland, which has seen a parallel rise in homophobia and right-wing politics in recent years. Nearly a third of towns in Poland have declared themselves "LGBT-free zones." One politician wanted the entire country to be similarly designated. Polish courts annulled two of those declarations last year and the European Union announced they were suspending funds for any municipality that declared itself an LGBT-free zone. But Poland’s right-wing government, led by President Andrzej Duda, was reelected last year to a second term in office after campaigning on a "Family Card" of proposals that included outlawing marriage equality and preventing child adoption by LGBTQ+ families.
The crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community has been harsh in the culturally conservative and deeply religious country. Three women went on trial in January for publicly carrying posters showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus with rainbow halos in April 2019. Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar Podleśna were charged with offending the religious feelings of the Catholics by displaying their own rainbow Mary and Jesus during Pride in Plock, Poland. The women said they were inspired to make their peaceful protest because of a homophobic Easter display at a nearby church. Thankfully, the women were acquitted on all charges in March.
Zillman skirted questions about any discrimination she possibly faced back some saying the topic was "not for today." She also clearly had her heart and mind in the right place when it comes to tolerance.
"Let’s all just love each other," she said. "Let us keep our eyes open to the needs of others. Let us find empathy in ourselves and remember that the people we meet may just be experiencing a difficult moment for them."