Pok Me, Daddy

Get to know Michael Pokrass - his childhood, his journey of self-discovery, his love-life, and hopes and dreams for the future.

By: Jean Michael Chanchu

I have a working theory that Michael Pokrass (aka “Pok”) is pretty much the biggest heartthrob of the Baltimore Flamingos (Insta poll anyone?). Maybe it’s his killer smile, cuddly personality, his GREAT ASS (see below), his bulge that is definitely more meat than potato (see any picture he’s in), or all of the above that makes us want him to be our community top (yes, I’m also talking about you “tops” out there). When tested on the pitch, not only is he a reliable runner, but he’s also a tackling beast, scoring his first two tries during the Flamingos Civil War which heralded him his first ever, and much anticipated, Zulu run. If you don’t know what a Zulu is, then come to one of our games! Rookies, you’re in for a treat this season! When confronted about his heartthrob status, he replied, “So I’m the Kameron Michaels of the season…”.
"I thought coming-out would be like, "this is what it’s going to be: you come out, then you’re happy, and that’s what life is..." Which wasn’t quite the case. "
“My mom has this photo of me from before I can remember... I had draped a white sheet around myself like a dress hanging around my shoulder. It’s not a toga - that would be too gender neutral for this look. I’m wearing these huge sunglasses that cover my whole face and I’m princess waving to the camera.  Also in 8th grade I don’t remember her full name but her first name was definitely Sam. I don’t think we even dated for all of, if it was even, three weeks – I’d be surprised. She dumped me because I was too afraid to put my arm around her.”

I definitely cannot relate. So I asked him how he came into terms with his sexuality and if he’s always known he was gay.

“Not always but I knew very early on. Around 12 or 13 I had definitely thought the sentence ‘I am gay,’ but I was too afraid to actually say it aloud, even just to myself. I remember feeling like I didn’t want to be gay and it wasn’t until high-school that I started to be able to face facts. I definitely wasn’t at peace with it though. I started coming-out towards the end of my junior year of high-school to my friends and family. I thought coming out would be like, 'this is what it’s going to be: you come out, then you’re happy, and that’s what life is...' Which wasn’t quite the case.”

Pok’s parents were very accepting. He came out to his mom first at 17, and then his dad a couple of months later. He came out to his friends earlier at 16. He had always been close to his parents growing up, and when he asked his mom if she was shocked, Pok’s mom simply said, “maybe there were some hints”.

"I think in a follow up question, that pic of me princess waving to the camera was one of the 'hints'."
What was gay your childhood like?

Pok was born and raised in the suburbs of Ashburn, Virginia to a Swedish-Ukranian dad and a French-Irish mom - so basically, white on white on white on white… like Wonder Bread. He had an interesting childhood, going through an all black phase, dying his hair in seventh grade, and said that people kept away from him. Hard to believe right? He had friends, he “just wasn’t open to making new connections at all”, says Pok. I suspected childhood/teenage angst was probably something every queer kid growing up manifested, so I asked him if he was one of those “fierce” and obviously gay kids growing up. His answer says it all.
"Making this fact about yourself known to other people is not the same as, for example, accepting that you’re gay and integrating that into your personality, or learning how to exist in queer spaces, or even learning how to exist in straight spaces as a queer person."​​
Have you always been Mr. Popular?

“No.”

Even though he later reveals that he was voted prom king in his senior year in high school.
I had to ask, were you one of those UVA bros that just wore button down shirts and shorts and boat shoes?

"Yup, and I rocked it."

Ew. Gross.

What was it like being gay in college?

“I made the very conscious decision of not going back into the closet, which I know some people do. I did so for like a week just to get to know the people in the suite I was living in. And so ok, I’m doing it. I called a suite meeting. I was like, ‘everybody sit down, this is important…’ And that went over fine.”
So basically, what I’m hearing is, that, Pok went back in the closet just so could have a grand coming-out event to your suitemates? Like a total queen? Ok. work.

A lot happened towards the end of Pok’s high-school years. Up until his junior year, he had remained pretty closed off, saying that he had a huge self-confidence shift that he doesn’t really know what to attribute to. During this time, he had been better about making connections with people and definitely more social, and said that he was surprised that he even became prom king. And he also started setting goals for himself, like volunteering as an EMT so he could become a doctor, which was a goal of his at the time.

“There was definitely a rise [in confidence] there, and I definitely wasn’t nearly as popular in college as a Chemistry major. Definitely not as cool as the biology majors. You’d tell people that you’re a chemistry major and they shut down, like, oh no not for me.”​

"When I was a sophomore people asked me if I was gay because I was speaking like gay people do. So I kinda butched up my voice. Because I was ashamed. I was afraid of being outed."

So would you say this is your butch voice now?

"I think I kept it yeah."
… (crickets chirping all of a sudden..)

"I was always so worried that people would see me as gay. And because of that I would always stifle the gay aspects of myself. I was already out, but I didn’t want to be perceived as stereotypically gay. Which when I look back on those memories, I think I was more afraid of seeing myself as gay. I was not ready to re-imagine who I was as an out gay guy. I still saw myself as the closeted guy before coming out and I wasn't ready to grow as a new person. Those were the cringe-worthy moments to look back on now.

In my sophomore year of college, I was kind of depressed that I found a lack in my life that I wasn’t really expressing the gay side of myself. I had this expectation that when you come out and put yourself out there, that people would come to you. Like, why don’t I have a boyfriend?  Why don’t I have gay friends? I thought coming out was all the work for coming into terms with yourself, and then I had the realization that it’s not the same. It was a big step but not all of it. Making this fact about yourself known to other people is not the same as, for example, accepting that you’re gay and integrating that into your personality, or learning how to exist in queer spaces, or even learning how to exist in straight spaces as a queer person.

So I found this support group through UVA student health, which was made up of closeted and out guys and we would meet once a week, facilitated by a counselor, and start to work through some of this stuff."

He denies hooking up with any of the guys in that support group.

"I do think that, through doing work and opening up to any number of people, to accept them and allow them to accept you, I think that’s love."
What are your dreams, goals, and end game?​​
In fact, his passion for science was the thing that brings him to Baltimore for the first time! - albeit by a serendipitous mistake. He took a post-bac position at the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) assuming it is located in Bethesda, only to learn later that it was in fact located here in Baltimore. 

His passion for science took him to many more wonderful places before eventually bringing him back here in Baltimore for his PhD at Johns Hopkins. One of these places was Berlin, where he went to do research as a Fulbright Scholar, to which he commented:

"They had seen that, from my undergrad, I had a first author paper so they thought that I was gonna be totally independent in a new scientific field, which was not true at all. So yeah I was there as a visiting scholar, as a Fulbright scholar, which I think made me stand out as more qualified than I actually was."​

Right now Pok is starting his fourth year of his PhD at Hopkins, studying molecular biology, more specifically, how cells gather information about their environment, cell fate decisions and collective cell behaviors, using mice as a model organism. In the mouse preimplantation embryo, his lab studies how this mass of cells, that starts out completely homogenous, starts to segregate into the different lineages that will form the placenta/yolk sac and the cells that actually give rise to the embryo. He had this to say about his career path:

"When I started my PhD, I went in certain that I wanted to start my own lab. After all, doing experiments and analyzing data were the only professional skills I had. In the last year, though, I have started learning about how many different paths I can go down with a PhD."

He did noy say that he is not intent on ruling out any options for him. He said he might even go into industry, postdoctoral position, or even science policy - which he finds interesting because he feels that “as a nation, we need more people who came from strong scientific backgrounds working alongside policy professionals and law scholars to advocate for science and helping to guide scientific programs that use government funds more efficiently and wisely”.

Inspired by the scientists that came before who have shaken up the field, in 5-10 years he’d hope that he’d be somewhere doing something similar, contributing to concrete things - either like building something with creative or intellectual merit, or also be helping people.

“Some people just want to make money. You don’t have to create to make money.”
Pok has always been in labs very early on. Besides that one summer where he bussed tables, he has no other relevant work experience. Science is just in his soul. He even attended a science camp called “Camp Technokids” when he was younger, and his dad has always been a radar engineer and loved his job. 
"If it’s going well, I’ll definitely put out on the first date. "
Do you live by a specific moral code? What governs your actions?

Pok has planned his life around seeking a higher calling. While it sounds like he might not have the clearest idea of what that calling is at the moment, he seeks opportunities to improve himself in the meantime. Despite this, he tries to live by a code of delaying gratification in anticipation of a much bigger gratification, even if it is not always guaranteed. I rolled my eyes and thought that he’s  just one of those fuckboys that just like to play games so I asked if it meant that he’d never put out on a first date. His response:

"Now I didn’t say that… Sleeping with someone on the first date is the same gratification as sleeping with them on the fifth date, or later. If it’s going well, I’ll definitely put out on the first date. With anybody I have started a relationship with or have dated for a long time, I’ve always slept with them on the first date. Every time I’ve started something with someone long term, I’ve slept with them on the first date.”

There you have it ladies and gents. Pok, even though not available (he’s in a monogamous relationship), is at least a decent, stand-up guy. It gets better! I asked him what love means to him:
"I sort of subscribe to the idea of love being able to be totally comfortable with yourself around another person… that’s also a totally accepting, mutual relationship. I don’t believe it’s about finding perfection – I don’t really believe love is about perfection. I also really don’t believe in soulmates – that there is only one person out there for you. But I do think that, through doing work and opening up to any number of people, to accept them and allow them to accept you, I think that’s love. Love is not easy. Love is not simple."​​
Definitely not a Disney answer, but it is a smart answer. Realistic. Plausible. Hell, maybe even testable through the scientific method. Did we expect anything less from Pok?

What is Nate like?

In situations where I try to be more pragmatic, like figuring out how this is going to benefit me or accomplish the goal, Nate is always the person who is going to stop to help a stranger,…"
Then, almost as a reflex, and I, as the ultimate hater, retorted back by bringing up the fact that higher calling can be sometimes lonely. “It can,” Pok replied matter-of-factly, “We’ve done it before”. When they met in 2014, Nate still had one more year of college, and Pok was going to Berlin for his Fulbright. They had every intention of not starting anything serious. “We’re not idiots, this will be a summer fling,” Pok described, smiling. Mmhmm. Even though they really liked each other, “they still had stuff to do”.
Meanwhile, watching Pok describe Nate caused me to die. He has his “Pok smirk” on while talking about Nate. He genuinely looks excited. Twinkle in the eye and everything. I’m dying in my seat, I’m screaming inside, I’m moist, I’m moist and dead, I am now a swampy corpse.
"… go to extreme ends to help people in his network, cares about other people, treats everybody with a ton of decency, he has that optimistic view of the world where he is surprised when people don’t treat him with human decency. He just thinks people are going to treat each other well. I think it’s sweet to have this view of the world where everybody is going to treat each other well."
"We were separated for like two weeks, and then we missed each other. And then we decided that the distance was worth it, to be in a relationship. You know, we were in love. We were really far apart and we had to work really hard. It was definitely not a relationship of convenience – 'cuz it wasn’t convenient."
When I asked how they met, he got a little animated and said, “Oh this is good.” Pok and Nate were set up to meet by Pok’s former roommate at Baltimore Pride ‘14! Nate was still in school in Tennessee at the time and was moving in with Pok’s former roommates for the summer because he had an internship at University of Maryland College Park.

“And this, like, cute boy, with a pick-up truck, a vat of bro-tein, but also a home-made herb garden, is moving in as their summer sub letter, and they were like, he’s cute. It wasn’t like we were set up on a blind date, but I showed up to meet them at the bar, in Grand Central June 2014.”
DEAD. So naturally, I followed up by asking how he knew he was in love, and when did they say it to each other. “Oh this one’s cute too,” says Pok, as he smiles with a smirk as if he knows exactly what story it is he’s about to tell and how cute it actually was. Meanwhile, I’m banging on the table really hard, dying, balding, shaking, and about to flood the entire Fells Point with all this moisture.
Pok and Nate have been together for 4 years. Four beautiful years.
"I think one of the things that initially attracted us to one other was that we were both really ambitious and that we were driven to a higher calling."
"And then we decided the distance was worth it
to be in a relationship."
On Being in Berlin

“When I got to Berlin, getting to know a lot of new cultures, adjusting to a new system of living, I felt a little alone, and experienced a little bit of a culture shock, or felt out of place, but whenever I could text Nate or Skype Nate, it centered me and then, I don’t remember exactly how we got to this mindset, I’ve wanted to say that I loved him but I sensed that he also wanted to say the same thing but we both wanted to be able to do that in person, and I was going to come home around Christmas time. So I flew home, and when I landed at Dulles, got my luggage, we had that airport moment, where he ran to meet me and then I said I loved him. And we kissed in front of a crowd of people."

I’m almost mad and angry at this point, I coldly said, “that’s cute.” Like, who still has perfect relationships these days?

“It was pretty cute", Pok retorts with his signature smirk.