The revolutionaries, the organisers, the visionaries – the LGBTQ+ community in Poland
Includes talks with activists Łukasz Jurkiewicz (she/he), Amanda Waliszewska (she/they), Małgorzata Szutowicz (Margot/Margo) (she/her), as well as a lot of queer women and non-binary folks.
How does it feel to grow up queer in a country that does everything in its power to dehumanise and erase you? How do you explore your real identity in a place, where it is still considered to be so far away from the norm? Yet, over the years, queer-led movements and initiatives have been becoming more visible in Poland. We have always been here, regardless of whether the media chooses to showcase us. And we are here to stay.
The visibility of movements for LGBTQ+ people is increasing, as evidenced by the growing number of Equality Parades with increasing attendance, initiatives for non-heteronormative people, and the presence of activists in the media. (Moszka, 2020) However, the LGBTIQA+ community is still struggling with mental health, is discriminated against by governments, and often misunderstood by some society members. Change is needed, but do we need activists or visionaries? Who are they? Can we also become them?
It seems to me that LGBTIQA+ activists are not unafraid of the consequences or the sacrifices that they must make by speaking truth to power. They often feel like they must act, because there are too few people in the world willing to be the domino, too few people willing to take that fall. (Ajayi Jones, 2018) It makes me reflect or look at our potential and actions; and whether activism is immanently embedded in life or not. Amy Waliszewska, queer activist living in Sweden, points to the need to act, because nobody else will. 'I would say being a queer person made me act, but certainly not only [...] I also saw cultural and political changes.’ Łukasz Jurewicz, young non-binary activist, drag queen; uses the colloquial statement 'Kaczyński made me a patriot'. It shows that the current political system forces people to fight, especially those who are motivated and are the most in the spotlight. Then 'families by choice are formed that allow for survival' and a group of friends engages and motivates each other to engage in activism. Has queer life changed for the better or worse over the last two years? Małgorzata Szutowicz (Margot), a Polish non-binary abortion and de-stigmatization of sexual work activists, states that the situation is not progressing, quite the contrary - the problems are increasing. 'Earlier, transgenderism and gender non-normativity were not discussed outside the academy and outside the transgender.’ Mass visibility comes in the form of organized media transphobia. She points out that hiding your true self may turn out to be a safer option than ‘coming out’. Jurewicz presents a more positive opinion. As political hatred towards LGBTIQA + grows, so does the support. 'We used this moment for ourselves’. Society noticed that the government was unlawfully discriminating against minorities. 'After those events, every Pole found out who non-binary people are, googled pronouns.' Every Pole has made up his mind about LGBTIQA +.
The Queer On TV
I believe that for a lot of people the word “queer” is still twin to a gay man. The queers present in Polish news stories are almost exclusively gay men. Queer women and non-binary folks are still largely left out of the equation and are overlooked when looking at queer stories and solutions to our challenges. It was clear to see when we were protesting against the abortion ban and a lot of transphobes screamed out against the term “persons with uteri”. The mainstream is still largely oblivious to the many identities that exist within the queer spectrum, and until we realise that, we will be moving forward very slowly.
Trivialism becomes a spectacle
I think everyone should have some engagement in cases that matter to them. Margot's advice is to do things not necessarily ‘just because’ or because it is what you ‘should do’. Think of what makes you thrive. ‘Do not have a social media account, donate your materials to a respected group that will benefit from it. Establish a new movement only when you already have a lot of experience, and it is impossible under someone else's name.’ All three activists expressed how important it is to think of ways we are capable of helping and the things that we are good at. It is possible to just ask the desired organisation as to what help might be needed. Several studies show that burnout and depression are common among activists.(Nah, 2020) 'At some point my body said enough, I started to burn out [...] now I set limits [...] and I get involved in projects that make me happy and I can cope with’ said Łukasz Jurewicz. Amy Waliszewska mentions that ‘burnout seems inevitable, especially if financial stability is not possible.’ The general advice is to remember to take care of oneself first, have people to help you and not get involved without setting boundaries. Margot also advises ‘to not deal with the battlefront, which affects us most personally [...] it is best to enter good alliances - for example, as person X, join the Y group, which also supports people X as part of its narrative.’
Barbie Dolls and Bob The Builder
While conducting research for this article I have listened to a lot of stories from queer Polish women and non-binary people. The first question I have been asking was to pinpoint the first moment my interlocutors started to become aware of their own queerness.
For some of us, it was evident from the very beginning - rebelling against the assigned gender roles that the Polish education system imposes on children as early as kindergarten. One of us mentioned being absolutely obsessed with Bob The Builder and refusing to play with toys that were “for girls”. I remember always getting very angry when I was not allowed to enjoy the same things as my male cousins, and violently opposed wearing skirts and dresses.
For some of us though, it started later, in high school or college, when discussing romance and attraction to others were the hottest topics in classrooms and corridors. How did we explain to our friends that we either felt attraction to the same gender as ours, to multiple, or maybe did not feel any attraction at all? How did we address the topic of non-binary and trans identities?
Turns out in most cases we did not. We went on with the narrative, holding onto the fact that we were still fitting in with the heteronormative standards. In the silence of our rooms and increasingly surrounding ourselves with fellow queers, we were left to explore the “forbidden” world of what being ourselves meant to us and us only.
In a grand majority of cases I have encountered, we were in the closet for a very long time, or we still are - our families not quite ready to dismiss the notion of being queer as something that is more than just a hushed topic or a punchline of nasty jokes.
Looking for greener grass
People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual tend to die earlier in communities where citizens are less accepting of same-sex relationships, according to a recent study. (Hatzenbuehler, Bellatorre and Muennig, 2014) That knowledge, fear, and hope for a better future makes people think about leaving Poland. Margot thinks that 'There is no such thing as a real possibility of going abroad for a statistical queer person.' She pointed to the enormous financial burden of leaving. Other activists give other arguments. Waliszewska is currently living in Sweden. ‘I left on my own, because I had the impression that I no longer have the strength to run my activism in Poland [...] and it is difficult without stability, one day I might be the one that needs help.’ Jurewicz is pointing out that every queer Pole thought about leaving at least once, she has obtained a passport in case it is necessary to leave. However, she feels that leaving an environment one feels familiar with is sometimes too difficult.
Leaving Ourselves Behind
For a lot of queer people in Poland, with queerphobic narratives becoming increasingly popular, leaving the country oftentimes seems to be the only option to be able to live safely and “fully” with the people we love. Living abroad I realised more and more that Poland is just not a place for us if the current state of affairs is going to prevail. But we do need to remember that for queers worldwide nothing was ever handed on a plate. All of us know that our battles will not be fought for us, and a lot of queer people I talked to realise it now more than ever. We know that someone has to stay and keep the revolution going, albeit we know it will be a long and arduous process.
That being said, not every one of us is born a fighter. It is not all queer people’s duty to contribute to changing the world, especially since being queer in Poland at times tends to be revolutionary in itself. Over the years the hope fades, and I realise that, our country being as it is, every (queer) person needs to do what is best for them. If what is best is leaving the country and not looking back, as heartbreaking as it is to see, it is important to remember that we have the right to live free and exist within the space that is ready to welcome us as we are.