I just want to be”: the UK’s Polish LGBTQ+ community on this weekend’s election

In light of dehumanising statements by the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, members of the Polish community in Britain share their anxieties ahead of this weekend’s election.

When earlier this month, Andrzej Duda, the Polish president seeking re-election this Sunday, gave a speech in a small town of Brzeg, his words were heard around the world.

The generation of my parents did not fight for forty years to kick the communist ideology out of schools… in order for us to now accept that another ideology should arrive, that is even more destructive for people.” 

The ideology” in question was rights for the LGBTQ+ community. The words came as especially bitter considering that were spoken during Pride month, a worldwide celebration of equality.

Saying that LGBTQ+ are not people, but an ideology – a foreign idea that attacks traditional family values – wasn’t enough. Duda also revealed his plans for implementing his family charter”, a document which stands against gay marriage and the possibility of adoption by gay couples, as well as seeking to ban the LGBTQ+ propaganda” in schools and public institutions. The president’s rhetoric has been strongly supported by fellow members of the ultra-right Law and Justice party.

The hostile comments came just over two weeks before the presidential election, in which Duda’s biggest opponent is Rafał Trzaskowski from the centre-right Civic Platform party, who has shown significant support for LGBTQ+ rights as Mayor of Warsaw and participated in last year’s Pride march in the capital.

Homophobia within Polish society is nothing new, but in the past few years, the aggression has grown especially strong. During last year’s Pride event in the city of Białystok, the peaceful parade of 1,000 people was turned into a violent attack, when thousands of members of far-right groups threw flash bombs, rocks and bottles into the crowd. The widespread discrimination has led to numerous teen suicides, including that of Michał Demski, who took his own life earlier this month.

Here, Polish members of the LGBTQ+ community living in the UK (and one who recently moved back to their home country) discuss personal experiences with homophobia, their thoughts surrounding the current political situation, and ways in which we can contribute to making a change.

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Pat Bogusławski is a movement director and creative consultant living in London. He was born in Łódź, a city in central Poland. He previously collaborated with brands like Fendi, MISBHV and Off-White and is responsible for Leon Dame’s walk during that viral Maison Margiela show.

When did you move to the UK and why? Did homophobic attitudes in the country contribute to your decision?

I moved in 2014. A big reason was the career opportunities, being able to grow and do something that I wasn’t able to in Poland. I’ve been lucky – I’ve never been called names or attacked on the street. What didn’t suit me was the mentality in the society regarding tolerance. I had studied in Los Angeles and London, where homosexuality wasn’t a problem that needed to be discussed. After I got back, it started to really bother me that if I ever date a guy, I won’t feel comfortable to be open about our relationship in public and able to do normal couple gestures, like holding hands in the park or cinema.

What was your reaction to the recent statements made by the president in his campaign?

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised – it’s been one of many absurd decisions made by Duda. But it’s good that Duda showed his true colours just before the election. I hope that voters will wake up and choose a candidate that is accepting of all Polish people instead.

Why in your view did Duda decide to take such a strong stance against the LGBTQ+ community now?

People who attack us are individuals who have no contact with the community in their daily lives. It’s also people who aren’t interested in the world – they have a close-minded approach and no desire to educate themselves. And this hostile behaviour towards others comes from the fear of the unknown.

As Polish LGBTQ+ people living abroad, what apart from voting can be done to change the status quo?

We have to talk openly about our views and lead by example, rather than be ashamed to speak out about what’s happening in our country. We have to pass over the attitude we have learnt here to people back in Poland. It’s all about not being afraid to share the knowledge, and not being afraid to be truly yourself. 

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Aleksandra Wojt is an independent curator and producer living in London since 2017. She grew up in Gdynia, a city in northern Poland on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Last winter, she completed a residency at Halo Kultura, an art space in her hometown. The project was bringing awareness to the rise of hate crimes towards the LGBTQ+ community.

What was your reaction to the recent statements made by the president in his campaign?

These statements manipulate and exploit the nationwide shared emotion of suffering and pain brought forth by the lived experience of communism under the Soviet Union. He aims to misguide the general public by playing on their emotional history. Implying that LGBTQ+ is an even more dangerous ideology” causes fears around indoctrination, loss of tradition and aims to establish a common national enemy.

Why in your view did Duda decide to take such a strong stance against the LGBTQ+ community at this time?

Duda has been recently openly supporting the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. The latest attack and the increased media coverage on the subject are the elements of his presidential campaign strategy. The elections are very likely to hold a second round in which Duda would compete with Trzaskowski who, in 2019, signed a LGBTQ+ declaration aimed at fighting the discrimination of the community. If it happens, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric will become a central feature of the second round of election and the nation would be led into believing that their vote is a choice between white-and-red Poland attached to national values and rainbow Poland indoctrinated by LGBTQ+ ideology”.

How do anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments affect your sense of safety while visiting, as well as that of the wider community living there?

Prior to the current escalation of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, on a number of occasions, pride marchers faced verbal and physical abuse from the overwhelmingly outnumbered members of far-right groups as well as common citizens. I experienced offensive, derogatory comments about my look while working on the residency in Poland this winter. The ongoing hate and marginalisation towards a minority group leads towards negative effects on mental health, rising fear and worry about the safety of the day to day lives of the LGBTQ+ community.

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Kacper Kujawa is a Fashion Communication student living in London. He was born in Warsaw, where he is currently staying during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When did you move to the UK and why? Did homophobic attitudes in Poland contribute to your decision?

I moved in September 2018 for university. I wanted to study a fashion communication course and there was no such possibility in Poland. Also, I’ve been to London many times before and I loved the city. You can express yourself there and no one judges you. So discrimination towards homosexuality or any kind of otherness was also a big part of my decision.

What was your reaction to the recent statements made by the president in his campaign?

On the one hand, I’m speechless and I don’t know what to say, but on the other, I want to scream and I want to cry. And because I’ve been here, I also feel scared – because I’m close to everything, I feel like I’m trapped. I was thinking about coming back to Poland after finishing university, but now I’m no longer sure. If he’s re-elected, I will feel like there’s no place for me here anymore. His statements are actively giving permission for discrimination to continue and I’m worried about becoming a target for violence.

As Polish LGBTQ+ people living abroad, what can be done, apart from voting, to change this situation?

I think the most important thing is education and just talking to our friends, families and people around us. The issue is that sometimes people who instigate the violence think that they don’t know any LGBTQ+ people, when it’s actually not true. So trying to educate and provide them with sources to read and watch can make a huge difference on a bigger scale.

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Borys Korban lives in London and works as a fashion assistant at The Face. He grew up in Szczecin, a city in northwest Poland.

When did you move to the UK? Did discrimination in the country contribute to your decision?

I moved here four years ago, not really by choice. Social discrimination made my life difficult to the point where I wanted to move out to London at the age of 12. I faced homophobic attitudes on a daily basis. They weren’t only coming from people my age or people passing by, I was discriminated against and humiliated at the Catholic school I went to, by priests who were supposed to educate us on acceptance and respecting other human beings. If I had felt comfortable back in Poland, I’d have happily stayed there and pursued my career, but it was clear that there’s not enough space there for people like me. I go to visit my family once a year for a couple of days, knowing that I have to compromise on what I wear, how I walk, and the way I speak. I don’t leave the house on my own or take public transport, it was too dangerous to do so five years ago and it’s just getting way worse now. 

Why in your view did Duda decide to take such a strong stance against the LGBTQ+ community at this time?

His competitor, Rafal Trzaskowski, voiced his support for LGBTQ+ rights, which caused massive chaos in the country. He presented sensitive ideas, such as building shelters for people who are forced by their parents to leave their homes, giving the community access to human rights and justice. Andrzej Duda, as the current president, has way more power and many supporters who will agree with whatever he says. Making such a radical move against the LGBTQ+ community will convince his constituents to reject anyone that challenges them, like Trzaskowski, unfortunately making it easier for Duda to be re-elected in the future. 

As Polish LGBTQ+ people living abroad, what apart from voting can be done to change the status quo?

Spreading awareness, protesting and protecting minorities could make the biggest change, not only to individual lives, but also to systemic discrimination. Reposting a tweet or Instagram post that spreads awareness helps educate those people who need it and it makes minorities feel acknowledged and seen. And in a way, I feel like being and expressing yourself in Poland, knowing the backflash you will face on a daily basis, is a form of a protest on its own.

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Oliwia Jancerowicz and Antek Jankowski became best friends while attending high school in Wrocław, a city in the southern part of Poland. Last year, they moved together to London to begin studies at the London College of Fashion.

When did you move to the UK and why? Did homophobic attitudes in the country contribute to your decision?

AJ: We moved here last year in August. The main reason for the move was the university, but discrimination was also definitely a big factor in this decision. I knew that at some point I would have to move out, in order to be able to live my life fully and be confident with myself. As a child, I was bullied and knew that one day, I’d have to escape that reality. The prejudiced behaviour was coming not only from my peers, but also from teachers or priests – I was an altar boy – who essentially were attacking a child, if you think about it. 

What was your reaction to the recent statements made by the president in his campaign?

OJ: I think these actions will negatively affect sexual education in Poland, which is not even that good to begin with. Nothing is being discussed openly and teens usually have to find out about sexuality from the internet. But these plans will make matters even worse.

AJ: For me, this rhetoric of politicians will only strengthen the aggression towards us. As Oliwia said, this family charter” will further hide information about people who love differently or have different values. I fear that young people who are discovering themselves, will feel like their feelings are not valid. I come from a single parent household and I remember that at school, teachers were saying that a proper family consists of a father, a mother and kids, more the better! These words used to make me feel really ashamed about my situation. And this planned change to sexual education will make them feel exactly the same.

Why in your view did Duda decide to take such a strong stance against the LGBTQ+ community now?

AJ: Every time the Law and Justice party runs any of their campaigns, they always look for a public enemy number one that is a source of all evil and a threat to Poland as a country, and the only way for it to go away is for them to win the election. During the previous presidential election in 2015 that enemy was the immigrants. Now, it’s the LGBTQ+ people.

How are these homophobic attitudes influencing your behaviour while visiting the country?

OJ: I’ve been to Poland a few times over the past year, and every time I go, I feel that in conversations with my extended family or people I grew up with, I often don’t feel comfortable and choose to omit talking about my interests, friends and projects I work on, because I’m scared of being judged. And I feel like this makes us move away from each other, which saddens me.

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Kuba Ryniewicz is a photographer living in Newcastle upon Tyne. He was born in Puszczykowo, a little town located near Poznań in western Poland. His work has been published in magazines such as Fantastic Man, Beauty Papers and Vogue Poland.

When did you move to the UK and what was your reason for the move? Did discrimination in the country contribute to your decision?

I moved away from Poland 17 years ago. It wasn’t necessarily because of homophobia, my biggest driving force was not feeling a strong connection to the Polish culture in the terms of religion – the Roman Catholic religion in Poland is highly politicised and linked to the state. Schools in Poland have mandatory religion classes, and as a child, I remember having big fights with my parents about trying to not attend them. While studying philosophy at university, I decided to take a gap year and move to the UK to see what it’s like to live abroad. And I found it easier here to express myself in many ways, both in terms of my sexuality and my career.

How do the homophobic attitudes in the country affect your behaviour while visiting? 

I’m always myself, but at the same time, I wouldn’t hold another man’s hand on the streets, that’s for sure. When I come back to Poland, after the third day, I’m like, That’s why I left!” Economically, Poland is in a much better place than when I was living there, but at the same time, that hate-driven mentality came to a state that I have never experienced before. I don’t know why there was progress, and suddenly a giant regress.

As Polish LGBTQ+ people living abroad, what apart from voting can we do to change the status quo?

We have to educate people. We have to be visible. Also donate to the organisations that support human rights in Poland, because they are going to be hit first – but they are the one who got the power to make change. There are also lots of good initiatives that are happening in Poland to support: Anja Rubik’s #sexedpl, Lambda, or G’rls Room are just few examples.

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And finally, Małgorzata Sarzyńska lives in Warsaw, where they moved last October from London, to start working in a film production company Papaya Films. They grew up in Olsztyn, a city in northeast Poland.

How has it been for you to move back to Poland after living in London for five years? 

I pass as cis and straight, whatever that means, so I haven’t experienced any aggressive behaviour towards myself so far. However the day to day life has changed in more ways than I anticipated. I identify as non-binary and the Polish language is constructed in a way that doesn’t accommodate it at all. So I still go by she/​her”, which messes with my sense of self. I also haven’t come out to most of my co-workers, as understanding of transness and gender fluidity is very outdated in Poland.

On the flip side, I have a 17-year-old nephew who gives me the connection to the younger generation. For teens in Poland, at least middle and upper class Warsaw kids, sexuality and gender are a non-issue. He tells me he has friends who are bi or trans or non-binary. I didn’t even know the term non-binary” when I was his age. So I’m also hopeful. 

How have recent developments influenced your feeling of safety while living in Poland?

I’m very privileged to be living in Warsaw. However, even I feel scared. The thing about growing up queer is you’re living in a constant state of alert. It’s not that every person has been spat on or beaten up on the street. It’s about knowing it can happen and preparing for it. I think twice before I put on more masculine presenting clothing. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to consider those things. I just want to be. 

What do you think Polish LGBTQ+ people living abroad can do to change this situation?

I thought about this a lot living in the UK, I guess I had some fucked up version of a survivor’s guilt. Donate to organisations like Lambda, KPH or Transfuzja. Stay connected and be vocal about your disapproval. This is the issue that affects you, even if you live abroad. Also, be loud and proud. Share the richness of the queer community where you are. Be the representation you haven’t seen growing up.


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