Looking for equality abroad: Poland's LGBTQ+ emigrants
Poland’s governing party Law and Justice picked gay people as their new enemy — a move which might further estrange the country’s LGBTQ+ population living abroad. Despite growing social support, it seems that ensuring basic rights for the LGBTQ+ Poles is still far away.
When Kamil first went to Spain at the age of twenty-five, he did not speak a word of Spanish. Back then, he didn’t expect that almost six years later he’d find himself established in Madrid, fluently speaking in Spanish with his boyfriend, and working as a freelance English teacher for companies and corporations.
“I always had this thought at the back of my head, that it would be nice to live somewhere abroad. I came to Spain and I thought, I like the atmosphere, the weather’s nice, wine is cheap, and there are many cute guys here," he laughs. “I thought it could be a fun adventure, a way of testing myself, and if I got bored or things don’t work out I could always go back.”
But it wasn’t just the wine and atmosphere that made Kamil choose Spain as his destination. “Madrid is amazingly gay-friendly," he says, adding that while homophobia in Poland wasn’t one of the reasons why he chose to leave, he is more at ease abroad.
“There is a sense of openness here. A different level of psychological comfort.”
For Marta and Kasia, who recently moved to Berlin where their son will go to kindergarten this year, the reasons behind their decision are much clearer. “Definitely the motive behind our emigration is that we have children together," Kasia says.
“When you have a kid, it is hard to debate what really constitutes ‘a family’. For us, we are similar to any heterosexual couple when we need to solve problems with children and face the day-to-day struggles. We are parents to them, the people who love them and are always there for them. So we should have the same rights that heterosexual families have, so that together with our children we are protected," she adds, describing how according to the Polish law, one of them is a complete stranger to their son and there is no way she could formally become his mom. That causes difficulties in everyday life, from school matters to doctors’ appointments.
Polish law does not consider the person in a same-sex couple adopting their partner’s child, as a parent of the child, because they can’t get legally married. Only in June 2019, in a precedent ruling, the provincial court in Krakow recognised two Polish women living in Britain as the parents of a child registered as a Polish citizen.
“We get those rights in Germany, we are welcomed as a rainbow family with three children,” Kasia says.
Kamil, Kasia and Marta are one of the over 2.5 million Poles who live abroad, at least according to government statistics which states that this number is an estimate, because tracking the exact number of people living and working in the member countries became impossible after Poland joined the EU in 2004.
The harder part is estimating how many LGBTQ+ emigrants left Poland. But, Ola Kaczorek from Love Does Not Exclude, an association which works towards marriage equality in Poland, points out that LGBTQ+ people often don’t leave only in search of better jobs. “There is a difference between emigrating only for economic reasons, and emigrating in search of safety and dignity. In Poland, there is no way of formalising same-sex relationships, no legal way of addressing hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity,” she says.
“People don’t want to live in a country where everyday they hear from politicians, columnists, journalists, that they are not welcome, or somehow worth less.”
That has recently become an even more acute problem. As the European elections of 2019 were approaching, the current ruling right-wing party Law and Justice, said gay people are the main threat to the country. They even went as far as arresting a woman who was putting up posters of Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo for ‘offending religious feelings.’
In May, a young trans activist Milo Mazurkiewicz took her own life. An event held in her memory — hanging a rainbow flag from a bridge in Warsaw — was interrupted by aggressive passersby.
Trans people face higher risk of violence and discrimination, according to a study on the social situation of LGBTQ+ people in Poland conducted between 2015 to 2016.
“It’s about affirmation of same sex relationships, to which we say no, especially when it concerns our children. Hands off our kids!," said Law and Justice’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński speaking to his supporters at an election rally this March. Similar discourse is used by an anti-choice NGO Fundacja Pro-Prawo do Życia, which launched a “Stop Pedophilia” campaign, in which they claim there is a link between homosexualism and pedophilia.
Kaczyński, along with other conservative politicians and activists, also condemned the decision of Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski to sign the LGBTQ+ declaration, a document in which he promised to undertake concrete steps to work towards a more equal society.
“People were protesting against the declaration, but they didn’t even know what was in it. The aim of the declaration is simply to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination,” comments Marta.
Kaczyński’s words provoked reaction from a number of activists. Among them were the parents of LGBTQ+ kids, who wrote an open letter to the party’s leader. “The presence of LGBTQ+ people in society have been falsely ideologised. They are treated as a threat to the society. But our children are not the real threat here, but rather this kind of narrative, which you are also using, Mr. Kaczyński. And we can experience it in a very painful and personal way.”
The letter, as well as Trzaskowski signing the declaration, point to an unprecedented wave of Polish LGBTQ+ activism that is currently taking place. This year, pride parades are planned in 17 cities in Poland, and in six of them for the first time ever. According to an Ipsos public opinion poll conducted for OKO.press, the general attitude is changing. The poll found that 56% of Poles are in favour of introducing same-sex civil partnerships.
“Paradoxically, the negative language used by politicians can create support for us—people who until now didn’t have an opinion are becoming more supportive, simply because they disagree with what is happening," explains Kaczorek. “But this is also thanks to the hard work of many people—NGOs, or simply LGBTQ+ people who might not be activists, but have the courage to come out.”
Even though attitudes might be changing, there is still a lot left to do, and neither Kamil, nor Marta and Kasia are thinking about moving back to Poland anytime soon, despite the emigration process not always being easy.
“We used to be an LGBTQ+ minority, and now we are a Polish minority,” explains Kasia. “We are in a foreign country, we have to learn the rules, understand the mentality.”
“Living in Poland, for many years I had to fight," Kamil says. “And then I decided I just want to enjoy my life.”
*Some names have been changed as per the interviewee's request.