For many, the immigrant experience can be best described as the state of existing on the peripheries of two cultures, none of which truly feel like home. Despite attempts at assimilation, immigrants often feel like perpetual “Others” in their adopted countries, while slowly becoming outsiders in their birth countries as well. As a queer member of a diaspora immigrant community, my recent travels to my country of birth have left me with more questions than answers.

The diaspora generation, especially those who left at a young age, often yearn for the land that they were forced to abandon, often unwillingly. Sadly, the long-awaited diasporic “homecoming” based on romanticized and nostalgic recollections far from current reality, often disappoints.

My family’s history in Poland is complex, with roots stemming to the 1947 forced resettlement of ethnic Ukrainians in Operation Vistula or “Akcja Wisla.” As members of the Ukrainian ethnic minority, we were scattered throughout the western and northern parts of Poland, in addition to earlier deportations from Ukraine. In later years, both the Polish and Ukrainian governments condemned this action as a violation of human rights. Although great strides have been taken by both communities, in parts of the country, deep resentments remain.

My family left Poland in the late 1980s for Canada, where we believed that we would be able to practice our culture and speak our language without repercussions.

pride flag in business window

Sadly, history has revealed that many of those who face intolerance often perpetrate intolerance themselves. To the queer community, Eastern Europe is tolerant at best; many continue to live their truth quietly. This unfortunately applies to the queer immigrant community of the Canadian diaspora as well. Seeing the parallels to the ghosts of the past has been challenging as I recently returned “home” to Poland and Ukraine. Despite my preparations, I am never quite ready for the profound shift that occurs in the way I navigate society based on my gender, sexual orientation, and class, the second the plane makes its final descent.

After three months in Eastern Europe, I left Poland in October following the recent re-election of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS or Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) ruling party. For many, the mood was somber, with safety concerns surrounding LGBTQ+ citizens and travelers.

Increased Homophobic Rhetoric

Founded in 2001, the conservative PiS party came to power in 2015, amidst anti-migrant rhetoric and Islamophobia. 2019’s campaign focused on strengthening family values, against which “LGBT ideology” is considered a “threat to Polish identity” and the “nation” according to PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczynski.

2019 marked an increasing rise in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric throughout the country. With explicit support of the ruling party, approximately 30 municipalities declared themselves “LGBT free zones,” with highest concentrations in the southeastern and northeastern parts of Poland.

In June, over 150 towns participated in the March for Life and the Family (Marsz dla Życia i Rodziny), under banners of “Don’t allow sex education in schools” and “save our children.” Since 2006, this annual march “for the purpose of public testimony of the basic value of human life from conception and a family based on the marriage of a woman and a man, open to receiving and raising children” has steadily increased in popularity.

lady with an ermine painting on red wall
Da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” at Krakow National Museum.

In July, right-wing weekly Gazeta Polska, announced plans for distributing LGBT-free zone” stickers.” Although a court ruling, barred the newspaper from distributing the stickers, Editor-in-chief Tomasz Sakiewicz called the decision fake news” and vowed to continue the battle in court.

On July 7, a Polish Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda stated that “LGBT campaigners had “insulted Christian values, profaned sacred symbols and uttered blasphemies against God,” adding that the Equality March, Warsaw’s annual Pride Parade, was “an initiative alien to our land and society” and “an act of discrimination against Catholics.” 

On July 20, the northwestern city of Bialystok, the seat of Wojda’s archdiocese and a stronghold for the PiS Party, held its first ever Pride March. Its 1,000 marchers were met by violence and protest. Although Archbishop Wojda later called for a halt to the violence during the March, many feel that this was much too little, too late.

Public Response

Despite these current events, statistics have shown that as a whole, Polish society is becoming more tolerant. According to a 2017 CBOS poll, 24% of Poles were not in opposition to the LGBTQ+ community, as opposed to 41% in 2001.

Opposing politicians have begun drawing similarities to rhetoric used to incite violence against the Jewish, Roma, and other minority populations during the Holocaust. The 1946 Kielce pogrom, in which anti-Jewish sentiment led to the death of many citizens, is frequently mentioned as a warning.

Many citizens and organizations are rising up against the tide of intolerance as well.

beachgoers having picnic
A picnic on Warsaw’s Poinatowka beach.

Founded in Warsaw in 2001, the NGO, Campaign Against Homophobia (Kampania Przeciw Homofobii) advocates for legal and social equality for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland. They also have branches in KrakówWrocławŁódźToruń and Silesia. Their mission promises to “work for homosexual and bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people … through political, social and legal advocacy…”

In addition, Warsaw-based Love Does Not Exclude Association (Stowarzyszenie Miłość Nie Wyklucza) has been working since 2009 to introduce marriage equality for all in Poland. On February 18, 2019, Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski signed a document negotiated by Love Does Not Exclude, guaranteeing the fulfillment of the basic needs of the LGBTQ+ community. It promises to create an interventional shelter for at risk LGBTQ+ youth, community centre, a “Lighthouse Keeper” project, which aims to prevent discrimination based on gender in schools, and the introduction of a local crisis intervention system, which will provide emergency legal and psychological support to the community. He has also promised to implement World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on tolerance education.

Poland’s Pride Movements 

Amidst the turmoil, on June 8, 2019, Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, held Central and Eastern Europe’s largest Pride Parade. Founded in 2001, Warsaw’s Equality Parade (Parada Równości) is known as the first Pride Parade to take place in a former Communist bloc country.

The parade was banned in 2004 and 2005, by Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s former president and PiS co-founder, when he was Warsaw mayor.

Warsaw’s current mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, stated, “Not everyone has to go to the Equality Parade, but everyone should respect minority rights.” He stressed, “It’s really important for me that Warsaw be open, that Warsaw be tolerant.”

Despite the controversy, 20 pride parades were planned for 2019 alone.

Safety

So is it safe?

My experience is by no means universal. Despite being born in Poland, my ties to the country have diminished over the years. I cannot fully speak for a place to which I no longer have legitimate claim.

However, Poland is not unique to increasing violence due to homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. A wave of intolerance has been slowly increasing around the globe. 

Poland is a beautiful country with a great deal to offer, but for LGBTQ+ travelers, especially those who are visible, in this current political climate, I would advise keeping on top of developments. As elsewhere, larger cities, including Warsaw, Krakow, and the beautiful port city of Gdansk, offer travelers attitudes that are more tolerant.

I have been asked why I keep returning to a place that has repeatedly made it clear that I am not welcome. The inexplicable bond one feels with their place of birth is difficult to explain; so much of my identity is tied to this country. The sights, the sounds, and the smells trigger memories that no other place in the world can ever hope to recreate. As much as I struggle with my thoughts on an intellectual level, emotionally, Poland will always be my “home.”

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Natalia Iwanek
Natalia Iwanek is a queer Toronto-based freelance copy editor, proofreader, and writer. With a passion for literature and languages, this self-proclaimed bookworm devours and collects books at an alarming pace. Originally hailing from Poland, with Ukrainian ancestry, perpetually-traveling Natalia was raised in Toronto and has lived in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Guatemala, and Argentina.