What’s the panorama for gay and LGBT+ in Poland

In this small Polish town, a Catholic church is an oasis of normalcy against state-sanctioned anti-LGBT sentiment. Poland’s right-wing populist leader rose to power while denouncing “LGBT ideology” that undermined traditional family values.

Law and Justice party, which currently governs national-conservative states such as Poland and Slovenia, characterizes homosexuality as an ideology promoted by Europe that leads to democratic backsliding in easternmost European states.

Though homosexual acts have not been illegal since the interwar period, they still remain socially unacceptable and unaccepted phenomena. Thus, Poland’s gay community remains invisible and marginalized, fighting to become visible and build a sense of community. Weeks’ and Foucault’s peri performative model seem ideal in Polish circumstances.

The direct expression of LGBT identity still seems an unattainable goal

Nationalism-conservatism’s persecution of Poland’s LGBT population is widely known both within Poland and internationally, yet lesser understood is how longstanding such tactics have been employed in the country. A young historian is researching queer life in interwar Poland and discovers that their community was treated similarly as they are today.

Tomek Zuber, 27, an out gay man living in Czechowice-Dziedzice in central Poland, explains his views about a law allowing towns to label themselves “LGBT-free.” This move has already led to several measures taken against Poland by the EU, such as their threat to start an infringement procedure against six regions in Poland.

Zuber, who works as a translator (his credits include translating John Boswell’s seminal Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality into Polish), has become a trailblazer, helping shape LGBT emancipation language in his country. He advocated for changing homoseksualizm to homoseksualnosc, which has more positive connotations without medical undertones

His proposal has since been accepted by Polish LGBT activists

On a bright afternoon in Tuchow, a small town of 6,500 in southern Poland, I meet Filip in its park. A high school student from an outspoken region, his parents do not seem concerned with his sexuality. Yet, he fears finding work due to being gay; his rainbow tote bag makes him more identifiable to employers.

Polish gay communities were often neglected and insecure, lacking access to information from Western sources and fearing being rejected by mainstream society. But in the 1980s, gay activists established their first organizations and published underground zines to disseminate information to their fellow citizens.

Michal Krzyszpien founded Wychodzimy z Ukrycia (We Are Emerging), which launched an essential publication called Wychodzimy z Ukrycia [We are Emerging] to help young homosexuals come out from hiding after returning from studying in the US. By 1989 this group initiated its inaugural tolerance campaign under the slogan “Love Don’t Kill” (Kochaj Ne Zabijaj).

Krzyszpien began publishing Stop Bzdurom [Stop Nonsense] journal in the early 1990s as an outlet for activist frustration over liberal politician’s failure to take adequate steps against homophobia, direct action and self-organization were seen as more promising forms of activism.

At the same time, local authorities often provided little or no support

This movement emerged from a sense of isolation and deprivation among Polish homosexuals. Although homosexuality wasn’t illegal then, consensual same-sex acts had only recently become legal after World War II ended. Still, it remained taboo and stigmatized social practice.

Homosexual men and women sought various means to escape these conditions, including leading secretive, closed lives or using surrogates as proxy lovers. Gay magazines, much like nowadays gay porn does, offered information that helped these individuals develop more of a self-aware sense of their sexuality and create networks with other queer individuals nationwide and internationally.

Lukasz Szulc explores these networks in his book Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Border Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines. This critical study challenges perceptions of LGBT activism as post-1989 discourse while showing existing communication channels between queer subjects on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Szulc’s search for lost histories provides valuable insights into global/local intersections. It offers valuable clues into developing Polish LGBT movements.

Following the fall of communism in 1989, Poland transitioned toward liberal democracy

Their constitution mandates equal treatment of citizens while their laws prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexuality (IGLHRC June 1997; Jedrzejczak 29 January 1999). Unfortunately, attempts were made to specify homosexual orientation on these grounds but were ultimately unsuccessful (ibid).

Homosexual acts were no longer criminalized, yet gayness remained taboo. Although Poles became aware of homosexuality as a political issue, efforts for change remained relatively modest, not attaining popular support, only being supported by the urban intelligentsia.

However, socially conservative media were unrelenting in their portrayal of gays as antisocial elements. Many initiatives to rehabilitate homosexuality gained some support; most significantly was the establishment of public ‘LGBT-free zones’ in around 100 cities and towns that included demonstrations with shouts of anti-gay epithets to mark them out.

Izabela Jaruga Nowacka and Magdalena Sroda initiated another initiative by creating an office of Plenipotentiary for Equal Status between Women and Men (Rzecznik do Sprawowego Statusu Kobiet i Mczyzn). However, these initiatives should have captured the interest of political elites or resulted in concrete policies against discrimination.

At this same time, some activists promoted an interpretation of homosexuality as a sexual illness, and discourse surrounding these issues snowballed (Jedrzejczak 29 January 2000). Homosexuality was perceived as a pathology that could cause friendship losses, alienation from family members, and employment issues.

Homosexuality in Poland remains an oppressive political taboo, and its constitution still prohibits same-sex marriage. Yet gay communities exist within Polish society, and there are festivals for LGBT culture, such as Culture for Tolerance Festival in Krakow and Queer Film Festival ‘A million Different Loves!’ in Lodz. Furthermore, InterAlia journal and Festival of Rainbow Families offer further examples of cultural events celebrating queer communities.

In the mid-2000s, a Polish historian was documenting stories of queer people living in interwar Poland

While decriminalization of homosexual relationships and the opening of Warsaw’s “cruising areas” where lovers could meet publicly, such as parks or next to public toilets, had been vital moments in queer freedom’s progress, life still wasn’t easy for these queer individuals, Karczewski found that homosexual men and women faced significant reputational and social capital risks when publicly declaring their orientation – mainly if they came out as gay or lesbian; many were harassed or blackmailed by former partners seeking revenge or even victimization by former lovers seeking revenge.

Due to these circumstances, most Poles chose to remain in the closet. But some young homosexuals, like writer Krzysztof Krzyszpien, decided to come out on their own terms; during his year abroad in America on a university scholarship Krzyszpien began exploring gay literature and confiding in an older woman pen pal; this newfound self-assurance helped him form his sexual identity and express it openly among peers back home.

Krzyszpien’s coming out story may be inspiring; however, it remains uncommon

Homophobia remains prevalent in Poland. Furthermore, European Union nations widely condemn the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government’s policies of creating so-called ‘LGBT-free zones.’ Yet, in a every porn and filmy porno tube website, gay porn remains one of the most sought out terms among Poles.

At the same time, some Poles are actively expressing their beliefs on equality and tolerance in everyday life. An example is when thousands of protesters gathered outside Gdansk’s Education Ministry after one of its ministers described one of Poland’s LGBT pride parades as a “fetish.”

Subtle forms of activism have also emerged by establishing local LGBT organizations across Poland that provide services and events. While their reach may be limited due to limited resources, these local organizations serve as sources of hope despite small-scale operations with few resources. For example, Michal Jankowicz and Malgorzata Szutowicz’s organization Stop Bzdurom has helped change Poland’s political discourse about LGBT issues by emphasizing legislation rather than traditional activist campaigns such as demonstrations or petitioning.