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Kuba Ryniewicz photographer Polish LGBTQ+ Tosia Leniarska
Tosia LeniarskaPhotography by Kuba Ryniewicz

“Stop the Bullshit”: What It’s Like Being Young, Polish and LGBTQ+

Photographer Kuba Ryniewicz and writer Martin Onufrowicz talk homophobia, activism and identity with members of the Polish queer community

Lead ImageTosia LeniarskaPhotography by Kuba Ryniewicz

For the past year, Poland has been making international headlines due to the explicitly homophobic and transphobic rhetoric spewed by the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice. Hate speech towards the queer community underpinned the campaign to re-elect incumbent president Andrzej Duda, who described LGBTQ+ rights as an “ideology even more destructive than communism”, and openly supported the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ dotted around nearly a third of the country.

The situation reached its peak on August 7 last year, when the police violently arrested 48 people in Warsaw. The group were protesting the court-ordered pre-trial detention of Margot, an activist from the Stop Bzdurom [Stop the Bullshit] queer collective who had damaged a truck for blasting statements comparing homosexuality to paedophilia through its speakers. The August clashes attracted condemnation from Poland-based and international human rights organisations, and led to a wave of protests in cities around the country.

More recently, the pro-LGBTQ+ rights movement scored a few big wins against the conservative rulers, giving hope and encouragement for further fighting: ‘LGBT-free zones’ started to lose their EU funding and Bart Staszewski, an activist who publicised their existence, was named as one of the ’100 emerging leaders’ by TIME magazine. To add, the District Court in Płock this month acquitted three activists accused of ‘offending religious feelings’ (the women had been prosecuted for hanging posters of Mary, Mother of Jesus, with a rainbow halo).

The Polish community is one of the largest migrant groups in the UK, with an estimated 900,000 people choosing to make Britain their home. We spoke to members of the Polish queer community living in London about what it was like for them to grow up LGBTQ+, how they feel about the homophobic and transphobic attitudes in the country, and what are they doing to change the dangerous state of affairs there.

Tosia Leniarska (lead image)

Tosia grew up in Warsaw. She moved to London four years ago and is currently completing a Masters degree in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

AnOther Magazine: What are your biggest fears connected to the events that are taking place in Poland?

Tosia Leniarska: My biggest worry is that the government actually intends to subject real people to the lived consequences of its hate-driven rhetoric – that the violence, deaths and suicides happening are not just by-products of their bigotry, but its aim. For the politicians, violence is a media narrative that can get them through the next political game. They’ve done it before with scapegoating other social groups, like refugees and migrants. It’s a common fascist tactic.

AM: While you were in Poland last summer, you started working on a few activist projects to bring attention to discrimination in the country. Could you talk a little bit about them?

TL: I collaborated with Zachary Chick and Sylvie Makower on a project that highlights the experiences of queer people living in the so-called ’LGBT-free zones’ in Poland and we are currently working on a publication and exhibition in London. We shot portraits and interviewed volunteers from small towns and villages who were really brave to speak out about their daily lives in these environments. What struck me the most was that the constant hate is so integrated into their closest surroundings, especially for those who can’t afford to move out of their towns, that they tend to disassociate from it and minimise what’s happening. They would say initially, “Oh, I’m not a good person to interview because nothing that bad has happened to me.” And then ten minutes into the conversation, I would hear stories about a priest who outed them to the whole village, or people stalking them and throwing things at their windows. Their stories have been both eye-opening and terrifying.

I’ve also been working with my friend Lisa Suh on Poradnik Sojusznicy [An Ally’s Guidebook], a project in collaboration with Krytyka Polityczna [Political Critique], a leftist publishing house, thankfully supported by the EU since the Polish government cut all cultural funding off. We are building an online collection of political guides that have never been accessible in Polish before – we’re translating them to reach especially those who don’t get to plug into the English-language discourse around the issues directly affecting them. Our goal is for it to act as a practical help book for everyday, low-key activist interactions, like how to talk about homophobia or racism with prejudiced family members.

Marzena Zukowska

Marzena was born in Białystok, a city in north-east Poland. At the age of six, they moved to Chicago with their family and grew up in the city’s large Polish community. Two years ago, they moved to London with their partner and co-founded the organisation Polish Migrants Organise for Change (POMOC).

AnOther Magazine: What is the purpose of your organisation?

Marzena Zukowska: Our mission is to create spaces where Polish women and non-binary folks can collaborate and build solidarity with other migrant communities in the UK and address issues such as racism, homophobia and transphobia. We have creative workshops that are very dynamic and theatre-driven, but also provide support services around immigrant rights. We know that we can’t expect someone to go to a protest outside the Polish embassy and stand up to the government if they don’t feel safe and taken care of in their day-to-day lives here. We are also focused on political education – last year me and my co-founder, Magda Fabianczyk, were part of a team that created Polonia Głosuje [Polish Immigration Votes], an initiative that aims to get the diaspora community living in the UK excited about voting in the Polish elections. 

AM: What can LGBTQ+ people living in the UK do to spark change in Poland?

MZ: First of all, I think we have to be politically engaged in what’s happening in the UK because it’s not just the homophobia and transphobia in Poland that’s an issue. It’s also the homophobia and transphobia in the UK, along with racism embedded in the government’s anti-immigrant ’hostile environment’ policies. I think it’s important for us to connect all of these issues and vote in local elections while we still have the right as EU citizens. It’s also important for us to vote in the Polish elections. In the campaigns that we’ve done with Polonia Głosuje and POMOC, we’ve seen that the engagement has only grown. In both the 2019 parliamentary election and last year’s presidential election, we had one of the highest voter turnouts in recent years. If we look at the results of the last election, we can see that more people here were voting around progressive values. We should take advantage of that and continue organising.

Veronica Carol Blades

Veronica grew up in Kwidzyn, a town in northern Poland. She moved to London ten years ago and has been working in a tattoo and piercing studio in Covent Garden ever since.

AM: What, in your view, drives the homophobic rhetoric from the Polish government?

Veronica Carol Blades: I think it’s a very carefully considered move to get more voters to support the party. Let’s not kid ourselves, the easiest way to control people is by installing in them a common feeling of hate towards someone, just the way it happened during the Holocaust with Jewish people. It’s all about making up stories and issues that are not actually there and using them to scare society. 

AM: Was your decision to move to London influenced by your gender identity?

VCB: It was one of the reasons. I was fired from the studio that I was working at back in Poland because I was told that “they don’t want any fucks in there”. So I decided that if I’m being discriminated [against] even in the place that I considered to be my ’home’, there was no point in staying in the country. Here, I was welcomed with open arms: I’ve been working in the same studio since moving to London and my life has changed for the better.

AM: What can LGBTQ+ people living in the UK do to spark change in Poland?

VCB: We have to be visible, I think that’s very important. As a teenager, I didn’t see people like me in the public space. The idea of being trans was introduced to me as a way for men to ‘dress up and trick other men into sleeping with them’, which definitely made me more hesitant about accepting myself. So in order to change that, I think that we have to show ourselves, show that we are living happy lives and we are deserving of that. And it’s important to remember that if someone does not accept you, you don’t have to keep them in your life – you’re not worth less than they are and you don’t have to accept their abuse.

Nico Carmandaye

Nico was born in Białystok, a city in northeast Poland. He’s been living in London for the past five years and is a stylist, casting director, art performer and co-founder of Żurnal Zine.

AnOther Magazine: Looking back, how do you think your move to the UK has affected your self-acceptance?

Nico Carmandaye: Being queer in Poland often comes with an underlying and constant feeling of oppression. You can get beaten up on the street just for being gay. Before I moved to London, I thought it was normal – but it’s not. It’s kind of like I was suffering from some weird form of Stockholm Syndrome. Being LGBTQ+ is especially difficult where I’m from because the eastern part of Poland tends to be the most conservative. Coming to London opened my eyes to the idea that your sexuality, no matter what it is, is something to be celebrated. This, in turn, made me realise how inherently wrong the situation in Poland is, especially now with the Law and Justice government. 

AM: How are you trying to help out the queer community in Poland?

NC: I am as vocal as possible about what’s happening back home both online and in my day-to-day life, and we are very focused on using our zine to promote LGBTQ+ rights. In 2019, we published a feature that was shot by our co-founder, Emilia, who attended the Pride March in Białystok. This march kind of broke the internet and got worldwide attention as it was targeted by right-wing, anti-queer protesters who violently attacked the peaceful marchers. We also recently collaborated on a sculpture with queer activists from the Tolerado foundation in Gdańsk, and used the raised proceeds to aid the LGBTQ+ support services in Poland.

Paul Perelka

Paul grew up in Jawor, a town in southwest Poland. He moved to London in 2013 and works as a photographer and videographer. 

AnOther Magazine: What are your biggest fears regarding the situation in Poland?

Paul Perelka: I worry the most about the harm that this hateful rhetoric can do to the next generation. I’m scared that being raised in such a narrow-minded way will influence their habits and opinions, as they are still in their development stage.

AM: Is there anything that makes you feel optimistic about the future of the country?

PP: I’m super impressed with the work that Stop Bzdurom and other LGBTQ+ activist organisations have been doing. I wouldn’t be able to be as brave as they are – I would be scared of being assaulted. It’s really empowering to see them fight for our rights and stand up against the lies and populist talk perpetuated by the leading party.

Anna Maria Koronkiewicz

Anna Maria was born in Białystok, a city in northeast Poland. She moved to London five years ago. She works as a film editor and is a co-founder of Żurnal Zine.

AnOther Magazine: The city that you’re from, Białystok, was the centre of violent anti-queer riots during the Pride march in 2019. How do you feel about what happened?

Anna Maria Koronkiewicz: We knew that there would be right-wingers protesting the march, but we had no idea that the scale of violence would be that bad, with bricks being thrown towards the crowd and people ganging up on the participants before and after the event. I was really scared about the safety of everyone, especially my dad and my friends. The fact that some of the protesters were school teachers was, in my opinion, completely unacceptable. Luckily, I heard that some of them have been fired, but it’s still shocking that people working with children were openly expressing such hateful views. Since it happened, I can’t look at my town the same way. Whenever I visit and go to a shop or a restaurant, I look at the people wondering which side would they be on and if they would hurt me or my friends if they had a chance. All the people that went on the march and still live in Białystok are so brave.

AM: What can LGBTQ+ people living in the UK do to change the status quo in Poland?

AMK: There are protests that are taking place outside the Polish Embassy in London or fundraisers for Stop Bzdurom and other activist organisations that we can support. I think it’s also really important to speak out about the events in Poland as much as possible so that global media cover what happens. The more people know and condemn these actions, the harder it will be for the government to justify what they are doing. I feel like it’s also important to talk about these issues with your friends and family, especially if they’re conservative. I try to be open about my sexuality and I always tell my family, what difference does it make if I’m in love with a girl or a boy, as long as I’m happy?

Robert Kocur AKA Polka Dot

Robert was born in Rybnik, a city in southwest Poland. They moved to London in 2013. They are a drag performer known as Polka Dot and co-founder of Slav 4 U, a queer club night celebrating Polish pop culture.

AnOther Magazine: Looking back, how do you think moving to London influenced your self-acceptance about being queer?

Robert Kocur: I think that when I arrived here and encountered this open and progressive environment, I came to a conclusion that in Poland I was wearing a ’straight jacket’ – I was pretending to be someone I’m not. After coming here, I realised that being queer, being femme or being a drag queen is not something to be ashamed of. Now I feel that the ‘straight jacket’ is off and I’m the person that I was always meant to be.

AM: What’s the message that you want to convey with the Slav 4 U parties?

RK: Initially, it started off as putting a comedic spin on Polish culture – I had already been lip-syncing to songs by Polish divas in my drag performances and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. However, after the first Slav 4 U – which I organised last November at The Glory [in Hackney] – I realised that there’s much more to it. After the party, a girl walked up to me and said, “Polka, what you have done is so phenomenal and necessary because it was the first time that, as a Polish woman and a lesbian, I could hold my girlfriend’s hand and feel like I’m in Poland, except that I don’t have to be scared about being assaulted by anyone.” These words reassured me that what I was doing is important and made me understand that this club night had become a safe space for other Polish LGBTQ+ people to be themselves. Furthermore, our audience is usually half Polish and half British, so the event also became a great way to showcase the beauty of Polish culture and fight the negative stereotypes of us that are often perpetuated by the British media.

Natalia Podgorska

Natalia was born in Warsaw. She moved to London in 2010 to go to university and stayed. She’s a visual artist.

AnOther Magazine: Was your sexual identity a big factor in your decision to move to London?

Natalia Podgorska: Not really! When I decided to move, it was mostly because I really wanted to do a photography course here. I was certain that I would get my degree, go back after three years and get a great job because I had graduated from a university in London. The hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community was nowhere near the level that it has reached today, so I was actually convinced that the situation would only become better. But year after year, especially after the Law and Justice party started to rule in 2015, things started to get more and more awful, and at this point, I’m afraid I might never be able to move back and have a decent life there. It breaks my heart.

AM: What, in your view, is fuelling the homophobic rhetoric of the Law and Justice party?

NP: My theory is that Polish society is not used to living in peace. If we look at the history of the past four centuries, every 50 years or so we have some sort of catastrophe and all of our inner hatred has its release, such as the German invasion and the Holocaust or living in Communism under the influence of Russia. And when we don’t have this common enemy to hate, we look for it within the borders of our own country. Also, the ruling party is using this open discrimination towards the community to drive the attention away from actual issues, such as the economic crisis caused by the pandemic or the problem of paedophilia within the Polish Catholic church.

Weronika and Milena Szymanek

Weronika and Milena were born in Częstochowa, a city in southern Poland known for its strong links to the Catholic church, thanks to the famous Jasna Góra Monastery. At the age of 11, they moved with their family to Chester. They’ve been living in London since 2012 and are currently working on a joint music project,

AnOther Magazine: How are the recent events in Poland influencing the way you feel about your national identity?

Milena Szymanek: It’s quite interesting because I’ve been with my girlfriend for three years now and I have no desire to go to Poland and show her where I’m from because of how conservative the society is. I don’t think I would feel safe being there, which sucks because that is a significant part of us. We’ve lived in the UK now longer than we have in Poland, but we still feel Polish.

Weronika Szymanek: We definitely had the privilege of being here and growing up in a much more accepting environment. Looking at the events from the outside, I just find it embarrassing. I can’t believe that those actions, such as calling gay people ‘paedophiles’ or arresting protesters, are still taking place. But at the same time, it’s also really encouraging to see that people are fighting back and standing up to the system.

AM: As LGBTQ+ people living in the UK, what can we do to change the status quo in Poland?

MS: I think it’s really important to educate people around you, like your family members or colleagues, that might have different views from you. If you manage to change their minds on these subjects, that’s already a good first step.

WS: Also, spreading awareness about what’s happening to your friends here. Most of my friends are quite politically aware, but they didn’t know what the attitudes in Poland were. I think using your voice, both in real life and through social media, can open up people’s minds and make them interested in what’s going on.

Jarek Kubiak

Jarek grew up in Łódź, a city in central Poland. He moved to London in 2006. He is a co-founder of Polish Rainbow in the UK, an organisation uniting Polish LGBTQ+ immigrants. He also volunteers at Bezpieczny Rodak, an initiative launched by the Metro charity which is focused on providing HIV support and prevention education for Polish people living in the UK.

Martin Onufrowicz: When did you start Polish Rainbow in the UK, and what was your goal?

Jarek Kubiak: We started it around nine years ago when we noticed that a significant amount of Polish people migrating to the UK identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. At first, we were organising social events, such as Christmas parties, and going together as a group to London’s Pride marches. Then, in 2019, when we began to notice that the attitudes of discrimination in Poland were on the rise, we decided to take more political action. We started to organise protests outside the Polish Embassy in London, write petitions and connect with other activist organisations, such as POMOC (Polish Migrants Organise for Change), the feminist group Dziewuchy London or KOD (Committee for the Defence of Democracy). In 2020, the situation has become even worse, with the government starting to spew lies about LGBTQ+ being an ’ideology’ or implementing censorship and brutality that is very similar to the period of the martial law back in the 1980s. Our goal is to show that even though we decided to move out of the country, we haven’t forgotten about our brothers and sisters fighting on the front lines back in Poland, and we want to give them as much support as we can.

Hair: Roxane Attard. Make-up: Joanna Banach. Production assistant: Grace Snellock.