To be out and LGBTQ in a staunchly Catholic, politically conservative country like Poland is to summon an unlikely well of resilience while waiting for social tides to change. As journalist Robert Rient writes in the introduction to OUT: LGBTQ Poland, out today on The New Press, those tides are indeed changing. Between increasingly visible pride celebrations and queer cultural products, out celebrities and allies and LGBTQ rights organizations, visibility is improving, and the public tenor surrounding queerness in the country is slowly evolving. This year, an IPSOS poll found that a majority of Poles are in favor of registered same-sex domestic partnerships. The country's only openly gay mayor, Robert Biedroń, is gathering support for a 2020 presidential run. At the same time, Polish culture is one "where chauvinism and misogyny, and therefore homophobia and transphobia, thrive," writes Rient.
The excerpts from OUT that follow below—which chronicles stories and portraits of LGBTQ Poles—reflect queer Poland's modern flux. Subjects recount childhoods spent battling homophobia and transphobia at school and home, and adult lives lived to whatever degree of transparency and self-embrace one can find. The portraits, which photographer Maciek Nabrdalik writes were inspired by passport photos, feature subjects whose faces are exposed or concealed according to the degree of comfort they feel being publicly out. The effect is a chilling reminder that to deny oneself an openly queer existence is to shroud oneself from the world.
When I was a child, I knew I was a boy. I have an older brother, and most of my mother’s friends have sons. I didn’t grow up around girls. I have an intimate memory of walking into the bathroom and seeing my brother pee. I didn’t sit on the toilet seat; instead, I tried to pee standing, just like him. It was the first moment I realized that something was wrong. I was five years old.
I fully understood what was going on with me when my breasts started to grow and I had to start wearing a bra. “Jesus,” I thought after I put on my first bra, and I knew it was a done deal. Until then, I had believed that maybe something would change. That was my hope. But nothing changed. Nothing could change. And then came my period. Every moment of growing up felt like a nail in my coffin. I was being nailed up. Bang, bang, bang.
If I had been born in a different time, I might have found support. Nowadays, the younger generation can get all their information from the internet. But my generation? Where were we supposed to go? To a school psychologist, who either pretended not to understand or sent you to a psychiatrist? That was it. I had no one to ask, no one to talk to. I talked to a school psychologist in grade school. I asked her if she could see who I was, but she completely ignored me—like most people I encountered. It’s not that I was withdrawn or didn’t want to talk about myself. There was no one anywhere on the receiving end. I felt completely alienated, even from my parents. I communicated it in different ways to them, and I don’t believe that they never saw it. They still pretend they don’t, and I’m forty now. I’ve often heard them describe me as a tomboy, but they never asked me why I am the way I am. And I won’t bring it up either, because they are both about seventy years old now. I don’t think they would survive this conversation. I always say I have a grudge against them. I do. I can’t imagine having a child, noticing this about her, and not asking her about it. Not a word.
My mom thinks that a gay man is someone who wears black leather chaps and has sex in bushes. That’s why she’s terrified her son is gay. Maybe she’s afraid that people in the street will point at her. My brother, after I told him, said he didn’t have any problem with it, but he asked me not to tell anyone in Warka because it would cause a hassle for Mom. My mom is a hairstylist. In the salon’s glory days, people would recognize her in the street. She knew the mayor and the local “celebrities,” which made her think she was a public personality. She could get things done. She would help people. She had worked hard to earn her reputation, and maybe she was afraid that people would say she had failed as a mother.
I recognize gay people by their gaze. We look at each other longer if we’re interested in each other. But there’s also a tension between us. If you’re not reconciled with the fact that you’re gay, then coming across a gay person who is and who strongly presents as gay makes you afraid they might recognize that you’re gay. So you do everything to ridicule that person or to separate yourself from him. You might, for instance, become a gay nationalist with swastika tattoos. I know a person like that. He goes to nationalist marches, throws a Molotov cocktail into the crowd, while as a gay man he comes across as good company and a nice guy.
I’ve recently been thinking about whether I should start anew, in a new place. Somewhere, like in Spain, where straight men can express their feelings toward each other. They can embrace or hug each other because they’re united in their fraternity.
Artur Barbara Kapturkiewicz
I am a man living in a woman’s body, and I bear a grudge against the Catholic Church. Its teachings continue to destroy the lives of LGBTQ people. The catechism describes being LGBTQ as a sin, a handicap. It says that LGBTQ people are worse than heterosexual human beings. That, to me, is unacceptable. I am a father of three, a pediatrician, and I know how damaging this message can be to one’s upbringing. It’s unbelievable that even now the Church can use language like this, talking about the higher-than-average propensity for sin among the LGBTQ community. It feeds the hatred of parishioners, which spreads to people outside the Church.
I belong to the Catholic Church. I was baptized. I attend Sunday Mass every week. I don’t see why I should be removed from the fellowship of the church. I could decide to join another, more open Christian church, but why would I? I don’t get it. Instead, I feel I have a duty to do something for, to fix, my Catholic community. Wiara i Tęcza (Faith and the Rainbow) was founded to let everyone—but above all, all those humiliated and demeaned lesbians, gays, transgender, and bisexual people—know that they are beautiful and good, that they can have a wonderful life, that if their relationships are based on love then they are beautiful and valuable to their own lives and to the whole society. This should be considered the good of the Church. Wiara i Tęcza was established in order to appreciate people, to lift them up, to invite them into the Church if they still want to be part of it. We want to support one another’s growth and provide companionship. To those who were raised to be afraid of us and who think that we are monsters, we want to show that we are human beings, we want them to get to know us, we want to persuade them to change their mind.
I’m thirty, and it’s the first time I’ve felt a coherent and grounded sense of self, which has to do with my sexual consciousness. It took years. Now, I’ve tasted freedom, and I know how it feels to be yourself, and I’ll never give that up. Coming to this realization has been painful, especially in the face of Poland’s religious establishment and oppressive society.
My life up to this point involved desperately trying to find out who I truly was. My family’s views are mixed. On the one hand, they vote left, but on the other, they are deeply religious. My mom is Roman Catholic, my dad Pentecostal. He was supposed to become a Pauline monk, but he got my mom pregnant and wasn’t ordained. I wasn’t allowed to say at dinner that I had a girlfriend or, even worse, to invite her for Christmas, but I finally told my mom I didn’t want to be referred to in the family as the old spinster with her cat who hadn’t been lucky enough to find a man. I also told my mother that I was happy. I lost contact with her after that. My mother is waiting for me to apologize to her and get married. That’s not an option. I actually don’t mind losing touch with her. That way, I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not.
In hindsight, I realize that I fell in love with girls when I was twelve. I just thought it was friendship. Later, toward men I acted like a nasty bitch, but it was because I wasn’t myself. I’d been in a relationship with a man for a few years when for the first time I had a dream about having sex with a woman. The dream was so realistic and so different from what I’d known that I woke up dripping sweat and thought: where is this coming from? Then it turned out that reality was just like the dream. Everything started falling into place. I took a queer studies course. I pretended that I needed material for my cultural studies course, but I was there for myself, among thirty other non-heteronormative people. For me, it was madness. This is how I met my first love. We decided to move to Gdańsk together. I had a farewell party and invited my friends. I took everyone to one side and told them what happened, why I was moving, that I wanted to live openly as a lesbian. Everyone felt obligated to tell me a secret of their own in turn. A friend told me that he had kissed his sister. Another asked why I hadn’t had a relationship with her.
After that, I became more active. I found out what the situation was for LGBTQ people in Poland and how the LGBTQ community operated. It turned out that things are damn hard here, that you have to have a lot of strength to fight for yourself.
Copyright © 2017 by Maciek Nabrdalik. This excerpt originally appeared in OUT: LGBTQ Poland, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.