Growing Up Gay in Poland Made Me an Activist
Photo: Pawel Maczeweski
This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
Growing up, I felt embarrassed to say I was from Poland. Equality and tolerance are fairly foreign concepts in my country, especially when it comes to gay people. Now, though, I realise that the bad experiences I had growing up are what have driven me to fight for the future of Poland.
I was born in Poznań, a city of around 1.4 million people; my family lived on the outskirts of town for about ten years before we moved away. I often go back to see my grandparents, visit my favourite anarchist bookstore, ZEMSTA (Revenge), and to attend the annual Potato Festival. I do love potatoes.
I was in Year 6 when I realised I was gay. When I came out to my mum, she replied, "Oh yeah, I know." It was a bit harder for my father to accept – though, eventually, he was fine with it. My family life seemed to go a lot smoother after I came out to my parents.
Unfortunately, life wasn't so easy at school. For the longest time, it felt like my strict primary school in Poznan was focused on teaching me ways to avoid discovering myself or the world. The school focused heavily on patriotism and gender norms. Watching my male friends trying to chat up girls – especially the way the guys seemed to force themselves into the girls' lives – just looked violent to me. Since coming out at school didn't seem like an option, I decided to get a girlfriend, and even maintained a relationship for half a day.
Soon after my short-lived faux-romance, I came out publicly, and from there my life became very hard. I was attacked and beaten up badly – a reminder that, in Polish society, it's rarely a good idea to stray from the perceived norm. Luckily, my mother removed me from that school.
In Warsaw, I went to an amazing multicultural high school named after Jacek Kuroń – a former opposition leader in the People's Republic of Poland. My new classmates insisted on always reassuring me of their tolerance – some would even go as far as saying they had always wanted to meet a gay person. I understood that by assimilating in this way I risked becoming their token gay friend rather than just being a normal person who happened to be gay.
Before moving to Warsaw, I'd probably read about four books in my entire life. But thanks to my new school's broad curriculum I was introduced to amazing works on sexuality, history and revolution. Access to a wide range of reading materials taught me about activism and ways we can fight for a society that operates differently. Those books didn't offer a way for me to escape the outside world; it was the complete opposite – they were tools I could use to define myself within my community and country, and raise my social awareness. I didn't feel so alone anymore.
One of my teachers got me into philosophy, and I was later invited to take part in the Philosophy Olympics – a national philosophy competition that has been running for 30 years, offering the winners academic support if they choose to study the subject further. As part of the competition I wrote a critique of the anti-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. To my complete shock, I was selected as one of the winners. We were invited to an event where the former mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Walz, would be handing out the prize. The problem was, the mayor had never shown any support towards the LGBTQ community; every year she was invited to Warsaw Pride, but she never accepted. For the first time in my life, I was presented with a real opportunity to use my platform to speak out on an important issue.
My initial plan was to disrupt the ceremony by wearing a balaclava and waving a rainbow flag, but my philosophy teacher was right to talk me out of that plan – though I still intended to be heard. So when I got to the microphone at the ceremony, I turned to the deputy mayor – Hanna hadn't shown up – and explained that, as a gay person who studies and pays taxes in this city, and who will soon be working, I wouldn't feel right accepting an award from someone who hasn't shown any interest in protecting the interests of the gay community.
I'm now studying at the University of Warsaw (UW), where a group of far-right campaigners turned up one day on campus to hand out fascist propaganda. In response, some friends and I created the Student Antifascist Committee.
These elements have always been in our country – it's just that the current ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice, has given license to other fascist movements. My friends and I were determined not to allow bigotry to spread at our university.
Our committee is working to fight all instances of hate crimes that take place at UW, starting with denouncing the fascist literature that was spread across campus and blocking the leader of the far-right National movement, Robert Winnicki, from speaking on campus. The government wants to tighten the anti-abortion law, so we will oppose the introduction of any pseudoscience into curriculums that aims to support their efforts. We're ready to blockade faculties and campuses, and shut down the whole university if needed.
Still, we need to reach out to more like-minded people at UW and educate them on why they should be engaged and how to organise. Traditionally, Polish politics is boring, alienating and often repugnant. It was what I grew up with all those years ago in Poznań, trying to fit in in my ultra-conservative school. Today, my friends and I are trying to offer a true alternative that will change Poland and the world.