Polish Queer Fem
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
This post was originally written in 2019, freshly after the disturbing events of July in my home town of Białystok, Poland.
I'm Polish. I was born in Poland and grew up there. I left when I was 19 and 'settled' in London (in as much as my life can be called settled - as an activist, feminist and a migrant in a post-Brexit Britain).
Mine was not an unhappy childhood. Yes, my parents took over a decade to finally divorce and the process was quite painful - especially for my mother, who didn't want any of it, but she didn't really have a say... - my father forced it onto her, and his Catholic upbringing and deep faith forced it onto him in turn. He truly believed that he was doing the 'right thing' by trying to force her to stay married to him for over 10 years. That's a lot of emotional trauma for a child, and for everyone involved, although I have to admit I think about this more because that's what you're supposed to do than anything else, if I'm being honest! But the rest of my time there wasn't all that bad: I had lots of friends, countless adventures, travels, I loved school. I loved my friends. I still keep in touch with many of them, 15, 20 years later. I was lucky to have a number of teachers that I absolutely adored. They inspired me to love learning. That always stuck with me. Then I loved to party when I was a teenager. I explored a lot, experienced love, heartbreak, danced, laughed and cried with many friends. I was blessed in many, many ways. I learned to appreciate life, the good with the bad, quite early on.
But I look at Poland today, from afar - writing this from my comfortable home on a very leafy, quiet edge of London - and it fills me with such grief. Grief for simpler times. Better times, like those when I was growing up. Times that weren't perfect but far, far away from the near-Atwoodian-dystopia that the current - and recently reelected - government is trying to introduce in my homeland. Or at least that's what it seems like to me now; perhaps there were things that my younger self just didn't see, couldn't see with her naive, young eyes.
Women's rights, ideology-free education, LGBT+ human rights... the Polish government and the far-right, fanatical organisations they support are coming for it all! They dubbed it collectively 'ebola from Brussels'... and are not even ashamed to say it out loud, for the whole world to hear! Freedom, democracy, the right to make one's own life choices are a 'disease', in the eyes of some in Poland, including those ruling the country now, it appears... That way of looking at the world doesn't respect life, unless it fits its very straight, neat, stereotypical definition... it tries to control everything. Squash anything that does not conform... It still dares to call itself 'pro-life' - so much irony one doesn't know anymore whether to laugh or cry...
That's not the Poland I recall. I remember growing up in a country that was recovering from years of massive collective trauma (still fairly fresh then - I was born just 3 years before the Berlin wall came down). But it seemed to be recovering pretty well. Or at least it appeared that way then, to me... And to many others that I know. It was a Poland that I was proud of. On its way to recovery. The economy was one of the fastest growing in the region. We were 'catching up with the West', with 'civilisation' - culturally as much as economically, or so it seemed. Then. We joined the EU just before I left. Things seemed to be looking up.
The past four years have been absolutely transformational for me. I became a Polish feminist - having moved away from Poland nearly 14 years ago, I had been an 'English' feminist for most of that time, and only rediscovered my Polish roots when the Black Protest movement kicked off back home. I was seriously shook. I lost touch with Poland, politically, for about 10 years prior. And only a massive blow on the head would wake me up. Having lived in London for over a decade, largely out of touch with what was going on in Poland, I was simply baffled by how basic human rights could get attacked so suddenly and brutally, in the middle of Europe, in the UE, in this country that seemed to me so much on the right track when I left. By oh how much we take the rights that we have for granted... By how unexpected the attack was to me and many others. It felt personal, even though I don't live in Poland anymore and I don't intend on going back. Well, it's crossed my mind before all that happened. But I would never do it now - who'd want to live in a country like the Poland of today? Let alone anyone who's in any way different..? And I tick a few of those 'ebola' boxes. Even though I'd never lived in Brussels!
They came for our free press next... Then the constitution, independent judiciary... Then for sexual education... Dubbing us paedophiles for wanting to educate children on how to be safe, what consent is... Something that's considered a must in most places in Europe these days.
What next..? We wonder every day. Will they lock us up in our houses to make sure we don't talk too much and give them enough babies to make the nation 'strong again'..? What else can they do to us? How will they attack our freedoms and our lives next?
The last few months have been particularly painful. Since the 2016 Women's Strike in Poland - and the burnout that swiftly followed - I hadn't really felt so enraged. I did protest, organise and campaign, as always. That's just part of life for me by now. But I hadn't felt my feminist rage really burn since 3rd October 2016 - the date of the biggest Polish women's strike in history. On one hand, I felt I had to keep it down to stay sane, to avoid burnout. On the other, it stayed down without much effort, to be honest, as if the burnout lasted somewhat. But I just knew I needed to be careful. Do everything I could not to burn out again, and to survive as an activist in these mad times...
And I did a pretty good job. For a while at least. In fact, it's been almost 3 years - I thought I'd 'learned'. That I just 'knew better' now... Until the vicious attack on the first LGBT+ pride in my home town came. It really struck me. I felt so shocked, so hurt, so ashamed for my hometown. It's a relatively small town in Eastern Poland that has never before - to my knowledge - made it into widespread international news coverage. Now everybody knows it as the anti-LGBTQ+ capital of Poland. The whole world knows it for all the wrong reasons...
But it wasn't just shame for my country that drove me into rage that day. I suddenly realised I had also been ashamed of myself - I had been living comfortably in my super plush London closet for most of my adult life. Having the luxury of being able to tell whoever I want at any given time and enjoying the scene, just because I could, without thinking much of it; I lived in London after all. Yet keeping it secret enough not to make anyone, myself included, uncomfortable. Not really thinking about it. Being able not to think about it from a personal is political perspective. Even though this has been my motto in the feminist context for many years.
But then the attacks in my hometown have made me realise that I needed to use the privilege I had as a queer Polish person in London for some good, not just for my own needs and wants. For the first time in my life, I finally really realised that my sexuality was also political, or at least opened up to the reality. That saying it out loud could be a political act for me. How ironic that it took me nearly 33 years to realise and admit that... I had been a feminist for much of the period, after all. I still cannot shake my own surprise at realising that I'd never really thought about it that way before...
As I stood outside the Polish Embassy in London the night we organised in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ people attacked in my home town of Białystok, the realisation suddenly came over me very strongly and it was not something that I could shake. I had my public coming out that very night.
#comingout #personalispolitical #newme #queerandproud
And now I want to do more. Hence the blog. In the months that followed from that moment, I slowly started processing and realised what not talking about my sexuality openly, not thinking about it most of the time, having the luxury of just pick and choose when I do and when I don't, meant for my identity and consciousness, as an activist, but also as a person. I used to feel like I'm not really part of the LGBTQ+ community. I used to blame it on 'them', more or less subconsciously, for not 'accepting' me. Without really thinking or talking about it. And now that I do, I can finally admit to myself that I blamed them for no good reason. Because, as it turned out, I was the one that pushed my own community away by staying silent. As soon as I opened the door, I was welcomed, with open arms.
What I expected when I first came out in public was hate - not from anyone here, in London, particularly, but from some of my old 'friends' from my home town. But I got none of that. I did get plenty of love and support though.
And now I have a newly rediscovered identity. A new community. A newly expanded mission. And new creative, activist energy. Don't get me wrong, I never thought that coming out would benefit me personally. I did it because I felt like I needed to take a stand after what happened in my home town. But the reality is that I got more from it than my home town did. More than I could have ever imagined.
Now I just wish I could do more for the community in Poland. And that the people in Poland who are against us - or anyone else who is in anyway different or doesn't conform to the very narrow, accepted ways of being dictated by the catholic Church and forces that call themselves 'patriotic' - understood just how important it is for us to just be ourselves. Out and proud. It is who we are. We cannot be anyone else. We shouldn't have to hide. It stops us from being happy. From living the lives we want and need. It's killing us... Some literally... But if not hiding also kills us then what are we to do? Where are we to go? Where is safe for us when our home no longer is?
I am lucky enough to have two places I can call home (although, Brexit Britain makes me question that...). Poland is more remote than London because I haven't lived there in 14 years. And, perhaps even more so, because I no longer feel welcome... As a woman, as a feminist, as a queer person, or as an activist, not even as a vegetarian! But I still grew up there. Learned my language there. Spent some of my best years there. Made unforgettable memories there. Friendships that I still cherish. Learned how to love there...
When I turned 18, I got my first kiss from a girl. There. She'd done it many times before. To her it was a kind of birthday present for me, a bit of rather innocent fun. To me it was my moment of awakening. I finally woke up to realise, there and then, that I wasn't straight (I know, it took me long enough!). I thought I fell in love with her that day. It passed quite quickly. But the awakening is something that I will always be grateful to her for.
But what I'm trying to get at here is that it was ok then. We did it openly in the middle of my big birthday bash. Neither of us thought much of doing it there and then. Then... We were just having a good time. No reason to hide. Today, it would have probably been a different story. We would have most likely thought long and hard about expressing ourselves so openly... She would have just pulled me into the bathroom and did it there, without saying much about the location. We would have still had a great time. But we would have had to hide it. It would have had a slight flavour of fear, guilt even perhaps. The experience would have been tainted by something that we were probably too young to really unpack and understand. And yet, it would have been within us. I have very little doubt that. It would have stayed with us, for a long time, perhaps. Most likely.
I do long for Poland sometimes. That Poland from my memories growing up. I dream of the lake district. Maybe retiring there one day, or living there 6 months a year, to relax, unwind, recharge, write, paint by the lakes. Maybe with a wife, a dog, and a cat, who knows. Maybe write novels or poetry for women like me, about women like me... If only I could do that without fear paralysing me... I long for Poland that allows me to do that without thinking of the consequences.
Is that really too much to ask? To have a quiet life at some point? As a queer person? In my home country? The country I'm supposed to feel patriotic about after all... The country I'm supposed to love. And yet I can't help but fear. Because I know it would not welcome me back with open arms. Not the way I am. Too feminist. Too queer. Too much of a woman...
Where do people like me go? Where do we retire? Too Polish for Brexit Britain. Too queer for PiS Poland. I long for better days... For now, I don't belong anywhere... A no land's woman.