BERLIN — When he took up a yearlong writing residency in Berlin earlier this year, novelist Jacek Dehnel judged the chances he’d return to Poland afterward as 50-50.
His home country already did not feel like a place where one could live comfortably as a gay man. More than 100 towns and cities had passed resolutions declaring themselves free of LGBT “ideology.”
While Pope Francis has called for civil union laws, staunchly Catholic Poland does not recognize civil unions nor Dehnel’s overseas marriage to his husband.
While Dehnel has been in Berlin, things have only gotten more difficult for Poland’s LGBT community. Anti-gay rhetoric from the ruling Law and Justice party — alongside Catholic Church leaders in Poland and state-controlled media — has intensified. President Andrezej Duda has described the push for gay rights as “even more destructive” than communism. A politician who called LGBT people “not equal to normal people” is serving as education minister.
With Poland ranked worst place in the European Union to be gay or trans in 2020, some Poles have found themselves facing the dilemma of whether to stay and fight or to escape, with Berlin’s thriving alternative scene just 60 miles west.
Some activists have felt galvanized by the pressure. They’ve launched a loud and unapologetic a campaign of civil disobedience and regularly face off against Polish police. Others have joined the flow of those leaving the country, in a phenomenon rights groups say is new and notable.
“For the first time, it’s an opinion that’s widely expressed and accepted,” said Pawel Knut, a lawyer with Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia. “That maybe it’s the right time to leave, because the situation is really bad.”
Dehnel and his husband are among those who decided they could no longer call Poland home. More than a dozen of their friends and acquaintances are in various stages of leaving, as well. The fear is that gay rights in Poland are slipping toward the direction of notoriously anti-LGBT Russia.
“Being a public figure, and gay and quite outspoken about gay issues, frankly, I think it’s not really safe to be in Warsaw anymore,” said Dehnel, 40, who has won several Polish literary awards. “We’ve decided to move out, but it’s not easy, it’s not pleasant, and it’s not something I was looking for.”
Gay rights in Poland have seen waves of progress and setbacks.
Poland decriminalized same-sex sexual activity in 1932, decades ahead of much of Europe and in defiance of the Catholic church.
But fast forward to the late 1980s, when police and the secret service worked to build a database of information on gay individuals in what was dubbed Operation Hyacinth.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the situation for Poland’s queer community gradually became better, said Campaign Against Homophobia’s Knut, even if promises for civil partnerships and other protections never materialized.
But Knut said progress ground to a halt in 2015, when the populist Law and Justice party won a governing majority. Parliament shut down debates on civil partnerships. Duda vetoed an act that would have given new rights to trans people. Anti-LGBT rhetoric proliferated.
“2015 was the moment the big switch happened,” Knut said. “I’m talking about regression, a gradual dismantling of protections — and this protection was not great to start with.”
Katrin Hugendubel, advocacy director for the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, said increasing levels of discrimination from the government and religious leaders has created a “dangerous and unwelcoming” environment.
“We know that LGBTI people in Poland do not feel safe at the moment, and we’ve heard from activists that many are considering the possibility of moving abroad, as they don’t see a future for them in the country,” she said.
For Jan Chodorowski, 27, the environment became intolerable after June’s presidential election, when Law and Justice’s Duda ran on a platform that demonized the LGBT community and prevailed over the more liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
“We were the perfect enemy,” said Chodorowski.
“Something broke in me,” he said, drinking a beer in the eastern Berlin neighborhood of Friedrichshain. “I didn’t want to stay in a place of that sort.”
He moved to Berlin with two straight friends, with safety among the motivating factors.
“It felt a bit shameful, in a sense, leaving,” he said, but people understood.
The anti-LGBT rhetoric from public figures has filtered down to the street, said Karol Adamowicz.
“It started to be more often you’d hear some insults,” said the 24-year-old, who identifies as nonbinary and prefers the pronoun “they.” “Not super serious violence, but when you get on the bus and someone calls you [an expletive], queer or a whore. I guess that people felt that they were allowed to do it.”
The worst incident happened in 2016, when Adamowicz was followed home in Warsaw, attacked and left bleeding on the sidewalk. The attackers hurled anti-LGBT abuse.
Adamowicz, who was brought up in a religious family with nine siblings, finally decided to leave Poland a year ago, with hopes of finding greater freedom abroad. But the pandemic has limited the options. Plans to get a job in a vegan restaurant in Berlin — sometimes jokingly referred to as the “gay capital of Poland” — fell through. A booked flight to Montreal to claim asylum was canceled. Now Adamowicz is considering a return to Poland, to work and save money.
“On the one hand, I feel like I’m somehow obligated to stay and fight for rights. But on the other hand, I know we can’t get it right now,” they said. “Change is impossible.”
Gay rights activists who have remained in Poland might well disagree that the situation is hopeless. Their movement has hardened as their community has come under attack.
The face of this newly energized movement is Małgorzata Szutowicz, or “Margot,” head of Stop Bzdurom, which translates to Stop Bulls*** and describes itself as a “radical, feminist, queer collective.”
Forty-seven activists were detained in August, as police tried to take Szutowicz into pretrial detention on charges she had slashed the wheels of a truck and assaulted the driver. The trucks, which drive through cities with loudspeakers and equate homosexuality to pedophilia, have been a flashpoint.
The arrests were dubbed by some the “Polish Stonewall,” in reference to the New York riots that shaped the U.S. gay rights movement. Since then, activists have painted the sides of churches with the names of teenagers who killed themselves after being bullied because of their sexual orientation.
“People are angry,” said Bart Staszewski, a prominent activist.
Staszewski has traveled around Poland affixing “LGBT Free Zone” signs alongside official markers in areas that have passed resolutions taking aim at “LGBT ideology.” He said his goal is to raise awareness. He has come under fire from the Polish government, which says it misleads the public by giving the impression the towns have put up the signs themselves.
The “nonbinding” resolutions declared by the councils in question “represent the views of local officials on issues of moral salience,” the Polish embassy in Washington said in a recent statement.
Staszewski said he doesn’t judge those who want to leave Poland. “I’m just terrified we are losing our kids,” he said. “It’s horrible. But we just have one life, and people are not born activists.”
Personally, he said, he sees the current situation as an opportunity.
More overt anti-LGBT rhetoric has meant more international scrutiny. Last month, presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the “LGBT-free zones.” In her first state of the European Union address, European Council president Ursula von der Leyen said the resolutions had no place in Europe, and the E.U. denied funding to six towns that supported anti-LGBT resolutions. The U.S. ambassador to Poland has weighed in, along with envoys from 50 countries. Things feel energized, Staszewski said.
Over the past week, mass protests against stricter abortion laws have brought thousands to the streets. Women’s rights activists have also taken aim at the church, once considered sacrosanct, with activists disrupting Mass and spraying graffiti. Rainbow flags have flown at the demonstrations.
“The church’s position before was holy,” said Staszewski, who has also taken part in the feminist pro-choice demonstrations. “The priests were untouchable.”
Now, in small towns in Poland, you see young women openly questioning priests, he said. He calls it a cultural revolution, and he hopes the breaking of long-standing taboos will mark a turning point when it comes to the influence of the church and LGBT rights.
“It’s time to riot,” he said.
— — —
The Washington Post’s Dariusz Kalan in Budapest contributed to this report.