This LGBT+ History Month, Richard C.M. Mole, Professor of Political Sociology (UCL SSEES), researches identity, sexuality, and migration, particularly of queer individuals in Eastern Europe. In this piece, he looks at the experiences of queer Poles leaving their home towns and migrating to Warsaw or elsewhere in Europe, where they can more freely explore or express their sexuality.
Richard Mole’s new Open Access edited volume on Queer Migration and Asylum in Europe will be published by UCL Press on 8 March 2021.
While opposition to LGBT rights in Poland has lessened in recent years, it is still among the highest in the EU, the result in part of the instrumentalisation of homophobia by Polish religious figures and politicians. During his re-election campaign in 2020, for example, Andrzej Duda made repeated attacks on LGBT rights, while around 100 municipalities have declared themselves to be LGBT-free zones. In such contexts, queer Poles have to decide how to respond to situations in which they are constructed as a threat to society and religious values. For many migration is a key strategy to escape homophobia at home.
In my research on Polish queer migration to London, it was possible to make out two main migration pathways. While some of my interviewees moved directly from their home towns to London, most relocated from the small towns they grew up in to larger cities – primarily to the nation’s capital, Warsaw – before then moving to the UK. As Ryszard put it succinctly:
Migration from small towns to cities is a common experience of LGBT people the world over and the motivations of queer Poles in my study in many ways mapped on to those identified by scholars working on other societies: to come out; to move to a neighbourhood with an existing LGBT community or LGBT venues; to be with a same-sex partner; or to benefit from sexual citizenship rights.
Moving away from their home towns enabled those who had not yet come out to extricate themselves from the social control of their families to perform their sexuality in line with their own desires and reduce the risk that their sexual behaviour and identity would be reported back to their parents before they felt ready to tell them. For those who were not ready to come out but who wanted to explore their sexuality, living in their home towns might increase the risk of word getting out that they were gay or lesbian. The fact that, according to Bartosz, ‘everybody knows everyone’ in small towns, in particular, but also to some extent in cities meant that it was difficult to ensure that your private life stayed private.
Migration to Warsaw, which was frequently referred to as the most liberal city and its inhabitants the most open-minded in the country, offered an unparalleled gay scene, providing queer Poles with a sense of community and the opportunity to engage in sexual relationships – often for the first time. Yet, for others, domestic migration to Warsaw or one of Poland’s other cities only partly enabled them to live their lives on their own terms. For Adam, the dominant discourses around appropriate gender and sexual behaviour placed restrictions on his ability to express his feelings towards his boyfriend in ways that would have gone unnoticed had his partner been a woman:
What my findings suggest is that domestic migration only met some of the needs of queer Poles in terms of their ability to live their lives on their own terms. Even presenting a gender image that did not adhere to the traditional ideas of how Polish men and women should behave and what they should wear was a source of disquiet. As Adam explained:
Thus, whether or not LGBT Poles migrate to more liberal cities such as Warsaw, their freedom is still constrained to some degree by ‘acceptable’ gender and sexual norms. One way to extricate themselves from these constraining forces was to leave Poland.
Contrary to some Western media reports none of my respondents fled Poland in fear of state persecution. Rather, the general impression given was that their decision to migrate was prompted by the belief that moving to London would grant them greater freedom to perform their sexuality in line with their own desires. As Grzegorz explained: ‘I think homosexuality just plants this thing in your head that you’re not going to be free until you go somewhere where you’re accepted, you know.’ While very few respondents cited the desire to come out as a factor motivating them to move to Britain, the ability to be out to most people beyond a small circle of friends and family was identified as a factor which, if not prompting them to move to the UK in the first place, was at least seen as a reason to stay. To Dariusz, this was tied up with the perception that people in London were more accepting of sexual difference. (It is important to emphasise that attitudes towards homosexuality outside London are not always as positive as in the capital and that anti-LGBT hate crime remains a serious problem throughout the UK.)
Moving to a town or city with an LGBT scene was frequently cited as a motivation to migrate – particularly for those who had moved directly from small towns to London, rather than first moving to Warsaw or other Polish cities. Florentyna, who grew up in a town of just 50,000 people, initially wanted to move to Edinburgh but eventually opted for London because of the greater range of LGBT venues there. While those who moved from Warsaw or other big cities were less likely to refer to London’s gay scene as a motivating factor, they did notice the impact access to a gay scene like London’s had on LGBT Poles who had migrated from the Polish countryside:
In general, it was the draw of London’s gay scene, sexual citizenship rights and the perception that there was greater acceptance of difference that drew most of my queer Polish respondents to London. Freedom to be oneself trumped all other motivating factors. And, even though a number of respondents still referred to Poland as ‘home’, it was clear many felt more at home in London.
For a longer version, see: Mole, R.C.M. (2019) ‘The Post-Communist Identity Crisis and Queer Migration from Poland’ in Menjivar, C., Ness, I. and Ruiz, M. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Migration Crises. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 691-704. Pre-print version available here.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.