Being Queer in My Mother Tongue

On May 31, 2019, my plane touches down in Warsaw. Trying to catch a train into the city, I fumble with exchanged złoty and with my Polish, knowing that everyone around me can understand every mistake I make when I speak. I go to sleep in an Airbnb on the twelfth floor of an apartment block under the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw’s tallest building. The next morning, jetlagged, I wake up at four and sit by my window as the sun rises.

The city is puzzle of gray and white and brown Soviet blocks and new construction on a background of rose-colored sky. A colorful image catches my eye. Plastered on the side of a building is an ad, an image of two men embracing and a prominent rainbow. It hadn’t been there the night before, and it reads, Bądź kimkolwiek chcesz. “Be whoever you want.” It is June first — the first day of Pride month. It is my first Pride month, the first June I know I am queer, and I am spending it in the conservative country from which my parents emigrated almost forty years prior.

I grew up in Chicago, that bastion of expat Polishness. Chicago supposedly has the largest Polish population besides Warsaw, Poland’s capital, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Polish emigrants are a special kind of prideful, perhaps because of the fact that our home country had been occupied, variably, by some iteration of the Russians or the Germans for most of our history since 1772. Anywhere the Polish diaspora concentrates, so, too, do the Catholic churches, Saturday cultural schools, ethnic organizations and delis owned by Pulaskis, Kurowskis and Kowalskis. Unlike many immigrants of color who don’t pass on their language or culture to their kids for fear of racism or xenophobia, our whiteness largely protects us from that worry. So I grew up very Polish, which meant very religious; by my teens I was an ex-Catholic, to my mother’s disdain, and by the time I visit Warsaw at 22, I am also newly queer — still mostly closeted, but visibly genderqueer in a way that is all but impossible to hide, not that I want to. It is my second trip to Poland in as many years; before that, I had not visited for a decade. I was so young then, and remember so little, that it may as well be my first time visiting.

On that early June morning in Warsaw, I crane my neck out of my window to photograph the Pride ad and post it to my Instagram — one of the few places I’m out. I am ecstatic: Pride ads in Poland!! It isn’t just the ad outside my window, either: overnight, a series of ads sponsored by Netflix have gone up around Poland’s capital, all featuring different lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer celebrities. Near the central railroad station, I see an ad for Warsaw’s Pride parade, Parada Równośći. I take photos of them all. If capitalism is catching up, there must be more visible queerness in my parents’ home country than I had ever imagined possible.

The Pride ads are my first introduction to a Poland I never knew existed: the LGBTQ folks fighting for their place in a conservative country, a community I would have been part of if my parents had stayed in Poland. And it’s a big battle to fight. In the rebuilt Old Town, I see graffiti on the side of a building: pedał. For most of my childhood, that slang word — meaning “f*ggot” — was the only word in Polish I knew for gay. Seeing it reminds me of the only mentions of queerness in my childhood: as either joke or abomination, like the times during Catholic religion classes in Polish school when kids would snicker about the word pedał and the priest would laugh along.

It should have been obvious to me that queer Polish folks existed, even did so out in the open, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know a single openly queer or trans Polish person back in the U.S. And every so often, on the rare occasions that Poland made the Western news, it was a story about the country’s regressive politics: a slide into authoritarianism; a homophobic, racist, or sexist comment made by a prominent politician.

This past July, a Polish magazine made headlines in the U.S. over its plans to distribute “LGBT-free zone” stickers. About 30 Polish municipalities declared themselves such zones, and in one, Białystok, the city’s first Pride parade was met by right-wing violence. In May, a Polish woman was arrested over images showing the Black Madonna — Poland’s most sacred image of the Virgin Mary — with a rainbow-colored halo, on the grounds that she offended religious feeling, a crime under Polish law. Same-sex marriage in Poland is illegal, and Polish law does not consider sexual orientation or gender identity to be grounds for a hate crime. In fact, in 2016, Poland’s Parliament rejected a law that would have expanded protections to LGBTQ+ identities — as well as to disability and age. Poland’s politics are notable not just for the country’s homophobia, but also for a xenophobic push to the right. The country’s governing party, the nationalist Law and Justice, brought much of Poland’s judiciary under parliamentary control, and continues to campaign on the platform of restoring Poland’s Catholic values.

That is the Poland I knew. But, as I start to see in Warsaw, there is also a whole tradition of Polish LGBTQ folks existing, living and fighting back. During those two weeks I spend in Poland, I ping-pong between rural villages where my extended family lives and larger, younger cities where I see a more progressive Poland. On the light rail in Warsaw, I sit next to a femme person with a LGBTQ pin on their backpack. As I lounge by the water in the city’s Łazienki Park, a trans woman walks by with a friend. One evening in Wrocław’s crowded Rynek, or main square, a lesbian couple strolls by holding hands. I want to hug them both; instead, I grin and try not to stare. And all around Warsaw, and Wrocław and Kraków, I see people carrying the same rainbow-colored tote bag. I never find out if the bags are for Pride: I am too nervous to use my rusty Polish to ask a stranger publicly about queerness when I am so visibly queer myself.

But the presence of LGBTQ folks is undeniable. And seeing people embodying the intersection of Polishness and queerness, for the first time in my life, helps change the way I view that intersection in myself.

The Polish I grew up with in Chicago was stagnated, the language of older folks who left the motherland decades earlier, or the tongue of kids more American than foreign, speaking in English and reverting to accented Polish only when we didn’t want the people around us to understand. I was fluent, in a way: I read and wrote and spoke, but my parents grew older and the Poland they grew up in changed, and I was separated from it all. The slang and casual terms used by young people evolve quickly in any language — in Polish, I don’t know them, and in Warsaw, Wrocław and Kraków, I struggle to understand the teens and young adults I hear talking. I have no idea what terms Polish lesbian, gay, bi, and queer folks used to identify themselves, and if I do come across them, I don’t understand. Nor can I claim ownership of the language and try to come up with my own terms; my life back in the U.S. is lived, with the exception of interactions with my family, exclusively in English.

I will eventually tell my parents I’m not straight, but when it comes to my gender, for now the only thing I am sure about is how I want to present myself. Labels are weird, and fluid, and I’m still figuring mine out — but whatever I call myself, there’s no getting around the fact that I keep being mistaken for a boy and that I’m not comfortable with traditional femininity, and never have been.

Even though I’m not sure, I keep looking for labels. When I first read about nonbinary identities, I think of my family, and whether there might exist a word in Polish that means the same thing. Does a gender-neutral Polish pronoun exist? Could I manage to articulate, in my slow Polish, what it means to be nonbinary? Should I even try to? Polish is the first language I learned as a child, but every year as I grow up and grow farther from home, church, and the people around which I used it, the more my words fade and stumble.

Sometimes the idea of coming out to my family as a non-binary woman seems almost ludicrous: they have always seen, and been uncomfortable with, my gender nonconformity. It doesn’t seem like it will matter what I call it — being it is enough. I have been masc-of-center for as long as I can remember. I cut off all my hair at 16, after years of wanting to; with each hew haircut my style got progressively shorter—and gayer. I picked up powerlifting at 18 after years of seeking a sport that would make me look and be stronger. When I turned 22, I bought my first binder.

I don’t bring the binder on my trip to Poland. Before I leave, my mom nudges me to pick some Nice, Feminine Clothes to pack. I resist, but only halfway; I leave my favorite boxy flannels and button-ups, and I carefully fold a mock turtleneck tank in the bottom of my bag, hoping I won’t need it. I want to present myself how I’m comfortable, but I also don’t know how safe it will be to look gender non-conforming once I’m in Poland.

The Polish language has three main genders: on (he), ona (she), and ono (it). When referring to an action you yourself have done, the verb is always gendered as either male or female. Even if I want to call myself ono (it), there is no such conjugation associated with “I.” The third person, oni (they), could be used to refer to someone else, but in the first person, the problem of gendered verbs (and nouns! and adverbs!) remains.

I’m still closeted to my family. I don’t meet any queer people in Poland who show me a glimpse of their experience and the world they are carving out for themselves. I don’t return fluent in Polish or in Polish queerness, suddenly inducted into the phrases and ways gay and trans folks survive and live there. My Polish is too slow, sufficient for sprinkling with English when speaking to my parents, but too scattered to be at ease. I try to research online about what I learn is called niebinarność, but the words blur together before my eyes, tweets and Reddit posts in casual, slangy Polish terms I don’t know.

After two days in Warsaw, I visit my grandma in the southeastern city of Nysa and then my mom’s siblings in rural Świebodzin in the foothills of the Karpaty mountains. I spend a day in Wrocław and one in Kraków. And then I fly home to the U.S., where I go back to being out online and mostly closeted in person. I buy rainbow-colored socks and buzz the sides of my hair. When I message a girl I have a crush on, or talk to my therapist about coming out, the words I surround myself with are the ones that come easiest to me: beautiful, queer, zinnia, tender — Germanic words, harsher than the Slavic ones, but also more comfortable. Now that I am home, I am back to being queer in English.🗺️

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Kinga is a Polish-American butch who loves plants, powerlifting, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Kinga has written 1 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. Hi! Though I am neither American nor Polish, your article spoke to me. I live on the Czech-Polish border, an hour from Katowice and my self-discovery and fist internal coming out were mostly in English, on tumblr, talking to my friends form the US and Germany and other countries, none of them slavic. Only recently have I started being openly queer in my own language, thanks to my girlfriend being proudly and unabashedly “na holky” – and, moving ever closer to home, this year my city, Ostrava, is holding its first pride parade, an activist counterpoint to the colorful, capitalist, VIP-zones sporting Prague Pride parade held in a miners’ town with its own dialect that treats “kurwa” as punctuation. I’m scared but also excited to find a place being made for me in a language that didn’t seem to have words for me that weren’t insults, in a city that didn’t seem to have place for me that wasn’t behind a locked door. It is so strange but feels so important.

    I hope you can find your pride in Polish, in time, if that is something you want. Równość i radość ciebie.

  2. Thank you for this article! I am learning Russian, a language with similar linguistic gender issues, and finding it very hard to find any info on how to talk about my non-binary friends in the language. The only thing I have found out for sure is that the neutral pronoun “ono” is NOOOOOOOT the right answer, in Russian, because it would be like calling a person “it”. I hope some folks who have expertise in these languages might help us out with some comments!

    • I don’t know whether it works in Russian, but my Czech nb friends generally seem to adopt 2 strategies – leaving out pronouns and verb endings altogether, alternating between masculine and feminine verb endings when speaking about themselves. They also encourage the use of plural verb form when speaking about them, which is something of a formality in Czech, but surprisingly works – eg. oni byli, oni davali etc. According to Google, in Russian it should be Вы when directly addressing someone and Они could work when talking about them.
      (Languages are an anarchy and continuously changing and I love it.)

    • Thanks for your comment! Some other Slavic language speakers have shared in the comments, and it looks like some people might be reclaiming “ono,” and finding other ways to be gender-neutral.

  3. Oh my god I have felt this in every fiber of my being. I’m Greek-American, born and raised in NY and have no concept of how to reconcile my queerness with my heritage. I too struggle to have the right words for it in a gendered language and with no concept of how queerness exists in my homeland. Or even with other Greek queers here in the States.

  4. Apart from being fascinating, moving and wonderfully written, this article provides a brilliant sketch of the convoluted problems caused by the import of nomenclature, terminology and concepts into areas beyond the Anglophone horizon.

    Whenever I – a trans woman living in Berlin, Germany – come here to read articles, I have to shift my mental gear, as it were, for this reason alone. Let me take ‘queer’ as an example.

    Here, ‘queer’ is used in a number of ways none of which has more than superficial similarity with what ‘queer’ means in the US. One usage is as an umbrella term, usually garnered with appeals like ‘ Wir sind eine community’ ( and, look, there is another one for you!), meaning ‘ we are one community’. Which ‘we’ are definitely not. This usage of ‘queer’proliferates and is strongly advocated by representatives of the German-white cis male gay oligarchy and – you guessed it – with the intent of obfuscating hierarchies, structural and other exclusions and what amounts to a socio- economic and identity- bound caste system in which the aforementioned group are the Lords of the Manors, and so things are to remain. This development began when the aforementioned group, in possession of full marriage rights and other privileges (as German- white cis lesbians also are) realized that their privileges are threatened by rapidly increasing right- wing movements, the AfD ( an ultra- right- wing party) and a shift of conservative positions towards these (I apologize for the simplification). So, this usage of ‘queer’ means in essence that the despised ‘Others’ in the ‘community’ should now defend their sports cars, investment portfolios and holiday homes.

    At the same time, prominent members of the aforementioned group and a significant proportion of TERF and TERFoid cis lesbians use ‘queer’as a negative term, publishing books and articles which vociferously denounce ‘Queerfeminismus’ ( of that anon) and occasionally go so far as to claim that gay cis men are excluded and persecuted by the ominous ‘community’ which also, they say, erases lesbians and destroys their visibility, which is, obviously, the position of the TERF and TERFoid cis lesbians.

    And then there is the interpretation of the self- declared Queers and queer feminists here – and I assure you, this is not what you think it is! As everything remotely related to ‘queer'( in the US sense) is imported via the academic world, in particular German gender studies, what you have is a mainly early Butlerian concoction I will not even try to describe – it would take too long and you would not believe me. As far as I understand it – and I am only a simple trans woman, mind you! – ‘queer’ in this interpretation means that femininity is submissive and reactionary, womanhood is despicable, trans women, hence, are beyond any contempt and crazy to boot, and what matters first and foremost is that you speak correctly.

    This is German Queer, for you, and of course all this is just one comparatively simple example which I simplified further for the sake of brevity.

    Apparently this is unavoidable.In our corner of the world, there was always The Language – Akkadian, then Greek, then Latin, then Italian, then French, each of the older dominant languages clinging to some spheres and domains of knowledge, and spawning legions of ghosts which haunt every paragraph (see?) we write. Now it is English. And perhaps the only point of what I am saying is that maybe, as all of us do in our weird little countries who virtually visit the Anglophone Hegemony, you might now and then look abroad a bit and perhaps realize that our struggles here – wherever ‘here’ may be – are massively influenced by what you do and say. Thank you.

      • You are very welcome! And, when things get better in Poland, please watch out! Otherwise middle class cis gays and middle class cis lesbians end up having not only the bread, but also the butter, the cream, the honey, the cheese and the sausage – while everybody who does not fit into these categories can sit under the table waiting for crumbs to fall down. I wish for a very different outcome! All the best!

  5. Hi, thank you for this article!
    I registered on autostraddle only to comment on it

    I’m a nonbinary polish person and i feel you, as much as a nonimigrant may, in difficulties in creating nonbinary and queer spaces in Polish tongue and culture. I often feel that I have to create that space which fits me out of nothing
    Currently I and some other people I know mix “feminine” and “masculine” forms to refer to ourselves and Stop Bzdurom have started to reclaim words pedał and pedałka on a larger scale also as a polish equivalent of queer I think

    Polishness intersects weirdly with queerness, as in Konopnicka’s amd Piotr Odmieniec Włast’s cases, they seem to exclude each other while also sometimes be connected on some level with patriarchy and patriotism which is very priblematic right now by itself I think, being aproperated but also created by polish nationalists

    Sorry if thats not coherent or readable, reading your article gave me some feels, anyways I wish you luck and want you to know that there are many queer polish people out there!

    💜 and Powodzenia
    Lauro

  6. This was one my favorite autostraddle first person pieces I’ve ever read! I might be biased because of just how relevant it is to me as the polish child of immigrants living in Chicago. This felt as though it ripped into my chest and pulled out so many things I’ve thought about but never had the words to say, all while saying them in such a beautiful and understated way. Your descriptions of Chicago and of polish people being uniquely proud of their identities as well as the reasons for this both rang so true and I’m grateful for being able to show this to my friends because this is something we’ve talked about before. In all honestly, I’ve been scared of visiting Poland for so long, based off of the horror stories I’ve read on the internet, even though as a gender conforming women I suppose I would be fine. This article really helped me process that fear and all around felt like it covered so much in so few words. Despite checking autostraddle most days, I made an account just to comment on this, and so I hope you’ll forgive me if this all sounds nonsensical. Overall, just thank you so much for writing this!! it resonated so much

  7. As other commenters here, even though I’m on this site often, I never had the the urge to create an account just so that I can comment on an article.

    I think this is because it’s hard to fully relate to content that is created for and by people, who are both part of your community, but also not…? It’s great to read about some new trends, books, TV shows, etc., but at the same time it feels a little bit like I’m just a voyeur, because I’m not exactly the target audience, since I live halfway across the world – if that makes sense?
    So it was great to read such an amazing article and finally on a subject I can relate to so much (being both Polish and living in Warsaw).

    It’s too bad that you haven’t checked out any of the online communities for LGBTQ folks, as you’d have people to introduce you to everything there is to know about being queer in Poland. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Poland, when it comes to out Catholicism, or our ‘openness’. That is not to say that any of the info in your article is inaccurate – quite the opposite, it seems that you’re quire up to date with all the queer-related developments in Poland. But our near-authoritarian government is one thing (and tbh they only use LGBTQ issues for their political game, like how they can ‘scare’ the conservatives to get more votes, etc. – otherwise they don’t give a damn either way), but in reality I don’t think that LGBTQ people have it so much worse here, than in some other western places. I actually find a lot of parallels between Poland and the US – as in radically polarized society, deeply divided on some fundamental issues, and roughly falling into the two categories of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. And it’s actually very much so in Poland, where about half of the society is very liberal and would like to have more LGBTQ-friendly laws (like changing the definition of marriage from strictly man+woman), and the other half are very traditional, conservative and well.. Catholic.

    Sorry for the rant, but it is just to say that your article really prompted me to finally setup an account here. I very much resonated with it.

    PS. Sorry, I have to add this, as it always triggers me a bit ;), buuut Poland is not a ‘Catholic country’ and in fact is much less Catholic than people in other countries seem to think. Especially people in the US tend to have this weird notion that Poland is somehow ultra religious, or more religious than the US. It’s not – so spread the word 😉

    • Hi! I’m someone who’s Polish by heritage but having grown up in the USA and only really interacting with elderly and middle aged Poles who have been out of the country for years, I don’t really have a frame of reference for what being an lgbt person is like there. I might actually be visiting and (possibly & not entirely of my own will) relocating there in not too long a time and my queerness and how it’ll be repressed/not repressed in Poland is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Both this article and your comment helped me process and so I wanted to thank you and also inquire about the online communities for queer folks in Poland? I’ve been looking around and seen that Vice and ID both have polish based offshoots but I’m lost besides that. Any references or links you could give me would be very much appreciated!

      All the best + ppl who made their accounts to comment on this article unite!!

  8. The discussion here about gender neutral pronouns in other languages is so interesting! Honestly, something I never thought about before but wow what a difficult thing to navigate – a very necessary topic. Thanks for your article 💜

  9. Nonbinary Russian speaker and OOF this article hit. My mom is trying to be supportive and gender me correctly and the solution she’s found is to stop speaking in Russian and to use English words whenever she needs a gendered conjugation (aka every other word) and that has been it’s own type of pain. I know like 4 Russian-speaking Jews in the US, let alone non-binary ones – thank you for sharing your experience!

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