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.🗺️