How to Conjugate: Being Nonbinary in Poland

It is difficult to be a nonbinary person in a world which still vastly refuses to acknowledge anything that goes past the binary. It is, perhaps, even harder to express your queer gender in a language that demands your suffixes to subscribe neatly to either masculine or feminine, especially in a country where the most famous nonbinary person is the one that got arrested for trying to oppose homophobic propaganda. And yet as the visibility of Polish nonbinary people increases, and the political situation becomes more and more hostile, the community continues to find new ways of resisting—both in their language and on the streets.

“Since my childhood, I knew that there’s something wrong with how I’m perceived by others but I didn’t have a name for it,” Sasza tells me. “What was my breakthrough? The first one was just learning that nonbinary people exist, that it’s recognized in some cultures and present in Poland.”

Mira, who spent years searching for the right label, has a similar experience: “I was fifteen when I’ve realized that I’m nonbinary but the words for it didn’t exist back then, or rather I didn’t know them. I was wondering if it isn’t some sort of endocrine disorder or if maybe I’m trans—I was lucky to know another trans person—but I’m just scared of admitting it. It was only when I went abroad for student exchange, got to participate in a queer club, that I realized that it doesn’t have to be a medical problem, that there are different ways of expressing your identity.”

“I studied abroad and I first landed in Cardiff which is a very queer city,” tells me Monika, a genderfluid person who only returned to Poland recently. “This was the first time I had a chance to explore my identity comfortably.”

Both Mira and Monika point to platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter as the main source of knowledge about their identity.

“Most of us learn about their queerness and their nonbinary identity from the English-speaking internet,” says Nin, another genderfluid person. “Some words weren’t even translated into Polish yet. It’s only natural that even when speaking with each other we often switch to English.”

For Anka, defining their gender identity became possible only after they moved to the UK: “The biggest joy of English is that when I speak about myself, I don’t have to wonder about which forms to use. The fact that while being in England, I didn’t have to declare my gender in every sentence made the realization possible in the first place. You don’t have to invent neutral forms anew; you don’t have to fight for it.”

Polish is an inflected language in which the verb and adjective endings will change according to the gender category, which means that such an open declaration seems to be unavoidable. Alongside the masculine and feminine forms and pronouns there exists a neutral one (ono/jego) but, similarly to the English it/its pronoun, it is used for children, animals and objects which means that not all Polish nonbinary people feel comfortable with using it to express their gender identity.

“Anything that doesn’t give information about my assigned gender I could probably get used to,” Sasza tells me. “But I really hated the idea of using the neutral forms in the beginning.”

Some genderqueer people use plural forms (as a too-literal translation of English they/them pronouns or as a way of expressing the multitude of their gender expressions). Others, such as Anka, use both feminine and masculine forms alongside each other, switching from sentence to sentence. For Monika, what works the best is contrasting their feminine name and masculine forms. But there exists yet another option, neo-forms that originated in a science-fiction book written by Polish writer Jacek Dukaj. In the novel from 2004, titled Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (Perfect Imperfection), there exists a society of post-human creatures who do not have a concept of gender. Their forms and pronouns (onu/jenu), long adapted and completed where needed by Polish queer community, are used by more and more people nowadays, Sasza, Mira and Nin alongside them.

“It’s a bit funny,” Mira says. “I have no problem with using they/them pronouns in public spheres but using onu/jenu forms seems like an eccentricity and demanding some huge effort. And yet when my friends use them it’s as if a great load was taken off my shoulders.”

“I’m still getting used to them, mixing them with feminine forms,” says Nin. “At least we have the dictionary now — if I forget some forms, I can always check there. That’s true Polish nonbinary experience — checking in the dictionary how to conjugate my verbs.”

The dictionary of neutral forms can be found on website. It started as a community-powered project which gathers all uses of nonbinary forms appearing in Polish texts. It allows also for creating a personalized card with someone’s preferred pronouns, forms, and terms of address and is available in eleven language versions alongside the Polish one, with new languages still being added.

But where language turns out to be flexible and possible to accommodate, Polish society seems less so, especially under a government run by a conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party that has repeatedly used homophobic and transphobic propaganda in their election campaigns.

“So much would need to change for me to even consider coming back to Poland,” Anka tells me. “I hear about what happens, regarding abortion laws for example, and I’m immediately a mess, I start dissociating, reliving that trauma of growing up in a conservative town under Catholic Church’s rule. I thought that leaving Poland means that it cannot hurt me anymore. But apparently, it hurt me enough in the past.”

“I came back to Poland for a girlfriend but that relationship doesn’t exist anymore,” Monika says. “And I obviously considered leaving again, but leaving where? It gets worse and worse everywhere. And besides, I think that I’ve realized that they want to throw me out and I don’t want to allow that. I’m not very brave but I’m stubborn enough to stay.”

“What about people who cannot leave, what about queer children getting born here? We cannot just all leave and put a wall around this country.” Nin says. “But I imagine it sometimes, living in a place that respects my humanity.”

“You get angry and then you get tired, frustrated that nothing is changing. But then you go and you protest just to feel that you’re doing anything, just to have some autonomy,” Sasza adds.

On September 7th 2020, the court ordered an arrest of a non-binary activist Małgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz under the charges of destruction of private property and assault after she tried to stop a car owned by a far-right foundation that was blasting homophobic propaganda onto the streets. The spontaneous peaceful demonstration in solidarity with the activist ended up with police brutally arresting 48 people in what became later known as Tęczowa noc (“Rainbow Night”) which sparked further protests across the country.

“It was very terrifying, these summer protests,” Mira tells me. “Anyone could have been arrested and at the same time suddenly everyone was talking about nonbinary people. The moment your identity becomes public, it becomes open to discussion. Everyone suddenly feels entitled to have an opinion about it.”

“The silence, the taboo that we grew up with was very hurtful and wrong,” Monika says. “But at least there wasn’t so much queerphobic violence on the streets, in the public sphere. Many people got educated lately, my mum voted for the first time in her life— but sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t rather take a more indifferent society over the polarisation we have now.”

The growing recognition of the existence of queer people in Poland results in new levels of hostility against them but the outcomes aren’t all negative. In 2021, despite the pandemic situation, there was a record number of Pride Marches organized across the country, many of them under the official patronage of cities authorities. A rainbow flag displayed on balconies, windows, and shop fronts became a symbol of solidarity and allyship.

“Even amongst this horror,” Mira picks up. “I remember also such a feeling of power and solidarity. That night when Margot got arrested, we met together with a couple of queer friends. We wanted to do something, a rainbow resistance! But it was late, we had no resources, we were tired and scared. But we were together, we didn’t have to go through it alone. That’s what I’d like to remember about that time.”

After the Russian aggression on Ukraine, many Ukrainian people fled to Poland. Many queer activists focused on helping the refugees from day one, organizing humanitarian aid, transport from the Ukrainian border, help with finding living quarters or with transfer to other European countries, as well as material and psychological support.

One such organization is Letjaha (a word that means “flying squirrel” in Ukrainian), a cooperative of activist collectives in Kraków. It has been active from the first day of the war and has since then helped hundreds of people to cross and leave the border, as well as find a place to stay in Poland or in other European Union countries. Some of the nonbinary people quoted above have helped found Letjaha or run its operations. As an independent activist network, Letjaha puts emphasis on helping the people who are especially vulnerable, including trans and non-white refugees who might have trouble leaving Ukraine or finding a safe home in Poland.

The solidarity and resistance that has always been at the core of queer movements in Poland is perhaps more visible now than ever. But the resources are quickly running out and most of the country’s response to the situation has been founded on independent, volunteer work. If you have the possibility of donating money, Letjaha is collecting the funds for its operations under this link. If you would like to learn more about Letjaha’s work or about other ways of helping, the information can be found on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Katarzyna Nowacka

Katarzyna has written 1 article for us.


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