Content Note: This article contains discussion of abortion, homophobia, and transphobia.

‘What’s going on with abortion laws in Poland?’ I’ve stopped counting the number of messages that have flooded my phone this past year, or strangers who would start a political debate the moment they found out I was born and raised in Poland. ‘What’s going on with LGBT rights in Poland?’ I would just keep going on with my day, comforted by the soothing streets of Warsaw, streets that are grey and uneven and loud, but that I have always found solace in.

It was always easy to lose myself in the liberalism of my city: to look at flamboyant outfits in the streets, vegan cafes, men holding hands, women in their 8-inch stilettos on their way to head their corporations, and forget the 36 million citizens who live outside the walls of the capital. Poland — a country ripped at its core by discord over religion, values, internationalism, history, politics, the meaning of family. Lately, even with concerted effort, escaping the reality tormenting Poland has been distressingly difficult.

“I am, for the first time in my life, scared of what my identity represents, of my rights being undermined, of my safety were I to publicly assert who I am”

A few years ago, an art installation in the city-centre of a metal shaped into a rainbow and covered by flowers, a symbol of life, joy, and inclusivity, was burnt down. The installation, not aimed as a political statement, was characterised as a ‘disgusting gesture, offensive to Catholics,’ ‘a provocation’, by the Law and Justice Party, now in office for their second term. The increasing homophobia in this traditionally Catholic country has been horrific to witness. From ‘LGBT-free zones’ declared in a third of the country’s towns, to the president labelling LGBT identities as ‘an ideology worse than communism,’ I am, for the first time in my life, scared of what my identity represents, of my rights being undermined, of my safety were I to publicly assert who I am. Somehow, my dread feels hypocritical. I have a way out. I study in the UK, have a French passport, and have the ability to move, go, escape at any point: I am also not from a religious background. This is far from the case for many: for my friends and me, also exposed to international opportunities, this alternative life feels like a betrayal, leaving their country at the moment it needs them most, caving to the pressure of the erasure of their sexualities, giving up when, not so long ago, their own parents stood tall in the face of Soviet occupation.

“Having coffee in town with friends has turned into an ordeal, sunny afternoons ruined by cars with megaphones blasting moralistic lectures”

The 'Women's strike' saw protestors carrying coat hangers, a powerful reminder of the risks associated with pushing women down the route of illegal abortions twitter/notesfrompoland

Until recently, most people were shielded from the extremism of our government. The realisation that the change in social policies was impacting everyone hit when my mum, coming back from work during lockdown, burst out crying in the kitchen. Not because of the panic of hospitalised co-workers, business closures or closed borders having ripped her family from her but because, after a year of driving past the plague-like multiplying billboards around town in opposition to abortion, she was at breaking point. Graphic pictures of foetuses, subverted images celebrating motherhood used as emotional manipulation, and posters of stick figures meant to represent the perfect nuclear family — mum, dad and three kids. Lest I forget the depiction of hands in Holy Communion with blood on them in representation of the betrayal of your faith were you to protest any of these anti-abortion policies. Having coffee in town with friends has turned into an ordeal, sunny afternoons ruined by cars with megaphones blasting moralistic lectures, stripping you of any agency over your body, whilst displaying images that I doubt even medicine lecturers are allowed to show consenting students. This all taking place on the ‘Independence Square.’ Ironic. I have stopped leaving my house to prevent the anger and hopelessness I felt on the bus rides home. I keep my head down rather than meet the gaze of the 20- by 30-foot reminders that my biological sex is seen merely as a tool for natalist policies, that perpetrators of sexual abuse will be given a free pass in court, that so many women will die, taking medical interventions into their own hands.

My whole life I have fought to best represent the country I call home to those with distorted perceptions of it. To people who would see it as a communist state, I would highlight Warsaw, which has become hip like Berlin; to others who would use it merely as a pitstop on their interrailing trip, I would recount my summers by sprawling lakes, mountains, castles, all anchored in millennia of history; for those who’d made their mind up about the country through anti-immigration headlines, I would, choking on tears, talk about the resilience of Polish people: their hilarious personalities and their tough exterior with the biggest hearts you will ever encounter. However, this constant defence of what I have always seen as one of the most special countries out there has become increasingly difficult to uphold. It’s a tantamount task to fight people’s preconceptions when you’re simultaneously fighting an entire government and system which is trying to actualise these stereotypes.

“The only hope I get is from passing faces behind masks adorning red lightning bolts, the symbol of resistance”

I wish I could be hopeful. However, the nationwide protests in defence of basic human rights did not stop the government from passing through its harrowing bill. Whilst I was struggling to meet essay deadlines in my first Michaelmas at Cambridge, my friends’ Instagram stories were filled with warnings of walking back from protests alone, avoiding violent police dispersals which they themselves witnessed — tear gas, protestors hit to the ground, terrified unarmed eighteen-year-olds cornered against street walls at midnight. The only hope I get is from passing faces behind masks adorning red lightning bolts, the symbol of resistance, and a reminder that just under half of the country voted to depose our government. The light at the end of the tunnel sadly shines very dimly.


READ MORE

Mountain View

The global fight against misogyny

What is happening is not just politics. It’s affected my entire worldview. I now shudder at the thought of religion and struggle to engage in conversations with people who keep faith close to their hearts. As much as I try to compartmentalise, I can’t help but see the church near my house as a symbol upholding the hatred and violence being spread across Poland. Moreover, what is happening has also undermined my belief in the power of the European Union to bring people together. The Union has always been much more than political, it has shaped my personal life, from my family to my experiences, the people I have met, and the languages I dream in. Yet I witness in upset as it has done nothing of consequence to stop Poland’s government from endangering its people. I am angry, upset, and tired: and this is only a fraction of the events happening at home that keep me up at night.

My last trip home, as I was walking in the city centre, I stumbled upon an LGBT march, surrounded by police, with a 5-foot eighty-year-old woman holding a rainbow flag standing at the centre of the gathering, a tagged wall behind her declaring, literally: ‘Revolution is women and the gays.’ The resilience of Polish people is not to be understated, and neither should our drive be to keep fighting, educate ourselves, and keep structures meant to protect us accountable. I feel powerless but I think we are powerful.