As a member of the LGBT+ community, I firmly believe that an attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us. I believe that until we are all truly equal, none of us are at all.
History has taught us time and time again that initially localised anti-LGBT+ rhetoric can spread globally like wildfire. We saw this in the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, how once the term “gay cancer” emerged from the United States, gay men were stigmatised, discriminated against and mistreated across the world. And how, more recently, the transphobic narrative that has been building in some countries is beginning to reach shores that had previously been considered societally accepting of transgender people. Our shores included.
Attacks on the community in any country at all undoubtedly create a ripple effect, with each ripple reaching somewhere we might never have expected it to. Right now, I’m thinking of Poland. I’m thinking of the Polish LGBT+ community who have fallen victim to their President Andrzej Duda’s strong opposition to LGBT+ equality, actively removing the rights of people country wide. I’m thinking of my friends in Poland who are not only having to fight for the rights that they don’t have, but are also having to fight for the few rights that they do have not to be removed. Such as those whose home towns have now been deemed “LGBT Free Zones”, and those who are experiencing an increased level of violence and discrimination as a result of the far-right political powers that are actively encouraging it. As I only knew what I had read in the media, I wanted to speak to people on the ground, people living through this daily, for a clearer perspective.
Hugo is a transgender man living in Warsaw. Although from one of Poland’s more progressive cities, for his own safety we have agreed that I will use his first name only.
Hugo and I first met when I was in Poland this time last year for my own top surgery. I contacted him to get a firsthand sense of the situation on the ground. I open by asking him if he feels safe in his country.
“I don’t think LGBT+ people are currently safe in Poland,” he tells me. “The current President’s campaign definitely made tensions rise, and we’re currently all reaping what it sowed.”
In response to a question about an increase in public violence post election results, Hugo shares how “some people since then were beaten up solely for having dyed hair or ‘looking gay’. A lot of queer people, along with allies, have hung rainbow flags from their balconies, and some of those people have faced serious threats on their life, had eggs thrown into their flats, or even were ordered by their landlords to take down the flag under the threat of being evicted.”
When asked if he held out any hope of the situation getting better anytime soon, Hugo shared, “There’s no more reservations in the Catholic Church in Poland to maybe not be outright homophobic, transphobic, etc. It does not help that the general situation in Poland is bad, especially economically, partly because of the pandemic. I hope in the long run it will go away, as the ruling party finds different targets, or better yet, disappears from the political scene.”
I came away from that conversation angrier than I was before. And then I remembered that ripple effect. I worry immensely for Hugo and his queer friends in Poland but I also worry for a large number of queer people in Ireland who need Poland.
As Ireland does not provide any surgery options for transgender people, in recent years Poland has become the number one destination for Ireland’s trans masculine community to access top surgery. We have found a surgeon who is highly experienced, provides great results and is a fraction of the cost of what we would pay in the likes of the UK or Spain etc.
Hundreds of trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people travel to Dr Lembas in Warsaw every year. I was one of them, I was there in October 2019. I asked Dr Lembas how many people travel to him from Ireland and he replied, “Too many to count. Let’s just say that the majority of double mastectomies that I perform in my career now, are trans people coming from Ireland.”
That made me realise just what a lifeline Poland is for us. And with the more recent and heavy crackdown on the LGBT+ community there, I worry that we in Ireland will lose one of our most accessible services. Is it safe for us to travel there? Remember that many trans people’s travel documents may not have their correct name or have a picture of them from a previous period in their lives. Is border control dangerous for us? If questions are asked and we have to inform them of the purpose of our visit, are we in danger? Is it safe for us to walk the streets of Poland? I will be travelling there later this month as I am accompanying a friend who is accessing surgery and I will act as his carer while he recovers. I’d be lying if I said that I’m not frightened. I’m very frightened. We’ve informed the Irish Embassy in Warsaw of our situation and arrangements, in the hope that they can help should anything go terribly wrong. Something I didn’t have to do this time last year.
I already know a number of people who have cancelled their surgeries in Poland due to the current climate, so I asked a friend of mine, Fionn Collins, who I’m also due to travel with in February, why he is still planning on going ahead.
Fionn answers, “Dr Lembas is a well known surgeon in Poland for Irish trans masculine people. He is one of the only available and affordable people doing top surgery.” When asked if travelling to Poland frightens him, he replies, “Yes, this has made me a bit nervous with everything that has recently going on. I even put off my surgery for a few months just in case, so now I’m going in February. Yes, I am terrified of heading over but I have no other option in my home country.
“I’m worried about what is happening over there. The fear that I might be attacked coming home from the hospital. Should I dress extra masculine? Will I get ‘clocked’? There’s so many things running through my mind.”
I ask Fionn if this is the general sense he’s been getting from other friends. “I’m not the only one who is worried about this,” he shared. “Ireland has the highest number of trans masculine people going to Dr Lembas each year. These numbers wouldn’t be so high if we had any other option and this needs to change ASAP! I’m already scared enough for surgery as it is, and don’t need to be even more scared for my safety after a life changing surgery in the most vulnerable time of my life.”
So I guess the conclusion is that we’re all scared. Many have decided not to travel to Poland and those of us who are willing to take the chance are frightened. But what frightens me more than my own safety however, is that we lose one of the only accessible services available to us. The fact of that accessibility is a whole different article, but Fionn is right, this needs to change without delay.
Duda’s dangerous targeting of his own citizens has caused a ripple effect of fear across the globe, affecting people and places we haven’t even thought about. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. So we must stand with our Polish siblings. We must not sit silent as people just like you and just like me are being abused and discriminated against for, well, being just like you and just like me. We must make noise, global noise.