To Bi Or Not To Bi: Coming To Terms With My Polish and Sexual Identities

In light of Poland's recent election and anti-LGBTQ+ discourse, Karolina Liczbińska shares her personal experiences finding confidence in her sexuality both in London and in Poland.

WORDS Karolina Liczbińska
COVER IMAGE @cezarsphotos

They say you can spot a bisexual person by the bizarre ways they drape themselves over a chair. You see, they can’t sit straight. As I type this, hunched over my laptop like a gargoyle attempting yoga, I can’t help but wonder if knowing about that meme earlier would have spared me years of sexual confusion.

Growing up in Poland, a conservative country with little to no diversity, bisexuality wasn’t really on the menu. You could be either gay or “normal” – I felt like neither, so I spent my adolescence in a vicious circle of questioning my orientation. I’d see a pretty girl and wonder if her skin is as soft as it seems and what her perfume smells like. “What if I kissed her right now,” I’d wonder and then immediately dismiss the intrusive thought, convinced it was more curiosity than desire. “I’m only fascinated with her because I want to be like her, not with her,” I’d tell myself, “and anyway, I have crushes on boys all the time and they feel very different to whatever it is I feel about her, so I couldn’t possibly be a lesbian.” I’d sigh with relief, reminding myself about some beanie-wearing, Wonderwall-playing boy crush of the month, and feel at peace until another pretty girl came into view.

After years of this maddening back-and-forth, I finally came out to myself at some point in secondary school – no doubt a result of passionately consuming Glee and Tumblr, my only sources of queer representation. By that point, my heart was already set on studying abroad, convinced that Poland is a depressing pit of small-mindedness where nothing happens on a big scale.

Karolina in London, 2018

I moved to London fuelled more by my ambition than concerns about homophobia. I never considered my attraction to girls a big part of my identity and wasn’t even really acting on it – it was so much easier to just stick to dating boys the way I used to in Poland. Still, the cosmopolitan air of fashion school and the city itself were a liberating force. Curious to explore the LGBTQ+ community, I went to a few queer club nights but I felt out of place each time. As much as I admired all the gorgeous flamboyant people there, their assuredness only made me feel like a fraud and discouraged from participating in the community. By the time I grew comfortable with slapping the label of bisexuality on my confusingly asymmetrical attraction to both genders, it stopped being relevant – I met my first boyfriend. Suddenly liking girls became a footnote of my identity. I shared it with people the way I would share my zodiac sign or favourite colour. Too consumed by my first love to even consider dating other people, I wasn’t tempted to explore my attraction to women and openly associating myself with the LGBTQ+ community felt attention-seeking for someone with no queer experiences.

My sapphic hookups were brief, far between and rarely sober; my queerness reduced to making out with girls at parties and half-jokingly discussing threesomes with friendly couples.

When that first love ended for good the summer before my last year at uni, I was eager to shake off any remnants of it and began what I tenderly call my hoeing phase. London was a playground and Tinder was my game of choice. Still, I mostly dated men out of habit and ease: I may have perfected the rituals of millennial straight romances, but approaching women felt way out of my depth. My sapphic hookups were brief, far between and rarely sober; my queerness reduced to making out with girls at parties and half-jokingly discussing threesomes with friendly couples. I treated my bisexuality like an exotic seasoning used whenever I wanted to spice up a conversation, but at least I had started to explore it. Being straight-passing except for these few occasions, and living in a bubble of fellow progressive Londoners, homophobia seemed like a distant concept that would never affect me.

Around that time, I took a summer internship in Warsaw and fell for the city – it felt like the perfect compromise between my one-horse hometown and the stress of living in a metropolis of London’s caliber. Turns out three years away from Poland resulted in a newfound patriotism, the rustling of my native tongue from a shop assistant’s mouth like a symphony to my expat ears. I was still struggling with the notion of downsizing my dreams – the fashion industry in Poland can’t compare to London, so I finished my internship and came back to the UK, but it wasn’t long until Warsaw’s siren song lured me back for good.

The reality hit was hard and swift. I thought I was decently up-to-date with Polish politics and aware of my country’s shortcomings, but nothing could have prepared me for the dystopian circus that was the presidential campaign. Poland has already been a queerphobic space – last year, during Bialystok’s first Pride Parade, around 1,000 people marched as far-right counter-protesters attacked them with rocks, bottles and flash bombs; approximately 100 municipalities – a third of the country – have declared themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones,” which, though unenforceable and mostly symbolic, strive to stigmatise LGBT people. And yet, president Duda decided to double down on his scapegoating of queer folk in a desperate play for re-election, promising to, amongst others, ban the “propagation of LGBT ideology” in public institutions and forbid gay couples from adopting children.

Though previously my sexuality never felt like a defining aspect of my identity, in recent weeks I’ve felt called to arms to defend the community I never before truly felt a part of.

All of a sudden, my dreams of belonging had soured. Though previously my sexuality never felt like a defining aspect of my identity, in recent weeks I’ve felt called to arms to defend the community I never before truly felt a part of. One night before the election, I woke up drenched in a cold sweat, rattled by a nightmare. I dreamt somebody outed me to my family and they disowned me. My family’s political views err on the conservative side, so I couldn’t be sure this horrific scenario was out of the realm of possibilities. Until that moment, it hadn’t struck me how high the stakes are. After preaching to the social media choir of my already-leftist friends, it was time for the hard part of activism: talking to my prejudiced family members. 

“Who are you voting for, dad?” I probed one day at dinner. 

“Duda, I guess. I’d have voted for Bosak, but he dropped out. I like him; he’s a nationalist, and this country needs that.” 

“You mean a fascist. You think we need a fascist in charge?” 

He sighed. “I don’t think he’s a fascist, and anyway, he’s not in the race, so I’m voting for Duda. Drop it.”

“Don’t you know the president’s rhetoric is like adding fuel to the fire of homophobic aggression?”

“No, but I don’t really give a damn about his stance on LGBT. I don’t care about their issues, he’s a better candidate for other reasons.” 

I braced myself for a shitstorm. 

“Well, you should care,” I replied trying to control the tremble in my voice, but tears were already burning my cheeks. “Because their issues affect me too, dad. I’m bisexual and it’s not just some abstraction for me.”

I was expecting him to gasp, but he didn’t even miss a beat. 

“I love you and it doesn’t change anything for me, you know I’ll always have your back,” he said as he embraced me. I was too busy sobbing to tell him that what he said brings me no comfort. It should change something for him. It should make him vote for a candidate that doesn’t demonise the minority I’m part of. And if he has my back, how come he doesn’t have theirs, too? As relieved as I feel about him not being bothered by my confession, I feel equally let down it didn’t move him more. I guess it did become a big part of my identity after all. 

It should change something for him. It should make him vote for a candidate that doesn’t demonise the minority I’m part of. And if he has my back, how come he doesn’t have theirs, too?

Like many, the result of this election left me feeling weary and anxious. This is not how I imagined my homecoming. I returned out of love for Poland, but I’m afraid it doesn’t love me back. I don’t know what will happen in the next five years, and lately I wonder if I should have left the UK at all. But I won’t give up on this place just yet. The poll results show a glimmer of hope: a crushing majority of young people voted against Duda, so maybe, once the bigoted dinosaurs go extinct, we’ll reclaim this country and make it a welcoming place for all. Till then, let’s keep claiming our identities and having hard conversations.

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