(Words: Jamie Tabberer/Picture: Aimee McGhee)
“Friends of mine are like: ‘I don’t know what’s happening in Poland.’”
For Polish drag queen Polka Dot, misconceptions around the LGBT experience in her home country are commonplace.
“It’s not under the magnifying glass in the UK,” adds the 29-year-old, whose real name is Robert and who has been living in London for seven years.
Indeed, the thinking goes: a European country two hours from the UK by plane, bordering progressive Germany... it can't be that bad, can it?
Well, it can. Over the last year, official ‘LGBT-free zones’ have cropped up across Poland, where anything deemed ‘gay propaganda’ is penalised.
Drag queen Polka Dot moved to England from her native Poland seven years ago (Picture: Rebecca Thomas)
“We forget,” says Polka, touching on a complacency that affects all of us. “But Poland is so close. It could potentially happen in the UK.
"Look at what the British government is doing with trans rights [I.e. recently scrapping planned updates to the Gender Recognition Act]. They’re going in the wrong direction.”
"Stand-up comics, priests, the president... they are all homophobic"
The upswing in anti-gay hate in Poland has been galvanised by the 2020 Polish presidential election. Andrzej Duda, who has compared LGBTQ ideology to “communism”, won in June.
“There was dense homophobia around the election – it spiked,” says Polka. "When I left it was bad, but not as bad as it is now. [People think]: ‘If you're male and not straight, we can make fun of you’. Stand-up comics, priests, the president... they're all homophobic.
“[My UK-based Polish friends and I] realised, we live in the UK, but we need to send a message of support to our Polish queer community. That’s how the protests started.”
This, of course, was pre-coronavirus, when international LGBTQs began descending on Polish embassies in London and Edinburgh for some old-fashioned peaceful resistance.
"We drew massive rainbows on the doorsteps," says Polka. "Whenever [the embassy workers] came to work, they had to step through a massive rainbow! That was successful, but then corona happened. There were threats of fines, so we put it on hold.”
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This month, Polka - plus her Slavic sidekicks Polish RemoveHer and Alexis Saint Pete [above, left and centre] - are spotlighting LGBT Polish rights in a different way: with their riotous drag caberet Slav 4 U.
Named after the iconic Britney Spears song, the “celebration of Polish pop culture with a queer twist [...] shines a light on the issue of homophobia in Poland.”
"As a Pole not accepted in Poland, I emigrated here and found my space," Polka explains. "But I was homesick. So, we came up with Slav 4 U. It's escapism... to a Poland where homophobia no longer exists. It’s an outlet for all Polish queer artists to showcase their work, to educate.
“After the first show, a girl with tears in her eyes said: ‘I feel like I’m back in Poland. But the difference is, in Poland, I was getting beaten up.’”
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“Back in Poland, I was in musical theatre"
Drag has gifted Polka – who identifies as gay and “most of the time” as male (“most recently I would consider myself gender-fluid – especially when in drag”) the opportunity to express herself after years of suppression in Poland. “I started drag three years ago, simply through going to drag shows. I was like ‘This is so good!'
“In Poland, I was in musical theatre. With drag, I can get back on stage, sing, dance, do my make-up, produce my costumes – and have a message. My drag's political, funny and messy. I want to direct people to issues.”