BERLIN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When conservative politicians started making anti-LGBT+ speeches on the campaign trail, Piotr Kalwaryjski, a gay man from western Poland, decided it was time to pack up and leave.
Weeks after a 2019 European parliamentary election, Kalwaryjski and his boyfriend moved from the city of Poznan to Berlin – joining a growing number of LGBT+ Poles who have fled homophobia at home by settling in the German capital.
“It was the first time they were so openly using homophobic rhetoric,” said the 27-year-old, who works in tech.
“I knew that Poland wasn’t a gay-friendly country, yet you could be gay in bigger cities. But that was too much.”
Poland ranks at the bottom of the 27-member European Union when it comes to legal protections for LGBT+ people, according to the ILGA-Europe advocacy group.
Dozens of local authorities across the country have issued so-called “LGBT ideology free” declarations, which have drawn international condemnation and the threat of losing access to regional EU funding.
The rights of gay, bisexual and transgender Poles have come under increasing pressure since 2015 when the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power, but for some LGBT+ people, the 2019 election campaign was the last straw.
“For the right-wing party that’s in power, LGBTQ+ people are an ideology. We’re not human, we’re not normal. They’ve made us their public enemy,” said Fifi Kuncewicz, 26, who identifies as non-binary – neither male or female.
“I’m safer here than in Poland,” said Kuncewicz, who moved to Berlin in October 2019 and works for a social media company.
The departure of young, skilled workers like Kuncewicz and Kalwaryjski comes amid warnings that homophobic policies and discrimination are causing a “brain drain” and economic losses in countries including Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.
Marta Malachowska, 31, a lesbian who also works in social media and moved to Berlin last December, said she became worried about holding her girlfriend’s hand in public in Warsaw as politicians whipped up anti-LGBT+ sentiment.
“When we started to hear the government saying homophobic stuff, that’s when we began to see violent attitudes in society,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In contrast, in Berlin, “no one cares who you live with, who you love – it’s no one’s business”, she said.
Reported hate crimes against LGBT+ people in Poland more than doubled to 150 in 2019, according to official data, though the true figure is likely far higher due to widespread reluctance to report homophobic attacks.
A 2020 survey by the EU found that only 16% of Polish LGBT+ people had gone to the police to report the most recent homophobic attack against them.
“Four years ago, it was easy to report these cases, but LGBT+ people are scared of reporting them to the police,” said Lidka Makowska, a human rights educator in schools in Gdansk, in northern Poland.
Many LGBT+ Poles living in Berlin said the city’s main draw was its accepting culture towards gender and sexual minorities, though the city did not escape a 36% jump in hate crimes targeting Germany’s LGBT+ community last year.
“We need to question this idea that Berlin is a queer oasis. And yet, it’s safer than staying in Poland,” Kuncewicz said.
Still, same-sex couples can marry, giving them rights not recognised in Poland, and the city holds numerous other attractions such as good job opportunities and a well-established expat community.
“It’s quite affordable compared to other European capitals,” said Dawid Mazur, a gay man who left Poland in 2016 and came to Berlin after a spell in London.
“There’s also a big Polish community in London, but it’s much more expensive and Brexit hasn’t made things easier,” he said.
“And it’s close to Poland: it only takes me four to five hours to visit my friends there.”
Back in Poland, rights activist Jakub Gawron, 40, is awaiting trial for defamation over his comments about the resolutions passed by Polish towns and regions.
If convicted, he said he would “have no choice” but to flee.
“I will have to pack and leave,” said Gawron, who is partially deaf.
Two years since he left, Kalwaryjski said he already considered Berlin home.
“For many Germans, I’m still a foreigner and will always be. But you know what? It’s better to feel like a stranger here than being gay in Poland,” he said.