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Weak Pegs: The Media’s Discourse on Homophobia and Polish Migration to the United Kingdom

0 Comments 🕔13.May 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

Credit: Chris Goldberg

by Nicholas Boston

May, 2014, marks the 10-year anniversary of the enlargement of the European Union (EU), which saw the accession of eight East European countries.The largest of the acceding nations, in land mass and population, was Poland. With only three pre-existing member states – Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – immediately opening their labor markets, a large-scale economic migration to primarily the United Kingdom (UK) from mainly Poland began to unfold. Over the ensuing decade, the Polish presence has dramatically transformed British society in a myriad of ways. Polish is now the second most widely spoken language in England, according to the most recent UK census. Media outlets have arisen to cater to this ethno-linguistic public.  Anticipating the Polish influx, Cooltura, a Polish-language magazine, was launched seven weeks before accession even went into effect on May 1, 2004. Its circulation is presently placed at 55,000. The mainstream Anglophone media have at points also sought a share in this “new” market. During the 2008 European Football Championship tournament, The Sun, the UK’s widest circulation daily newspaper, published a Polish-language edition, Polski Sun, to capitalize on the sizable Polish readership.

But it is the media’s coverage of post-2004 Polish migrants in the UK that has been most extensive and noteworthy. Mainstream media have reported on the migrants’ lives from a multitude of perspectives, on all media platforms and in various styles, including hard news, human-interest features, and opinion pieces. However, a salient problem attends this knowledge production. It is overwhelmingly heteronormative. The choices and circumstances of sexual minorities within the greater migrant population have been left aside. For instance, on May 1, 2013, BBC Two broadcast a documentary report, “Migration from Poland to the UK,” exploring three Polish families’ reasons for deciding to move. The program focused on “the challenges families have faced regarding schooling, settling in and keeping in touch with family.” There was no discussion of non-normative lifestyles and the particular challenges confronting them.

When media have addressed LGBT concerns intersecting the migration, they have generated one dominant journalistic discourse, that homophobia in Poland served as the driver for LGBT Poles to go to Britain. On June 30, 2007, the Guardian published, “Gay Poles Head for UK to Escape State Crackdown.” Reported from Warsaw, the article quoted Robert Biedroń, the then head of the Polish Foundation Against Homophobia, as saying, “Most of the people I know are now in England because of the current political situation. Not for economic reasons, but because of the persecution of homosexuals going on here. It’s impossible for gays to be themselves in Poland.”

While this was valuable coverage to which I do not take objection, it has come to be the only journalistic frame through which LGBT Polish migrant experiences are reported. The findings of my own ethnographic study show that gay migrants in fact acted on a bundle of motivations, some obvious, such as economics and adventure, others less evident, like cosmopolitanism and amorous possibilities. While a sizeable majority of the informants said Polish society was intolerant of homosexuality, only a minority said it was intolerable on the grounds of sexual oppression alone, and an even smaller number said that state-sanctioned homophobia was the singular spur that prompted them to emigrate to the UK.

In the present article, I explore (dis)continuities between journalistic and academic knowledge of gay men’s motivations for post-accession migration from Poland to the UK. (There have been, to my knowledge, neither media reports nor academic studies of the migration experiences to the UK of specifically lesbian or transgendered Poles.) I discuss a survey of news stories about homophobic oppression in Poland published in the British print/online news media between May 2004 and March 2014. I point to assertions or speculations made in these stories that state-sponsored homophobia and pervasive intolerance of LGBTs in Poland caused an exodus of sexual minorities to the UK, enabled by EU expansion. To interrogate this journalistic discourse, I utilize interview data from a multi-sited ethnographic study of gay male Polish UK migrants I conducted in the UK, Poland, and the United States between November 2007 and November 2012. The study, which is to be published as a monograph entitled The Amorous Migrant: Race, Relationships and Resettlement, includes more than 100 informants between the ages of 17 and 49. The respondents are of diverse Polish regional origin, levels of formal education, from secondary to post-doctoral, occupations, English proficiency, class standings in the UK, and degrees of outness about their homosexuality.

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Europride parade in Warsaw commences. Photo by author, ©2010

I located the news stories with the aid of the electronic database LexisNexis. I uncovered six articles in total.  Four of them explicitly assert that Polish LGBTs emigrated to the UK in direct reaction to homophobic oppression. They utilize key words such as “exodus,” “escape,” and “flee.” One of the articles is mentioned above. The Daily Mail picked up this story and re-reported it online the same day under the headline, “Polish Homosexuals Flee Poland in Exodus to UK.” In this way, the same journalistic knowledge got recycled and reproduced, reducing the number of articles that present original content or perspectives. The third article was a human-interest story published on August 27, 2006, in the Scottish newspaper, The Sunday Herald. Headlined “The New Scots: Immigrants’ Stories,” it profiled a selection of new arrivals from various countries, including Poland, asserting that, “The current right-wing populist party running Poland is also a factor spurring immigration to Western Europe. The government has achieved some infamy in its attacks on homosexuals and its appeals to the nation’s hardline Catholics.” The fourth story was published on March 30, 2014, on the Huffington Post UK under the headline, “Stories of Polish Gay Immigration in the UK.” It presents findings from an undergraduate research project its author conducted and claims that “gay Poles decide to book a one-way flight ticket [sic] to London to escape discrimination.” It, too, references the 2007 Guardian article. The final two stories report on a phenomenon observed among LGBTs in Poland of queers identifying with two gay characters in the British comedy series, Little Britain.[ii] It quotes a Polish LGBT activist as saying, “Little Britain has made a huge impact here.  It has even made many think of moving to Britain.”

To date there has been no report in the mainstream media about Polish LGBT migrants to the UK that does not fit uncomplicatedly into the “flight” paradigm. The logic behind the editorial procedure called the “news peg” helps explain why. In the practice of journalism, a peg is a current event or backstory used to frame and justify stories. News pegs rest on timeliness. In my survey, I found that certain current events over the years following Poland’s accession to the EU provided pegs for articles about homophobia in Poland, and its implications for migration. From 2006 to 2010, the rise to political power of the virulently homophobic Kaczyński brothers was the peg for media coverage of Polish LGBT migrants to the UK. Lech Kaczyński served as president from 2005 until 2010, when he was killed in a plane crash, and his identical twin, Jarosław, served briefly as prime minister. The Kaczyński twins founded the center-right party, Law and Justice, in 2001 and invested a decade in building support for it on an anti-corruption, traditional values platform. Law and Justice succeeded at the national polls on September 25, 2005. According to journalistic logic, this peg made the LGBT presence in the Polish migrant population newsworthy. Without it, there was a dearth of well-rounded coverage of LGBT Polish migrants and the nuances of their everyday realities. One sympathetic editor at a major UK news outlet regretted to inform me when I pitched him a story about Polish gay men’s adaptation to life in the UK that, “the peg is too weak.” By this he meant there was no debate, development or controversy at that moment on which such a story could be hung.

On December 1, 2006, fourteen months after Lech Kaczyński assumed national leadership, The Independent published “Poles Apart: How Gay People Suffer Under the New Regime.” The article asserted that, “Since sweeping to power in elections last year, the two brothers, known in Poland as ‘the terrible twins’, have a long history of expressing open hostility towards homosexuality.” The article points to the Kaczynski administration’s formal initiatives to restrict LGBT human rights, exacerbating anti-LGBT hostility in Polish society.

“Homosexuals in Poland are under siege, as right-wing youth groups carrying banners proclaiming ‘Zakaz Pedałowania’ (‘ban paedophilia’), hurl stones at gay pride marches, and mainstream politicians mutter dark threats of sacking homosexual teachers to ‘protect the nation’s children,’” the report states.

Anti-homosexual image and message, “Zadaz Pedałowania,” spray-painted onto a storefront wall in Warsaw. Photo by author, 2010.

Anti-homosexual image and message, “Zadaz Pedałowania,” spray-painted onto a storefront wall in Warsaw. Photo by author, ©2010.

The gay male Polish migrants that I followed were certainly cognizant and critical of issues of LGBT discrimination in Poland. However, they did not recognize themselves in available media discourse because in this coverage they were either invisible altogether or portrayed through the unidimensional frame of “the imperiled.” Mainstream media discourse flattened complex and contradictory responses to an acknowledged assault on identity. Rather than exploring sexual subjecthood broadly, media coverage defined by news pegs produced sexual victims.  One of my informants told me in April, 2010:

It is true that the government in Poland is homophobic, especially the Law and Justice Party, which is neoconservative, and the Polish People’s Party, which is agrarian and Christian Democratic, plus the Church influences politics and it is homophobic, xenophobic, and Judeophobic. But I haven’t left Poland because I was discriminated against there.  I was always open with my gayness. I never heard a bad word about it from my friends or my family.[1]

Another informant told me in 2008 that he had no patience for homophobia, either in Poland or among fellow Polish migrants in the United Kingdom. Over the course of the following five years, however, it came to pass that he returned to Poland to accept an enviable job offer. He subsequently returned to the UK for a number of intersecting reasons, including a love interest and a course of study he wished to pursue for professional development. Those objectives explored or fulfilled, he returned a second time to Poland, at which point he purchased property. Regarding Polish homophobic oppression, he told me in October 2010:

I live here in [Polish city], but travel more and more. My city has changed a bit now. For some reason, being gay in Poland has become not only popular, but – this may sound weird – fashionable. It’s because of the homophobic attitude of former government. People just became tired of as they called ‘gay propaganda’ and started to relate it with Catholic extremism. This became even more annoying after the government plane crash in April. There was some weird ‘memorial’ in the square opposite the presidential palace for the last four months with a crucifix in it. In the name of what? Weird, sick and even funny. There are so many stories about gay people on telly but everybody already notices that gay people are quite normal and an average part of the society. We even in this year had the first Europride in Warsaw. So living here as gay is just easier now. And for me, I’m already out with my family and friends, so I don’t care.

The informant’s comments point to a web of forces and developments informing his migration path. They express how his own perceptions of homophobia shifted over time as he acquired skills and designed strategies to negotiate issues of sexual stigmatization. They also illustrate the felt consequences for one gay man of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in Poland, which, significantly, were configured through the failure of a former political regime to demonize LGBT identity.  As of 2013, the informant had not ruled out the possibility of taking up residence in the UK again, but cited business and romantic opportunities as pull factors.

An important qualifier not to be overlooked in making sense of migration narratives such these informants’ is the transnational nature of post-accession migration. Sociologists and demographers are well aware that many migrants travel back and forth between Poland and the United Kingdom, keeping a foot in either location. In line with this pattern, queer migrants strategically selected ideal times, locations, and contexts in which to live out their sexual selves. The migration paths of gay Polish men, like those of their heterosexual-identified counterparts, did not unfold as complete departures, but rather a series of passages from, to, and through Poland.

In the mainstream media, Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor have occasionally been published in which non-journalists commented on topics related to Polish migration. While these commentaries express privately held opinions, they still belong to the media discursive field and ought to be analyzed accordingly. One such letter, which appeared in the May 31, 2007, edition of the Birmingham Post, contained a reference to homosexuality:

Dear Editor,

My wife’s parents are Polish. They came over to Britain in the 1940s, but moved back to Poland again in 1999 (“Immigrants who Want to Stay Forever,” Post, May 30).

It seems to me from what I have seen and heard over the years, many Polish migrants stay in the UK permanently because Poland is a very rigid society where Catholicism is very powerful. For example, being gay is very difficult in Poland at present.

Young Poles like our liberal and fairer society and feel there is a greater chance to do well.

Such commentaries offer only part of the truth. They inflate the notion of the UK as a haven from religious disapprobation for Polish LGBTs, and in so doing underestimate subjects’ agency in resisting cultural and religious conservatism. While most of the gay men I followed were indeed either opposed or indifferent to the Catholic Church, a number remained staunch adherents, some as openly gay parishioners. One man told me in January 2011:

As far as I am concerned I have no problem with either my religion or my Polish culture. I am [a] practicing Catholic. I go to confession, more or less regularly. I have my own priest that knows my situation and I confess to him and I have no problems with it. My religion is very strict against being gay, but I told [the priest] that God created me as he wanted me to be and I shall let God judge me of my sins and my life in due course. I said to [the priest] please do not judge me as I am good person and I know myself and my religion – I said, ‘just listen to what I have to tell you and give me strength for my future life’. There is nothing that can be done about my homosexuality and I have no problem with having sex with somebody I love, and I am faithful to. This is it. I am proud I am Catholic and I let God judge my life and choices, not the priest, nor other people. Polish society is homophobic because they are uneducated in terms of homosexuality.  Next, they are intolerant, as they haven’t been taught tolerance towards other different people – no matter race, etc. We have to teach our children in schools how to be tolerant and how to treat people with different backgrounds with respect and explain to them that it has no difference who you are, etc., as long as you are a good person. Then, in the process of time, we will improve, but it won’t be that fast as it has not been that fast in this country [the UK]. Any question?

In reply, I asked the informant if the priest to whom he confessed was Polish and whether the informant had also confessed in Poland as an openly gay man.

“Yes,” he said. “He was Polish, and, yes, in Poland.” Then, returning to the mundanity of his existence in the UK, the informant added, “I’d love to go and to confess to [an] English priest, but my English is not that good yet.”

Gay male Polish migrants in the UK considered a range of push and pull factors in their migration decisions, only one of which was LGBT concerns in Poland. They expressed a holistic understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, which journalistic discourse has elided.

 

Nicholas Boston is Assistant Professor of Journalism, Communication, and Theatre at the City University of New York, Lehman College. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Cambridge. His forthcoming book, The Amorous Migrant: Race, Relationships and Resettlement, reveals how political and interpersonal intersections of race and sexuality play an important but often overlooked role in transnational migration.

 

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

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