Why do LGBTQ Polish people choose to immigrate to the UK?

The idea that LGBTQ people left Poland because of hostility to them at home, wasn’t familiar to me.
- Dr Lukasz Szulc
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Polish dolls

Why do LGBTQ Polish people choose to immigrate to the UK? Research by Dr Lukasz Szulc shows it is often to seek employment, rather than due to the hostile environment in their homeland, that motivates their decision to move.

As a Polish national living in the UK, Dr Szulc couldn’t relate to media coverage of Polish people, which tended to present them as hard-working and conservative. Of particular interest to him was the significant Polish LGBTQ community, who make up many thousands of the 800,000 Polish nationals currently living in the UK.

He says: “The idea that Polish people are all conservative and homophobic, and that all LGBTQ people left Poland because of hostility to them at home, wasn’t familiar to me.”

The Law and Justice party have been influential in shaping how modern Poland is seen from abroad. The party gained power in 2015 and were re-elected in October 2019 with the highest vote share in Poland’s democratic history.

Dr Szulc says: “They have been criticised for undermining democracy, individual rights and promoting right-wing extremism. Part of their agenda has been hostility towards the LGBTQ community; it is normal to assume that some LGBTQs would want to leave this environment.”

He started a research project during his EU funded Marie Curie Fellowship at the Department of Media and Communications that intended to deepen understanding of a community that he felt were being overlooked.

Dr Szulc surveyed 767 LGBTQ Polish nationals living in the UK, and carried out in-depth 30 interviews. On the key question of why LGBTQ people left Poland, he found that only a quarter of respondents said hostility in their homeland was the main or one of the reasons. A higher proportion, a third, cited the job opportunities and higher salaries that are available in the UK as the biggest factor behind their move.

Despite this result, Dr Szulc found the allure of the UK’s relatively tolerant society was a major factor for many Polish LGBTQs. He points to their behaviour in the UK, where the overwhelming majority of interviewees (79%) were open about their sexuality and gender identity to their friends in the UK. This contrasts with a much lower 61% reporting being open to all or most of their Polish friends, suggesting that Poland is a less accepting environment for them.

Dr Szulc says: “One Polish transwoman who was working in a McDonalds in Scotland said she was more likely to experience hostility because of her Polish nationality than the fact that she was transgender. No form of discrimination should be the goal, but it shows gender identity was less important than nationality in this case.”

Dr Szulc’s research also captured a pivotal moment in Britain’s history, the aftermath of the referendum to leave the EU. The prospect of Brexit has created uncertainty for many Polish citizens, while some measures show UK society has become more hostile and dangerous to minority groups; recorded hate crimes increased by 63% between 2016 and 2019.

But the majority of LGBTQ respondents did not express a greater willingness to move back to Poland because of Brexit. Dr Szulc gives the example of a gay man in his 30s from London who explained why he continued to stay after the Brexit vote.

“He said ‘The UK has changed from one of the most libertine places in Europe and suddenly becomes conservative. Do I really want to stay here if I’m not welcome?’ He started touring European cities such as Berlin and Barcelona to find out what life would be like in those places. But London was now his home.”

“He was typical of the many people I interviewed. In many cases they are happy with their choice and like living in the UK.”

For LGBTQs, the employment opportunities and quality of life still outweighs the potential negative consequences of Brexit. “What’s happened in the UK does not seem to have troubled them enough to plan to leave the country where they have invested a great deal of energy in building their lives. For many reasons, they still think UK is a better place to live.”

Behind the article

 Queer #PolesinUK: identity, migration and social media by Lukasz Szulc was published in September 2019.