“The problem is Poland”

Pixie is a therapist and activist associated with the Poznań-based association Grupa Stonewall, where she runs support groups and workshops for the LGBTQ+ community. She works with people with psychiatric diagnoses, and supports sex workers together with Sex Work Polska. She is a HIV counsellor.

What did you think when I asked you to be interviewed for the 16th issue of RTV Magazine? Why did you agree? What kind of associations, emotions, and thoughts do you have regarding the topic of family?

The topic you proposed resonates strongly with me, with my work and personal life. I am a non-heteronormative person, and my family is a network of people who function together in a non-normative way, which is not easy in our country. Being a parent is one of my powerful, very important identities. I am a parent in a rainbow family, living in the Scandinavian model of alternate care. Therefore, the topic of parenting – and especially rainbow parenting – is particularly close to me.

How does your family relate to the so-called “Polish family”, about which we have heard a lot in recent years? It seems to me that, for conservative politicians, church officials and other defenders of morality, it has become synonymous with Polishness in general, which must be defended against feminists and the LGTBQIA community, for instance. How does your understanding of the family correspond with the one enforced by the authorities?

On the one hand, when I hear the term “Polish family”, it is usually used in a political, conservative context. I don’t identify with this concept at all. But on the other hand, all the people in my family are Polish, because they live in Poland. We live here, we work here, we pay taxes here, so naturally we are a part of Polish society and Polish family landscape. However, it hurts me when a person who uses the term “Polish family” immediately assumes the character it should have – that it should consist of a mum and dad. This narrative does not include families that are made up of independent parents; it looks with disfavour on patchwork families, which still cause a sensation in some circles. And by this I mean family structures in which parents, for example, separate and form new partnerships. In these new relationships they sometimes have further children, sometimes not, and their partner persons bring their children into joint families. If the situation is exceptionally favourable, the previous partners – parents of joint children – also participate in the family rituals characteristic for this patchwork. These can be holidays, weddings, but also other, more daily occasions. In fact, the patchwork has no end. Sometimes children in such constellations enjoy several pairs of grandmothers and grandfathers. Yet there is a belief in society that the divorce of parents is the end, and no other constellation is possible. On the other hand, I meet and experience patchwork families, and, despite the difficulties, they simply are – thus they can give a sense of stability. In the term “Polish family”, these rich, diverse structures we talk about do not resonate. The imaginary ideal is the nuclear family, i.e. the heteronormative form of family with mum, dad, and biological children, whereby heteronormative is life, in roles accepted as stereotypical for the given gender. It is a lifestyle associated with the lifestyle of the majority.

photo: Basia Sinica

One might ask, what is wrong with nuclear families, and are they really in the majority in society? What is the situation of the child in patchwork relationships? Its perspective is often overlooked when talking about the family.

There is nothing wrong with a nucleated family, as long as there is no violence happening. But I would like it to be one of many parallel and equivalent family structures, so that one particular type of family is not favoured and others excluded. In Poland, I do not feel that I have the same rights as people in heteronormative families. As far as the situation of the child is concerned, it obviously varies, depending on what kind of relations adults have with each other in such constellations – how they imagine aspects of life, such as housing logistics, school logistics, financial matters, leisure time, and so on. Therefore, this huge project needs to be developed. Relationships within siblings are also an important aspect of the structure, sometimes the strongest of all, and maintained even after children have reached adulthood and independence.

In the patchwork family I come from, I seem to have stronger ties with my friends than with my relatives. So I wonder, when we talk about family, can we start using the word relations instead of kinship?

Yes, that’s why I try to talk a lot about the family of choice. In the house where I grew up, a friend of my parents was present. He treated us as his family – he had no biological children, and no partner. For him we were a family of choice, only at the time it was not defined as such. Today, when everything is more mobile, you don’t set down roots in one place, and deep, but rather under the surface and wide, which is why families of choice often provide a greater sense of security than generational families.

However, unlike nuclear families, those of choice are deprived of rights. After the election of the Social Democrats in Germany, a new bill emerged that would legally sanction so-called communities of responsibility [Verantwortungsgemeinschaften], whose members would have and enjoy similar rights as those in civil partnerships: the right to care, inheritance, etc. Such communities would be based on an accepted principle of responsibility, not necessarily on romantic relationships. What do you think about this? Would something like this work in the Polish context?

I am not a lawyer, but I suppose one law would suffice to regulate non-standard family relationships. Here we are going further, because we are talking about more than two people who decide to live together, look after each other, support each other financially, and so on. This brings to my mind polyamorous structures, in which children are also raised. Such structures and such families were very much experienced during the lockdowns. At that time it was said that you could meet within your households, and possibly with two additional people. Polyamorous families were completely disregarded. Lockdown laws and restrictions were profiled to nuclear families. I also think about the fact that the law has simply not kept up with life. Families and human relationships evolve, relational life forms change, and politicians are always a few steps behind. On our side – that is, on the side of therapists, activists, people who speak out on these issues – education would help, simply put. On the legal side, it would help if we could recognise the needs of people who are not related to each other, but who would like to share their lives, and enable them to give themselves the rights and privileges that married couples enjoy. Maybe instead of civil partnerships, we should start talking about partnership ties. But that is not possible in Poland at the moment.

…or a caring bond, a bond of care not based on a romantic relationship.

Yes. I would also like to add that when I went to Berlin as a very young person some twenty years ago, I observed that older people live in communities [Wohngemeinschaften], just like students. I think this is a good solution for people with low incomes, and in our old age we probably will be such people. In a community, senior living is easier and cheaper. It’s important to talk about this: not only a couple, but also a group of senior citizens can live together and form a familial community based on friendship and partnership.

In my opinion, these are two sides of the same coin: the legal situation and how we imagine the way we would like to live, what kind of relationships we would like to establish. In Poland,  such discussions have been severely restricted over recent years. Many of us, out of fear, do not speak publicly, do not talk about the kind of society we would like to live in – how to develop our need for closeness with others – because we are constantly thinking about how to survive; how to cope with the attacks on our privacy by those in power. As a therapist, you have to deal with this every day: the fear of imagining that things could be better. In this context I would like to ask you about the rainbow families and the workshops for parents of non-heteronormative people which you run in the association Stonewall Group. Perhaps you could explain by the way what ‘minority stress’ means?

When it comes to parents of LGBTQ+ people, I’ve been running a support group for the last five-six years for all relatives – this could also be siblings or grandparents. I am encouraged by the fact that I hear increasingly little regret from caregivers that their child is not heteronormative or cisgender [editor’s note: the person’s biological sex matches their cultural sex], that they are non-binary or transgender. A growing number of parents come with a specific question, e.g. how to deal with the anxiety of an adult or adolescent child who has outed himself or herself [from coming-out, which means revealing one’s non-heterosexual orientation – ed.]. Additionally, s_he does not want to move out of the place where s_he lives, but lives officially with his_her partner. For parents, it is a question of safety for their child, whether they will be exposed to gender pressure or other harassment.

I feel sad when a parent says that they would like their child to study or work in another country and settle there; that it would be best for everyone. Such a decision usually involves financial support from the parents, so it is not an option for everyone, and the person leaving must also have strong social skills to cope in a different cultural context. So leaving is not the solution for all. I feel that I am the same citizen in Poland as everyone else, who does not even think about their privileges. Changing your place of residence should not be a condition for ensuring your safety and the safety of your loved ones – it should be based on other needs, such as gaining knowledge, new experience, etc. I would like LGBTQIA people, if they are to leave, to leave for other reasons.

From what you say, it seems that it is no longer the acceptance of a queer child by their parents that is the problem, but the context in which they live. The problem is Poland.

Yes, a lot of good work is being done in this area by the association We, the Parents, and the Campaign Against Homophobia, so parents already know that there are different forms of parenthood. I mean apart from patchwork families, there are other forms of consensual parenthood – that is, situations in which non-hetero people, such as gays and lesbians, decide to have a child together – and there are quite a few such people. Then, despite living in separate relationships, the care of the child is shared.

In such situations, can reproductive technologies such as insemination or in vitro be used, or are these methods reserved in Poland for married couples?

With strenuous efforts, single women can also use them, but of course they have to pay for the procedure out of their own pockets. The law does not really change much in this regard, because children in such arrangements simply exist and grow up, and no one has to graciously consent to this. Of course, it would be great if the state supported people trying to have children regardless of the relationships they live in and the identity they have, but in this respect, we are not very different from the other countries. In most countries, heterosexual married couples are favoured, both economically and when it comes to access to reproductive technologies.

I am also thinking of people who, for example because of climate change, choose not to become parents. What family options are available to them? Officially they are treated as childless and unmarried – which indicates some kind of deficiency. Is the identity of such people determined solely by who they are not?

Of course not. Firstly, not opting for childbearing does not mean that you are alone. I also don’t use a term like ‘childlessness’ because it indicates some kind of deficit, I much prefer to talk about ‘not living with children’. I think that [the question of] ‘who is family with whom?’ should be decided by the people involved themselves. Independent people often live together with animals, who are treated as partners, family members. Probably not all people in the LGBTQIA community would agree with me that interspecies families are just as important as rainbow families. Our community is not a monolith, and not all people are progressive enough. I often hear from gay and lesbian people that non-hetero people should not adopt children. From a therapeutic perspective, I think this is an internalised element of biphobia and homophobia, a belief that, ‘OK, I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t enter hetero relationships’, but with these children it’s an exaggeration. These same people believe that marriage is reserved for unions between men and women, and that minorities should be content with civil partnerships. That’s why I’m talking about phobias here, because no research on the subject confirms that a non-hetero or non-cisgender person would be a worse parent.

This raises another question: about class, because it is not only sexual and gender identity that determines who we are and how we function in society.

Class position is more important than we think. There are people, usually from big cities, educated, who believe that classism does not apply to our society. They focus on how much someone earns – but class is not only about earnings, it is also about lifestyle, a set of social and cultural competences, the ability to have access to different places, goods, and so on. In the workshops I run for therapists, I talk about the privileges they have, and this is often new to them, because they haven’t thought about it at all before. Classism exists and also manifests itself in what social stratum we identify with, where we have our ‘tribe’.

I think more often than not, classism remains invisible to people who are already privileged, who are at least middle class, who have the comfort of taking certain things for granted, of not having to fight for them. But there are non-heteronormative people in every social class, which is why the LGBTQIA community is so diverse. It’s one thing to be an educated, well-situated lesbian in Poznań, it’s another in a small town, twenty kilometres from another small town. Then the sense of belonging to the community is very limited, access to places and events is more difficult; most community magazines come out in English, so you need another competence to be able to understand them. Therefore, LGBTQIA people in smaller towns often feel isolated. For them, the only way to connect with their peers is through online groups.

So I’m keen to keep the groups I run at Stonewall going; they include people from smaller towns, not just Poznań. It’s a huge activist task to reach out to such people and keep in touch, especially when internet access is limited. Another group of people I care a lot about are rainbow people with psychiatric diagnoses. They often live between a conservative home, a mental institution, and a school that stigmatises them – often without constant access to the internet. So we need education and de-stigmatisation of the profession of psychotherapist, which is an extremely exclusive profession. I believe that people from ethnic and sexual minorities and transgender people should have the opportunity to be therapists. For that we need to implement procedures, scholarships for practising diversity, and not just talking about it. It is very important not to treat non-normative people in therapy like any other client, but to take into account the whole context they carry with them – the burden of social exclusion, the shadow that is cast over their lives.

Yes, in therapy you cannot bring everything down to yourself, it is a continuous interaction between you and the social, political and cultural context that affects you.

Finally, I have a question for you about the future: how do you imagine it? What would you like it to be? What would have to change?

I would like the future to look the way people want it to look, so that nobody has to wonder if they are correct and legal enough. I would like to see legislation come into being that allows me to choose who can get access to my medical records. That I would be able to decide who cares for me and who I care for, and that legalisation of the relationship would not be required for this. I wish that there was a place for everyone.


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