By VANESSA GERA
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The parents stood by side-by-side wearing signs offering free hugs at Warsaw’s Pride celebration last weekend. One after another, young gay and transgender people accepted the warm embrace of other people’s parents.
Agata Misiorna, the mother of a transgender son, wore a T-shirt in rainbow colors saying “you are safe here.” She knows how many Polish transgender youth are rejected by their families, how many suffer depression and attempt suicide.
As she hugged one teenager and young adult after another, Misiorna kept crying, and some of them cried too.
“It’s so emotional when I feel they don’t have acceptance from their parents,” Misiorna said. “And they always say that ‘I wish I have the same at home.’”
Her journey as the mother of a transgender child has led her to advocating for understanding and acceptance. She has teamed up with others parents who work to defend transgender youth and support each other. Their group, called “Transgender in Family,” seeks to be models of unconditional love for other families in the largely Catholic society.
Their efforts kicked into higher gear after the country’s conservative ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, mocked transgender people in speeches on and around the time of Warsaw’s yearly Pride parade last year.
On that hot day last June, Misiorna returned to her hotel exhausted but happy after giving out hugs. She turned on the TV and heard Kaczynski mocking transgender people.
Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician, claimed there are those who maintain “that each of us can at some point say that until half past five I was a man, and now I am a woman.” His words were part of a speech calling for a return to decency in politics. He chuckled as his audience responded with laughter and applause.
She quickly turned the TV off so her son wouldn’t hear. She later described feelings of “fear, horror and disbelief.”
She and other parents were afraid Kaczynski was testing whether targeting transgender rights could be a part of his party’s campaign ahead of elections this fall. They remembered how conservative leaders and the powerful Catholic Church depicted the LGBTQ+ rights movement as a threat to the nation during past political campaigns.
“Kaczynski’s words pushed us,” she said. “We were afraid they would target our kids and we wanted to show that there is nothing to make jokes about.”
Working with a larger LGBTQ+ rights group, “We, the Parents,” they wrote an open letter. They created a video campaign that feature their kids’ coming-out stories, reacting to anti-LGBTQ+ remarks of the president and Kaczynski and an archbishop. Parents from across the country meet up regularly online and in person. They suffer together when news reaches them of suicides of trans youth.
While there is no legal recognition of same-sex unions or marriage in Poland, society as a whole has grown more open to LGBTQ+ rights, underlined by the growing number and size of Pride events. Saturday’s parade in Warsaw, which was dedicated to transgender rights, was opened by the mayors of Warsaw and Paris and was joined by thousands. A March for Life and Family the next day in Warsaw, which seeks to counter the Pride and other liberal trends, attracted a far smaller crowd.
Yet the political backlash against transgender people in the United States and beyond frightens families of transgender youth. An ultra-conservative lobby group in Poland has called for prison terms for parents and doctors who participate in the medical gender transition of minors.
Some worry that Poland, whose government has been admonished by the European Union and the United States for its democratic record on media freedom and LGBTQ+ rights, could follow Russia and Hungary into curtailing rights.
Already transgender people in Poland face an unusual hurdle to changing their gender marker on documents: they must sue their parents for having assigned them the wrong gender at birth.
Kinga Tarkiewicz, a mother in the group, had a cooperative judge when her daughter changed her gender marker. The matter was settled in one court session of 20 minutes. But others have had a harder time.
Marek Urbaniak, a tax consultant living in Warsaw, had to wait nearly four years, with seven court hearings, because his father kept calling extra witnesses and giving the court photos of Urbaniak before his transition to try to prevent him from changing his marker. His medical transition was already underway and anyone meeting Urbaniak or speaking with him on the phone would understand he was a man.
The process also comes with financial costs and the emotional stress of being in a legal conflict with parents.
Alex Bielecki, 28, had the full support of his parents for his transition. Still, the medical experts assigned by the court to assess him asked a number of questions that he found humiliating. Their report was sent to his parents. He pushed back, refusing to answer a question such as “what do you think about while masturbating?”
“I said no, this is disgusting,” Bielecki said. “I understand you should go to a psychologist for an opinion but this is too much.”
For Misiorna’s son, 20-year-old Florian, the court process has dragged on for many months with no end in sight.
The judge refuses to use male pronouns with Florian and a state prosecutor has observed proceedings. She can’t understand why prosecutors should care, or why her family should face such a hurdle after Florian was bedridden with depression for years before understanding who he was. “He was like a butterfly and began to live then,” she said.
As people wait to have their legal gender markers and names reflect their identity, there can be tense moments when they need to show an ID document while riding on a train, visiting a doctor, going to the bank.
They often have to explain to strangers, sometime with people nearby listening on, whey they don’t look like the person on the document.
Aside from the humiliation, they are sometimes suspected of fraud for using documents that don’t match how they look. And they fear for their physical safety as well.
The parents describe how they are often contacted by transgender youth asking to recommend a priest or a mother who can speak to their own parents to help them understand and accept them.
“Almost every week I am contacted by a child asking me if I can speak with their parents,” Tarkiewicz said. “I have thousands of this kind of conversation. When I am educating them, when I tell them there is nothing wrong, that this is still your child. The only thing changing now is that you must love them much more than you did until now.”