Life

A queer library in Poland has pivoted to offer support to LGBTQIA+ refugees fleeing conflict in Ukraine. By Fiona Kelly McGregor.

The library supporting queer refugees fleeing Ukraine

The Biblioteka Azyl in Poland, which is now part of a broader project for refugee support.
The Biblioteka Azyl in Poland, which is now part of a broader project for refugee support.
Credit: Supplied

This is not the story I planned to write. Initially, it was about Biblioteka Azyl, the queer library Filip Kijowski founded at Lublin’s Galeria Labirynt in 2020 with curator Waldemar Tatarczuk. Kijowski was going to visit me in Rome. We were going to talk about why he is building this archive in Poland and what it will do for queers in an increasingly hostile state. Then war broke out and Biblioteka Azyl – which translates to Asylum Library – pivoted.

“I spoke with Waldemar and as Lublin is only 150 kilometres from Ukraine, we decided we couldn’t not respond,” Kijowski says. “We talked to an activist in the US who knew someone needing escape and agreed to be the contact at this border.”

The library is now a crucial link in the sophisticated network that has sprung up to aid LGBTQIA+ refugees, forgotten by governments. With other Polish and Ukrainian organisations such as Warszawa-based Lambda and Warszawa Pride, Biblioteka Azyl is helping co-ordinate transport, accommodation, medical and therapeutic aid. A trans kid and his mother have been housed in Poland, a trans woman and non-binary person are in Warszawa; a lesbian couple in Lviv is poised to cross. A team of drivers, mostly based in Berlin, is helping deliver medication to the border as well as transporting people.

Kijowski is 27 years old, with a mop of dark hair over glasses with candy-striped frames, one round and one square. He speaks in a crisp London accent, the result of living there for half his life. He has dark circles around his eyes and when he finally comes to visit he spends most of his holiday on computer and phone.

Biblioteka Azyl was launched two years ago when Kijowski was artist-in-residence at Galeria Labirynt. His project had initially focused on dance, then the idea to create a library grew from a seed planted by Tatarczuk during a conversation. “He never imposed an opinion, he just asked a lot of questions. It was a great way to work. One was, ‘What do you want to be remembered for?’ ”

Soon after, Kijowski held a wild party on Valentine’s Day. “When I woke next day I found my studio trashed,” he says. “The one thing intact was my bookshelf.” On it were James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket, a book by Maya Angelou. “So I thought, this is what lasts.”

Beginning with these titles, Azyl now contains more than 850 books and zines, some by Australian authors, including Sarah Krasnostein. “It’s mostly donations from shops and writers responding to the callout from Britain, USA, Canada, France, Germany and Poland.”

Kijowski realised how much he had been supported by the queer community and this was another reason he wanted to build the library. “When I was younger, I put myself in danger with unsafe sex and for two years didn’t dare get tested. I thought I would die and I consciously began to prepare for death and withdraw from life. Maya Angelou helped me through that … It was always important for the library to have a section for sexual health. It’s so good for people to come and say, ‘This is my first queer book.’ ”

When Kijowski’s residency finished, Biblioteka Azyl had to move to a basement just outside town. “We are looking for a new space. Right now it’s just on one wall. I want people to be able to sit and read. We also want to continue our work hosting events with authors.”

 

Trained in choreography at London’s University of Roehampton, Kijowski subsequently spent two years in Bangkok working with companies Spine Party Movement and Project C, using contact improvisation methodology to facilitate encounters in the liminal zone of art, therapy and community. Returning home when Covid-19 hit was a shock.

He had not lived in Poland since the age of 14. He had only known Warszawa, where his parents now have a house on the outskirts. “I had lost work all around the world. Returning to Poland seemed the safest choice but I wanted to leave again quite quickly because I had a lot of memories of feeling unsafe and I knew no community members. After a while, seeing the changes and making connections, I decided to stay. Then the incredible opportunity came up to do the residency at Galeria Labirynt, with Waldemar.”

As a boy, Kijowski remembers praying to God to make him straight: “normal, like all the other boys I knew”. At 14 he got a scholarship to a performing arts high school in London. He went to live with his paternal grandmother, Barbara, who had escaped from Lviv during World War II when the city was in Polish territory. “She never wanted to come back East, she always predicted war would erupt again, and we would always say to her ‘it won’t happen’.”

Barbara used to hide the fact she was Polish. In supermarkets, she spoke to the children only in English. A new form of discrimination emerged after Poland’s hard-won entry to the European Union, when thousands streamed west to better employment prospects. Kijowski remembers his shame. “Kids at school saying, ‘So you’re Polish, does your dad own a car wash?’ On Facebook I changed my name to Philip.”

His grandmother is nearly 95, a retired nurse still living independently. “She says she’s okay but it’s true this war has reawoken trauma for my family.”

 

In early 2019, a year before Kijowski’s residency, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, of the far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has held power for two decades, decreed LGBTQIA+ an “ideology” that threatened the family and the Catholic Church. A third of the country’s municipal councils declared themselves “LGBTQIA+ free zones”, including Lublin.

The law is ambivalent but mentioning anything queer-related in public often results in punishment. When Tatarczuk’s contract at Galeria Labirynt wasn’t renewed in February, despite a critically successful and popular program, Tatarczuk, who came out as gay late in life, assumed it was due to his curation of material including LGBTQIA+ culture, the Women’s Strike for abortion, and migrants. The gallery committee was dominated by associates of the PiS party.

In early 2021, three female queer activists were put on trial for profanity after distributing an artwork that superimposed a rainbow halo onto the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. They were eventually acquitted after a two-year ordeal of harassment and vilification.

Almost all “LGBTQIA+ free zones” fall in the east. For a Ukrainian queer needing to escape, they constitute another hurdle. The word family, dominating news coverage of the refugee crisis as a marker of inclusion and safety, can conjure the opposite when you are cast out of it or cast as its enemy.

Advocacy group International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association: ILGA-Europe, ranks Poland 43rd out of 49 European countries in hostility to queer people, just ahead of Russia at 46 and behind Italy, Romania and Ukraine at 36, 38 and 39 respectively. Same-sex marriage and adoption remain illegal. The rhetoric is uncannily similar to that of the Russian enemy, with Vladimir Putin declaring queer rights “propaganda” and “decadent”.

In 2021 the European Commission initiated legal proceedings against Poland’s LGBTQIA+ free zones, threatening to withdraw funding for Covid-19 relief. The case appears to have been pushed onto the backburner. Duda returns to the polls soon, and Poland is riding high on its immense humanitarian effort, with 2.3 million refugees taken in the first month of the war. Similarly, stories of African and Asian refugees being turned back from the border while Russia bombed the cities they were studying in are easily forgotten.

PiS has strong ties to the Catholic Church, which during decades of communist rule accumulated political power by association with democracy. Karol Józef Wojtyła’s long and stable pontificate as John Paul II from 1978 to 2005 was fundamental. Notwithstanding his diatribes against homosexuality and against the distribution of condoms at the height of the AIDS pandemic, in 2014 Wojtyła was canonised.

“The church built up trust,” Kijowski says. “It was a place of peace and respite. You go in, you sit down, and you submit. This message of respecting the church, not questioning anything, has been passed down through generations.”

 

Kijowski strolls onto the terrace to take another call, his pink ski pants swishing noisily. He returns to tell me Go Fund Me have contacted them about the campaign. They are so moved, they will donate €300. “A group of friends from the UK is running our crowdfunding for us. The money will go towards renting a couple of safe houses in Lublin and other cities.”

Shortly after flying home, Kijowski rings to say the library has been offered a new space. They are founding a support centre with warm food, clothing, bathrooms, first aid and hygiene products. A small apartment has become available for crisis accommodation.

“I miss making art,” Kijowski admits. “But I’ve just been asked to present a work in Prague at the end of the year, and to perform and teach at a festival in Norway, which is something to look forward to. For me going forward is about learning when to rest, and what I can and cannot help with. Then working with those boundaries.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Shelf care".

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Fiona Kelly McGregor is the author of seven books.

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