Katarzyna Sroczyńska: ‘I would conduct research into it,’ is how Jarosław Kaczyński ended one of his recent statements on transgender people. You are researching this. You are a co-author of a report named ‘The social situation of LGBTA people in Poland’, which shows that, in many respects the situation of trans people has been deteriorating recently, more than that of gay, lesbian or bisexual people.

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Dr Mikołaj Winiewski*: In the broad sense of this category, the situation of trans people has always been the worst (according to the report: ‘transgender has been defined broadly in this study, as an umbrella term covering transgender, non-binary, genderfluid, asexual, cross-dressers and all those whose sex assigned at birth does not correspond to their gender identity’).

There are several well-known people in this group, such as Ewa Hołuszko, who studied at our faculty.

‘Solidarity’ activist

Yes, even before her transition Ewa Hołuszko was active in ‘Solidarity’. After the transition, her life changed a great deal. She is among the group that is most exposed to discrimination and violence, even on the street. Because this is the group of the most recognizable people.

A homosexual man or a bisexual woman, cisgendered people, do not stand out on the street unlike, for example, transgendered women. My conversations with them show that they face dramatic situations and this can also be seen in the results of our research. So much so that we warn readers in the description that they will find drastic content in the following paragraphs.

Our report applies to the situation in 2019–2020 and compares it to what was happening in 2015–2016. It covers the time of the pandemic, when we were locked away in our homes. It draws attention to the fact that violence against LGBTA people has increased, although there have been fewer attacks in public, on the street, at parades etc.

The story of trans people in this light turns out badly for several reasons. Firstly, systemic ones: non-heteronormative people cannot enter into marriage or adopt children, but there are relatively few of these obstacles compared to the situation of trans people, who are subject to systemic oppression in many spheres.

Which categories of life is this about?

For example, medical care, meetings with doctors and other healthcare professionals, but not only. In our research, for example, we asked whether these people had tried to obtain legal gender correction.

2,580 people responded. Just 36% of them have the correct legal gender while the rest, for various reasons, don’t, primarily because the correction procedure is very difficult (25% of people). President Andrzej Duda did not sign the Gender Reconciliation Act in 2015, which changed several inhumane provisions, such as the one that says that anyone who wants to reconcile their gender has to sue their parents.

It is uncertain how many people there are who try to do this, let’s say about 100 a year. Politicians are willing to sacrifice these people on the frontline of the ideological war.

It seems to me that this systemic oppression is a major factor in the social situation of trans people. In addition, with the presidential elections, it transpired that attitudes towards non-heteronormative people can be the axis of the ideological division, while trans people are – excuse the expression – the most convenient victim here. And when the signal came down from above, it shifted the norm, making the situation worse.

But it’s simultaneously a new victim. In previous campaigns, gays and lesbians tended to be the whipping boys.

Yes, because, as I said, they are convenient victims: they are people who are different. Besides, it is difficult for cis people, who feel comfortable in their body or gender role, to imagine their situation. The group of trans people is also small compared to gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Gays and lesbians can be characters in TV series; we have non-heterosexual politicians and actors. We are more likely to have a gay relative or an acquaintance who has a gay son or daughter than to have a non-binary or transgender person in our environment.

So we are dealing with a small and distinct group, but we know little about them. Research into social cognition and intergroup relations shows quite clearly that contact with and true knowledge about a foreign group counteracts stereotypes and reduces fear and the resulting prejudice.

For example, we can imagine homosexuality or bisexuality, I like women and he likes men. This is easier to imagine than non-binarism or transgenderism.

And it is also obvious that we have little knowledge of transgenderism or non-binarism. Transsexuality is frequently confused with cross-dressing. When listening to right-wing politicians, it is easy to get the impression that this is either a cynical game or a lack of elementary knowledge. It is also easy to think of gender as a black and white category, whereas modern science shows that it is a multidimensional spectrum.

All these elements combined make trans people the perfect enemy.

In Poland, the percentage of people declaring that they have met a transgender person is extremely low compared to other European countries.

This arises from the low level of outcasting. Trans people are often afraid of social rejection and violence. This has multifaceted consequences: firstly, such people are not visible, which is a problem because of the majority, cis people treating transgenderism as something strange, and secondly, because of the minority, because the fewer there are, the more difficult it becomes to be outcast.

Outcasting is like a shield for people from the minority, any minority, protecting themselves from painful psychological consequences: outcasts have higher self-esteem, greater social support, lower symptoms of depression – our research shows all this.

Tomorrow, 8 August, marks the second anniversary of ‘Rainbow Night’, as the night from 7 to 8 August was called, when the police brutally pacified a protest in defence of the Stop the Nonsense activist, Margot Szutowicz. As many as 48 people were detained and taken to police stations:

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The concept of minority stress affecting mental health appears in your research. What is that?

We encounter many stressors in the world, different things affect the way we function more or less negatively. Minority stress is additional stressors that appear because of belonging to a minority, such as social ostracism, a fear of rejection, in the case of trans people, it could a situation such as the inability to use the gender-appropriate bathroom.

One such stressor is microaggressions, which we examined for the first time in our latest report. This is about the climate created by the majority group and its behaviour, which the minority group encounters constantly and persistently in everyday life, reminding its members that they are a minority, that they are seen as being worse and treated unequally.

Minority stress has major consequences. We were all affected by the pandemic, it affected our mental health badly, but LGBTA people were affected more severely in many respects. Additional isolation of people living in an unfavourable environment, such as a teenager who has outcast himself from his parents but whose parents are hostile to his orientation, is more severe than for others.

Therefore, a factor that reduces minority stress is social support, but the risk of being outcast enabling them to reach for this support is so great that trans people do not reach out for it. A vicious circle arises.

Conflicting motivations arise. On the one hand, the risk of rejection, so we don’t outcast ourselves, but since we have to hide who we are, we start to internalize some of the values held by the majority, including homophobic or transphobic attitudes. If I can’t say who I really am, can’t use the name I identify with, then maybe there’s something wrong with me. After all, everyone says there’s something wrong with me. This is a debilitating belief.

People who manage to get out of this vicious circle accept themselves, are able to find an environment that accepts them, get support. If someone is outcast and acts in accordance with themselves, they can look for good medical care.

I understand the problem with good medical care is that you have to be able to trust the doctor, because, for example, in the case of a transgender woman, at some point in her life she may need to be diagnosed for both breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Probably. But I’m not an expert on medical care. However, I can tell you how it is in the case of psychological and psychiatric care. It arises from our research that the level of knowledge about transgenderism among providers of psychological support is lower than among specialist doctors.

According to the respondents, 51% of people providing psychological support knew little or almost nothing about transgenderism. The number of trans people who have heard from psychotherapists or psychiatrists that they have thought something up is shocking.

After all, only 4% of transgender people declare that healthcare professionals, including psychiatrists, with whom they had contact knew about their gender identity. Worse than that, some people try to avoid contact with doctors altogether for fear of being treated worse. As one trans person told us in the research: ‘I avoid going to doctors out of fear and discomfort with outcasting myself’.

What is moving in your report is that trans people declared the worst image of themselves – out of all LGBTA groups. I understand such a conviction encourages the internalization of transphobic views. But I also read in this report that ‘trans people considering their financial situation to be good had a lower degree of internalized transphobia than trans people with subjectively poor economic conditions’. How do trans people feel at work?

Once again, it is important to emphasize that transitioning in Poland is so difficult that many people choose not to do so, not least in order to keep their jobs. 82% of trans people declare that their immediate superiors are unaware of their gender identity, and 70% state that none of their co-workers are aware.

People who dress according to their gender or have medical procedures or legal gender correction start to have problems, frequently lose their jobs and so therefore their financial status deteriorates.

It seems that, as a society, we have the biggest problem accepting a person who is seen to be a man, but stops behaving or looking like we expect of a man. They also tend to be the heroes of a collective imagination. Meanwhile, people who have the annotation of ‘female’ on their birth certificate, but think differently of themselves, more frequently request the psychiatric diagnosis needed for legal gender reassignment. Why is that the case?

I think it’s mainly a matter of stereotypes or schematics that we quickly acquire in our social development. This doesn’t just apply to gender, although gender is one of the first social categories we acquire as children. Joseph Fagan’s and Lynn Singer’s research in the late 1970s showed that even several-month-old babies recognize gender. And then we learn the social content of these categories.

So this is one of the fundamental factors that put order to our social world?

Yes, it is all deeply encoded in our culture. But deviations can create uncertainty, fear or even hostility.

Of course, we differ from each other: some people are very uncomfortable with chaos and prefer to assign elements of the world to clearly defined categories, while others do not have such a strong need for this. But it is culture that tells us how women and how men behave, and this is a restriction for both women and men, although men have a higher social status.

When this order ceases to work, it is disliked by parts of society. It seems to me that, in the case of transgender people, this change is precisely highly threatening – it shatters the vision of the world. A gender that goes beyond the area of binarism does not fit into the standard worldview.

But this is a situation that would need to be addressed through knowledge and education, but it’s also easy to use it for political purposes to manage this fear.

Is this why conservative politicians are so keen to treat precisely LGBT+ communities as the enemy? Putin recently said in Tehran: ‘They [the West] are great specialists in non-traditional relations and, in the field of energy, they decided to count on non-traditional types of energy – solar and wind energy. But the winter proved to be long, there was no wind. And that was all.

This is a smart move. Caring for the environment is more the domain of the left-wing, the liberal side, just like caring for individuals who are more vulnerable to discrimination. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in his theory of the five moral foundations, which are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation, the left side of the political scene relies primarily on the first: care/wrongs.

Conservatives also refer to this foundation, e.g. PiS emphasizes economic inequality, if only by currently subsidizing coal. But it simultaneously mobilizes voters against non-traditional groups, choosing a small but distinct enemy that seems threatening to traditional communities and values. This is how it appeals to the remaining moral foundations.

However, ultimately, it is a cynical game the victims of which are the most vulnerable.

In the last presidential campaign, a shot aimed broadly at the LGBT+ community proved ineffective. Perhaps this is because non-heteronormativity is increasingly better understood, but this would have to be empirically tested.

Or, in other words, the attack now targeted at trans people is a lesson learned from the presidential campaign?

I think it could be. Let’s look at the discussions taking place in the USA, for example about trans women and toilets; the same narrative is now emerging in Poland. Threatening that old men who take the pill become women and go to stalk women in women’s toilets.

If someone knows what transition looks like, what stress and strain it puts on the body, what a sacrifice this is, not to mention the physical pain, they will find this image absurd. But if someone has no idea, doesn’t understand what it is, it’s easy to scare them with something like that. Because it is easier to imagine ‘perverts’ peeping at or harassing women in the bathroom.

What we have here, therefore, is fear management, which always works well for the right wing. It scares people, for example, with refugees, although it worked better when the refugees were in southern Europe and nobody saw them here.

I have the impression that the creation of a closed zone on the Belarusian border also served to create an invisible threat. Now, it is time for trans people, who are the perfect target – equally invisible, equally helpless and lacking support from society.

You talk of ignorance as the foundation of fear, but there are also circles that can hardly be suspected of lacking knowledge and being uninformed. I am thinking of some of the feminist groups in which transphobic attitudes are appearing. We had a sample of such a dispute at the beginning of the year after the publication of several articles texts in ‘Wysokie Obcasy’.

I’m not following that debate and I have the impression that, in many respects, it’s quite a specialized discussion, an identity discussion, which has evolved, especially through the social media, to drastic threads. Without commenting on the essence of this discussion, I would have two comments.

First, this discussion shows what an easy target trans people are, as even on the left, in feminist environments, it’s easy to find allies for the anti-trans narrative.

Secondly, we have a simplistic perception of this discussion and its context. A special issue of ‘The Sociological Review’ was published in 2020 under the slogan of ‘TERF wars’. In it, the articles written by sociologists show how complex this issue is.

However, there are consequences for trans people – another group outcasting trans people is appearing.

Or perhaps this is a competition of suffering, a rivalry of who is more of a victim?

That would be an interesting perspective. I don’t know if that’s the case, because I don’t have an in-depth picture of that discussion. Rivalry in suffering often comes up in debates about history, including in the exclusionary context. Research into the consequences of historical traumas shows that we can treat the suffering of our group as exceptional – and then we believe that other groups didn’t suffer like we did.

Acknowledging that we have suffered more than others leads us to outcasting these others and not acknowledging their suffering. We see this, for example, when we examine the narratives of the Holocaust and the suffering of Poles during the Second World War, or the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.

Or perhaps successive groups that become visible and make emancipatory efforts always encounter hostility from others? Perhaps aggression is always a reaction to emancipation attempts?

This is always a process. Emancipatory movements give rise to a more or less justified protest. Most frequently because emancipation is accompanied by a vision of a loss of privileges by the majority or the dominant group.

This is easy to see by following the process of emancipation of women or African-Americans. The argumentation against same-sex marriage is similarly structured: it is the end of the traditional family.

This is what is argued in Poland, although, for instance, same-sex marriages were introduced by the Conservative government in the United Kingdom, precisely in the name of the family as a value.

I understand that the situation is that we have a polarized political scene; in order to maintain it, we need strong emotions, trans people seem to be an ideal subject and pretext to fuel such polarizing emotions.

This is how it has worked so far. Refugees, Germany and the European Union have been such topics.

Additionally, the category of gender is so basic that, when you try to touch it, it creates fear in many of us, because we get the impression that an attempt is being made to breach the foundation.

Yes, this is an important category, and culture has also made it such an important category. We live in a binary world, we are assigned a gender: female or male, and we don’t really think about that, about those chromosomes, about genetic sex. Biological sex is a complex matter, and that complexity is not really of interest to us. We assess gender by genitalia and do not want additional complications.

Below is an excerpt from the report ‘‘The social situation of LGBTA people in Poland", the co-author of which is our interviewee Dr Mikołaj Winiewski.

Transgender people: invisible to society. A passage from the report

1. The vast majority of transgender people do not disclose their gender identity at the workplace (more than 70% of working people have not disclosed their identity to co-workers, 82% to their supervisors), in schools and at universities (73% have hidden their gender identity from academic staff).

  • The majority of transgender people who disclosed their gender identity at the workplace feel they have support from their colleagues and supervisors (53%). Of the pupils/students who have disclosed their identity to other pupils/students, as many as 60% feel supported by colleagues, while of those who have disclosed their identity to teachers, 58% of respondents feel they have support from teaching/academic staff (compared to 20% among all pupils/students).
  • Despite the feeling of support, half of those who openly disclose their identity to the teaching/academic staff hear a name and grammatical forms other than their preferred name and grammatical forms from the teachers and lecturers (51%, 201 people), and one in five (21%, 84 people) hear negative transgender-related comments about themselves from the teaching/academic staff.

2. Relatively few transgender people (3–13%) have taken steps in the past two years related towards being recognized as transgender people by law or medicine, such as:

  • Obtaining a transgender diagnosis (20% have started the process intended to obtain a diagnosis, of whom 9.3% have obtained a diagnosis).
  • Medical procedures leading to the matching of the sexual features of the body with gender identity (7.7%).
  • The legal gender reconciliation procedure (5.9% attempted, of whom 1.5% have successfully reconciled their legal gender).
  • Change of forename in documents (9.3% attempted, of whom 4.9% changed their forenames).
  • More people had taken such steps in the last two years than in earlier years.

3. More than half the transgender respondents (58%) had taken advantage of psychotherapy or psychological support in the past two years. Non-binary people did this more frequently.

4. Doctors and psychologists have a low level of knowledge about transgenderism. 83% of doctors and 51% of people providing psychological support to the respondents know little or almost nothing about transgenderism.

  • Among the doctors visited on transgender issues, 72% already knew a great deal or almost everything about the subject. It is possible that, despite the low level of knowledge on transgenderism in healthcare, when transgender people decide to look for support from doctors, they are frequently able to find specialists with adequate knowledge. An interpretation is also possible that patients chose to go on an appointment on a transgender-related issue less frequently and only when they were more confident that they could have a consultation with the right doctor.
  • In contacts with the health service, 43% of respondents had encountered discrimination in the past two years.
  • One in five people benefiting from psychological support were being persuaded by the person providing the support to accept the gender assigned at birth.
  • The transgenderism of 20% of people receiving medical care was copntested by healthcare professionals.

5. The inability to use public toilets safely significantly affects the lives of the respondents. 57% of respondents did not use the toilet despite needing to do so, and 41% organized their time and daily schedule so that they could use the toilet at home.

Source: ‘Sytuacja społeczna osób LGBTA w Polsce. Report for 2019-2020’

*Dr Mikołaj Winiewski – social psychologist from the Centre for Research on Prejudice – Department of Intergroup Relations at the Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. Co-author of the report ‘The social situation of LGBTA people in Poland’.

Wyłączną odpowiedzialność za wszelkie treści wspierane przez Europejski Fundusz Mediów i Informacji (European Media and Information Fund, EMIF) ponoszą autorzy/autorki i nie muszą one odzwierciedlać stanowiska EMIF i partnerów funduszu, Fundacji Calouste Gulbenkian i Europejskiego Instytutu Uniwersyteckiego (European University Institute).