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Cartographies of Differences

Interdisciplinary Perspectives


Edited By Ulrike M. Vieten and Gill Valentine

This volume investigates the process of learning how to live with individual and group differences in the twenty-first century and examines the ambivalences of contemporary cosmopolitanism. Engaging with the concept of ‘critical cartography’, it emphasizes the structural impact of localities on the experiences of those living with difference, while trying to develop an account of the counter-mappings that follow spatial and social transformations in today’s world. The contributors focus on visual, normative and cultural embodiments of difference, examining dynamic conflicts at local sites that are connected by the processes of Europeanization and globalization.
The collection explores a wide range of topics, including conflicting claims of sexual minorities and conservative Christians, the relationship between national identity and cosmopolitanism, and the ways that cross-cultural communication and bilingualism can help us to understand the complex nature of belonging. The authors come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and all contribute to a vernacular reading of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, aimed at opening up new avenues of research into living with difference.
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Unpacking Prejudice: Narratives of Homophobia in Cross-National Context


Unpacking Prejudice: Narratives of Homophobia in Cross-National Context

ABSTRACT: This chapter analyses homophobic responses in two distinctive European contexts, Poland and Britain. It is based on a multi-method research project conducted as part of the ERC-funded ‘Living with Difference in Europe’ research programme. It adopts a social topographic approach to produce a cartography of homophobia: the analysis looks at the ways prejudices against lesbians and gay men are refracted through the lens of different national histories and socio-spatial relationships. Our findings show that homophobia is more frequently expressed in silent and subtle ways in Britain, whereas in Poland it remains more salient and blatant. We argue that, despite a transnational narrative of the idealisation of the ‘West’ as ‘homophobia-free’, homophobia still is present in both countries. The chapter demonstrates that we need to pay more attention to the different ways homophobia is expressed across Europe, looking more closely at specific national contexts as well as at the inter-connectivity of homophobia in a transnational age.


Although it is widely considered that it is easier to be a lesbian or a gay man in contemporary Europe than at any other time in history due to processes of individualisation and detraditionalisation as well as legislative change, including emancipatory success of the feminist and queer civil rights movement, nonetheless homophobia is still commonplace. To-date most of the research which has examined this form of prejudice has done so by drawing on the experiences of those who are targeted by this form of discrimination and harassment (Herek and Berrill 1992, Moran et al. 2003) rather than on ← 15 | 16 →the attitudes of the perpetrators. Here, instead of focusing on the accounts of lesbians and gay men this chapter examines the way homophobia is rationalised and expressed by heterosexual people in everyday life in two diverse national contexts: Britain and Poland.

Britain is a European country that has been at the vanguard of processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation, and consequently is characterised by high levels of mobility and the public expression of diverse social identities and lifestyles. Following the introduction of a range of equality legislation including the introduction of civil partnerships (2004) for lesbians and gay men and subsequently gay marriage (2014) it is perceived to be easier to identify as gay in the Britain than at any previous time. In contrast, Poland as a communist state during the post-war period experienced a period in which international mobility was restricted, resulting in greater population homogeneity (Jasińska-Kania, and Łodziński 2009). Following the end of communism this is now being significantly unsettled by contact with ‘others’ as a result of the arrival of migrants from elsewhere and increased engagement with global media and cultures. While the new European Union (EU) accession states have been required to adopt European anti-discrimination and equality legislation (e.g. in relation to sexual orientation), the collapse of communism has also allowed a revival of the Church in some national contexts (e.g. Poland) and with it a re-, rather than de-traditionalisation of attitudes and values (most notably in relation to gender and sexuality). This paper therefore considers the significance of national institutions (e.g. State and Church) in the way they influence the nature and form that homophobia takes.

In exploring homophobia in cross-national context we adopt a social topographic approach to produce a cartography of homophobia (Katz 2001a; Katz 2001b). Specifically this approach moves beyond situating knowledge. (Yuval-Davis 1997, Vieten 2007) in specific contexts to provide an innovative framework for understanding relationships between apparently different contexts. In doing so, it transcends conventional comparative perspectives because it explores qualitatively some of the links that connect places (Valentine et al. 2015b). While physical geographers use contour lines to connect places at a uniform altitude to reveal the three-dimensional form of the terrain, the notion of social topographies is an alternative ← 16 | 17 →cartographic approach which links selected different places analytically along lines that represent not elevation but particular relations to a process ‘in order to both develop the contours of common struggles and imagine a different kind of practical response to problems confronting them’ (Katz 2001b: 722). Hence, a social topographic approach enables us to move beyond a simplistic comparison of these distinct socio-cultural contexts, instead Britain and Poland are treated as nodes which are inextricably linked by wider global processes. In particular, both contemporary states are connected by a shared framework of European legislation and intra-EU mobility through which attitudes, values and social practices are circulated.

The evidence presented in this chapter was collected as part of a European Research Council funded study entitled ‘Living with Difference in Europe: Making communities out of strangers in an era of super mobility and super diversity’, which undertook quantitative and qualitative research in Leeds, UK, and Warsaw, Poland. Leeds is the second largest metropolitan district in England and the regional capital of Yorkshire and the Humber. It has a long history of industrial diversification and prosperity, as well as long histories of immigration and significant levels of deprivation. The share of minority ethnic groups in Leeds is close to the national average (app. 17.5 per cent, 2011 Census). Warsaw was selected for the study since it is the most socially and ethnically diverse big city in Poland. The transformation of the political system in 1989 brought an opening of national borders, freedom of expression and speech (e.g. the possibility of open discussion on individual identities and difference in the public sphere) and equal treatment for all citizens. In this context Warsaw is considered to be the most cosmopolitan city where all forms of visible difference are present in public space, yet such encounters are situated in a conservative normative structure (Piekut et al. 2014).

The first stage of the research involved a survey which was carried out to explore patterns of prejudice in both Leeds (n=1,522) and Warsaw (n=1,499). On the basis of the responses to the survey 30 participants were recruited in each city to take part in in-depth qualitative case studies. Each qualitative case comprised: 1) a time-line; 2) life-story interview; 3) audio-diary of everyday encounters; 4) semi-structured interview about attitudes towards difference; and 5) an interview reflecting on the emerging findings. ← 17 | 18 →The advantage of using this biographical approach was that it enabled a focus on both the personal and public ways that lives develop and an opportunity to explore both continuities and change in participants’ attitudes and values (Valentine and Sadgrove 2014). The interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and coded with qualitative research software.

Patterns of prejudice and homophobia in Britain and Poland

Homophobia is defined as ‘unfounded fear and aversion to homosexuality and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on prejudice similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and sexism’ (European Parliament 2006). This is a form of prejudice which like other negative attitudes comprises: affective (feelings towards other people), behavioural (behavioural orientations) and cognitive (thoughts and knowledge) dimensions (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2010). In the survey we explored all three components. We measured affective attitudes with a ‘feeling thermometer’ (Dovidio et al. 2010). Respondents were asked to say how warm their feelings were towards some groups using a scale from 0 to 100. In Leeds the highest levels of prejudice were recorded for travellers, gypsies and Roma as well as refugees and asylum seekers. In Warsaw the highest levels of prejudice were directed towards gay, lesbian, and transsexual people. Figures 1 and 2 present mean values of out-group attitudes towards minority groups (calculated after exclusion of a given minority group) and in-group attitudes in case of attitudes towards white people (attitudes towards own group). Values were recalculated on a scale 0–1 and centred around, value 0.5.

← 18 | 19 →Images

Figure 1. Affective attitudes in Leeds


Figure 2. Affective attitudes in Warsaw

Source: ‘Living with Difference’ survey, 2012.

Attitudes were described as affective prejudice if respondents expressed colder feelings than the assumed neutral reading of 50 degrees. In Leeds 9 per cent of respondents expressed negative attitudes (<50) towards lesbians and gay men; 41 per cent neutral attitudes (=50) and 50 per cent recorded positive (>50) responses. In Warsaw the distribution between three emotions was more even. Approximately a third (36 percent) of the respondents revealed negative feelings towards lesbians and gay men, the same percentage (36 per cent) were positive, with the remainder (28 per cent) opting for a neutral response. Although the level of prejudice towards gays and lesbians is lower in Leeds than in Warsaw, neutral feelings might indicate a more subtle form of prejudice (see Pettigrew and Meertens 1995; Valentine et al. 2015a). Namely there is a reluctance to admit negative feelings towards a given group, but equally an absence of positive feelings to this group. As Pettigrew and Meertens (1995) explain, while blatant prejudice is hot, close and direct, subtle prejudice is cool, distant and indirect. While the first involves rejection of a group, the latter involves opposition to a more intimate contact.

In the case of behavioural attitudes respondents were asked: ‘If the following people moved next door to you, to what extent, if at all, would you be friendly or not to towards them?’ Attitudes were recalculated on ← 19 | 20 →the scale 0–1 (so it is easier to compare them with affective scores), centred around, value 0.5 and presented in Figures 3 and 4.


Figure 3. Behavioural attitudes in Leeds


Figure 4. Behavioural attitudes in Warsaw

Source: ‘Living with Difference’ survey, 2012.

Homophobic behavioural attitudes were again more common amongst Polish respondents. Most people in Leeds expressed positive behavioural attitudes towards lesbians and gay men (77 per cent) and transsexuals (68 per cent). In contrast, in Warsaw only 40 per cent of people stated they would accept lesbian and gay neighbours and 27 per cent transsexual neighbours. Behavioural attitudes were further investigated in relation to a more intimate form of contact. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement (5-point scale): ‘I would be uncomfortable if my GP or doctor was lesbian or gay’. In Warsaw opposition to a lesbian or gay doctor was expressed more strongly than in Leeds with 34 per cent of people disagreeing with the statement compared to only 8 per cent in Leeds.

Finally, we explored the cognitive component of attitudes by asking: ‘Thinking about the past 12 months, do you think your feelings towards any of these groups have become any colder? Can you say which has changed the most? And why?’ Every third respondent in both cities stated that their feelings towards one of 11 groups had become cooler in the last year. Attitudes towards gay men and lesbians or transsexuals had cooled among respondents in Warsaw (more homophobic – 22 per cent of positive answers, 5 per cent of respondents). This reflects the fact that sexual ← 20 | 21 →minorities have become more visible in public spaces in Poland following its accession to the European Union (Graff 2010). Yet some Poles have struggled to understand or recognise this form of difference. In particular, the presence of lesbians and gay men disrupts the presumed heteronormative nature of public space, creating anxiety that the previously unrecognised or taken for granted hegemony of heterosexuality may be under threat (see Bell et al 1994, Bell and Valentine 1995). As respondents in Warsaw explained: ‘they parade around too much, flaunting “otherness”’, ‘they spread intrusive propaganda in media’, ‘they talk too much’, and ‘they took control over media’. Indeed, in the 2011 Polish parliament elections one openly gay person (Robert Biedroń) and one openly transgender person (Anna Grodzka) became members of the parliament; as a consequence these ‘differences’ have become more ‘mainstreamed’ and present in the public discourse. As sexual minorities have grown in visibility so it has mobilised prejudicial discourses about the threat lesbians and gay men pose to the existing social order, specifically the normative regulations regarding the family, sexuality and national reproduction (Piekut et al. 2014).

Although homophobia is more visibly present in contemporary Polish society than in the UK, it does exist in both societies. In Leeds similar prejudicial feelings towards gay men and lesbians also exist but these are generally expressed more subtly. Nonetheless, there are some similarities among the profile of people expressing homophobia in both places. Men are more prejudiced in both cities (Valentine 2010). Previous studies have suggested that this is because male gender roles are more fragile than those of women, and so when traditional gender roles are perceived to be violated men tend to react in more a negative and hostile way than women (Wellman and McCoy 2014).

Likewise, in both national contexts the older generation (people aged 65+) were the group least tolerant of lesbians and gay men. This perhaps can be attributed to the fact that this cohort has been socialised in different times, when sexual difference was not so openly discussed and LGBT rights were not recognised in both countries (see below). Moreover, in both contexts older people are less likely to have everyday contact with lesbians and gay men because the spaces within which they live and move offer them less potential opportunities to encounter or learn about difference ← 21 | 22 →than other generations. This is because older people’s everyday activity patterns are at least in part, a product of various processes (age segregation in housing markets, age discrimination and so on) that lead to the marginalisation or social exclusion of older people from public space and public life (Hagestad and Uhlenberg 2005; Vanderbeck 2007). Although it is also important to note that older people have the same capacity to change their attitudes as younger people when they come into sustained contact with gay people (Valentine 2014).

According to our survey, in both national contexts people who do not belong to any religious group are less homophobic than people of faith. Other international studies have also found a similar pattern which in part reflects the fact that sex is still understood by most faith communities to be a functional practice, solely for reproduction, rather than about pleasure (Adamczyk and Pitt 2009). In contrast, within secular society sexuality has become conceptualised in terms of expressions of intimacy and self-realisation, losing its connection with traditional ethical frameworks and wider responsibilities to produce the next generation (Giddens 1992). Thus many faiths have prohibitions against homosexuality (McFadyen 2000; Crockett and Voas 2003) – although research also suggests that heterosexual people of faith often separate their beliefs (as abstract practices) from their actual everyday conduct when they meet LGBT individuals. Their ability to do so is facilitated by: an ethic of care towards marginalised ‘others’ in recognition of their own complex intersectional identities (e.g. experiences of racism, motherhood etc.) and a religious commitment to compassion which is evident in most faiths. As a consequence while conflicts between sexual orientation and religion/belief as equality strands may be evident in debates about group rights in the public sphere (e.g. in the law courts, media and political/policy debates) they are less likely to be manifest between individuals in everyday public spaces (Valentine and Waite 2012).

In sum, although patterns of prejudice are dissimilar in both Poland and UK, those who expressed homophobic attitudes in both societies share similar motivations and ideological concerns. In the next section we explore further the different historical and societal contexts that refract the expressions of homophobic attitudes in Poland and the UK.

← 22 | 23 →Situating homophobia in the two national contexts

A social topographic approach, linking analytically homophobia and the responses of national institutions to sexuality in each country sheds further light on the patterns of prejudice in both contexts. In Poland we observe a relatively recent growth of visibility of LGBT people and politicisation of the debate on their rights (Graff 2010). The gay and lesbian issues in the UK have already been ‘domesticated’ (Binnie et al. 2006) and the rapid development of equality legislation in late 1990s and early 2000s has reduced the open expression of homophobia in public space, although it has also contributed to what has been described as a privatisation of prejudice (Richardson and Munro 2013, Valentine and Harris 2016).

Poland: visible and politicised difference

In Poland during the socialism period the expression of any form of difference was not encouraged by the national state, nor followed by people. After the Second World War the authorities decided to promote ethnic homogeneity through a policy of the resettlement of non-Polish citizens and by marginalising the remaining minority ethnic groups in the country (Jasińska-Kania and Łodziński 2009). This policy was linked to the belief that the high ethnic heterogeneity of the pre-war state had contributed to ethnic conflicts and tensions and that becoming a more mono-ethnic state would guarantee a more peaceful coexistence with neighbouring states. This was facilitated by the power of the socialist security services or communist police in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRP) to observe and recode ethnic or national difference as “an attempt to erase the borders between private and public” (Heinen 1997: 589).

Our respondents, asked about diversity in the socialist times, claimed that people preferred not to stick out in order not to be labelled as ‘different’; ← 23 | 24 →otherwise the security services might become interested into them. Moreover, although homosexuality was not illegal after the war, it was used by the secret police as a means to put pressure on individuals to cooperate with the state to become secret informants. For example, between 1985 and 1987 over 11,000 people suspected of being lesbians/gay were arrested as part of Operation ‘Hyacinth’ which resulted in creating personal files called ‘Card of a homosexual’, where their personal information and finger prints were recorded (Tomasik 2012). As a consequence, sexual difference was largely hidden during the communist period. Even the ‘Solidarity’ movement (Solidarność), despite fighting for equality and democratic rights for all, failed to recognise the specific needs of either women or minority sexualities (Gruszczyńska 2009).

The political transition in 1989 brought democratic rights including: after all freedoms of expression, speech and international travel. Equal treatment of all citizens was guaranteed in a new democratic Constitution in 1997, which stated that ‘All persons shall be equal before the law. All persons shall have the right to equal treatment by public authorities’ (article 32, point 1); and ‘No one shall be discriminated against in political, social or economic life for any reason whatsoever’ (article 32, point 2). However, discourse analysis of the Polish Constitution of 1997 reveals that it resembles the Catholic Church Catechism, especially in the way family and gender roles are described (Mizielińska 2001). For example, it defines a marriage as a union of a man and a woman (Article 18). Such an understanding of marriage, and more widely, of the family, was common among both more conservative and more liberal interviewees in Warsaw. For example, the same understanding was articulated by a woman who was born in Warsaw in 1992 and was bisexual and atheist, and by a woman born in a village in south-east Poland in 1960, who was heterosexual and Catholic. The latter explained:

I think that a family means a woman and a man. And here, it’s [homosexuality] more of a, it’s some deviation from normality. I think this way - that it’s not a family for 100%, but more as if people were sick [...] as if something bad was happening inside the head. Something not right. (Polish, female, 50–54, heterosexual)

The ‘traditional’ heterosexual family model, embedded in Catholic religious norms in Poland, has a profound influence on society (Mizielińska 2001; ← 24 | 25 →Piekut at al. 2014). The Catholic Church played a crucial role as the defender of Polishness during the partitions (1795–1918) and during the Communist era (1945–1989). As a consequence, Poles developed a strong sense of identification with the Church, and after the political breakthrough of 1989, the Church was given a privileged political position, guaranteed by the Concordat signed in 1993 (Borowik 2002). Hence the significance of the Catholic religion in shaping the societal response – particularly along older generations – to the growing visibility of gay men and lesbians after 1989 cannot be underestimated. Research participants linked higher level of homophobia in the Polish society with the role played by the Church previously and contemporarily:

I think that such lower tolerance [towards sexual minorities]… it is largely due to religious beliefs among the elderly, and among the older population on average. Among younger people, I think, I think that probably there’s greater tolerance than among the older generation. (Polish, female, 20–24, heterosexual)

And [prejudice towards] sexual minorities [reflection]… It’s also a matter of the Church, well, because after all the Church has a definitely negative attitude and verbalises it. […] And obviously it’s also about the fact that such people haven’t met any homosexuals and they think that it is a form of degeneration. (Polish, male, 35–39, heterosexual)

The influence of the Church, the influence of monoculture, [reflection] well and apart from that some [pause] delay in our civil development [PL: opoźnienie cywiliacyjne] related to, I don’t know, the partitions, to German occupation. [pause] So this is why sexual minorities are perceived negatively, I guess. (Polish, male, 65–69, heterosexual)

In the 1990s, LGBT groups rarely disclosed their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination and social ostracism. This relative lack of visibility reduced the opportunity for contact, and as a consequence attitudes towards this minority group were shaped mostly by the media and the Catholic Church. However, gay rights became politicised after the presidential elections in 2005, when one of the candidates, Lech Kaczyński, used homophobic sentiments in his campaign including challenging what he described as ‘homosexual propaganda’ (Graff 2010). In the following years many grassroots initiatives and social campaigns have emerged, such ← 25 | 26 →as ‘Love Does not Exclude’, ‘In Relationship with Love’ or ‘Close Strangers’ (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014). Ordinary gay and lesbian couples or families with gay/lesbian members have started to talk more openly about their experiences of discrimination and institutional limitations. This increased visibility has in turn been mobilised to justify homophobia and to blame lesbians and gay men for provoking the discrimination they encounter. For example, some interviewees reflected that minority sexualities could be in fact blamed for the discrimination against them:

I think homosexual people themselves make unnecessary hype about themselves which later causes them to be discriminated against. That’s my approach to this, but it’s hard to call that intolerance. (Polish, male, 30–34, heterosexual)

Analysis of the press discourse on same-sex relationships suggests that while the media coverage now includes more diverse voices in this debate, including liberal views (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014), nonetheless in the period between 2011 and 2013 homophobic and exclusionary discourses have been on the increase. This follows heated parliamentary debates in 2011 about legislation to recognise same-sex partnerships (Arcimowicz et al. 2014). In this way, the growing visibility of LGBT activists and equality debates, on the one hand, and an increase in tolerance of different forms of family and relationships (CBOS 2013), on the other, have led to the emergence of more direct and homophobic discourses among some politicians and media (Arcimowicz et al. 2014). This is reflected in the narratives of many of our interviewees which demonstrate that the heterosexual majority still oppose the growing visibility of minority sexualities and their political efforts to gain equal rights. As the exemplary quote below shows, they are ‘tired’ of sexual minorities ‘flaunting’ their difference in the media:

I don’t like this… flaunting this difference… I could say that I’m intolerant in the sense that flaunting it annoys me because, the fact that someone is homosexual doesn’t bother me, let them be. But it bugs me that they go on parades and take their clothes off at these parades, yeah, because unfortunately they are like this, these parades, they often look like this that they show their sexuality. Gosh, I’m hetero and I don’t have to show it, and I don’t show it. Why do you show it? (Polish, male, 30–34, heterosexual)

← 26 | 27 →Although, the 1997 Polish Constitution guarantees basic democratic freedoms and condemns any form of discrimination, groups such as lesbians and gay men have not been protected by specific legislation. Until 2010, the Labour Code was the main element of Polish anti-discrimination legislation (amended in 2001, 2003 and in 2008 to comply with European equality directives). It regulated discrimination in the labour market, but not in other spheres of life. The Equal Treatment Act (ETA) – the Act on the Implementation of Certain Provisions of the European Union in the Field of Equal Treatment – entered into force on 1 January 2011 (Bojarski 2013). However, the ETA is criticised. First, some grounds for discrimination are excluded, and it does not provide a full protection against discrimination. Second, the compensation covers only material damage (not immaterial), what also limits its protective power. Third, only in employment cases the ‘burden of proof’ has been moved from the complainant to the respondent. Forth, it did not create a new equality body; instead it designated the existing Ombud’s Office (Commissioner for Civil Rights Protection) as an equality body. It has limited resources and powers in terms of resolving conflicts between private parties (Bojarski 2013). Despite these limitations equality legislation and civil partnerships have become increasingly discussed in Polish public debates. However, the evidence of this research is that the growth of visibility and politicisation of sexuality has currently brought intensification rather than a reduction in homophobia; the expression of which had been suppressed during the socialist era. In the next section we will explore specificity of the British context.

UK: domesticated difference and privatised prejudice

After the Second World War homosexuality was illegal in the UK and punished by imprisonment. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised consensual same-sex acts – provided they took place in private, and involved two men only aged at least 21 years old. In the 1970s feminist lesbians and gay activist movements emerged campaigning for equal rights. However, in the wake of AIDS-phobia in the 1980s the negative perception of homosexuality was if anything strengthened (Bell 1991). In 1988, ← 27 | 28 →the then Conservative Government introduced ‘Section 28’ of the Local Government Act which stated that local authorities should ‘not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ (in force in the UK until 2003). Although no one was ever prosecuted under this legislation its implementation provoked a backlash which led to the growth of lobbying and equality organisations for sexual minorities such as – Stonewall (in 1989). It played a key role in the parliamentary lobbying in the 1990s and mobilisation of celebrity support for the gay/lesbian movement. In 1997, the newly elected Labour Government initiated a programme of equality legislation which included the introduction in 2004 of a Civil Partnership Act which gave same-sex partners similar rights to civil marriages. Full equality with heterosexual marriage was achieved in 2014 when gay marriages were legalised. In 2010 a new Equality Act1 came into force which brought together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single legal framework. This legislation requires people to be treated equally in most aspects of public life, regardless of the protected characteristics of: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

The rights claims of lesbians and gay men and associated legislative change have led to sexual identities and cultures becoming more visible in the media and popular discourse and even achieving relative normalisation within British mainstream culture (see Nava’s 2007 account of modernity and English urban cosmopolitanism). Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the lesbian and gay movement has allowed itself to be co-opted, exploited as a niche market – the so-called pink pound – and ultimately commodified (Altman 1997), becoming in the process respectable and acceptable. Although others have observed that while consumption may have played an important part in the sexual citizenship struggles of some gay men not all forms of cultural difference are as easily assimilated as the white middle class (Binnie 2004).

← 28 | 29 →Indeed, despite these broadly progressive changes in legislation and relatively normalisation of some forms of homosexuality in British culture our research found that acceptance of minority sexuality rights and freedoms is still conditional upon an expectation that lesbian and gay relationships are not displayed in public space but rather remain ‘private’ (cf. Stonewall 2003):

I mean when you see the [LGBT] rallies at Parliament Square and places like that. […] They’re going about it in completely the wrong way, because all they’re doing is disgusting people. When you have families and mothers and kiddies walking along the pavement and they’re camping it up and kissing… They’re going over the top, they’re not going to get much of a sympathy vote there. (White British, male, 30–34, heterosexual)

We do when we watch the six o’clock BBC News and there’s something on about gay marriages, my wife has very strong feelings about it that she doesn’t think that it’s right to have gay marriages. But I’m a bit agnostic over this issue because I always feel like look, there’s loads of people that live together, men and women, and they don’t bother about marriage, so why don’t these people just live without having to make a marriage. That’s my view. You don’t have to go and make a public scene of the whole thing. If you’re gay and you want to have another, just go ahead and live together and it’s none of anybody else’s business. (British Asian, male, 75–79, heterosexual)

Homophobic respondents expressed discomfort with the increased visibility and public representation of gay men and lesbians. Such discomfort – instead of an open and direct hostility – indicates that prejudice has become what Massey (2009) describes as more ‘modern’ or ‘symbolic’.

In this respect, the views of some of the interviewees from the UK mirrored those in Poland despite the dissimilarities in the legal frameworks in place in the two countries. In a social topographic sense, the common contour which links these two specific national contexts is the shared framework of the European Union. There were clear connections in the way interviewees in both Poland and the UK claimed their own national contexts to have been reshaped by European discourses about equality and by the perceived power of European Courts with the consequence that minorities are perceived to have been afforded too much accommodation or tolerance (this point is explored further in the following section). For ← 29 | 30 →example, in the UK some interviewees argued that their ability to voice disquiet about the acceptance of lesbians and gay men in public space has been silenced by equality legislation which is popularly described as ‘political correctness’ (Valentine and Harris 2016):

Gay people – I mean now they’re going to let them get married. I know what gay people do, I used to know them. It’s called buggery isn’t it? Believe me it’s not a pleasant sight. Yet I can’t say anything against them. I mean I went into a shop today and I asked for some cheese gays and they didn’t know what I were talking about. I said but I’m not allowed to say puffs. (British-Caribbean, female, 50–54, heterosexual)

You’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to be so careful of who’s around you, because you can offend so many people in so many different ways… I think you’ve got political correctness. There are a lot of things that you can’t say and do in everyday life that you used to be able to… I think that boils over because people are frightened of what they’re saying. There’s no real freedom of speech anymore, even though you’re supposed – we do live in a society that says freedom of speech, but I can’t say I don’t want to see gays flaunting it. (White British, male, 30–34, heterosexual)

People holding negative attitudes towards lesbians and gay men argued that they can only express their views in private spaces – among family and close friends. As a consequence people refrain from expressing homophobia not out of acquiescence with contemporary social norms and equality legislation, but out of a fear of the social and legal consequences of doing so. In other words, there has been a privatisation of homophobia (Richardson and Munro 2013; Valentine and Harris 2016). As such, while equality legislation has contained the public expression of prejudice it has not been sufficient to erase homophobic attitudes from the British society and transform it into a truly progressive culture.

Like the interviewees in Poland, participants in the UK also justified their prejudice towards lesbians and gay men on the basis that same-sex relations are ‘unnatural’ and do not lead to procreation. One of the British participants explained:

So I’m not a lenient person with homosexuals, I think they’re just freaks. It’s nature gone wrong. […] Like I say I’m not religious, I’m an evolutionist. […] So if the world was full of gays getting married, in a generation we’d be all gone. So it must be unnatural. So if that’s unnatural marriage is unnatural. I mean marriage I suppose ← 30 | 31 →I really believe that marriage is in church, even though I’m not religious. (White British, male, 65–69, heterosexual)

But you know, I mean at the end of the day they’re all God’s people. I certainly don’t agree with lesbians getting married. I don’t agree with like Elton John bringing up a baby, because I think in a home you need a woman and you need a man – whether they’re married or not is irrelevant – but I think for a secure, a well-adjusted childhood there needs to be a male and a female. So this business of them getting married I think’s stupid. But that’s just my opinion. (White British, female, 80–84, heterosexual)

Drawing the social topography lines between both case studies demonstrates that although in both contexts homophobia was mobilised by increased visibility of gay and lesbian people in the public sphere (in the UK in the 1990s, in Poland in the 2000s), respondents in each city favoured different justifications for their ‘discomfort’ in relation to gay and lesbian people. In Poland homophobia appears to be anchored in the collective presumptions regarding how the nation and the national culture should be reproduced and with the dominant heteronormative understanding of gender norms and sexuality (Kulpa 2013). In the UK, however, were British people are more likely to support ‘biological models’ of homophobia than to relate their prejudice to social justifications (see also Furnhama and Saito 2009). It appears that as a consequence of the introduction of equality legislation for lesbians and gay men people do not publicly question the sexual citizenship rights of minorities anymore, as they still openly do in Poland. Instead, homophobic sentiments are privatised and are largely channelled through arguments about biological reproduction.

Cross-national discourses of homophobia – Europeanisation of prejudice

Minority sexual groups became more visible in Polish public discourse following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. This led to debates about how to harmonise Polish law with EU standards and the ← 31 | 32 →consequences for national culture. For right-wing and nationalist groups LGBT rights became a symbol of EU interference in the Polish nation-state. As Graff (2010: 585) argues ‘collective fears concerning EU accession were projected onto […] an ultraconservative but only half-serious discourse on gender and sexuality’. Attitudes to sexual minorities have therefore become not just a question of the acceptance or not of non-heteronormative behaviours, but rather a boundary marker between the West and the East (see also Mayblin et al. 2016). Some Polish interviewees for example perceived the acceptance of gay and lesbian rights to form legally recognised civic partnerships as desirable so that Poland could become more ‘western’ in comparison while Russia and other Eastern European countries who were represented as having ‘underdeveloped’ equality legislation:

And they were a couple who was really, they lived together, I met them at some friends’, at some party. And they are still together. And I reckon that preventing such people from the right to… let’s say medical information, or these inheritance issues, I guess, it is somehow absurd. Especially that I cannot understand how legal regulation of this sort, what threat it poses to Catholic morality in this country. I cannot see any bone of contention, but maybe I didn’t tune in enough [laughter] in the topic. But anyway I reckon that it should be resolved legally. And after all Poland doesn’t look good in the eyes of Europe. I mean we are not Russia where there can be no parade, but we don’t facilitate life of such people. (Polish, male, 35–39, heterosexual)

Other interviewees framed Western European societies as having accorded ‘too many’ rights to sexual minorities (e.g. by allowing lesbians and gay men to marry or adopt children) with the consequence that the traditional Polish nuclear family is under threat (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2013). This tension is illustrated in the following narrative where the interviewee draws a distinction between the right to a civil partnership which he is willing to accept as a consequence of joining the European Union and the right of lesbians and gay men to adopt and raise children which he perceives as a step too far:

Right now there is a lot of debate in Poland about the civil unions. Do you have any opinions on the topic? Should they be allowed?

← 32 | 33 →Unions, yes. Wow. Unions exist, right? Because of this profession [insurance advisor], I sometimes have the pleasure to talk with such people. I also had a problem with this at first, then I got to know it better. These unions are, were and will be. I think that statistics lie – worldwide a certain percentage of people are homosexual. And that’s how it is and we can’t change that. When it comes to marriage, real marriage and adopting children, I don’t know. This may be old fashioned, but I would not be in favour of that. Civil unions, that’s fine. If you want to live together, legally in a certain way that is possible. I don’t have a problem with that. Because I know that such situations exist. But you see, everyone wants to be that perfect European [pol.: pięknym], super open. But on the other hand, when it comes to adoption or raising children […] this just doesn’t suit me. (Polish, male, 40–44, heterosexual)

Indeed high levels of homophobia, including in the media, and the continued acceptance of hate speech towards sexual minorities (including the banning of equality marches) (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014) has meant that Poland has developed a reputation for homophobia, which Graff (2010: 583) argues represents ‘its mark of difference in Europe’ (Graff 2010: 583). As a consequence Western European countries have developed a patronising discourse towards the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, offering help and education. Kulpa (2014) suggests that Poland and other Eastern European countries are framed as a ‘homophobic Other’ in Europe, not sufficiently liberal and tolerant, a region that has to be ‘taken care of’ by more civilised Western countries. Such perceptions of Eastern Europe were also present among our British respondents:

I’ve been reading up to go travelling next year after I finish university and I was just reading a Europe book, and it said about gay and lesbianism around Europe. It said, it’s mostly, you know, fine, in the Western world – more in Western, than the Eastern. (White British, female, 30–34, heterosexual)

The reproduction of such narratives results in an idealisation of ‘the West’ as ‘homophobia free’ (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014). Yet, as we demonstrated in the previous section, while it is not socially acceptable to express homophobia publicly in UK, this form of prejudice is still present – it has just been privatised. However the representation of the UK as a tolerant society compared to Eastern European countries may strengthen prejudice towards other nationalities and minority groups, i.e. Polish migrants, ← 33 | 34 →who may be seen as representing ‘backward’ and ‘homophobic’ societies. More importantly, the belief that Western countries, including the UK, are ‘homophobia free’ may justify private prejudices, because they are not seen as ‘harmful’ – as they do not result in openly discriminatory behaviours or hate speech, which can be found in ‘truly’ homophobic countries like Poland.


This chapter has presented homophobic responses by people in two distinctive European contexts, Poland and Britain, confronted with the legal equality (Britain) and public visibility (Poland) of lesbians and gay men. It is based on multi-method research conducted as part of the ‘Living with Difference in Europe’ research programme. The analysis looked at the way prejudices against lesbians and gay men refracted through the lens of different national histories and socio-spatial relationships. We found out that although homophobic attitudes are expressed differently in Poland from the UK, there are number of similarities among both case studies. First, although the level of homophobia – that was measured in the surveys and talked about during interviews – is higher and more directly expressed in Poland, the demographic profile of people holding such prejudicial views was similar. Men, people aged 65 and over, and those with a religious belief were more likely to express prejudice towards lesbians and gay men in both national contexts. This homophobia was also framed in both places through a discourse about the unnaturalness of same-sex relationships, and in terms of homosexuality as a threat to family life and the reproduction of society. Here the former argument was most prevalent in the UK, where the Polish interviewees placed more emphasis on the preservation of family values and norms (socio-cultural argument).

To some extent the different nature of homophobic prejudice in both contexts is related to the different stages of the national debate about equality legislation and LGBT rights. In both countries equality legislation has ← 34 | 35 →been amended in recent years in response to equal treatment directives from the EU. In Poland, following accession to the European Union in 2004, anti-discrimination directives were implemented for the first time, and in 2011 an Act on Equal Treatment was also introduced. As Poland was the only European member state without an equality body, this legislation established the office of the Ombudsman in this role, as well as providing protection from discrimination in all aspects of public life on the grounds of race, ethnicity, nationality and in part, gender. However, sexual orientation and age were only afforded such protection in relation to employment (Bojarski 2013). Poland won a partial opt-out in relation to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because of its concerns that the European Court of Human Rights interpretations of the law would lead to a change in the definition of ‘family’ and require Poland to recognise same-sex marriage. As such, legal recognition and protection for sexual minorities in Poland remains relatively limited and heteronormativity is still politically and institutionally legitimised (Binnie and Klesse 2013). Debates about equality for sexual minorities are only just gaining traction, and are still strongly opposed by the Catholic Church which remains a powerful voice in the public sphere in terms of shaping values and social norms.

In Britain, battles to establish lesbian and gay sexual citizenship have a much longer history. As the chapter has described, this began with the decriminalisation of same-sex acts by men in England and Wales in the 1960s, despite high profile activism throughout the late 1980s and 1990s the introduction of more fundamental equality legislation was only introduced as a response to EU directives in 2003 (Binnie 2004). Yet, despite the introduction of broadly comprehensive equality legislation and measures to combat discrimination in everyday life homophobia has not disappeared. It remains resilient taking on new forms and being mobilised in different spaces (e.g. in private spaces among close friends and acquaintances rather than in public life). In this sense, homophobia in the UK might be characterised as silent and subtle, whereas in Poland – it remains more salient and blatant.

However, overstressing the distinction between the two contexts in relation to the development of equality legislation risks defining one context, the UK, as more ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ and the other, Poland, as ← 35 | 36 →‘backward’ and ‘less developed’. This hegemonic relation between the West and the East in Europe has been strengthened by the European integration process when countries from Central and Eastern Europe were expected to adjust their laws and standards to accord with so-called ‘proper’ European values in order to become members of the European Union (Kuus 2004). As Hegde (2011: 3) has argued, ‘with the transnational circulation of media images, the hegemony of the West is reproduced in the global imaginary as the site of progressive sexual politics and cosmopolitan modernity’ (see also Vieten 2012). Amongst both our Polish and British interviewees the West was commonly idealised as a place free from homophobia. While some Polish participants argued that as homophobia is challenged and reduced Poland will become more ‘civilised’, British respondents situated this prejudice in Central and Eastern Europe. Here, LGBT rights are falsely read as symbolic of a country’s development and sophistication. This assumption that prejudice either happened in another time – the past – or happens elsewhere – Poland, rather than the UK – risks dangerous complacency.

Homophobia is not just a Central and Eastern European phenomenon. Rather, as we have demonstrated in this chapter, it is present in both the UK and Poland, albeit taking a different form and being visible to differing degrees in the two places. As such, we argue there is a need to pay more attention to the different ways homophobia is expressed across Europe by recognising the specificity of different national contexts while also continuing to recognise the connectivity between homophobia in different contexts. In this way we might expose the contours of prejudice which enable us to more effectively pursue policies to eradicate it in all its forms.


We are grateful to the European Research Council which funded this research through an Advanced Investigator Award (grant agreement no. 249658) entitled ‘Living with Difference in Europe: making communities out of strangers in an era of supermobility and superdiversity’.

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