As I get on the phone with Anton Ambroziak, he’s wrapping up a major feature on the state of Poland’s public schools. The results are a cold shower for the country’s education ministry. A broad-based survey of parents and teachers suggests that over half of Poles would, given the choice, prefer their children to be educated outside of the state-school system.
Ambroziak, who works for the crowd-funded news and fact-checking portal OKO.press, deems this damning verdict unsurprising. Schooling is one of his long-standing interests, and he is quick to point out the Polish system’s sins: an overloaded curriculum, deepening inequalities (“parents are learning to rely on paid tutoring and non-public schools”), and runaway teacher depletion (“we don’t look after our teachers … burnout is rife among older, once-idealistic staff, and talented graduates have no incentive to replace them.”)
Ambroziak is one of Polish journalism’s rising stars: in 2018, his sharp eye for social injustices earned him Amnesty International Poland’s human rights reporting prize. Besides writing on education, he has traced the triumphs of Poland’s maturing feminist movement, the country’s persistent economic inequalities, and high-profile miscarriages of justice. A recent piece documents a planned “container slum” on the outskirts of Warsaw, with a nearby town’s “problem tenants” relegated to makeshift steel box homes.
But he is also one of Poland’s first public transgender figures: while he uses masculine pronouns, he describes himself as non-binary. In a July 2018 interview with Vogue Poland, he gave a detailed account of his gender transition, speaking candidly of his fears and hopes for gender non-conforming Poles.
One thing which is difficult for Gen-Z Poles to deal with is the difficulty they have reconciling the affirmative, accepting messages they find online with the homophobia in their immediate surroundings.
Today, he would much rather be known for his journalistic output than his queer identity.
“I have already told my story,” Ambroziak says. “To be honest, I didn’t do it hoping to change social attitudes. I did it for the sake of other trans people: I wanted them to see that they’re not alone, that they have a place in public debate.”
His fears mirror those of many LGBTQ+ people across the arts: that he will be viewed as the sole spokesperson for Poland’s trans community. “I think every non-heteronormative person who’s in the public eye fears that everything they stand for, their entire being and work, will be reduced to their queerness,” he says.
It is a difficult balance to strike. “Of course, I’m not going to be silent on rights issues,” he says. “I’ll also gladly connect fellow reporters with trans people who want to share their stories. Myself, I’d much rather be on the other side: asking questions, listening, framing the conversation. I want my work to speak for itself.”
In keeping with his interest in education, Ambroziak is keen to explore the challenges faced by the youngest LGBTQ+ Poles, from a dearth of dedicated mental health support to a government orchestrated campaign of repression. In September 2020, diplomats from 50 countries urged the right-wing Law and Justice administration to respect minority rights after nearly a third of Polish municipalities declared themselves to be “LGBT-ideology-free zones”. In June of the same year, Law and Justice stalwart Przemysław Czarnek — who now serves as Poland’s education minister — declared on state TV that “the time [had] come to stop listening to all this human rights nonsense,” and that non-heteronormative Poles “could hardly be equal to normal people”.
Amid burgeoning grassroots resistance to such attitudes, Ambroziak is visibly loath to label himself an activist. Aside from dissecting the public mood in print, his is a quieter kind of resistance. Steadily, he’s waged what he calls a “guerrilla campaign of support” for vulnerable transgender teens, especially those living outside major cities.
“A lot of it is about sharing information. Young people are often unaware of their rights,” he says. “For example, teachers might argue that school statutes legally prevent them from using a pupil’s preferred pronouns, which is not true at all. I often refer trans youth to the Trans-Fuzja Foundation, the Warsaw-based rights NGO, which offers a wide range of resources and support.” Unfortunately, some of his work is simply crisis intervention. “For example, if a trans teen is thrown out of their home, our immediate concern is, of course, finding them a safe place to stay,” he says.
I won’t say that my work is an extension of any kind of activism. That’s not what journalism should be about. What I try to do is to give a voice to activists, as well as to people whose stories have long been pushed aside.
Ambroziak says the internet has opened up new possibilities for Gen Z Poles who feel disconnected from the country’s dominant “straight-white-and-Catholic” cultural narrative. Online communities have offered solidarity and succour, often helping gender non-comforming people find the words to describe their experience.
Yet this opening up has brought with it a new set of frustrations. “One thing which is difficult for Gen Z Poles to deal with is the difficulty they have reconciling the affirmative, accepting messages they find online with the homophobia in their immediate surroundings,” Ambroziak explains. “That easy access to information has definitely changed the outlook of young queer Poles who all too often feel isolated within their families and communities.”
That access has also given a new strength to Polish LGBTQ+ activism, with the last few years bringing a markedly more assertive tone. “LGBTQ+ people in Poland have seen a lot of empty promises,” he says. “Under the previous [centre-right] Civic Platform government, we were always told that civil unions would be introduced, as long as we waited patiently and did not disturb the peace. Eight years went past and no progress was made.”
“I have already told my story. To be honest, I didn’t do it hoping to change social attitudes. I did it for the sake of other trans people”
To many — supporters and detractors alike — the new face of Poland’s queer activism is Margot Szutowicz, detained in August 2020 after allegedly damaging the van of an anti-abortion campaigner. Attempts to block her arrest were met with an unprecedented show of police force; social media posts showed protesters and passers-by being dragged through the streets.
“For many Poles, everything about Margot is a shock,” Ambroziak says. “Margot pays no heed to expectations around what trans-feminine people should look like and behave. She curses, she dresses as she likes, she insists on her rights. She’s been anything but humble and polite.”
As Polish LGBTQ+ campaigners become increasingly vocal, Ambroziak’s work may seem somewhat overshadowed. But in many ways, his work is just as radical: shifting focus from queer individuals to the wider, LGBTQ+ community with its cacophony of voices, experiences and perspectives. In this way, he returns queer people to their rightful place as part of the fabric of society, rather than framing them as unique or outspoken outliers.
“I won’t say that my work is an extension of any kind of activism. That’s not what journalism should be about. What I try to do is to give a voice to activists, as well as to people whose stories have long been pushed aside,” he says. He does, however, describe himself as “allergic to unfreedom”.
“I certainly think of my reporting as engaged,” he tells me. “The whole OKO.press team shares an opposition to the kind of false objectivity we often see in mainstream media, which might give a platform to discriminatory, unscientific, extremist views for the sake of ‘balance.’ We’re different. We’ve made it very clear that we write from a position of respect for human rights and democratic institutions.”
He predicts that last year’s mass strikes against Poland’s harsh new abortion laws — which brought together young and old, queer and straight across the country — will have helped bring these marginalised voices into the cultural mainstream.
“I like to think of [the strikes] as a kind of dignity-based revolution,” he says. “They have inspired many to listen to the lived experiences of others, rather than just expound their views on controversial subjects.”
“Abortion debates are hardly a great unifier – but I truly hope that lasts.”