Was Chopin gay? The awkward question in one of the EU's worst countries for LGBTQ rights

A drawing of Polish-born composer and pianist Frederic Chopin on his deathbed in 1849.

London (CNN)Each year, millions of visitors to Poland are introduced to the country's favorite son before they even set foot on its soil.

Warsaw's Chopin Airport, the nation's largest transport hub, greets more than 1 million people every month. And it's far from the only landmark dedicated to the Romantic-era composer, born in a tiny hamlet west of the capital 210 years ago; his name is everywhere, his works and image ubiquitous across the central European country.
Chopin's residences bear unmissable plaques. Busts and statues of his likeness are dotted across most major cities. His name adorns parks, streets, benches and buildings. Even his heart, preserved in alcohol after his death in 1849 at the age of 39, is sealed into a wall of Warsaw's Holy Cross Church.
    But new suggestions about Frederic Chopin's private life collide awkwardly with Poland's staunchly conservative traditions and its right-wing leadership -- and have caused some to question whether the story of Chopin that Poles are told from a young age is true.
      According to a Swiss radio documentary that has been discussed at length in Poland in recent days, the composer had relationships with men, and those relationships were left out of history by successive historians and biographers; a potentially thorny charge in one of Europe's worst countries for LGBTQ rights.
      Music journalist Moritz Weber, whose program aired on Swiss network SRF, said he reviewed letters from Chopin, sent to male friends, that feature explicit and romantic passages.
      Weber also found that subsequent biographies and re-tellings of some letters swap male pronouns to female ones and downplay, whether intentionally or not, any evidence of Chopin's relationships with men.
        "He's talking about love so directly with men," Weber told CNN. "Why wasn't that questioned by all these scholars and famous biographers?"
        Chopin's heart is buried in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw.
        The most traditional story of Chopin's love life is that he had romantic relationships with women -- most notably the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was known by her pen name, George Sand.
        But the archive of letters that Weber trawled told a different story, he found. "He didn't write letters to them at all. And he doesn't write about them in a way that you could conclude there was love," Weber said.
        "What is obvious in his letters that there is love written to his male friends -- most passionately to Titus Woyciechowski," Weber said, referring to the Polish activist and longtime friend of Chopin's. Later, he wrote in such a way to "many other" men, he added.
        Suggestions that Chopin had male lovers are not new, and the sexuality of a Romantic-era artist would be of little importance in many parts of the world.
        In Poland, however -- where Chopin's music is omnipresent, and where the artist commands a reverence rivaled only by compatriots Pope John Paul II and Marie Curie -- Weber's documentary has attracted notice.
        "Was Chopin gay?" several Polish newspapers have asked in recent days, debating the merits of the suggestion. "Chopin kisses his friend. Does that mean he was gay?" another publication questioned. "The West is excited that Chopin was gay," a columnist for the Gazeta Wyborcza summarized, noting that the rumor has long been a source of speculation.
        "He's like a holy person (in Poland)," Weber notes. "He's admired, his music is so important there."
        While Poland loves Chopin, its relationship with the LGBTQ community is a painful one. The country's populist government frequently uses harshly homophobic rhetoric, with its Prime Minister complaining of a "homosexual agenda" threatening the homeland.
        A third of the nation has declared itself "LGBT-free," a legally meaningless stunt that has LGBTQ people living in fear. And in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, where the church maintains a staggering influence, religious leaders have resisted moves to expand LGBTQ rights.
        Polish President Andrzej Duda has denounced LGBTQ people, winning re-election earlier this year after putting the issue front and center in his campaign.
        The governing party's powerful leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has claimed LGBT people "threaten the Polish state."
        Its new Education Minister said last year that "these people are not equal to normal people." And last year, Krakow's archbishop bemoaned that the country was under siege from a "rainbow plague."
        These trends have led to Poland being named the EU's worst country for LGBTQ rights by the monitoring charity ILGA-Europe.