Kelly Sans Culotte


Hope for Love in Poland?
Gay movement grows in Poland despite far-right surge.
By Tomek Kitlinski and Pawel Leszkowicz

The authors in the gay visibility billboard campaign, "Let Us Be Seen." Karolina Bregula

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WARSAW, JAN. 12, 2004. A mob of irate right-wing politicians and their skinhead sidekicks recently descended on the venerable Jagiellonian University in Cracow (est. 1364). The target of their wrath was a 66-year old, Catholic-educated philosopher who was often at odds with Poland's old Communist regime. Her current sin: she has dared introduce a same-sex civil union bill in the Polish Senate.

While demonstrators picketed outside, inside the building, Senator Maria Szyszkowskawa was confronted by the leader of the ultra-nationalist All-Polish Youth who, in a redundant flourish of medieval misogynistic and homophobic imagery, called her a witch and presented her with a broom.

Rebel With A Cause
Senator Szyzkowskawa was the keynote speaker at a student forum on the bill she has authored, which would allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners, file joint income tax returns, own property together, and get some insurance and inheritance rights. The bill also acknowledges that same-sex partners are bound by emotional ties and argues that a legally recognized status is essential for the development of the spiritual aspects of their relationships.

Although it does not allow same-sex couples to adopt, the proposed law is a breakthrough in post-Communist Poland, a country where a native brand of xenophobic, ultra-nationalist, Catholic-fundamentalist extreme right is rapidly taking root. The very fact that the Polish Senate is currently discussing the bill is already a democratic advance.

Senator Szyszkowska, a prominent philosophy of law scholar, has always rebelled against the status quo. Under Communism, she was the country's only doctor of jurisprudence, a then outlawed discipline in Poland. When martial law was declared in the early 1980's, she could not find a teaching position. The author of several dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles, Szyszkowska now heads the Department of Philosophy of Law in Warsaw University, and chairs the Ethics Committee of the governing party, the Democratic Left Alliance.

Besides authoring the bill to legalize same-sex partnerships, the pioneering Szyszkowska has also participated enthusiastically in a series of meetings at Polish universities, entitled "I'm Gay. I'm Lesbian. Meet Us." As a result of her support of queer human rights, she often faces harassment and ridicule from increasingly popular far-right groups such as the medieval-minded All-Polish Youth.

Rising Right
All-Polish Youth is the attack-dog militia of the Catholic, ultra-nationalist League of Polish Families, the country's most powerful far-right party. The League is rabidly anti-abortion, anti-European Union, anti-foreigner and anti-queer. Its main leaders come from the hard-core anti-Semitic National Party, now disbanded.

A few months after it was founded, in October 2001, the League won 38 seats in the 460-member Polish parliament and 7.8 percent of the vote. The strong showing was largely thanks to the enthusiastic support of Radio Maryja, Poland's hugely popular, nationalist Catholic broadcasting network, which claims 5 million regular listeners in a country of almost 39 million. The League did even better in the October 2002 local elections. The party now boasts a strong national organization and its own media.

Earlier last year, the League successfully pressured the mayors of Cracow and other cities to ban the gay visibility billboard campaign, "Let Us Be Seen," which showed portraits of queer couples holding hands.

The public art project was the brainchild of photographer Karolina Bregula, 24. It was coordinated by the NGO Campaign Against Homophobia, which also sponsors the "I'm Gay. I'm Lesbian. Meet Us" series in universities.

All over Poland, billboards were immediately painted over. Even where they were not officially banned due to far-right and Catholic Church pressure, most were taken down within two weeks of being put up (they were supposed to stay up for two months). Campaign organizers then began showing Bregula's photographs in galleries. Exhibitions were hugely successful in Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Sosnowiec and Crakow.

The removal of the billboards triggered a heated debate in the newspapers, which until then had ignored queers. "The fate of the campaign has showed the scale of intolerance, fear and censorship in our country," wrote two dozen Polish intellectuals in an open letter published by the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the country's most important newspaper. They added: "A voice in defense of the campaign is a voice in defense of freedom of speech, tolerance and human rights."

Homophobia + Misogyny
A major component of Poland's homophobic witches' brew is misogyny. Abortion is banned, and there are a number of cultural and economic constraints on women and queers alike. Female artists who deal with sexuality have been hard hit by censorship. Some, like Dorota Nieznalska, have also been physically assaulted.

Members of the League of Polish Families attacked Nieznalska verbally and physically at the Gdansk gallery where her "Passion" installation was being exhibited last year. The work, an exploration of masculinity and suffering, shows a cross on which a photograph of a fragment of a naked male body, including the genitalia, has been placed. The League also sued the artist.

Last July, a court found her guilty of "offending religious feelings" and sentenced her to half a year of "restriction of freedom" (she was specifically banned from leaving the country), and ordered her to do community work and to pay all trial expenses. When the judge read the sentence, members of the League of Polish Families packing the courtroom applauded ecstatically. The artist has been trying since to get the sentence overturned on freedom of speech grounds.

Dorota Nieznalska's conviction prompted more than 700 artists and intellectuals from Poland and abroad to sign a letter of protest that said: "The principle of freedom of expression has been totally violated. The artist is the victim of an ideological vision of a religious state, which the League of Polish Families is attempting to impose on Polish society. Civic freedoms are not established in order that they may serve one ideology. We all have the right to live and function in this country and to express our own views freely."

It concluded: "Polish society is not homogeneous. We can talk about majorities and minorities belonging to the same society. Dorota Nieznalska, in dealing with one of the problems which are present in this society, is expressing her right to be different."

The Right to Be Different
Against this background, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in Poland is nevertheless growing. Lesbian and gay writers like Izabela Filipiak are beginning to make their presence felt, and research in queer studies is blooming. Queer and gender studies scholars will convene their fifth international conference in Wroclaw in May.

The public debate about sexual minorities ignited by the "Let Us Be Seen" public art campaign, the same-sex civil union bill, and Poland's decision to join the European Union has made queers less invisible.

The level of the public debate, especially in the media, is still very basic. Newspapers feel they must "balance" any mildly rational view of homosexuality with a homophobic invective, or a pseudo-scientific piece on "conversion therapy".

Lately, it seems that Poland's biggest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, is becoming a little more queer-friendly. Their coverage of the December incident involving Senator Szyszkowska at the Jagiellonian University was unbiased. And the accompanying photo was priceless: a banner carried by angry League of Polish Family denizens, which read, predictably: "Sodom, Gomorrah, Szyszkowska."

From the Web

BBC Country profile: Poland
BBC Timeline: Poland
Polish queer portal — Innastrona
Deutsche Welle: Polish Government on Collision Course with Church
The Guardian: New boy Poland flexes its muscles & Devotion to U.S.
Roth Institute, Tel Aviv University: an overview of Poland's extreme right, 2003
Europe Without Homophobia, the 5th international queer and gender studies conference, Wroclaw, Poland, May 2004

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