Today we have written a special episode just for our Polish listeners. Our end of the year data showed a spike in downloads for Poland. And this is no doubt due to the aggressive campaign mounted against queer Poles in their homeland’s most recent election. Our hearts go out to you, and we want to make as many people as we can aware of your situation. And also to educate everyone about Poland’s rich queer history. But first let’s give a rundown of what has happened in Poland this past year. Also as a trigger warning; we will be using queer slurs throughout this episode as we quote bigots and homophobes. In cases of violence against the LGBTQ community, we do not believe in sugar coating the events. These slurs are what our Polish friends hear everyday and we want their plight to be made clear.
2015 saw the rise of the ultra conservative Law and Justice Party. Which in Poland is interpreted as Prawo (Pravo) i (eh) Sprawiedliwość (Spreva dievosht) and is known as the PIS party. And it is also how we will refer to the intolerant political movement during this episode. The PIS party gained the majority lead by running on an anti-immigrant platform during the middle of the decade. However in the most recent campaign, they found that anti-queer rhetoric spoke more profoundly to bigots. The focus of the PIS party’s 2019 campaign was simply to attack, malign, and demonize LGBTQ Poles; and it worked. In September of this year Polish citizens under 40 were polled to see what they believed was the greatest threat to their country. While women pointed to climate change as the biggest concern, men stated the threat was ‘gender ideology and the LGBT movement.’
And it is no wonder that male voters have come to so deeply fear and hate their fellow queer citizens. Leaders of the PIS party have worked to spread homophobic panic by pushing cities to declare LGBT Free Zones. While it is not illegal to be gay in Poland, and while these Free Zones have no judicial backing, it does send a clear message to the LGBTQ community. As does the violence and protesting that has so harshly come down on the queer population. In June of this year 1000 brave LGBTQ Poles and their allys hosted the first Pride March. They were met by an overwhelming majority of counter protesters. Who drowned the festivities in boos, hurled bricks, eggs, and fireworks at the marchers. And other protesters who knelt on the sidewalk to openly pray for the souls of their vile LGBTQ fellows. As one activist later wrote; “everywhere there are hands showing the finger, lots and lots of those middle fingers, to say, ‘Fuck you, faggots.” Had it not been for Police holding back the crowds the entire band of marchers would no doubt have been engulfed in a bloody riot.
And if the pressure from the PIS party wasn’t enough, the Catholic Church is there to make things worse. In August, the church commemorated the Warsaw Uprising. A failed attempt by the Polish Resistance to keep Soviet occupation out as the crumbling German occupation fled the country. The Archbishop paid tribute to the brave resistance who fought the “Red Plague”. And then the church leader went on to warn of a new threat. As he stated; “The Red pestilence no longer marches across our land, but a new, neo-marxist one appears. Not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit – Not red, but rainbow,”. One cannot stress the impact of the Church’s attack on the queer community as the country is 85% Catholic. They are as much a threat as the PIS party, if not more, to the LGBTQ population in Poland. Repeatedly leaders in the church have denounced queer Poles on television and from their lecterns.
Following the Archbishops remarks another Bishop concurred, “The sick LGBT ideology strikes at the heart of the traditional family. May Mary preserve young people in search of their identity, so they’re not seduced by fashionable slogans of freedom and tolerance which lead in reality to captivity and deprivation.” In the past 20 years especially, the Catholic Church has worked hard to block queer progress. The Church has openly opposed anti-discrimination laws, same-sex marriage, adoption for queer parents, and LGBTQ positive media. As well as becoming the first pastoral conference to denounce the spread of so-called ‘gender ideology’. It is the main reason Poland ranks 27 out of 28 when it comes to queer equality in the EU (European Union). Hate crimes against LGBTQ victims are not protected as such. Same-sex marriage is still illegal. And as we stated, 30 towns in Poland have initiated LGBTQ Free Zones. While in America and many parts of the world the Church has been able to thinly veil it’s bigotry and hatred, in Poland the mask is ripped right off. And we see the ugly institution for the abusive, corrupt, hate filled, monster that it always has been.
Facing the crushing weight of political adversaries, religious foes, and social hindrances, one must wonder how any semblance of a Polish LGBTQ community ever survived. But in truth there is an exciting and deep history in this resilient and defiant country. For a millenia Poland has faced one eradication and erasure after another. It’s roots date back to the Slavic migration of the late 900’s, and it was first established as a monarchy in 966 BC. From its early settling Catholicism took hold of the small European country converting it into a strong Christian Kingdom. One of the most notorious kings was Casimir the Great. Who was attributed with reuniting the struggling kingdom and turning it into a small empire. Casimir’s grandson Wladyslaw III (Vad-ys-svaw) – named for his great grandfather Wladyslaw the Elbow High (because he was so short) – would eventually take over the kingdom.
Wladyslaw (Vad-ys-svaw) came to power in 1434 and never married or had children. Thus despised by some followers who wanted him to pass down the family dynasty, Wladyslaw was accused of being gay. And perhaps it was true, though the only evidence comes from his accusers. Just six years after ascending the throne, Wladyslaw was killed in the Battle of Varna during the Turkish Crusade. Upon his death, one historian of the day blamed the King’s demise to his sexual activities with another man the night before . Writing that the young ruler being, “Too subject to his carnal desires, he did not abandon his lewd and despicable habits”. Whatever the true orientation of Wladyslaw, he was the only Crusader King never canonized.
For the most part queer history during this time in Poland has been erased by the Catholic church. Though we do have a few criminal accounts of two transgender/non binary people. One was Wojciech, an individual assigned male at birth yet who lived her life as a female. She married two men and lived happily in her community. That is, before being outed upon her arrest for hitting her second husband in the head with a brick. As a result of her crimes of violence and cross dressing, she was burned alive at the stake in 1561. 80 years later the second documented case of anti-trans violence occurred in the prosecution of an individual named Agnieszka. According to documents, in 1642 Agnieszka, assigned female at birth, was beaten and exiled for wearing male attire and “committing imaginary male courtship”.
In reality, this was not the norm for Poland in the early days. Most illicit relationships were ignored, or certainly not prosecuted, and the rich were never held accountable for being queer. Yet a downfall of the Polish nation was inevitable. Due from it’s proneness to invasions and partitions (which the act of dividing a country up). Despite the numerous setbacks the country continued to hold on until the late 1700’s. During this time it dissolved and was divided up on 3 separate occasions. The last leader to reign over the Polish Kingdom was Stanislaw Augustus. Who was rumored to be bisexual or at the very least sexually fluid. He most notorious lover was Russia’s Catherine the Great. But he also carried on an affair with his male boss when he was younger. While working as the Secretary for St. Petersburg’s British Ambassador, the future king and the ambassador enjoyed one another’s bed. The enlightenment that swept Europe during the 1700’s promised to be a freer time for the struggling nation. Then abruptly in 1795 the Polish state ceased to exist as a country.
For the next 123 years Poland was not recognized as an independent state. The revolutions and uprisings that turned Europe inside out was no exception for the nationless Poles. Three separate rulers who laid claim to Polish territory all instituted Buggery acts and anti sodomy laws. And of course this did not stop queer love, it merely drove it underground. The founder of Poland’s feminst movement Narcyza (Nar -tisza) Zmichowska (tsmi – fask- va) – also known by her pen name Gabryella – was an open bisexual. The scandal of her affair with a married man and her 32 year long romance with a fellow feminist were almost as shocking as her writing. In 1846 her book Poganka (The Heathen) made quite a stir in the Polish territory. In the story Narcyza (Nar-tisza) writes of her love for her friend Paulina and the ensuing affair; all of which was inspired by real life events.
Then in 1918 a rebirth came when Poland was re-established as an independent state. After a decade of rebuilding, the country returned to the Napoleonic Tradition and the Criminal Code in 1932. Which lifted all previous restrictions and essentially made Poland one of the first countries in Europe to de-criminalize homosexuality. By no means was it socially acceptable for queer people to outwardly express their love and identities. However, the lifting of the ban certainly allowed for an air of freedom in Poland. An unspoken rule of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” filtered through the renewed nation.
The mid 1930’s saw a surge of queer literature and feminist strength. One of the most famous feminist of the era was Poland’s Irena Krzywicha (Ksi -vit -ska). In addition to her work for women’s rights and women’s empowerment, Irena was also a staunch supporter of the gay and lesbian community. She spoke loudly of her belief that homosexuality was a natural sexual behaviour. Her and her husband also had and open marriage and Irena was not quiet about discussing her romances. Her support was appreciated – and at times cringed at due to her boldness – by many queer artists. Boleslaw (Bol – svaw) Lesmian (Lays -main) was a poet and leader in Warsaw who was open about his attraction to men. Maria Dabrowska (Da – Brovf- ska) was another writer and novelist who lived as a throuple with Jerzy (Yer – zey) and Anna Kowalski (Ko- val-ski). Maria bore a son from Jerzy, and after he passed away Anna and Maria continued to live together for the next 20 years.
It is no doubt the impact of theatre, art, and literature kept queer life strong in Poland. The artists and writers of the time were bold in their calls for a sexual revolution. Still, the stranglehold of the Catholic church on the small country kept the LGBTQ community from thriving the way it wanted. When Poland fell to the Nazis in 1939 and then later to the Soviets in 1945 things didn’t change much for queer Poles. Even with gay Jews and other queer resisters imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps placed in Poland, LGBTQ Polish citizens were mostly left alone. Once the Nazi’s were driven out the Soviet commanders often investigated known queer hangouts. Yet leaders could not determine if the community was a threat, especially since so many queer Poles were communist sympathizers.
The following 25 years between 1945-1980 is very silent about queer culture in Poland. From what we can piece together from personal testimonies it was similar to America or a few of its fellow European countries. In 1948 when Kinsey’s earth shattering report broke through, Polish leader hurried to heavily censor its contents. The activism of the 30’s had died down dramatically and most saw the queer community as passive about social issues. This isn’t to say things were easy for LGBTQ individuals. The very fact that we have so little information available about queer poland at this time shows the heavy hand of the government. In a sense, as long as the LGBTQ community kept to themselves they went mostly unharmed. There are many stories of gay men and gender non-conforming people being beaten by a gang of straight men. And as there were no laws to protect queer people from discrimination it no doubt ran rampant in the Catholic communities. Yet the frequent police raids and government harassment of other countries are not shown in Polish history. This isn’t to say they didn’t happen. Merely that media and literature is still heavily censored and controlled to this day.
The 1980’s saw a breakthrough in the form of magazines. Popular national review Polytika printed an article on homosexuality in 1981. The article brought the bustling queer sub-culture to light and ignited a country wide debate. This public exposure also began to arouse the queer community into action. Sometime between 1983 and 1986 the heavily influential gay magazine Filo was published. The date varies and this could be because early editions of Filo were simply American and English gay magazine article reprinted for queer Poles. This is why terms such as ‘gay’ and ‘coming out’ became known in the East European country. Another important gay magazine was Biuletyn which later changed its name to the well known Etap (which means Phase in english). Both these publications were essential in starting the modern day gay and lesbian movement in Poland.
But as has happened in societies again and again around the world, when the queers no longer remained silent the public no longer tolerated them. Operation Hyacinth was launched on November 15, 1985 as a response to the gay movement. Police raided campuses, work sites, homes, schools, and anywhere else their targets may be. And those targets were any men suspected or reported as gay or having any ties to homosexual communites. The men were forced to register in a database as a so-called precaution against the spread of HIV and AIDS. Polish propaganda also stated that the database would help control the violent gay gangs and stem rampant male prostitution. In reality, authorities used the database to blackmail their targets into complying with whatever the authorities demanded. To this day the “pink files”, as they are called, are still kept under lock and key by the Polish government.
In response to this outlandish attack, the Warsaw Gay Movement officially launched in 1987. It was the first public display of a united gay community in Poland. Three years later the influential organization Lambda was registered as a business. This sparked a spread of queer orgainizations, businessess, and community centers across the country. The first Pride parade took place in Warsaw in 1995. And the following year the first lesbian focused organization, The Lesbiand Information and Counseling Center, was established. Throughout the 90’s, queer culture flourished in Poland. It seemed as if they would proceed forward in their LGBTQ acceptance along with Western Europe and many other progressive countries. Yet the tide began to change with the rise of Law and Justice Party (the PIS Party) in 2003.
The first big warning signs of a decline in queer accpetance came in 2004. When the city of Warsaw denied the 9th annual Pride Parade to be hosted. The mayor at the time, Lech (lake) Kaczynski (Ka – gin – ski) was particualry homophobic. And stated that a pride parade would promote a homosexual lifestyle. And sadly for Poland, Lech (Lake) and his twin brother Jaroslaw (Yar-wo-swaft) have dominated Polish politics. Lech would go on to become president of Poland, and his brother Jaroslaw would go even further as Prime Minister or the country. It was Jaroslaw who called for the LGBT Free Zones. Together the demon twins have aggressively and adamantly turned queer rights into the most divisive issue in Poland.
Despite the stiff resistance in parliament, LGBTQ Poles have persisted in their fight to be seen and heard. The first out gay man, Robert Biedron, and the first out transgender woman, Anna Grodzka, were both elected to Polish Parliament in 2011. Today the brave queer resistance fights on, defying a Church and a Government that would have them keep silent. The pressures around transgender and non-binary individuals is especially difficult. Laws produced in 2012 require adult individuals to sue their own parents just to change their gender markers. Medical professionals are so undereducated and inept at providing good medical advice to trans patients that most gender non conforming people seek their treatment in the underground. As a whole, protections for queer people are lose, and LGBTQ Poles are still fighting for the rights to marry and adopt. With a regime like the PIS party in place it will be a long uphill battle.
Yet we want to encourage you our Polish friends. We have seen this story again and again and we can assure you that history repeats itself. While this many seem the darkest of days, we know that often this is rather the moment before the break in the storm. The queer people are a resilient and strong people. We have never stopped fighting, we have never been erased, and we will never cease to be proud of our identities. Hold strong and resist. If you need a recommended resource there is a link on our posted script. Queer resources in Poland found at https://transnational-queer-underground.net/lgbt-organizations-poland/
- Current trouble (1) – https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/10/polish-presidential-campaign-anti-lgbtq-message.html
- Catholic church – https://www.ncronline.org/news/justice/church-poland-continues-confrontation-lgbtq-community
- Gay history (1) https://www.globalgayz.com/a-brief-history-of-gay-poland/253/
- Time – https://time.com/5619660/lgbt-rights-poland/
- Law and Justice Party – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_and_Justice#Gay_rights
- Gay history (2) – https://amarawilhelm.wixsite.com/around-the-world/part-12
- Gay history (Wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_Poland
- Trans rights – http://visegradrevue.eu/polands-route-to-a-transgender-revolution/