Saturday

24th Feb 2018

Feature

Gay rights at heart of Poland's value conflict

  • Some 50,000 people were estimated to have taken part in a Warsaw pride parade last weekend, making it the largest event of its kind in Poland to date. (Photo: Marianna Wybieralska/Miłość nie wyklucza)

It's Friday night and people are flocking to a Warsaw theatre for the latest episode of Fire in a Brothel, an award-winning cabaret that every month sets up a show commenting on contemporary politics and social life.

The curtains rise and the audience finds itself in Hardkorowo, a (fictional) Polish resort that is the hotbed of tyranny in Europe.

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  • MEPs Ulrike Lunacek, Terry Reintke and Sophie in't Veld were the guest of honours of Warsaw pride. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

A puppet show featuring Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Viktor Orban has been invited to chair the jury of a pan-Polish festival of regime songs, which aims to provide a jolt to support for brown shirts ahead of the (real) mayoral elections in Warsaw next year.

"We cannot leave culture to leftists," they explain, adding: "Dictatorship has many faults, but nobody has yet invented a better system."

A populist international movement strives to turn Warsaw into a "Nacjopolis", a chauvinist bastion that would replace the neoliberal utopia championed by the current mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

The centre-right politician is another heroine in the performance, together with the architect of Poland's capitalist transformation, Leszek Balcerowicz.

Political cabarets had their heydays in 1930s Berlin, before they died out in the Nazi concentration camps, together with their producers and performers.

The art form is seeing an uncanny revival in today's Warsaw. For a few hours, the audience laughs as the actors sing and dance about the imminent rise of fascism.

But there is hope, according to the story's plot. The winner of the regime's song festival was Nacjotrans, a drag queen with far-right leanings who wants to unite Poles beyond left and right.

The fictional Gronkiewicz-Waltz decides to make the drag queen into "Poland's Macron" - a reference to the new French president, who has profiled himself as a modernising outsider capable of rallying democratic powers against nationalists.

Conservative backlash

Fire in a Brothel has been praised for its feeling for what is going on in Polish society.

"Some of last year's jokes have become reality," one actor said in last week's show.

But only in a satire would Warsaw's mayor anoint a drag queen.

One could however see discrimination against lesbians, gays, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people as key to the ideological battle that brought the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) to power.

"PiS knows better than any other party to create a cultural narrative that captures the electorate," says Hubert Sobecki.

He is the chair of Milosc nie wyklucza (MNW; "Love doesn't exclude"), a non-governmental organisation committed to introducing marriage equality in Poland by 2025 at the latest.

It may seem a brazen objective.

But a poll ordered by the organisation in 2015 showed that a majority of Poles supported giving LGBTI people equal rights in every field other than adoption.

The survey showed Poles aren't necessarily homophobic, but they are responding to the narrative fed to them by politicians and the Catholic church.

MNW hopes to renew the survey to see how the rise of PiS has influenced public opinion.

"We know there is a conservative backlash, which comes with an outpouring of hate and violence against those who aren't considered 'real' Poles," Sobecki said.

"On the other hand, there is a political awakening among many liberally-minded people who used to be passive. We don't know which effect is the largest," he added.

PiS doesn't openly bash the LGBTI community. Instead, they use cultural ideas and symbols - so-called memes - to suggest that Poland is under attack, both from internal and external foes.

"People fill in the blanks with anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-EU stereotypes," the activist said.

Many conservative people consider the EU as a symbol of gay rights, meaning that homophobia is becoming a form of resistance to Brussels, a form of Polish patriotism.

Such ideas are furthermore backed by Poland's Catholic church.

Meanwhile, only a few politicians from the Civic Platform (PO), Poland's largest opposition party, are willing to challenge the nationalist, homophobic vision of society.

Alternative visions

Pawel Adamowicz, the PO-linked mayor of Gdansk, is busy forging a local identity - mixing Catholicism with the city's legacy of diversity, freedom and solidarity.

The once-staunchly conservative politician first opened his city to refugees.

Last month, he endorsed the gay pride of Gdansk for the first time, telling the crowd that he had changed his once very conservative views and that "the real perverts are people who hate" instead of love.

But PO was sorely missed in Warsaw's gay pride that took place on Saturday (3 June).

Some 50,000 participants walked through central Warsaw - at one point passing PiS headquarters - to claim the rights of LGBTI people, but also of women, people living with disabilities, refugees and animals. It was the largest event of its kind in Poland to date.

Also in attendance were: Austrian Green MEP and European Parliament vice-president Ulrike Lunacek, German Green MEP Terry Reintke and Sophie in't Veld, a Dutch MEP and vice-chair of the liberal Alde group.

In't Veld likened the march to "Europe at its best".

A small counter-demonstration by the far-right National-Radical Camp (ONR) movement yelled at the parade: "This is Poland, not Brussels! We don't support this!"

Civic Platform

The organisers lamented that Warsaw's mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, had for the eighth time refused to endorse the march.

A handful of PO members, including MEP Roza Thun and MP Rafal Trzaskowski, were present but without PO symbols, giving the impression that their party had told them to come in a personal capacity.

PO has recently faced many questions about what the party really stands for, after its leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, said he didn't want Poland to take refugees under the EU's schemes, which had once been endorsed by PO.

MNW's Sobecki said PO was deeply split on values.

European Council president Donald Tusk, when he was PO leader and prime minister of Poland, quickly gave up efforts to introduce same-sex partnerships when he was faced with the deep conservatism of some of his MPs.

"Instead of taking the fight, he confirmed stereotypes by saying Polish society 'wasn't ready'. Not ready for what? Accepting other people? Not ready for love?," Sobecki said.

In the end, PO capitulated on questions about values, and left these issues under PiS' conservative sphere of influence.

"In the end, all they [PO] could offer to people in terms of modernisation was hot water in the taps and roads, lots of roads."

Sobecki's organisation has somewhat better relations with the liberal Nowoczesna ["Modern"] party, which scored seven percent in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

The party was founded by free-market economist Ryszard Petru, and initially didn't look very different from PO.

But Nowoczesna members have recently rebelled against Petru's leadership, and are taking the party in a more social liberal direction.

On Saturday, the party announced it would put forward the openly gay Pawel Rabiej as its candidate for mayor of Warsaw.

MNW is also trying to convince Nowoczesna to table a bill on marriage equality in the Polish parliament - rather than civil partnerships, as the party had intended.

"None of it will ever pass, but it would give us the opportunity to have one week of public debate about real equality - rather than half-equality," Sobecki said.

European Parliament

The political parties of Poland, however, are not alone in having trouble with fighting in cultural wars.

Brussels has for years treated discrimination of LGBTI people, or draconic abortion laws, as an expression of cultural diversity.

MEP In't Veld told EUobserver that this position could be changing.

"We have had three very big events in just a few weeks," said the Dutch politician.

The EU parliament had passed a historic resolution, asking the EU commission to launch a probe on democracy in Hungary.

For the first time, EU ministers discussed the rule of law in Poland, having previously considered it taboo to speak of the domestic affairs of their colleagues.

And Germany, according to documents seen by Reuters, is considering joining the chorus of countries that want EU funds to be linked to the respect for rule of law.

"There is a growing understanding that respect for civil liberties is not just a pie in the sky for leftists, that they are essential to the EU's functioning," In't Veld said.

Asked if the EU was prepared to deal with questions of values, she said: "we are never prepared for anything - but we will deal with it, just as we are dealing with Brexit and the refugee crisis."

Last year, the Dutch MEP authored a proposal for an EU pact on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights (DRF pact), where member states would be presented each year with reviews of their state of democracy.

The EU commission is yet to pick up the proposal.

But In't Veld said she would already suggest implementing parts of the pact, such as setting up a fund to support civil society in an upcoming EU budget.

"We have such funds for countries outside the EU. We should also have them inside the bloc."

Poland is one of six countries in the bloc that doesn't protect same-sex couples in any way.

Interview

Gay rights face backlash in Poland

Polish society is becoming more gay-friendly, but anti-gay activists are becoming more radical and the government is doing little to stop it, says gay right activist Agata Chaber.

Analysis

So what if the Irish PM is gay?

Taoiseach's sexual orientation has grabbed headlines, but history shows that gay politicians seldom promote LGBT rights.

EU court bars tests for gay asylum seekers

Authorities in EU countries can no longer impose controversial psychological tests to determine whether an aslyum seeker is telling the truth about their homosexuality.

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