Poles apart: how gay people suffer under the new regime

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The Independent Online

Twenty-five years ago, two identical twins, once childhood stars in Poland during the Sixties, were on the run from the Communist regime's secret police. Today, they are the President and Prime Minister of their country, and fiercely proud of Poland's feisty role in Europe and its close friendship with the United States.

One of the brothers, President Lech Kaczynski, flew to Britain this month to meet the Queen and Tony Blair, part of an official visit during which the two countries celebrated their close alliance, built on a mild mutual Euroscepticism and a firm belief in pursuing the "war on terror". Lech's brother, Jaroslaw, remained in Warsaw running the country as Prime Minister.

But the journey they have made from being on the run to running the country has come at an unacceptably high price for many Poles. The country's gay community today feels the cold blast of exclusion, just as the twins did 25 years ago.

Homosexuals in Poland are under siege, as right-wing youth groups carrying banners proclaiming "zakaz pedalowania" ("ban paedophilia") hurl stones at gay pride marches, and mainstream politicians mutter dark threats of sacking homosexual teachers to "protect the nation's children".

For young gay Poles like Dominik Piotrovski, a student from Warsaw, homophobic attacks are on the rise, especially against those gay men and women brave enough to be publicly open about their sexuality.

"In the last few months, homosexuals have become public enemy number one. We are now part of a very targeted group," he says. Two weeks ago, Dominik and his boyfriend were attacked by a group of skinheads shouting homophobic chants. "I felt like an animal. When you feel like you're being hunted it's a horribly scary experience."

His friend, Lech Vliasz, says that the pressure to hide his sexual orientation in public is exhausting. "We're tired of having to pretend we're not gay," he says.

To be openly gay, even in Warsaw, Poland's cosmopolitan capital, has become increasingly fraught with danger.

Hidden deep within the warren of narrow, labyrinthine back streets that make up Warsaw's picture-perfect old town lies Tomba Tomba, a dark and cavernous nightclub packed with young Polish men and women enjoying a night out.

But Tomba Tomba is more than a nightclub - it is a sanctuary, one of Warsaw's few gay clubs. Silhouetted against a backdrop of homoerotic murals stand young couples kissing, savouring moments of public intimacy and the brief respite they bring from the increasingly homophobic atmosphere in their country. But whether this sanctuary will remain open is unknown. Tomba's sister club was shut down by police earlier this year. It is a sad legacy for a country that legalised homosexuality as early as 1932, years before many of its western European counterparts, and many point the finger of blame squarely at the Kaczynski twins.

Opponents accuse the brothers of legitimising homophobia through statements critical of gays, and also by allying their party, Law and Justice, with politicians from the ultra-nationalist and openly homophobic League of Polish Families.

Although the pair have somewhat toned down their anti-gay rhetoric since sweeping to power in elections last year, the two brothers, known in Poland as "the terrible twins", have a long history of expressing open hostility towards homosexuality.

As mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski twice banned gay pride marches, telling protesters: "I respect your right to demonstrate as citizens, but not as homosexuals."

During campaigning for the general elections, Jaroslaw described homosexuality as an "abomination" and has publicly said he would rather gay men and women did not teach. Such sentiments are popular with the devoutly Catholic and traditional rural classes that make up then twins' political power base. According to recent polls, 89 per cent of the Polish population think homosexuality is abnormal.

Gay rights groups, NGOs and many in the teaching profession say they are now suffering from a major homophobic backlash. In June, Poland's state prosecutor was ordered to investigate all gay groups for illegal financing, criminal connections and links to paedophilia.

Equating homosexuality with child abuse is now common in Poland. Some politicians speaking in parliament and the media have begun using the word pederasta to describe homosexuals. But Malgorzata Sadurska, a member of Law and Justice, rejects accusations that the government is homophobic.

"I cannot pretend our party is not in favour of a union based on a man and a woman," she says in the restaurant of the Polish parliament. "But our image has been publicised through the prism of President Kaczynski's decision to refuse a gay parade when he was Mayor of Warsaw. We are in favour of the classical family model. Poland is a tolerant country." But activists accuse the Polish government of legitimising homophobia by inviting the League of Polish Families into their coalition, and in particular by awarding the party's leader, Roman Giertych, the position of Education Minister.

Mr Giertych's party has a long history of virulent, verging on violent, opposition to gay rights. During Poland's pride season earlier this summer, the league's deputy said gay rights activists should be "bludgeoned" if they held any marches. The parades did go ahead, but in April, right-wing protesters, many from the party's youth wing, hurled stones and eggs at pride marchers in Krakow. In response to the pride marches in Warsaw, Roman Giertych led his own self-styled "normality march".

Pawel Leszkowicz, who writes on gay issues in Poland and recently held a controversial exhibition of gay art in Gdansk, the home town of anti-government dissent, says the decision to award Mr Giertych the education ministry encourages ordinary Poles to believe that homophobia is acceptable.

"Poland's far right is now entering into mainstream politics," he says. "The worst thing about Poland is that politicians in government officially voice homophobia or prejudice towards homosexuals, whereas in western Europe most right-wing parties have long abandoned that approach." Any attempt by teachers to promote sexual equality in schools has been ruthlessly dealt with. When the deputy Education Minister was asked by a Polish newspaper to comment, he calmly replied: "Oh, the world used to manage without tolerance and it will keep going without it."

The gay rights debate in Poland has become a crucial, highly contested part of the wider social and political struggle being played out in the country between the traditionalist, Catholic elements and the more secular, liberal sections of society.

The former are in the majority. It is not uncommon to hear broadcasts, particularly on the highly popular Catholic radio station Radio Marya, voicing the view that homosexuality is a sickness which can and should be cured.

The twins' unwillingness to publicly encourage sexual tolerance has serious repercussions for those trying to eradicate homophobia in Poland.

Marta, a 28-year-old psychologist with Kampania, an NGO working against homophobia, finds her work frustrating.

"They just don't want to do anything," she says. "The situation is so much worse now. I get letters every week from teenagers saying they want to kill themselves because they don't want to be gay anymore."

But for young people like Dominik and Lech, the rise in homophobia has turned them into activists and forced them to battle prejudice. "Now I actually treat my everyday life as a form of activism," says Dominik.

"Sometimes I feel I wouldn't be so passionate about activism if there wasn't such a good reason to be so." Lech agrees. "It's like Gandhi said: 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.' So in that case we're very close to winning."