Friday, June 21, 2013

Poland: Where Will this Rainbow Lead?

The Zbawicelia Plaza Rainbow (gay or not) sits in one of the
 most popular -mixed hang out spots, but has suffered some
"chance burnings"
I might be taking this too far, but when 17 year old students (smartly dressed & clearly well-off) tell me Polish people are depressed and envious of others’ success – that's not good. That's only one view from the people of this cool, but cold country - yet it seems to be the case that kids are dreaming about NYC, instead of working to create success at home. Of course, it doesn’t help when you lose 1/5th of your population and then enjoy the relative ease (if not comfort) of communism for 40 years. The same students, in transit from Krakow to Warsaw, told me older family members would rather go back to live under communism.

Poland is resurgent; there is incredible potential here. Yet, first the Poles must escape the past.

Pride Parade passes by
"Stalin's Middle Finger"
The pride of Poland of course is John Paul II – and that’s also problematic. Catholicism became all this war-worn society could hold on to during the Communist era and the public and private ways that John Paul II fought back against Soviet ideologues made him their champion. Poland needs a new figure to lead them! Thus, in a deeply religious society, violent homophobia maintains an existence - and straight people lack motivation to support LGBT rights. Getting kicked in the street as well as facing violent verbal threats should not happen anywhere - but especially not in the western world!

But lets not dwell on the negative! Poland has lots to offer, from very pretty boys and girls, beautiful cityscapes, a happening night life – and even a Gay Pride not to be laughed at (mainly due to the tension in the air).

Warsaw Pride

I have never felt as protected in my life than along the Warsaw Pride parade route - not only did yellow-vested police walk just feet apart along both sides of me as we marched, but dozens of groups of swat teams, armed and suited up with full riot gear swarmed moved all over - and immediately responded to any conflict. Yet, I never thought I would get as many middle fingers - and glares from the general public. I won't go into what I was told their signs said (in Polish) about LGBT people...
Your own Ashy working it (seriously) with drag queens on the main parade party bus.

However, it was still lively and exciting event attended by nearly ten thousand people; it shut down the center of the city from 3pm - 7pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon (June 15th). It felt good to be so defiant - but it was also strange because many gays I spoke to had planned not to attend the event.
 Politician Joanna Senyszyn & I pose for an
allies campaign photobefore the parade

Did they not attend out of fear - or out of a genuine sense that Pride was not needed in such a conservative country?!  Those folks owe a debt to those marchers - and especially to people like Robert Biedron - who have paved some small space for LGBT rights and are beat up for it!

Police line the Pride Parade in Warsaw
Outspoken LGBT allies like EU politician Joanna Senyszyn, who's also a staunch critic of the Catholic Church are also critical to the movement. Also, young activist Michał Gregorowicz  worked recently within the local community to build a campaign to motivate straight allies to voice their support (see if you can find my picture here).
Given the challenges with homophobia maybe it wasn't smart to wear purple pants with my rainbow belt that day - but I also wanted to be defiant.  Not only was I verbally threatened (for unspecified but physical harm, if the police weren't around) after the parade, but that belt got me and friends a couple kicks from a ugly toll of a man on the street walking that night.  Days later, just sitting on a bench with another guy got us a "faggots" shout-out from guys biking by in an otherwise peaceful park - others around didn't seem the least bit fazed.

Police SWAT team in full riot gear watches
for any violent activity against marchers
Perhaps the past few months in such conservative - but especially non-confrontational - cultures in Asia has spoiled me.  I must admit that this type of harassment still happens in the U.S. - but folks here just seem especially bold and shameless with their homophobia.

Krakow vs. Warsaw

Not unlike the rivalry between Sydney and Melborne in Australia these two sister cities have developed a healthy competition. This is great if it engenders a sense of pride - and helps these places mature even more - functionally the cities are like NYC & DC. Warsaw is definitely the "New York"- with a couple "skyscrapers" an entirely modern town (rebuilt after its complete destruction in WWII) compared with the more traditional, touristy Krakow, with its original city center - the largest still functioning medieval town square of its kind. Warsaw may have a better, more mature gay scene - but Krakow definitely has one as well - one of the oldest cities of Europe is also a huge college town and boasts 1400 pubs in its city center.
Looking south-west (at sunset) onto the
largest medieval city square in Krakow
Whomever you speak to in Poland - it's clear that they want you to be interested, and they can't help but be proud to display and describe their tragic history - whether you're taking in every step of the Warsaw Uprising or bearing witness to the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the past haunts Poland. They deserve to profit from tourism for the terrible atrocities they faced as a people - I just hope they can step out of the shadows and also make their own way as a culture and country - and be ok with the gay!


  1. Thanks so much for your fresh Warsaw impressions.

    Being from the much more open & liberal neighbors (= a Czech), i may say, that it would be worth a thought to march at the Prague gay parade in mid-August (and join the numerous after-parade parties on the river island in the historic city center). What a different feeling of freedom, tolerance and pure celebration ! Well, there are opponents as well, but not violent and not suppoted by majority opinion.

    Another picture is of the nearby annually held Hungarian gay pride in Budapest (this time 1st saturday in July): very similar to Warsaw bigotry, police getting quite busy...Years ago, when the ultra-conservative government wasn´t at power yet, it was a a bit diffent picture, tensions not as high as in the last few years. Even then, my friend escaped just narrowly a possibly serious head injury, as a stone thrown from spectators flew just about a foot away of his face...

    Once more, thanks for focusing on our sometimes quite forgotten Central Europe, with all its contrasting trends and already so vibrant LGBT communities !