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From ‘Imagined’ Homogeneity to Sexual Solidarity: The Struggle Over LGBT Rights in Poland


The 2006 LGBT  Equality parade in Warsaw, Poland can be seen as a crucible – an event that reveals tensions over the treatment of minorities in Poland. The event is a public arena, watched by actors domestic and international, where ideas and values are contested. The important values constellated around the parade are signified by different terms; included are those often emphasized European buzzwords, “tolerance” and “equality,” but also some Polish favorites, “solidarity” and “family.” Using the parade as our departure point, we will examine the effect of using these values as frames of reference in the struggle over LGBT rights in Poland. Briefly, we suggest that the idea of ‘solidarity’ can be effectively mobilized to challenge the Polish notion of tolerance, which is created through a process of “imagining” Polish society as homogenous. On a practical level, we think the overall ‘success’ of the parade provides a useful example for understanding the possibilities for transnational human rights organizing.

Towards The Politics of Fear and Invisibility

Although the position of gays and lesbians in Polish society has never been secure, the recent election of the Law and Justice (PIS) party and President Lech Kaczynski, and the formation of a coalition government with the League of Polish Families (LPR) -- a fringe right-wing party -- has gay rights advocates in Poland worried.   The current government creates a hostile environment for gays and lesbians, according to Robert Biedron, organizer of the Equality parade and head of Campaign Against Homophobia. He recently told the BBC that members of PIS “[are] calling for hate crimes. The hate that is all around is so terrifying.”

Biedron was reacting to a series of controversial statements made by PIS officials on the subject of homosexuality. President Kaczynski of PIS is well known for his role in banning the Equality parades organized by gay rights activists in 2004 and 2005, while Mayor of Warsaw. The High Administrative Court (NSA) in Poland subsequently ruled that his actions were unconstitutional, and ordered that the parade be allowed to proceed in 2006. Nevertheless, Kaczynski promised while campaigning for president that the “public promotion of homosexuality will not be allowed.” [Gazeta Wyborcza, May 19 2005]

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz told Newsweek Polska in October 2005 that the state had a legitimate role to intervene when public morality was threatened. “I would not judge a person who is homosexual, I can only talk about his or her acts” said Marcinkiewicz, “but if [a] person tries to ‘infect’ others with their sexuality, the state must intervene in this violation of freedom.” 

In a letter published on June 5th, 2006, Human Rights Watch called upon the Prime Minister “to protect the rights of LGBT persons and dissociate yourself from rhetoric that spreads hatred and promotes inequality.” The letter urged the Prime Minister to ensure that the Equality parade proceed peacefully, and asked him to rebuke Deputy Wojciech Wierzejski of LPR, a member of the governing coalition, for his recent comments about homosexuality.

Wierzejski had previously gained some notoriety in the international press for commenting, in reference to the Equality parade, “When deviants begin demonstrating, they need to be clubbed.” [Gazeta Wyborcza, May 11]  

Human Rights Watch additionally called attention to Wierzejski’s letter on May 16, 2006 to the Ministry of the Interior, urging an investigation into possible criminal activities of homosexuals. “It is widely known,” he wrote, “that the homosexual community’s agenda is to propagate deviant attitudes among youth, and—what is worse—they are connected to the world of quasi-criminal character, including pedophilia.”

This is the condition of politics in Poland today; however, Poland is not as homogeneous as it seems and not everyone agrees with Kaczynski and company. In June of 2005, the Wojewoda  of Warsaw overruled the decision of Kaczynski to ban the parade and subsequently, numerous national politicians joined the ‘illegal’ parade to show their solidarity with the cause. Activists organized illegal manifestations during the fall of 2005 in Poznan, Torun, Gdansk, Krakow, Wroclaw, Lodz, Katowiece and Rzeszow to support the cause and to protest the government.

Additionally, multiple NGO’s carry out LGBT rights activism in Poland. In 2005, three of them – the International Gay and Lesbian Cultural Network (ILGCN) in Poland, the Campaign Against Homophobia and the Lambda Warszawa Association  -- formed the Equality Foundation in order to work together towards increasing visibility and social tolerance of the LGBT community in Poland. They also pursue legal methods of redress, and in 2005 they submitted a discrimination case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that Kaczynski had violated European Convention on Human Rights. Their case is pending.

The Equality Foundation’s promotion of increased visibility for homosexuals brings them in conflict with PIS. When asked about the effects of the condemnations of homosexuality by prominent government officials during a radio interview, Robert Biedron said,   “It means invisibility -- you’re not welcome to talk about your homosexuality at home, in your professional life, in public. Homosexuals are 5% of this society, but they’re completely invisible.” 

The Equality Foundation “[strives] to change Polish attitudes, create acceptance and tolerance towards people discriminated and excluded from the public sphere, by means of educational, social and media actions.” Equality day, with the Equality parade as its essential feature, is held in June and is one way that the Equality Foundation hopes to achieve those goals. At the very least, the visibility of LGBT people in Poland achieved by the parade has created a public discourse about issues of tolerance and equality.

Everybody Loves A Parade

The place is Warsaw, Poland – just meters away from the national parliament. The date is June 10th and today there is a parade. The organizers of the parade call it the Equality Parade, while others refer to it simply as the “Pride.” It is a historic event; not because this is the first time it is taking place in Poland, but because of how it came about. The issue at hand is gay rights, a contentious topic in Catholic Poland, and the mood of the crowd is excited but uneasy.

The mood is understandable given the history of the parade. Originally started in 2001 when 300 people marched, the parade was banned in 2004 by then-Mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski – today, the President of Poland. In 2005, despite another ban by Kaczynski, the Warsaw parade proceeded even while counter-demonstrators pelted the marchers with eggs and rocks. This year the parade was granted the go-ahead following the NSA decision that banning the parade constituted a violation of the right to assemble peacefully.

Additionally, the parade has gained the support of many politicians here, especially those in the opposition. For many supporters the parade is about freedom of speech, for others it is an opportunity to criticize the government and for others still, it is a more fundamental question of values. The name of the parade, the Equality parade, matches its European analogues. The choice of name itself emphasizes the individual rights of human beings, closely matching the tradition of “Human Rights” as codified in Europe following World War II. Specifically, organizers told us that they hoped to invoke the European Convention on Human Rights in support of the parade.

When deputy Joanna Senyszyn of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) paraphrased the late John Paul II-- the highly popular Polish Pope-- by saying: “Let God’s spirit shine down on this parade,” she started a furious debate in Polish society about the propriety of her remarks. The “repackaging” of the late Pope’s remarks is particularly distressing to religious conservatives, who view such a statement as an encroachment on the traditions and values of the Church.

One can also find in the banners and placards an interesting insight into the fight over values that underlie the struggle over the parade. One Polish activist carried a banner reading “Polish Families Love Polish Gays” -- a direct engagement with the traditional notion of “family” that many Polish Catholics hold dear.

Although some carry placards that criticize Kaczynski or LPR Minister of Education Roman Giertych, many others try to frame the issue in terms of freedom of expression or, more basically, human rights. For example, international representatives of COC Haaglanden, a gay and lesbian advocacy group from the Netherlands, carried a banner that read “Gay Rights = Human Rights.” 

But the event was also presented by many as a question of European values, and many people at the parade wore shirts distributed by organizers that read “Europe = Tolerancja” (Tolerance) -- a sort of unofficial theme for the march. Another marcher carried a banner that read: “Discrimination, is that your tradition?” 

Free Streets

Earlier that morning, a roaming counter-demonstration of perhaps fifty people marched down trendy Nowy Swiat, in the heart of Warsaw. The group at one point chanted in English, “Europe, Change Your Direction,” presumably commenting on liberal European traditions regarding homosexuality. 

The constellation of opposition to the parade includes multiple right wing parties; including, most prominently, the LPR – supported by their youth movement, the All-Polish Youth. The All-Polish Youth, a nationalistic youth association, take it as their mission to educate the young Polish generation according to “Catholic and patriotic values” The Youth had planned a simultaneous demonstration, which they called the “March of Culture and Tradition,” but it was called off after LPR leader Roman Giertych urged them not to demonstrate. 

In an interview with Anne Jablonska, a member of the leadership of the All-Polish Youth, told us that the group decided not to march in order to avoid an international spectacle. “We were going to demonstrate against the parade, but because of the international presence we decided to have a press conference instead.” The primary purpose of the press conference, it seems, was to show that many gay people are themselves intolerant of others. In conjunction with the press conference, the group also started a website that they call Free Streets out of a concern to keep the streets “free from deviation,” according to Jablonska.

Nevertheless, across the street from the rally another group manifests by the national World War II Memorial, its white granite column rising above them. Several dozen people have gathered here today -- many of them are young and male and wear the dagger-clenched-in-fist logo of the National Rebirth Party of Poland (NOP), an extreme nationalist group that advocates the “reconstruction of national communities based on [the] Christian moral order.”  

A double line of some hundred police officers separate the two rallies, but the tension goes up a notch when the NOP starts chanting, “Homosexuals are Pedophiles.” At one point, a group of Anarchists approach the line, chanting back at the NOP, “Fascists go home.” Soon, a few eggs begin to fly.

But despite these early tensions, the parade was carried out relatively peacefully. It is difficult to tell how many people demonstrated on Saturday, the official number put forth by Warsaw police was 3,000, while march organizers claimed an attendance of 10-15,000 people. Over the course of two hours the parade grew as it made its way through Warsaw, cheered on by thousands more bystanders.

The Boomerang – Transnational Activism in a Polish Perspective

In their book, Activists Beyond Borders, political scientists Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink describe the “boomerang pattern” that transnational advocacy networks sometimes create to affect social change. For example, “State A blocks redress to organizations within it; they activate [the transnational] network, whose members pressure their own states (and) if relevant, a third-party organization, which in turn pressure State A.” [Keck and Sikkink, 1998] Though concerned in this example with NGO’s interactions with the state, we can usefully adapt their model to deal with many different actors, showing how parade organizers successfully used this model to acheive various results.

The 2006 parade was notable not only for its size, but also for its international character. Green party members from Germany, Claudia Roth, Volker Beck and Ranate Kuenast, marched along with an American drag queen and many other celebrities. According to organizer Yga Kostrzewa of Lambda Warszawa, an estimated 1,000 foreigners, many of them from Germany, joined the parade. Such an international presence was not accidental, but rather a carefully planned tactic. “In 2005 we learned some important lessons,” said Tomasz Szypula of the Campaign Against Homophobia, “and we knew that in 2006 we would face more problems, so we tried to make it international – to have as many guests as possible.” Such a strategy was made expedient, according to Szypula, by the election of Kaczynski as president in 2005. “There was nobody on the other side to talk to, so we had to work on an international level.”

This strategy was effective in Poland, Szypula told us, because of the Polish government’s interest in maintaining its image abroad, especially during the past few years of integration into the European Union. “In Poland, the politicians are very concerned with maintaining a good image.” This is different from a place like Russia, argued Szypula, “where they just don’t care,” referring to the recent Russian decision to not allow a Pride parade in Moscow.

In addition to focusing international scrutiny on the parade and thereby convincing domestic political actors to change tactics, organizers used other indirect methods to pressure the Polish government to ensure that the parade occurred peacefully. Organizers wrote letters to the European Union and the OSCE, as well as to NGO’s like the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch, requesting that they monitor the march and to help ensure that the rights of LGBT people in Poland were upheld. 

Organizers also wrote invitations to people in Germany, France, Sweden and even the United States, asking them to attend the parade. The invitation called for a show of “solidarity” to “show that everyone, no matter to which minority he or she belongs, is equal and has the right to be treated equally.” This linkage of an act of ‘solidarity’ with the idea of ‘equality’ shows an important understanding by organizers of the parade of the relationship between the value of individual rights embodied by the idea of “equality” and the type of political currency and power-- in this case through acts of solidarity-- needed to ensure the respect of those rights.

Indeed, foreign participants were encouraged to pressure their own governments as well as the Polish government. “We had them write the Polish embassies in their country, asking for the Polish government to guarantee their security” noted Tomasz Szypula, “we even got the embassy in the United States, a country that also has problems with discrimination, to write the Polish government asking them to protect their citizens who decided to march in the parade.”

 The international presence had the desired effect of putting pressure on the Polish government to ensure a secure parade; according to organizers, “We need this kind of pressure from abroad.” Parade organizer, Tomasz Baczkowski, told German newspaper Der Spiegel on June 9th, “the more celebrities show up in Warsaw, the stronger the police presence.” 

In the end, the parade was protected by a contingent of some 2,000 police officers, who acted quickly and aggressively to deal with any sign of violence. Fourteen young counter-demonstrators were arrested, most of them for fighting with police officers. At one point a member of the NOP entered the parade and attempted to obstruct the flow of the parade, violently bumping into marchers around him. The Warsaw police quickly dealt with the situation, grabbing and pulling him out of the parade, where he was arrested.

Europe = Tolerancja? The Struggle over Values in a Polish Context

We believe that the struggle over gay rights in Poland rests fundamentally on a discursive debate wherein values and meanings are contested. Within Poland, certain values and meanings are understood differently. Equality is understood by some to mean that every person has the same opportunities, rights and privileges as another. By others, equality only means that one person has the same ‘rights’ as another. In the context of the Equality parade, one visible disagreement is over the term ‘tolerance;’ but other values, even the definitions of “rights” or “freedom,” are contested.

The idea of tolerance is central to the debate over gay rights in Poland, but ‘tolerance’ is a contested term; its usage varies according to the speaker. In order to get an academic perspective on tolerance in Poland we interviewed Magdalena Sroda, Professor of Philosophy at Warsaw University and former Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Status of Women and Men in the left oriented government of former Prime Minister Marek Belka.

The idea of tolerance in Polish society hinges on a crucial division between private and public spheres. “Many people accused of being intolerant in Poland point to Polish treatment of the Vietnamese,” noted Sroda, “They say that the Vietnamese are tolerated. But the Vietnamese often do not express their cultural differences publicly, they assimilate and become Catholic, for example. But you can imagine that if more Muslims came to Poland and expressed their Islam, would they be tolerated?”

The question of gay rights in Poland then centers on this question of how tolerance is understood. In order to fight discrimination, a minority must first be recognized. “In the last few years, the Polish gay community realized that they did not just want to be tolerated privately in such a hypocritical way, but to be publicly recognized as gay; to express their identity,” said Sroda. This effort pushes the idea of tolerance into the public sphere, which is controversial.

It may come as no surprise that the The All-Polish Youth embrace a slightly different understanding of the word tolerance than Professor Sroda. We asked Anne Jablonska, a member of the leadership of the All-Polish Youth, about her understanding of the word. Using the Latin root of the word, she argued that tolerance should be understood to mean, “that you let something exist, but not necessarily that you accept it.” 

 On the question of tolerance towards gay people, Jablonska was very careful to draw distinction between “gays” and “homosexuals.” In Jablonska’s view, homosexuality is never genetic, but rather a “psychosexual disorder, caused very often by a troubled family life” and as such, it should be treated medically. The basic distinction then, between “gays” and “homosexuals,” according to Jablonska, is that “gay people express and accept their identity as a good thing,” whereas “homosexuals recognize that their sexual orientation is a problem.” In this view, homosexuality can be understood and even “tolerated,” in a private sense, but the public promotion of being “gay” should not be accepted.

Such an idea is consistent with statements from Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz about the need for the state to intervene to protect the freedom of citizens against the “promotion of homosexuality,” or Kaczynski’s statement that “public promotion of homosexuality will not be allowed.” [Gazeta Wyborcza, May 19] Roman Giertych has also publicly stated, “There is no room for homosexual activism within the school system in Poland.” [Human Rights Watch, 27/06/2006]

But for Yga Kostrzewa, such ideas about tolerance are based on an imaginary view of Polish society. “The vision of Polish tolerance,” Kostrzewa told us, “is a dream.” She argued that the current government is trying to enforce a homogeneous and inaccurate vision of Polish society. “They are like communists in a way,” she noted, “They want to make one person the same as others. They want to make one vision of the world.”

The parade, judging by the comments of the organizers we spoke with, was intended to challenge this ‘imagined’ homogeneity of Polish society. “The main aim of the parade,” said Kostrzewa, “was to show that there are many people who want to be tolerated who are not. We wanted to show that LGBT people are the same as others and that we want to have equal rights.” Tomasz Szypula agreed, saying that the presence of such a variety of international and national groups allowed “gay people to feel safer. To feel support. I know many [gay] people who showed, for the first time, their identity in public.” Notably, well known Polish actor Jacek Poniedzialek came out publicly after the parade, as did radio journalist Kuba Janiszewski. 

Public recognition of homophobia is a positive first step, agreed many organizers, but the struggle over tolerance goes far deeper. “Almost everyone recognizes that we have homophobia now,” Kostrzewa told us, “It is a topic, and this is a good thing.” But she notes that in Poland, “we’re just in the beginning of developing the mentality of speaking about homophob. Our discussion with Anne Jablonska demonstrated the great divide in “mentality,” or at least in terms, that separates those arguing for “Equal Rights” for LGBT people and those who are opposed. Jablonska believes that the “idea of homophobia is used as a tool to discredit opponents.” One self-described “homoskeptic” told us during the parade that he has been improperly called a “homophobe”; he argued that he is not “afraid” of homosexuals, but rather does not accept the validity of their public expression of identity. This reveals an understanding of freedom, common among conservatives in Poland, that is not based on the right to individual expression – a notion rooted in the European Enlightenment and a common understanding in the LGBT rights movement -- but on protecting society from “deviation.” In the words of Prime Minister Kazimierz, “[the] promotion of homosexuality is a violation of the freedom of other citizens.” This is the same philosophy that underpins the All-Polish Youth notion of “free streets.” 

The traditional values of right wing groups and a strong emphasis on ethnic nationalism makes them see the issue of “rights” quite differently. The All-Polish Youth, for example, disagree with talking about the issue of tolerance in terms of “rights.” Jablonska told us that the traditional family had a special role in Polish life, to “guarantee a new generation.” And that because of this social importance, the family “receives certain privileges” that gay people do not. In the end, Jablonska believes that “gays do not want equal rights, but privileges.”

Many who support LGBT rights see the attitude of the Polish Church as a major obstacle to achieving social reform. Professor Sroda notes that the Polish Catholic church embraces a more radical approach towards homosexuality than even the official Roman Catholic catechism (following Vatican II), which treats homosexuality as a lower level offense rather than a serious sin. Still, many in Poland treat homosexuality as a sin, making dialogue difficult. According to Tomasz Szypula, “Many people brought up in a Catholic way consider homosexuality a sin – what can you do with that?”

Towards Solidarity

The 2006 Equality parade in Warsaw showed how transnational activism can be effectively used to advance the cause of human rights. Organizers of the march encouraged an international presence in order to use it as a protective shield, in a figurative sense, that helped guarantee the safety and freedom of expression of parade participants, especially those of sexual minorities. Just as the Solidarnosc movement utilized international support in the 1980’s to advance their cause, so too can the LGBT community.

But the parade also reveals some pitfalls of organizing on an international level. Transnational campaigns, note Keck and Sikkink, “must also consciously seek to develop a ‘common frame of meaning’ – a task complicated by cultural diversity within transnational networks” [Keck and Sikkink, 1998], Organizers have to negotiate the boundary between international and national contexts when they frame issues, especially when they choose language. 

We believe that the term “tolerance” especially carries troubling implications. It assumes an active and passive actor; it is conditionally given by the more powerful to the less powerful. More to the point, the value of ‘tolerance’ has a peculiar and specific history in a national context that makes it even less useful in advocating for LGBT right in Poland than perhaps elsewhere.

We believe that the concept of solidarity better addresses the underlying issues confronting advocates of LGBT rights in Poland. Briefly, we define solidarity as the actualization of the recognition that another person’s freedoms, rights and privileges are critically linked with your own. Solidarity is a critical component in the creation of a powerful political movement. In Poland, the people-power of Solidarnosc was such that those outside the movement, both domestically and internationally, could not help but listen to their demands, their aspirations and ultimately, their language. Without solidarity and a strong political movement backing them, LGBT activists cannot hope to effectively influence the public discourse. Influencing that discourse is a critical part of “imagining” and creating another Poland. We believe that expressing and promoting visible solidarity through parades and other public actions helps activists challenge the ‘imagining’ of Poland as homogeneous.

This discussion would not be complete without a reference to education. The parade represents one successful attempt at “popular education.” In the long run, achieving solidarity necessarily includes the dissemination of quality information about sex, gender, ethnicity, race and a host of other conditions through widely available public resources, such as schools, newspapers and the radio. Several of the organizers we spoke with lamented the lack of basic sex education in schools, not to mention the lack of information about homosexuality. Such education is necessary and wise, but it is foolish to assume that the mere expression of this belief will somehow convince Minister of Education Giertych or President Kaczynski to carry it out. Professor Sroda told us that she believes the Catholic church is a significant factor in the lack of sex education available today, but that the Church in Poland feels “too strong” to enter into dialogue with other groups. The situation is similar, perhaps, with Giertych and Kaczynski. 

Instead, we embrace an idea of political struggle expressed by Professor Sroda. “One of the theories of philosophy,” said Sroda, “is that it is the task of a minority to struggle for its rights. The minority must become a political movement to achieve its goals, just as workers made Solidarnosc a political power in the 1980’s.” When we combine the idea of political struggle (including transnational activism) with our notion of solidarity (with a lower-case s), we believe the result is an effective solution for creating social change. An approach to social change in Poland that emphasizes “solidarity” and the creation of a political movement are rooted not only in the embrace of individual rights, as signified by a slogan of “equality,” but also in the engagement in a pluralistic process to determine the allocation of the rights, privileges and opportunities in Poland.





Daniel Pawłowiec –  28/06/2006 (e-mail)  Deputy of The  League of Polish Families (LPR)

The LPR (Liga Polskich Rodzin) is an ultra conservative political party within the Polish Parliament, and a coalition partner in Poland's current ruling government.

Yga Kostrzewa – 23/06/2006 Vice president of Lambda Association ,  

The Lambda Association was established in 1997. The mission of the organization is building a positive identity among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and creating social acceptance for them

Tomasz Szypuła – 23/6/2006 Secretary of Campaign Against Homophobia

Campaign Against Homophobia was founded in 2001 and is a non-government organization operating throughout Poland. Only volunteers work for the Campaign and they focus their efforts on a broadly understood fight against homophobia.

Magdalena Środa - Professor of Philosophy at Warsaw University 

She is a former (2004-2005) Minister in the Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Status of Women and in the government of Marek Belka.  

Anna Jabłońska  - a member of  a leadership of The All-Polish Youth

The All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) is a Polish nationalist youth group, affiliated with the League of Polish Families. Its mission to educate youth in a catholic and patriotic spirit.


The Lambda Association  (www.lambda.org.pl) 

The Campaign Against Homophobia (http://www.kampania.org.pl)

The Official Site of the Parade. (www.paradarownosci.pl)

Free Streets Association (www.wolneulice.pl 

The League of Polish  families (www.lpr.pl)

The All-Polish Youth (www.wszechpolacy.pl )


Newsweek Polska (nr 40/05) (www.newsweek.redakcja.pl  )

The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk)

Der Spiegel (www.spiegel.de )

Gazeta Wyborcza www.gazeta.pl




HRW Letter to Polish President Lech Kaczynski (27/06/2006)

Official Homophobia Threatens Human Rights


ILGA protests Warsaw mayor's homophobic stands (27/06/2006)



European Parliament Resolution on Homophobia in Europe (27/06/2006)


Report on discrimination and intolerance due to sexual orientation in countries joining the EU 2005

Stowarzyszenie Lambda Warszava, and Kampania Przeciw Homofobii


„Od Parady do Parady” ( „From a parade to a parade” )   

Sergiusz Wróblewski 



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