Looking at Pictures of Gay Men: Political Uses of Homophobia in Contemporary Poland
During the recent period of right-wing rule, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Republic (2005 – 7), Poland developed a reputation for homophobia, prejudice against sexual minorities becoming its mark of difference in Europe. In January and June 2006, and again in April 2007, the European Parliament (EP) passed resolutions against homophobia, either alluding to Poland or mentioning it directly as a culprit in this area. The charge was not unearned: several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) demonstrations had been banned; participants of gay pride parades (known in Poland as “equality marches”) were regularly victimized by members of neo-Nazi groups; police had used violence against gay activists; and openly homophobic statements had been made by politicians.1 These developments add up to an exciting and chilling story, but my purpose is neither to revisit the events themselves nor to assess the level of hostility toward sexual minorities in Poland as compared to other European societies. Instead, I aim to examine the dynamic of what I call the politicization of homophobia, that is, to look at the interplay between revived nationalist sentiment in Poland’s public sphere following the country’s May 2004 European Union (EU) accession and the trend of gay bashing, which was indulged in or at least condoned by state authorities. I argue that the exchanges concerning limits of sexual freedom fulfilled an important political function in the early stage of Poland’s membership in the EU: the question of sexuality became a boundary marker, a reference point for political self-definition and national pride.
Despite the widespread public enthusiasm in Poland for EU membership, responses from the Polish media and politicians to the EP’s calls for tolerance were a mixture of collective anger and pride, their hostility and defensiveness increasing with each resolution passed. This discourse of angry disavowal, I argue, should not be viewed in terms of the cultural conservatism somehow typical of Poland or as irrational resistance to the rational persuasion flowing from Europe.2 My claim, rather, is that the homophobic discourse of this period was political and largely reactive, fueled by the EP’s anti-homophobia resolutions. In short, the conflict was more about cultural identity and national pride than about sexual orientation or public morality.
In this period, public discussions concerning sexual minorities often revolved around the question of freedom of assembly and took a form that was predictable to the point of ritualization. Right-wing politicians and representatives of Catholic clergy would argue against allowing equality marches, calling them a “threat to public morality” and an effort to “promote homosexuality,” almost inevitably referring to the obscenity seen in the Berlin Love Parades. Their arguments are best summed up in a statement made by Lech Kaczyński, Poland’s president at the time: “Gay people may protest as citizens but not as homosexuals.”3 LGBT activists and left-wing commentators would invariably respond in the discourse of universal human rights and Europeanization, pointing out that freedom of assembly is a right most needed by minorities and that Poland ought not to lag behind the EU in matters concerning equality. Finally, “ordinary people” featured by the media would express their “instinctive” hostility to “perversion” or — in the moderate version of the ritual — claim that they had nothing against gay people as long as they did not have to see them in public.
What is striking about such exchanges — and I speak as participant as well as observer — is the extent to which sexual boundaries were assumed to coincide with national ones. Neither side envisioned a uniquely Polish version of cultural liberalism or a specifically Polish version of sexual otherness. Sexual progressives repeatedly referred to “European standards,” while conservatives spoke of “European permissiveness.” Conversely, lack of acceptance for sexual minorities (or “deviants” and “promoters of homosexuality,” as conservatives refer to them) was construed as Poland’s distinctive national feature in Europe — to be cherished or eradicated, depending on the speaker’s standpoint. Although the link was rarely as clear as the neo-Nazis’ signs proclaiming “Europa=Sodoma,” homosexuality became closely linked to Europe in public discourse. The parallel between gays and Jews as well as between homophobia and anti-Semitism also played an important and complex role in this national/sexual mapping.
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- For a chronological account of these developments, see Agnieszka Graff, “We Are (Not All) Homophobes: A Report from Poland,” Feminist Studies 32 (2006): 434 – 49. On the legal aspects of the LGBT community’s struggle for the right to freedom of assembly, see Adam Bodnar, “Shaping the Freedom of Assembly: Counter-productive Effects of the Polish Road towards Illiberal Democracy,” in Free to Protest: Constituent Power and Street Demonstration, ed. Andra Sajo (Utrecht: Eleven International, 2009), 165 – 87.
- For a study performed in terms of influence, pressure, and persuasion, see Conor O’Dwyer, “From Conditionality to Persuasion? Europeanization and the Rights of Sexual Minorities in Post- Accession Poland,” Journal of European Integration 32 (2010): 229 – 47.
- Statement from interview, April 20, 2007, quoted in Bodnar, “Shaping the Freedom of Assembly,”169.