“To operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.”
― Judith Butler,
People who fall outside heteronormative and cis gendered discourse face incredible challenges. Homophobia and transphobia permeate multiple social milieux and psycho-affective structures (marriage, therapy, hospitalisation, adoption, etc.). People deemed outside heterosexuality are deemed diseased, fallen, abject, etc. A whole set of premises, starting with theocratic-juridical pronouncements from the Catholic Church in 12th Century Europe, escalating due to population scarcity after multiple plagues reduced the population in Europe by a third, and finding new purchase in Victorian-inspired 19th Century progress; homophobia was reinvented under the aegis of medicalisation, finding a ‘cure’ and maintaining social norms in almost every socioeconomic class in the Christian world. Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch analyses this dynamic process of anti-women/anti-LGBT laws, mores and actions, which she situates as being a product of early capitalism’s destabilisations, enclosures, labour scarcity due to multiple plagues; procreation is here social reproduction and labour-wealth, driving down wages by creating a ‘pool’ of unemployed displaced people needing work, willing to work for subsistence wages, etc. The Church even sponsored brothels to prevent homosexual sodomy!
The development of homophobia in Europe, and its exportation via colonialism, is not the central aim of this article. However, a background is needed. Throughout its centuries long history, the Catholic Church (and its mainstream Protestant competitors), have pushed an agenda that is, simply, homophobic. Here in Poland, a profoundly Catholic country, with no Leftist political party, I have been listening to the voices of LGBT people. Synchronously, I found a gay Polish filmmaker and activist through ultimate clue: a rainbow flag. Attempting to read the article he was featured in, I found a name “Bartosz Staszewski.” Messaging via Facebook occurred and we met at his place of work – the day job – in a sterile, modern cafeteria in a sterile, modern part of Warsaw. As I walked to our meeting place, I noted ever more massive construction sites emerging, entities unto themselves, testifying to the hyper-economic growth in this ‘Capital of Eastern Europe.’ Economic growth and social change are happening at very different speeds here.
Bartosz is attempting to challenge the far-right drift, one that is occurring with the support and backing of the Catholic Church, ‘experts’ from the United States, and a litany of trans-European affinity groups. He is doing this, in part, through documentary filmmaking, his first is Artykuł Osiemnasty (View here). Looking for full marriage equality not just civil unions, the idea came from a collaboration with his boyfriend after they watched the documentary Culture High, about marijuana reform. Bartosz, a charming, witty man, says he asked himself “why are we not doing this type of [political/cultural] documentary in Poland,” and the project was born to address the fact that “[Polish] media-politicians do not use rational discussion in debates about LGBT rights.” Bartosz garnered interviews with the medical-sexologist luminary, Lew Starowicz. Other specialists populate this intensely moving documentary. Gathering 20 people, including Polish couples living abroad, Bartosz came across some bizarre cases of Polish jurisprudence withholding basic rights. For instance, a gay male Polish couple living in the UK, with their adopted Polish children, could not get the issuance of documentation for passports, citizenship, etc for their children because of a “technicality” requiring a mother and father be noted on the application. These gay men and their children now have UK citizenship, and no longer deal with the Polish authorities.
Institutionally, Poland will need to be forced to accept gay marriage and adoption rights, most likely through a court case being heard in the EU Court at Strasbourg. “This [freedom] to marry will come from the court; however, there is a lot to be done by LGBT political organisations in Poland,” Bartosz says sipping a latte. His humour is laden with pensive reflection. Soberly noting the only centrist party with any clout, Civic Platform, held a “Freedom March,” a march which ironically did not allow them to have “No Freedom without Equality. ” Brutally side-lined by security at the march (Video here), and with the Civic Platform leadership refusing to talk to activists, Bartosz and others approached, Noweczesna or The Modern Party. Noweczesna support civil unions and their coming (quickly) around on marriage equality. Bartosz is working with them behind the scenes to educate their ministers, and will “probably” be supporting them in the next election. The Civic Platform did not give a comment to me about this incident.
Bartosz looks over at me when I ask, what can people from nations with marriage equality do, he answers straightaway, “financial and knowledge transfers, for example we are meeting with people to discuss the experiences from Ireland because we share a similar situation … And it is an inspiration: A very religious, Catholic nation voting to support marriage equality, and this took canvassing door to door, yet this type of cross-group Leftist solidarity is missing in Poland.” Ultimately, he is pessimistic, “we are a deeply homophobic country” and there is “no common LGBT history, in the US you have Stonewall, San Francisco and France, UK all have these various Left-LGBT coalitions, we do not have this.” Another serious problem holding up social change is “LGBT individualism … everyone is just on Facebook or Grindr, and they think they can move anywhere in Europe with freedom of movement, so why fight to change things … many of the younger people have been born into a very individualistic period.”
We move to a discussion of the “gay purge” in Chechnya (and Russia). Bartosz gazes over, sadly stating he and 15 others went to the Russian embassy with candles on several occasions after the story broke. “15 people is not a lot because there are many LGBT people in Warsaw.” And all of this apathy makes him, “question what is wrong with the LGBT community.” He says many LGBT people “look at me like I am a Jehovah Witness … For example, when we organised and marched, for equality, LGBT people said we are making the community look bad … So I see a great deal of internalised homophobia.” Most surprisingly, as I look up in stunned silence, he sees “no big difference between a homophobe and the LGBT community … achieving our political goals seems impossible when I think about how homophobic LGBT people are in the Poland.”
I ask “What is the problem, what is causing this phenomenon?” He asserts,
“Years of Communist party control made people apolitical and cynical, and this is transmitted from parents, media, most of the media is very conservative in Poland … So we have this weird mix of apathy and right to far-right politics … this is very dangerous because I can see a Russia or Chechnya scenario happening here. That is why we made this film to fill the media gap, that lack of knowledge. Seriously, we are going in the same direction that could make us exterminated, and when I look at what is happening in Chechnya, it makes me imagine that it is possible here, just look at our right-wing government’s policies … We must speak out against what is happening in Chechnya, which is a part of a full regression in conservative nations to reverse or deny rights to already oppressed people in Europe. For example, Spain is looking to reverse civil unions. The far-right are meeting and creating voting foundations against abortion, against civil unions, etc.”
I mention what else could be done? He says that public relations is essential, “people need exposure to LGBT people.” Here I am thinking of José Esteban Muñoz’s complicated analysis of queers of colour in the media (and my mind floats to Vaginal Davis and her transition from LA punk to Berlin), and what exposure means, and could mean, in both the mainstream and the avant-guarde.
I admire Bartosz. He is committed. His analysis is admittedly conservative. By demonstrating, and demonstrating, that LGBT people are Polish, a part of this place and nation, patriotic, have children and families, essentially normal, he is not a revolutionary by some Western standards. I ask him how he feels about people like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and other Western queers, who eschew marriage equality as a something repulsive, something too normal. He responds, later, after digesting their postulates:
“I see a problem with this “Against Equality” movement, because I see it as more ideological movement then a practical solution for current LGBT problem. I understand that marriage is not the perfect solution with patriarchal history but so far I see no other option for equality. I am glad that people research about it and have opinions. I think that in all countries with marriage equality such discussion will occur. LGBT people as heterosexual are different, and the ‘fight’ between anti-system camp and conservative camp will be next level to achieve.”