Something very bad is happening here… Isherwood in Poland?

My neighbor disappeared. She’s gone. She may come back. I don’t know. A young Korean woman in her mid-20s, I don’t know much about her. I know that we share a mutual affinity for (obsessively) cleaning. We live in a large flat that has been converted into micro-flats, studio apartments. Her studio is next to mine. We share a common hallway, laundry and vacuum cleaner. She washes her clothes about as much as I do (utilities are included), and she vacuums nearly as much as I do. We both have foreign partners. Her boyfriend is German, and works for the German embassy here in Warsaw. I recommended that they see an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum, “The Other Trans-Atlantic: Kinetic and Op Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America 1950s – 1970s.” They both enjoyed it. Other than these passing moments I know little about here.

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White Power Graffiti / Central Warsaw (5 / 2 / 18) Photo by Tony Robert Cochran

Last night, my other neighbor, the son of the person who owns these flats, said “She’s been arrested by the immigration detention people, I have to take her documents to the police.” Curious, I asked did an incident prompt this arrest? “No, she was randomly picked up in Łódź.” Now, I thought this extremely odd, as Łódź is literally in the center of Poland. Why would border control be screening people there? He responded, “Poland is not the same anymore, Tony.” And he left for the police station with her documents. I still haven’t seen her. Of course she was racially profiled and picked out for inspection and detention. I have seen it before in the US, while traveling from San Diego to Portland on a Greyhound bus. Border agents asked everyone, well almost everyone, for their documents. I went to hand them my drivers’ license, and the agent said “No, no need.” He moved on to an MA student from India; the student had his student ID, but not his specific residency visa. The agent chastised him, “You need to keep your documents with you at all times!” Fortunately, he was not detained. I recall this vividly.

When people start disappearing, when your neighbor disappears, because of where they came from, this is beyond the time to be deeply concerned.  I am a US national, and I am married to a British man, and I have an Italian father, and with it automatic Italian citizenship, jus sanguinis (this passes directly from father to son; passage of citizenship has been extended to mothers and children of both sexes), and therefore I am an Italian citizen and have a right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Britain doesn’t leave the European Union, much less the ECHR, until next year. And Italy remains central to the European Union. Therefore I am an EU citizen and have the right to live anywhere in the EU, including Poland. After posting a piece on totalitarianism in the US, and another regarding Poland’s far-right ruling government’s historically white-washing of any Polish-complicity in the Holocaust censorship law, I faced threats from Polish nationalists; they threatened to report me to border control. Of course, they haven’t a clue about my family history, my husband, etcetera. But this is not the first time I have been threatened with this tactic in Poland.

Emerging from prison, I wrote, arriving in Warsaw April 2017, that I felt like Christopher Isherwood in early 1930s Berlin. I included this in a rather cheerful piece about the local LGBTQ scene, which was then translated and published in Vice Poland. Polish readers, in particular the Polish LGBTQ communities, seemed to like the piece. Replika, the only LGBTQ magazine in Poland, shared it, among many others, including Polish drag celebrities included in the article, from Aldona Relax to Charlotte Drag Queer. I later went to Vice Poland, this time under a new editor, and asked to do a piece on transgender people living outside of Warsaw, in small towns, to document their struggle. Finding this too prosaic, or “not really what our readers want,” the editor asked me to do an interview with a far-right gay person. I found someone, and did the interview with a translator. Spewing vile garbage about immigrants, the need for a wall between Poland and Germany, near admiration for Hitler (“Merkel would make Hitler cry!”), and condemning the LGBTQ Pride March in Warsaw for “showcasing all these deviants;” I found what the editor wanted. Or so I thought. The individual didn’t “fit” the profile. He was slightly effeminate, he went to all the gay clubs, he was wealthy — not the football-hooligan type with homosexual desires. I dubbed the article “Clubbing with Eichmann” and submitted it. The editor sent back an email full of passive-aggressive abuse, saying that I allowed this person to voice his opinions! I should have found someone who fit the bill; the editor wanted a football-hooligan, not someone who blended in with the fashionable gay scene in Warsaw whilst holding the views of a neo-Nazi.

I self-published the article in both English and Polish.  The backlash against this individual became so intense that he threatened to sue me, and to have me deported. I asked him what was materially incorrect about the article, and he said “nothing, it’s just hurting my music career, people are talking about it.” He sought an injunction along with a 130,000 zloty fine for “defamation” — for in Poland, even if what you write is true, if it harms the “dignity” of the person, they can sue. I took the article down. Discussing this mess with my translator, I asked her, what is the problem with these people? She said “the whole thing made me ill, and you wrote exactly what he said, I translated it (in person and on Facebook group chat).” Interestingly, the gay male backlash against this person didn’t include any critiques of his racist views. They were all appalled that he’d call the Warsaw Pride March a disgrace, but nary a word was mentioned about his comments regarding the “filthy Africans and Arabs” coming to Europe. Racism permeates the core of Polish society, in particular a fear of the imaginary, non-existent “Islamic caliphate” in Europe, and the equally imaginary “hordes of dirty Africans” supposedly “invading” Europe, and by extension “threatening” Poland. Poland has taken virtually no refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Poland remains one of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in Europe. Roughly 97% of the population is ethnically Polish. Not just white, but ethnically Polish. Other Europeans make up the majority of the minorities (Among minority groups, the largest numbers of respondents claimed Silesian nationality (847,000), followed by Kashubian (233,000), German (148,000), and Ukrainian (51,000). *Note: The statistics on Ukrainians do not include recently arrived migrant workers, which a report by the National Bank of Poland estimated at around 1 million in 2015.) All of these predominant minorities, making up a grand total of around 4-5% of the population (factoring in the newly arrived Ukrainian migrants), are white.

Law and Justice (PiS), the ruling far-right government, capitalizes, utilizes and fuels this white nationalist rhetoric. During the 11/11 Independence March, the neo-fascist, National Radical Camp (ONR), played a central role in organizing, marching and gathering supporters and fellow-travelers. Antisemitic, homophobic and all together vile, they held center stage in the march. I documented these events here. A 100,000 people – including many families, with children – felt completely fine marching with fascists. In fact, many of them sympathized with the ONR. One woman said to me, “They are young, they see our culture being destroyed, I can understand their frustrations.” A united front of white supremacy, 100,000 people – including a wide spectrum consisting of everyone from the upper middle-class to the lower working-class – marching for (a white, Catholic) Poland. And unfortunately, the opposition forces, even the most “radical” elements of it, are anemic, timorous, myopic and almost irrelevant.

With the exception of the partly successful women’s marches for reproductive rights, there is little movement on the Polish Left. When I approached Political Critique, a leading Polish left-leaning publication and think-tank, regarding an article on transgender prisoners, Dawid Krawcyzk one of the editors seemed eager to commission the story. Engaging in a second interview with the renowned transgender MP Anna Grodzka and Lalka Podobińska the founder of ‘Trans-Fuzja,’ I unearthed some of the horrific details of life for trans-women in Polish prisons. I sent my full report to Krawcyzk, who said that the work could not be substantiated. I couldn’t believe it; here I had information from the only Polish transgender MP and the founder the only transgender advocacy group in Poland, who had worked directly with trans-women in male prisons, giving accounts of specific and severe violations of basic rights, including sexual assault by prison guards, and yet this was not enough? I self-published that work in English and had it translated into Polish, and promoted it throughout Poland, all at my own cost. The subject of prisoners, let alone transgender prisoners, may have at first seemed fashionable for Political Critique, but the material produced during the course of my investigations proved too difficult for them to publish. And so it would be with my work around pedophilia and child sexual abuse; after publishing a piece on why pedophilia is a sexual orientation, based on empirically-backed, peer-reviewed research, along with my own extensive ethnographic and psychoanalytical observations in prison, I became homo sacer to many in the Polish LGBTQ community. Replika’s editor refused to meet with me, a leader of Campaign Against Homophobia, once eager to speak with me, went silent.

Finally, last summer I met with another drag celebrity, Kim Lee; decades after moving to Poland from Vietnam, he came out to his wife. They live together, in separate rooms, and he has a long-term (Polish) male partner; they are in an open relationship.  I found his story, already in the Polish media, incredibly compelling, so I set up a meeting. We met for coffee, and then he drove me to his drag studio; quite literally a mini-Liberace office-turned-glam palace. Offering me whiskey out of an incredibly kitsch and charming open-up globe, I settled into the interview. Lee pulled out a book full of photographs of himself in various poses from classical paintings. I arrived at one painting. I stopped and looked at it carefully. Lee had posed in black-face, or actually black-body. I went to ask for an explanation, and before I could say anything, Lee said “You know, they didn’t get the n***** color right.” I stood up, made an excuse to go and left. I didn’t write an article about that interview. I felt sick, and I called up a performance artist I’d met earlier in the Spring of 2017, around May. He said, “don’t publish that, it will hurt the community, Lee is very well-respected, that cannot get out.” And so I didn’t until now. Because when people start disappearing because of the way they look, where they come from, and who they are, then we really cannot tolerate racism anywhere. Especially among those who are admired. With the far-right government’s attempts to stack the courts with its lackeys, and the government’s successful lawsuit – for accurately reporting on protests – against the only mainstream independent television media left (along with possible attempts to take it over), with my neighbor still not home, I am left deeply pondering the state of Poland. Early 1930s Berlin seems to have had at least an opposition not plagued with some of the elements of paranoia, racism and intellectual myopia of the fanatical far-right (Poland is currently an intellectual wasteland), and Isherwood left Berlin before it got too terrible. Yet, I (think) I am staying. Oh, but doesn’t Sicily (the place of my father’s birth) sound nice?

I am a camera.

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