An open letter to Ryszard Grobelny, mayor of Poznan, Poland
The day I return to Poznan, I’m going to visit my two Polish heroes: Ninio the gay elephant, and the man who kept me safe the year I lived there.
Let me tell you about the night these two characters collided, but never met.
On April 2, 2005 at 9:37 p.m., the church bells started chiming in Poznan, and I knew that Pope John Paul II had died. I was in my apartment, running my finger through the coal dust on the windowsill, trying to grasp the historical importance of what was happening. My building had a security guard (straznik in Polish, as you know), an older, grizzled man who sat in a tiny office just big enough for a schoolchild’s desk, a teakettle, and a radio. I knew that he would be hunched over by the single speaker, listening intently as his country changed forever.
I would have to pay him a courtesy visit that night of bells and tinnitus, to say something, anything, in my broken Polish. The country is rife with unspoken rules that govern the business of death.
He and I never exchanged more than a few words of greeting. When I would sneak home with young men I had plucked from the only gay club in the city — on the edge of town, without a sign — he would be watching, smiling. He knew.
Ryszard, I usually hate secrets, but I will soon explain why I was thankful he kept my homosexuality hidden from the neighbours.
Surely, I could find something to say to him. After all, this was the end of life for Karol Wojtyla, the young man from rural Poland who survived Nazi occupation and went from the limestone quarry to the papacy, and who for decades galvanized the country in its fight against the communist regime. Was he not credited with sparking the Solidarity Movement, the revolution that brought democracy to Poland and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall?
But I had mixed feelings about this pope, and wasn’t sure I was in the mood to chat. John Paul II strengthened HIV/AIDS by championing the Vatican’s ban on condoms, an act directly responsible for countless deaths worldwide. He condemned homosexuality, giving a thumbs-up to the continued persecution and silencing of queers in predominantly Christian countries. Placing them, with a holy kiss, into an invisible ghetto.
It was 9:38. The bells had been ringing for a solid minute, and I couldn’t think of anything to say to my straznik.
I was shocked by what happened in the days following the Pope’s death: a complete national meltdown. Schools and businesses were shuttered. Giant pictures of the pontiff went up in the windows of practically every home, supermarket, shop and streetcar. Vatican flags flew high, children wore black armbands, and red, windproof candles blazed in traffic intersections in the shape of the crucifix, forcing cars to detour. I got lost in the crowds that roamed the streets from vigil to vigil, at all hours of the night. Like everybody else, I was looking for answers and went home empty-handed.
Throughout the week, MTV Poland played sound-clips of JP II shouting between Led Zeppelin and Queen songs, “Do not be afraid!”
But how could I not?
When you banned the Poznan Equality March in 2005, stating that it posed “a significant danger to public morality,” did you mistake the Polish constitution and its freedom of assembly clause for a piece of toilet paper? Your police officers arrested the brave few who demonstrated peacefully, who also had to deal with right-wing groups throwing rocks, and according to Amnesty International, shouting “Let’s gas the fags” and “We’ll do to you what Hitler did to Jews.”
That sentiment, unfortunately, was felt on a much wider scale. The BBC has quoted Polish President Lech Kaczynski as saying that the human race “would disappear if homosexuality was freely promoted.”
I wasn’t the only one afraid; these were scary times for everybody. Poland had just joined the European Union and subsequently felt its traditions — the ones that had held it together through centuries of occupation, war and genocide — were under attack by liberal, western mores. Sexual and gender minorities were among the most visible of these perceived threats, and they perhaps felt the backlash most heavily. Then JP II died, the country reacted severely to the loss of its morality guru, and it became a more dangerous place for me to have a sex life.
But volatility is no excuse for institutionalized hatred, and it certainly doesn’t justify your government’s treatment of Ninio the elephant.
It appears that Ninio, the latest addition to the local zoo, is rather physically affectionate with his fellow male pachyderms, so much so that it prompted your colleague and city counsellor Michal Grzes to fume in the Daily Mail, “We didn’t pay 37 million zlotych ($13M) for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there.”
Oh yes, you did! Now Grzes wants to get rid of him, but there are friends of Ninio — including an army of Poznan homosexuals — he would have to fight first.
Back to my apartment. It was 9:45, and my tongue was still molten lead. What a night to be speechless.
With no words of comfort for my straznik, I decided to give him something else instead. I padded down the building’s darkened stairs in my socks, and knocked on his door. He was reading a newspaper; I found it strange that the radio was off. We nodded to each other and something timeless passed between us, through vapours of vodka and aftershave. I handed him my only response to the night’s events: a lit, windproof candle. What a cliché, I thought, and then quickly corrected myself — no, it’s a tradition.
He accepted the candle graciously. I miss him so.
Ryszard, I am writing to thank you for granting permission to the Poznan Equality marchers from 2006 onward, and for providing police protection to them. If you do not continue to accord full civil rights to the sexual and gender minorities of your city, they will fight twice as hard for their freedom. They will continue to defy bans and to make themselves heard, and they will seek support from the international community, including from the European Court of Human Rights. They will tear down the silence built around them until they can live in an atmosphere of tolerance and anti-discrimination.
Open your window and listen. That is the sound of the Queer Solidarity Movement, and the sound of an elephant that wants to fuck in peace.