6 min

The view from Eastern Europe

Pride grand marshal at the forefront of Poland's fledgling queer movement

Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

Taking in the “relaxed, casual” atmosphere of a Vancouver summer, Tomasz Baczkowski can’t help but think everybody here is on vacation.

Back in his native Poland, the 35-year-old economist is part of the vanguard of a fledgling queer movement and is no stranger to stories of tragedy when it comes to the queer experience in Eastern Europe.

Stories like the one out of eastern Poland two years ago, where a young woman, who said she was a lesbian, was sexually assaulted by her brother and his friends “to show how it should be with a man.”

“In Poland, there are many such examples,” asserts Baczkowski, whose queer rights group Equality Foundation does its best to publish reports biennially about the level and frequency of violence visited on queer Poles.

“We asked more than 1,500 gay and lesbian people about discrimination,” he says. “Eighty percent said they were discriminated against verbally, 40 percent physically.

“If people go to the police and say they are a victim [of a hate crime],” he adds, “the police register this not as homophobia but as [an assault] in general.”

Poland is not alone. Several Eastern European countries have made headlines in the last few years as violent protests marred their Pride parades. Just last month, hundreds of skinheads and neo-Nazis threw eggs, bottles, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and plastic bags of sand at the 2,000 marchers who gathered for Budapest, Hungary’s Pride parade, Jul 7. Some of them shouted, “Faggots into the Danube, followed by the Jews,” amid calls for the “soap factory.”

The same day, protesters in Zagreb spat and yelled at Pride marchers in the capital of Croatia. Some of the protesters, described as right-wing youth, also carried Molotov cocktails as well as tear gas.

And for the second year in a row, Moscow Pride degenerated into violence this year as protesters attacked marchers, beating them and kicking them, while police did little to intervene, May 27. Police did, however, arrest dozens of gay activists. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov had banned all public Pride events and called Pride parades “satanic.”

Still, Baczkowski does manage to find some hope and progress when he looks at the data collected about mainstream Polish society’s attitudes towards queer folks.

“Two years ago, when people were asked about their thoughts about gay and lesbian people, 80 percent said they are perverts. Now with our [outreach] work, only 50 percent say they are perverts. I can see development.”

Baczkowski, who divides his time between Warsaw and Berlin, Germany where his partner is based, says he can’t remember a time when he was not an activist. It’s not his way to “wait for something to happen” when he sees injustice, he says.

He credits his time in Germany for not only influencing his political activism around queer rights, but for propelling him to act on behalf of his fellow Poles.

“Ten years ago in Poland, there wasn’t any gay and lesbian movement at all,” he says. “Maybe some small groups, private persons. And then I studied in Germany, and it was western. It was much more developed than Poland or other counties in Eastern Europe [when it came to queer visibility]. I saw how it could be, and then it was a simple question: why should I not try to do this in Poland?

“First of all, everything was open [in Germany],” Baczkowski elaborates. “Gay and lesbian people were out. Just normal. In Poland, it was impossible to be out, and it was the important thing for me personally-so you can feel free the first time in your life. It was the biggest impulse for me.”

Doing time as a volunteer with Berlin Pride also primed Baczkowski for the kind of organizational and strategic thinking he would employ in later years when launching his own attempts to stage Pride marches in Warsaw.

“Before me, there were some people who were trying to do a Pride event, but it never happened really. I was trying to organize like a company. It can’t be spontaneous. It must be planned, everything,” Baczkowski explains.

“Of course, political strategy must be thought over carefully. It was a lot of hard underground work. We were trying to meet with politicians unofficially, asking them what would happen if we do this.

“Mostly, it was personal contacts,” he notes. “Some of them are my friends. Some are gay, but closeted. I can’t out them because I need their help.”

What makes the political and social landscape even more challenging for Polish queers, Baczkowski points out, is the homophobic stance and rhetoric that conservative politicians use to win votes, in combination with the historically deep-rooted Catholicism of Polish society.

“Homophobia has become an official political strategy for some conservative parties. The conservative party tries to find issues that are popular, and they find homophobia is a good topic,” he claims. “[They look for] someone they can find guilty for everything. For many years, it was Jewish people, now it’s gays and lesbians.”

And what do politicians say as they stump at election time?

“We are perverts. Homosexuality is the same as pedophilia. We are responsible for divorce in families. Typical stereotypes like this,” he says. “And people swallow this.

“The church is [also] very strong,” he continues. “More than 90 percent are Catholic.”

Equality Foundation has made some outreach inroads in schools, holding workshops on very fundamental subjects, says Baczkowski.

“First, we had to explain what it means to be gay, and what it means to be a lesbian and transgender. Everything. Then we try to explain what it means to be gay and closeted. We try to explain to teachers how to handle people.”

The response has been positive, he says, adding that as more people learn what it means to be gay, they begin to understand that it has nothing to do with perversion.

“The Polish situation is very funny, I would say. Not many people are out. So many people in our foundation working as volunteers are not out. They are officially heterosexual.”

The first time Equality Foundation took Pride to the streets of Warsaw in 2005, it was officially deemed illegal, but managed to attract 5,000 marchers. Included in that number were foreign dignitaries strategically invited as diplomatic shields which, for local queer marchers, translated into virtual physical protection.

Baczkowski dubs that first march “our own small Stonewall.”

“Our goal was to show that we had to do an illegal march without security because it was prohibited.”

But the internet and a focused media campaign ensured a turnout that went beyond the 1,000-person mark that Baczkowski was aiming for.

“We put information out every day. We made headline news in all the papers, in all the news. Two weeks before [the march], there was always something about gays and lesbians [in the news].”

That five times the number of people he anticipated showed up for a first-time march that clocked in at three hours was nothing short of a victory, he says.

Granted, there were the anticipated protesters-about 1,000 strong-shouting “go to Auschwitz” and “go to gas,” Baczkowski recalls. But what’s important, he argues, is that conservative politicians saw “that they can’t do whatever they want with us, [that] we have power.”

But there was a backlash.

For two years, Baczkowski found himself battling the Polish president, who prohibited the 2005 march, in the European Union’s human rights court.

The main argument, according to Baczkowski, was that Poland as a signatory to the international human rights convention must grant its citizens the right to demonstrate.

Ironically, the court handed down its decision in Baczkowski’s favour on May 3-the day Poland commemorates its own Constitution Day.

Weeks later, Warsaw Pride 2007 brought 10,000 people to the streets with “Love Thy Neighbour” as its theme.

“It was provocative because of the Catholic Church. We knew if we took this motto, no one can say anything against this.”

For Baczkowski, Pride in Poland is “symbolic” with the main goal being education.

“We are trying to say we are gay and lesbian, and part of the society, and we are normal. This is our everyday work. The Pride event is once a year. The most important thing, not only in Poland but for Eastern European society, is they have to know gays and lesbians are everywhere, they were always there, and they will be [always here]. It’s just part of our life,” Baczkowski stresses.

“During communist times, gays and lesbians didn’t exist in official propaganda,” he notes. “It was [considered] something that was only in Western Europe and in the US. We in our socialist, communist society, we don’t have this problem.”

The result, he says, is a pervasive view of queer people as dirty. “Our work is mostly to show we are here and we have always been here. Now we are trying to be visible,” he says.

“We need to get this word out,” agrees Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) treasurer Ken Coolen, who says his exposure to “brutally shocking” film footage of violence against queers in many Eastern European countries prompted him to approach VPS president John Boychuk about inviting Baczkowski to be a Vancouver Pride grand marshal. (The VPS also invited a representative from Moscow Pride, Dmitri Bartenev, to marshal the parade, but he had to cancel due to a last-minute medical emergency.)

In the midst of all the usual Pride glitz and glamour, it’s important to reflect on what’s happening in the rest of the world, Coolen says.

“We worry about maintaining the right to have same-sex marriage when people in other parts of the world worry about having the right just to live their life, keeping their jobs and not getting beaten,” Coolen points out.

Coolen says Sunday’s parade will be halted for a moment of silence not only to commemorate the first Stonewall which began it all, but also to take stock of what strides queer communities have made, with an eye to the struggles still faced by queers like Baczkowski in other parts of the world.