(Updated March 2006)
In the past nine months, bars and clubs catering to gays in the Polish capital have increased fivefold. Although a total of 10 gay venues would not put Warsaw on the map with Amsterdam or Berlin as a magnet for alternative lifestyles, the increase in clubs is indicative of the rapid social changes occurring in what often is described as Europe’s most profoundly Roman Catholic country.
Gay activists attribute the changes to Poland’s social and political reintegration into the European mainstream along with a decline in the Roman Catholic Church’s role as arbiter of the nation’s moral values. They also say the explosive expansion of the Internet and a scandal within the Polish church have played roles as well.
Last year, Warsaw’s first attempt at a gay pride parade drew about 200 participants and twice as many police. Earlier this year, 2,000 turned out for what prudently has been renamed the Equity Day parade.
Decade of change
The showing was a far cry from the annual gay pride parade in Berlin, which usually attracts half a million participants, but it was enough to remind Witek Seislak, 40, of how much has changed in little more than a decade.
“In communist times, there was no official gay life in Poland. No newspapers, no bars. Nothing. The only places for me were the public toilets and public parks,” said Seislak, a software engineer with a multinational corporation.
“Just after communism collapsed there was freedom to establish a gay bar and a weekly newspaper, but the change in mentality was slower,” he said.
Unlike neighboring Hungary and the Czech Republic, where gay life flourished after the fall of communism, democratic Poland was influenced by the Catholic Church, and there was little tolerance for gay lifestyles.
But as Poland slips into a more European orbit, it appears to be catching up quickly.
With full membership in the European Union expected within two years, demographic trends indicate that Poles are embracing the attitudes and behavioral norms of their Western European neighbors. At the same time, the church’s grip on social and political life has slipped noticeably.
“Our big problem is still the church. No matter what you say, this is still a church state,” said Artur Pawlak, owner of the Miami Cafe, a new Warsaw gay bar.
“But now people are free to travel, and they know what life is like in other cities,” said Pawlak, 27, who left Poland when he was 19 and spent eight years living and working in Florida before coming back last year to start his business.
Seislak, the software engineer, said he believes the Internet revolution, more than anything else, helped accelerate the gay revolution in Poland. “The Internet has been a huge force for change. The access to information, to literature, to other gays – this is our real revolution,” he said.
“The new generation, the ones in their 20s who use the Internet, have a completely different view of themselves. I can see it in the way they think about themselves. Gays from my generation still feel this shame, and we are still afraid to talk openly, but not the new generation.”
Most major cities in Poland now have a couple of bars or discos where gays socialize, but in the small towns life can still be lonely and frightening.
A 1992 survey conducted in small Polish towns asked people to rank the groups they most despised. Homosexuals were at the top of the list, followed by prostitutes and gypsies. When the survey was repeated in 1997, there was no change. In a similar survey conducted across the border in Germany, “Turks” (an informal reference to all Muslim minorities) were the most despised; homosexuals did not even make the list.
These attitudes have been reinforced by the church, whose priests in the pulpit routinely condemn homosexuals as perverts and sinners.
“Once, after I told a priest something in confession, he said that he couldn’t absolve me because my behavior was worse than an animal’s,” said Andrzej, 32, who asked that his last name not be published. He is a founder of the Christian Union of Gays and Lesbians in Poland, a group still unrecognized by the Polish government.
Last year, when a modest proposal to protect gays from harassment and discrimination came before Poland’s parliament, far-right Catholic parties made sure it died. But earlier this year, the Catholic hierarchy had to confront gays in its own closet when one of its leaders, Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan, was forced to resign after being accused of making sexual advances toward young priests and seminarians.
This month, the respected Catholic magazine Wiez – The Link – dedicated an entire issue to the topic of homosexuality, a breakthrough after decades of avoiding serious discussion of this subject. Editors said the decision was partly influenced by the Paetz scandal.
Most of the articles urge a more tolerant and sympathetic attitude toward homosexuality, but they also reflect official church attitudes that seem somewhat out of touch with mainstream European attitudes. The church continues to view homosexuality as a psychological disorder that can be “cured” and recommends sexual abstinence for those who have “incurable” cases.
No longer silent
“You can’t really speak of a breakthrough in the church’s attitude because nothing has changed in the church’s teaching on homosexuality. But there has been a breakthrough in the silence that surrounds this subject,” said Cezary Gawrys, the magazine’s deputy editor. “From the church’s point of view, it’s not discrimination if you say that there is something wrong with homosexuals. The church can never accept homosexual relationships or bless a homosexual marriage,” Gawrys said. “But what the church is saying now is that you must treat these people with respect.” Although most gay activists in Poland still regard the church as their principal antagonist, many said they considered the latest issue of Wiez a step in the right direction and a sign that the church was willing to deal more openly with the subject.
By Tom Hundley
(Reprinted without permission)