‘I feel something’s changing in Poland,’ says Krystian Legierski, the first openly gay elected official in a country once notorious for state homophobia.
Activists saw Legierski’s election to Warsaw City Council last November as a turning point in a political culture long characterized by discrimination against minorities. Not only is Legierski gay, he is also black – in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world.
Legierski recognizes his election as a milestone, but is quick to point out that he could not have won on an LGBT rights platform alone. ‘What is even more important is that many people who are not gay or lesbian voted for me too.’
The 32 year old first came to prominence when Poland’s ‘official homophobia’ reached epic proportions in 2005. The ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) took power, supported by clerical-nationalists and rightwing populists. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski was sworn in as prime minister and his twin brother Lech was elected president two months later.
Lech Kaczynski had already built a reputation as a pugnacious homophobe. During his term as mayor of Warsaw, he banned two Gay Pride marches, referring to the organizers as ‘perverts’, while encouraging a counter-demonstration entitled The Parade of Normality. When he assumed the presidency, the anti-gay rhetoric of the ruling parties went into overdrive: politicians publicly linked homosexuality with paedophilia and called for gays and lesbians to be banned from teaching.
It was only a matter of time before Le Madame, the legendary Warsaw gay club run by Legierski, became a target. ‘We were the enemy,’ he recalls.
But Le Madame was much more than a gay club. It hosted plays, music, performance art and political events – it even housed the headquarters of the Polish Greens, the party Legierski now represents. ‘The club was open-minded,’ Legierski recalls with some pride. ‘And those in power didn’t like it. They considered us dangerous.’ Just how dangerous is demonstrated by the lengths to which the authorities went to crush it.
On 27 March 2006, Warsaw police blockaded Le Madame and prepared to shut it down. But the club’s defiant patrons refused to leave. Legierski led more than 200 activists in a sit-in, which lasted five days until police stormed the club in the early morning, brutally beating and dragging out the remaining protesters.
The club was closed but the attempts to silence Legierski and Le Madame’s activist community ultimately backfired. ‘It made us very visible in Warsaw and throughout Poland,’ Legierski explains. ‘It gave us power.’
So what motivates a young, gay black man to pick a fight with a notoriously homophobic and xenophobic administration? From where does that spirit emerge?
‘My sexuality is the reason I got into this,’ Legierski responds without hesitation. ‘Gay people are discriminated against; they’re not accepted.’
The compulsion to ‘do something’ has kept Legierski campaigning through several dramatic shifts in Polish political life. The latest was in April 2010 when the Polish Air Force jet carrying President Kaczynski – and 95 other senior figures in the Polish clergy and military – crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing everyone on board. The passengers had been travelling to nearby Katyn to mark the 60th anniversary of the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish nationals by the Soviet secret police.
In the months following the crash a far-right Catholic resurgence appeared inevitable. ‘The religious Right set out to exploit the situation,’ says Legierski. ‘As a result, many people who don’t accept Catholic domination became active. They started to think, “OK, we have to fight this”.’
Recent events in Warsaw, including a march of the antisemitic National Radical Camp and the virulently homophobic All-Polish Youth, seem to support the prediction. But Legierski believes the far Right is actually less powerful now. ‘It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about them, because they’re well organized. But for now, they lose.’
And, as if to drive the point home, he is working with MPs to introduce civil union legislation – forcing the government publicly to support or oppose same-sex unions.
Legierski is realistic about the bill’s chances of becoming law. ‘This won’t succeed,’ he concedes. But he hopes the debate will put civil unions on the media and public agenda once again.
‘It will be visible, it will be discussed and it will be another opportunity to explain what kind of rights we want and why they are necessary.’