The LGBT Community in Krakow

Article published on May 12, 2014
Article published on May 12, 2014

Poland is one of the most chal­leng­ing EU na­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity. In the last three years one out of every three peo­ple has ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lent threats or  at­tacks, each case ini­ti­ated as a re­sult of their sex­u­al­ity. We learnt more about the sit­u­a­tion from Miko­laj Cz­er­win­ski, a young Pol­ish ac­tivist fight­ing for LGBT rights.

To west­ern Eu­ro­peans, this as­pect of Po­land might seem un­real, like some­thing out of a his­tory book. Be­yond its his­toric cen­tre, the city of Krakow main­tains an un­yield­ing as­pect, dis­ci­plined by its So­viet past but del­uged by the hus­tle and bus­tle of mod­ern day tourists and in­hab­i­tants alike. What is most sur­pris­ing to a first time vis­i­tor is the sheer num­ber of churches in the city, al­most one on every cor­ner, with a con­stant trickle of the pious pass­ing through their doors.

Mi­ko­laj Czer­wins­ki is a young gay ac­tivist fight­ing for the rights of the LGBT (les­bian, gay, bi- and trans-sex­ual) com­mu­nity in Krakow, via the Cul­tu­re of To­le­ran­ce as­so­ci­a­tion. We met up with him in one of the few gay bars in the city, sit­u­ated in the pre­dom­i­nantly Jew­ish neigh­bour­hood of Kaz­imierz. Upon en­ter­ing, we are greeted by var­i­ous neo-N­azi scrawl­ings on the out­side doors. "Only two days ago a stranger in­sulted my part­ner and I, just two streets from here, for no ap­par­ent rea­son," he re­calls in such a mat­ter-of-fact way that it sad­dens us to hear. Mi­ko­laj is of gen­er­ous build and his ges­tures con­vey a calm­ness which sits at odds with the dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tions he is de­scrib­ing. For­merly a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent in Eng­land, after which he spent time work­ing in Africa, these days he jug­gles a bar job and study­ing for a course in Cul­tural Man­age­ment. He is just 23.

The LGBT com­mu­nity is the ob­ject of con­stant jib­ing and de­ri­sion from po­lit­i­cal and ecle­si­as­ti­cal types in Poland. Ac­cord­ing to Mi­ko­laj, the sim­ple fact of being alive is more than enough cause for crit­i­cism and at­tacks from a cer­tain por­tion of Pol­ish so­ci­ety. Kiss­ing in pub­lic can cause up­roar, or as hap­pened with some of his friends, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion can be used as a suf­fi­cient rea­son to refuse some­one hos­pi­tal care.  For two years, Mi­ko­laj has been strug­gling for LGBT rights, par­tic­i­pat­ing in var­i­ous queer as­so­ci­a­tions and cam­paigns at an in­ter­na­tional level. Along with two of his cam­paign col­leagues, Mi­ko­laj is also fight­ing to alter the course of things from the plat­form of his youth as­so­ci­a­tion, Cul­ture of Tol­er­ance.

The con­ser­v­a­tive, re­li­gious spirit which per­vades most of this coun­try's so­ci­ety ob­vi­ously makes it a chal­lenge to nor­malise the LGBT 'sit­u­a­tion'. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent stud­ies on this issue by the EU's Fun­da­men­tal Rights Agency (FRA), 35% of peo­ple sur­veyed had been sub­jected to ag­gres­sion or hos­tile threats as a di­rect re­sult of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. In 66.7% of cases of psy­cho­log­i­cal vi­o­lence, the po­lice did not in­ter­vene. In a re­port en­ti­tled Si­tua­tion of LGBT Per­sons in Po­land – 2010-2011, one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions found that around 40% of peo­ple who were phys­i­cally at­tacked had been at­tacked on more than three oc­ca­sions. It also high­lighted the fact that 70% of the sur­veyed pop­u­la­tion are too afraid to show their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion at school or at work, for fear of being dis­crim­i­nated against. 38% had con­sid­ered sui­cide as an op­tion at one time or an­other. 

Since Poland joined the EU and more­over with the change of gov­ern­ment — whereby the con­ser­v­a­tive coali­tion moved aside for the cur­rent, cen­tre-right prime min­is­ter Do­nald Tusk — the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved slightly. Nev­er­the­less, it clearly re­mains rooted in com­pli­ca­tions. Mi­ko­laj's life has been trans­formed into one of con­stant bat­tle, like that of any ac­tivist, fu­eled by his be­liefs and de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­fend a most basic human right: mu­tual re­spect. This sort of ded­i­ca­tion might one day lead to pos­i­tive changes in Pol­ish so­ci­ety, on a fun­da­men­tal and prefer­ably per­ma­nent level. 

This article is part of a special series devoted to Krakow. It's part of eu-topia: time to vote, a project run by cafébabel in partnership with the hippocrène foundation, the european commission, the ministry of foreign affairs and the evens foundation.