One of the biggest stories to come out of Poland in the last couple of weeks has been former Polish president Lech Wałęsa’s tirade against homosexuals. As is well documented by now, he suggested gay MPs had no right to sit on the front benches in Parliament, but rather should sit at the back or even behind a wall. His comments would be comical if they weren’t so serious.
Where does this intolerance come from? Most of the press coverage remarks that Wałęsa is a devout Catholic who hasn’t moved with the times. Ironically, they say, the freedoms he ushered in have resulted in a Poland of a hue he longer recognises or likes. For example, Poland’s Ruch Palikot (Palikot Movement) party includes a gay MP and Europe’s first transexual MP.
That’s all true, I think, and it shows a Poland still largely white and Catholic, and still coming to terms with its rapid immersion into pluralism. For though opinion polls reveal Wałęsa exaggerated when he said 95% of Poles agreed with his views, without doubt there remains a sizeable constituency in Poland who are sympathetic to what he said. His own son, an MEP, said as much, describing his father’s comments as typical of the older generation.
Wałęsa senior has long been a divisive figure: in essence the anti-Communist hero who later became renowned for his ultra-conservative views. He probably won’t now salvage a sullied reputation (apparently a street named after him in San Francisco may now be renamed). But Poland, no doubt once more stereotyped as an extreme place as a result of his outburst, will get over this. Most people don’t realise that centuries ago it was an eclectic mix, open to all colours and creeds, even known as Paradisus Hereticorum – Paradise for Heretics. One reason, for example, why the Jews, having been expelled from the likes of Britain and Spain, settled there in such great numbers. So, Poland has a track record in tolerance, and no doubt can return there.
But it must work on it, and one of the first tasks will be to recognise the problem. I finish with a small example. A few weeks ago I tweeted links to two articles on the Polish Radio website (Polskie Radio Dla Zagranicy). One said Poland had finally signed up to the EU Convention on Women’s Rights, having been slow to do so, and the other that homophobia in Poland remained a big problem. I remarked these were the same social tensions I’d observed 10 years ago, and written about in Polska Dotty, and that Poland could be slow in social progress. No sooner had I done so than a Polish twitter account targeted me: “@polskadotty you #giveaf**k”, they began, “young people in Poland are normal”. To be fair, only one comment, but wrong on two counts: there is an issue with intolerance in Poland – as in many countries – but maybe more pronounced and/or exposed, in Poland. As for the young, anyone who’s read my work knows that, like Wałęsa’s son Jarosław, I subscribe to the (admittedly generalised) view that Polish youth seem more open and accepting than the older generation.
In a way, I’m glad Wałęsa said what he said, because the reaction from Poles and foreigners alike has been pretty much universally condemnatory. It means, unless he changes, which seems unlikely, we can thank Wałęsa for his crucial and brave role in the downfall of Communism, but equally put him in a box where it comes to his social views, and move on. For after this episode, as and when the next wail comes, I hazard it’ll garner much less air time.
Picture: Lech Wałęsa greets singer Elton John in Sopot in 2006.
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