A Polish Stonewall

Gay/counter-culture center shuttered; protests persist on the streets

The past week saw dramatic new evidence of the ultra-conservative and homophobic regime that has taken hold in Poland since the election last October of a new hard-right government led by the reactionary, gay-baiting President Lech Kaczynski and his equally queer-bashing twin brother Jaroslav, who controls the Polish Parliament.

At 6 a.m. last Friday, Warsaw police raided Le Madame, a hugely popular gay club that is also the hub of counter-cultural activities and political dissent in Poland’s capital, declaring the club closed for good.

The closure followed a week in which the police had at first sought to blockade the club, but met with resistance from those inside and others who arrived to help stage a sit-in, and finally agreed to a 48-hour truce.

Lukasz Palucki—a graduate student in social psychology, a gay activist with Poland’s Equality Foundation, and one of the organizers of Warsaw Gay Pride—e-mailed this reporter from the scene shortly after the police raid on Friday.

Le Madame had been occupied by hundreds of defenders since Monday, when police blockaded the club and ordered everyone to leave. By Thursday, the American actor John Malkovich had joined a press conference at Le Madame to express his support.

By dawn on Friday, however, wrote Palucki, “We had too few people inside at that hour to protect the club.”

Police expelled all the 50-odd occupants of the club in the raid, including Magda Mosiewicz, the chairwoman of the Polish Green Party, which had its headquarters in the first floor of Le Madame. The police expulsion was very brutal, according to Palucki, with many of those defending the club—who offered passive resistance, some chained to pipes and railings inside—beaten.

After being expelled, the club’s defenders regrouped on the street, and chanted at the police, “To nie koniec, to poczatek” (“It’s Not Over, It’s Just the Beginning”). People continued to surround the club, and refused to leave.

Demonstrations have continued in the days since the club was shuttered. On Saturday a crowd of 100 braved the rain to hold a street party.

“Now all Old Town in Warsaw will be one big Le Madame,” declared Krystian Legierski, the club’s gay owner, a Polish-born black gay activist with the Warsaw Lambda Association. Club regulars were planning street theater and drag shows throughout the week. According to Palucki, the City Council has limited powers to halt the demonstrations. Pandora, a drag queen who as Pawel Jaworski was once a priest and a music teacher, entertained more than 200 on Monday in the street in front of Le Madame.

The confrontation that led to Le Madame’s closing on Friday began four days earlier on March 25, when police blockaded the club and prepared to evacuate its patrons and shut it down. But police got a surprise—those inside refused to leave, declaring they would stay as long as necessary to protect the club from the police.

More than 200 people began an overnight sit-in. And the police barricades at the entrance to Le Madame didn’t prevent reinforcements—some from out of town, including women and children—from sneaking into the club through windows and back entrances to join the sit-in.

A group of militants from a small political party, Nowa Lewa (New Left), led by its chairman, Piotr Ikonowicz, eventually broke through the police barricades while lobbing a few beer bottles at blockading forces. Negotiations between the representative of the Warsaw city government, Jaceck Bogiel, who was in command of the police blockade, and Legierski, the club owner, eventually led to withdrawal of all but a skeleton crew of police.

The authorities gave assurances that no action would be taken against the club for 48 hours, though the promises were met with skepticism by those occupying Le Madame. On Tuesday night—following a large party to thank Le Madame’s supporters for bringing the police to a standstill and obtaining the temporary truce—more than 50 people staged a sleep-in at the club to protect it from the police.

As the resistance within the club braced itself for the end of the truce, many wondered whether the events would climax in a kind of Polish Stonewall. They were well aware that the city’s ownership of the building housing Le Madame put them in a very weak position. Some worried that the police might stand idly by and let the skinhead thugs who make up the youth arm of the League of Polish Families, noted for their violent gay-bashings, do the dirty work for them.

Szurstow remained hopeful throughout the week.

“I don’t think they will dare to use police force to throw us out,” she said, arguing that the government is afraid of a reaction similar to the one that followed the November 19 crackdown on a gay March for Equality in Poznan, which resulted in 68 arrests and many injuries. Demonstrations in solidarity with the Poznan gays sprung up in every major Polish city and there was a huge public outcry denouncing the police action.

Gay activist Palucki, however, proved more prescient.

“When the truce is over,” he said, “ on Thursday things are going to get hot—very hot.”

Why has Poland’s ruling party targeted Le Madame for elimination?

“We represent everything the Kaczynskis hate,” Szurstow, the artistic director, told this reporter by telephone from inside Le Madame during the height of the sit-down, as police stood guard outside. The lavishly decorated club, which opened three years ago in the Old Town neighborhood of the center city, sprawls over two floors of a converted electronics factory. Originally a gay venue, it has become in addition the host to a whole skein of multi-cultural and counter-cultural artistic and political activities.

“We work with 61 theater groups and have produced 204 plays and pieces of performance art—everything from Chekhov and the classics to a play featuring only actors who were all schizophrenics. Our primary focus, however, is contemporary theater and art,” Szurstow said.

“We also have exhibits of all kinds of art, paintings, and photographs. Some of the exhibits have included nude photos, and the authorities used this to try to have us condemned for ‘pornography,’” Szurstow chuckled, “even though no sex acts were portrayed.”

Moreover, the club is regularly host to contestatory political groups of all stripes for forums and debates about ideas.

“Gays, feminists, anti-globalization activists, pacifists, anarchists, the left-wing opposition parties, we welcome them all here, especially when they find it hard to get meeting rooms elsewhere,” Szurstow said. “Everyone is welcome here, gay, straight, whatever. We can be having a political debate on the first floor and a huge party and discotheque on the floor above.”

And there’s a dark backroom for customers’ trysts on the second floor.

This rainbow gathering place for every sort of sexual, political, and cultural ferment is, indeed, everything the Kaczynski twins hate. Coming to power in an election in which 77 percent of the vote went to parties calling themselves right wing—from the twins’ Law and Justice Party, which promised a “moral cleansing” of Poland, to the anti-Semitic, homophobic League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin), and the neo-fascist, xenophobic, and homophobic Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona)—the Kaczynski government chose as prime minister a radical Catholic fundamentalist, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who is militant in his condemnation of homosexuality as “unnatural” behavior which the state must stop from “infecting” others.

As mayor of Warsaw before becoming Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski banned Warsaw’s Gay Pride Parade for two years running—and as president, one of his first acts was to abolish the government human rights office charged with enforcing nondiscrimination against homosexuals.

The president’s brother Jaroslav, who controls Parliament with an iron first, has proposed banning gays from teaching in the schools at any level. Just weeks after the election, allies of the twins in the Poznan city government pushed for the suppression of the November March for Equality.

It was fear of this sort of homophobia from the Kaczynskis and their ultra-right allies that motored a January 18 resolution passed by the European Parliament at Strasbourg condemning homophobia as “an irrational fear and aversion” and calling on member states like Poland to provide gay people “the same respect, dignity, and protection as the rest of society.” The resolution passed 469-129, with support from parties of both left and right.

The closing of Le Madame shows that the Kaczynskis and their political followers don’t give a fig for the pro-gay human rights pronouncements emanating from Strasbourg. But the attempt to shut down the club has met with widespread criticism from left-wing political leaders, writers, and celebrities in Poland, Palucki told Gay City News.

“On Monday night, we had political leaders come to the club in solidarity,” Palucki told me from inside the club, “including Marek Borowski, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and Wojciech Olejnicsak, chairman of the Social Democratic Union. So did a famous polish feminist, Kaziera Szczuka, who also hosts two television programs on the TVN network.”

The Social Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Union, which make up the minority on the City Council, have demanded an investigation of the final assault on Le Madame.

Both Palucki and Szurstow said they had even received expressions of sympathy from national government ministers of Kaczynski’s own party—“but not in public,” Szurstow said. “These ministers, these big politicians, come by for a drink and say, ‘It’s terrible what’s happening to you, but what can we do? We have no power over the local authorities.’”

The siege of Le Madame was extensively covered in the media—and largely sympathetically. Although the siege was blacked out on government-owned TV, six private TV networks sent camera crews, and it was the lead item on the evening news broadcasts of nearly all of them, Palucki said.

The country’s largest and most respected national daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, edited by Adam Michnik, the well-known former dissident leader under Poland’s Communist governments, devoted the entire front cover of its daily Warsaw supplement early last week to the siege of Le Madame, with team coverage. The newspaper’s columnist, Roman Pawlowski, wrote that Le Madame was “a great civic institution” and “one of the most artistic venues in town” which had, “without getting any government money, put on more plays, and plays of quality, than all the subsidized theaters put together.”

Similar expressions of support could be found in all but the most extreme-right newspapers.

But the forced closing of Le Madame epitomizes how Poland, under the troglodyte Kaczynskis’ rule, has entered into the darkest chapter of its history since the Communist tyranny was chased from power.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.