This Saturday, 17th July, the Europride march will take place in Warsaw. This is significant for two reasons.
- It will be the first time that such an event has taken place in a postsocialist country and signifies another step forward in promoting equality for lesbian and gays in the region.
- Secondly, this comes only a few years after demonstrations organised by the Polish lesbian and gay movement were banned and is taking place in a context where many basic civil rights are still denied the lesbian and gay community in Poland.
I can remember seeing some of the first gay pride marches in Warsaw in the 1990s. They were small, isolated events that were battling to get a voice heard in public life. All this changed after Lech Kaczyński – then serving as Mayor of Warsaw – banned a gay pride march in 2005. The lesbian and gay movement went ahead with its 'march for equality' and were joined by thousands of people from Warsaw who supported this basic civic right. At this time the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) were still in power and despite the illegality of the march the police protected it and most of the people arrested on the day were counter-demonstrators.
Thereafter the 'march for equality' has become a growing annual event. When Kaczyński became president of Poland and his party PiS formed a government they steered away from banning such marches. Nevertheless, this government still pursued an openly homophobic political programme. For example, the Education Ministry banned a Council of Europe handbook on lesbian and gay issues from schools and there was discussion in the government about preventing lesbian and gays working in professions such as teaching. One of the worst features of the PiS government was that it formed an alliance with the far-right party the League of Polish families (LPR). The political backwardness of LPR was highlighted when one of its MPs claimed that 'if deviants begin to demonstrate, they should be hit with batons'.
Despite the advances made since this time the lesbian and gay community still faces many challenges. The march on Sunday will not be just a manifestation of life-style, but include a number of political demands such as the right to legally register partnerships, the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation and the reform of education . The slogan of the march is for 'Freedom, Equality and Tolerance'.
Although the Warsaw government has not attempted to ban Europride, it has certainly not helped or welcomed it. Warsaw is now run by a coalition headed by Citizens' Platform (PO), under the presidency of the high-profile PO politician Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. For the first time in the history of Europride a city government has not helped with the financing of the event. Gronkiewicz-Waltz will not be opening the march or participating in it, as she will unfortunately be on 'holiday' this weekend. This is in contrast to when europride took place in London for example. Here the government committed 2 million pounds to help fund the event and the then Mayor Ken Livingstone marched at the front of the demonstration.
The political conservatism of Gronkiewicz-Waltz and PO have meant that Warsaw is losing an opportunity to promote itself as an open and modern city and attract visitors and revenue. It is estimated that around 70,000 people will attend the march this Sunday and that around 20-30 thousand of these will be from abroad. However, this is far below the numbers that have attended many previous Europride marches - such as the 1.5 million in Madrid in 2007. Due to a lack of funds the organizers have been unable to sufficiently promote the event abroad and the numbers will be far smaller than they could have been otherwise.
This shows how, despite its pretenses, PO remains a party of the conservative right. It should be remembered, for example, that it was the PO mayor, Ryszard Grobelny, who had previously banned 'marches for equality' in Poznań.
Despite these difficulties the Warsaw Europride is predicted to be the largest political demonstration in Poland for over 10 years. The majority of Warsaw's residents (48%) now agree that such events should be allowed to take place in their city (against 45% who are opposed). Only a few years ago those accepting such marches taking place in Poland's capital stood at just 12%.
This shows how the population of Warsaw has progressed on this issue – it is now time for its politicians to catch up with them.