Dan Swain examines the debate over gender issues that is dominating Polish politics.
‘Gender’ has become the hottest topic in Polish politics. A flavour of this is evident in the anecdote related by Slawomir Sierakowski recently in the New York Times:
The first sign that something strange was happening emerged this past summer at a debate I participated in with one of Poland’s best-known bishops, Tadeusz Pieronek. We were at a summer culture festival at a resort in Swinoujscie, on the Baltic coast. All of a sudden, Bishop Pieronek blurted out, “I would like to add that the ideology of gender presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.”
The ‘ideology of gender’ the bishop refers to has become a catch all phrase to describe a whole range of questions of sexuality, reproductive rights and gender identity, both at the level of theory and of policy. Added to the traditional bugbears of the Catholic church – abortion rights and in vitro fertilisation – is a dogwhistle fear of the influence of contemporary theories of gender on school education. The organisation of ‘gender workshops’ in a small number of schools and nurseries has led to lurid stories circulating of textbooks depicting children masturbating alongside images of the crucifixion.
This comes at a time when the Polish Catholic Church faces its first civil law suit for child abuse committed by priests. Some have seen in the controversy around gender a cynical attempt to shift the blame for child abuse onto ‘confused children’, and away from the actions of priests themselves. Certainly it provides a helpful distraction for the Church, but it also serves to mobilise Poles around a conservative nationalist agenda. One aspect of the ‘gender’ cocktail is EU anti-discrimination laws, which are presented as enforced on Poland by foreigners, counter to Polish (and therefore Catholic) tradition. Ironically, this all distracts from the far more sinister foreign influence, the growing revelations about CIA prisons on Polish soil.
The second largest political party in Poland is the Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party. Law and Justice held the presidency from 2005 until the death of Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash in 2010, and controlled the Government from 2005-2007. A recent interview of one of their leading spokesman gives a good sense of how they are seeking to profit from this ‘debate’:
We think that promotion of homosexuality, similarly as the recent promoting the gender ideology means not only the devastation of the family but also the devastation of all examples and Polish traditions passed to others by the family. Whereas the current government is officially supporting this kind of ideology and is also pursuing an intensive policy of liquidation of the national identity.
This rhetoric is faintly ludicrous, since many members of the governing Civic Platform party have actively campaigned against EU equality legislation, and the party itself is profoundly conservative, having itself suffered a split off of some of its most liberal activists in 2010.
This points to the malaise of Polish politics, with the left largely ineffective or discredited, either by association with the old Communist regime or failures when in power (including actively supporting Bush and Blair’s wars). Poles are confronted with the choice between the neo-liberalism of Civic Platform and the ‘social Catholicism’ of Law and Justice, with the tragedy that it is Law and Justice who most vocally challenge privatisation and raising the retirement age.
The ‘gender’ controversy is a sorry consequence of this situation. But there is some reason to be optimistic, notably the dramatic success of the social liberal Palikot Movement in the last elections. Though as staunchly committed to neo-liberal economics as Civic Platform, they clearly struck a chord with young Poles tired of the Church’s interference in their lives, and lead to the election of Poland’s first trans member of parliament. The question for Poland is whether a movement can arise that combines the demand for sexual liberation with the demand for social solidarity and economic equality.