The LGBTQ struggle for hospitality in eastern European cities


In 2003 we participated as a gay couple in Eastern Europe’s first LGBTQ visibility campaign, Let Them See Us. Feminist artist Karolina Bregula, supported by the NGO Campaign Against Homophobia, authored a pioneering artistic-social action: 30 real same-sex couples, depicted in the act of coming out while holding hands in the Warsaw cityscape. Presented on billboards, the portraits were censored or vandalised in urban spaces, but when they travelled across Poland as a popular exhibition shown in artistic institutions, they sparked a heated debate.

Although more visual campaigns for LGBTQ rights followed Let Them See Us, the plight of the exhibition typifies the ambivalence towards queer (non-heterosexual, subversive minorities) participation in the public sphere of Eastern Europe. On the one hand, the streets and cultural hubs are increasingly hospitable to lesbian and gay events, whereas on the other, the danger of destruction or physical attack lurks in the homophobic darkness. Ever-present oppression and violence threaten democratic activism, openness and hospitality.

Only through public visibility in urban spaces can queers advocate for our rights to full and unrestricted access to the democratic agora and at the same time trigger social change that goes beyond citizenship towards cosmopolitan politics of human rights and participation.

In this difficult context, LGBTQ activism in the city offers diverse forms of struggle for a new urban citizenship and inclusion in the human geography of Eastern Europe. Only through public visibility in urban spaces can queers advocate for our rights to full and unrestricted access to the democratic agora and at the same time trigger social change that goes beyond citizenship towards cosmopolitan politics of human rights and participation. Through public demonstrations and cultural initiatives for queer expression, the suppressed urban subjectivities based on sexual and gender difference are articulated, highlighting minorities’ essential place in the democratic urban sphere. Through freedom of same-sex sexual expression in cities, an increasingly open and less oppressive urban society is being formed. Through political petitions and demands of LGBTQ organisations addressed to municipal institutions, legal rights are fostered: here participatory art that makes a political point is crucial. Through queer protests set up against homophobic restriction, the status quo of city power is questioned, allowing critical movements and civil society to flourish.

By collaborating with other disadvantaged and oppositional groups, we help create the urban space as a human rights arena. This moves beyond the question of national citizenship, embracing a more inclusive approach to human rights and participation. We argue that LGTBQ rights are tied to all minority rights and as such develop an urban citizenship that promotes the visibility and participation of all minorities, questioning the discriminatory non-citizenship status imposed by a nationalism that co-exists with heteronormative order. (By “heteronormativity”, we refer to an oppressive system that takes heterosexuality as the sole gender and sexual norm).

Alarmingly, the worst cases of homo- and xeno- phobic assault have taken place in Wroclaw, designated the European Capital of Culture for 2016.

Although in 2013 major Polish cities carried out their Pride Parades (which are no longer banned as they notoriously were by Warsaw’s mayor in 2004 and 2005, or raided by the police like in Poznan in 2005), they require very heavy police protection. At Prides a cordon is set up to separate the marchers from their brutal opponents, who come from far-right and ultra-nationalist youth militias and thuggish soccer groups. Without this heightened security, gays would be attacked in the same way that queer individuals continue to be verbally and physically assaulted on Polish streets. Alarmingly, the worst cases of homo- and xeno- phobic assault have taken place in Wroclaw, designated the European Capital of Culture for 2016. For example, on 22 June 2013 British-Polish-Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s lecture at the University of Wroclaw was disrupted by far-right extremists. On the night of 6 July 2013, openly gay curator of Wroclaw’s Contemporary Museum Bartlomiej Lis was severely beaten and verbally abused in Strzegomska Street because of his queerness. LGBTQ groups and citizens in Poland are exercising their legal rights to use urban spaces, but its cities are not yet safe for queer intimate or political expression: one always has to be very careful.

The violence of the urban space and the precarious state of LGBTQ urban citizenship is also exemplified by the predicament of the public artwork The Rainbow by feminist artist Julita Wojcik. The installation, erected in June 2012 in Plac Zbawiciela in the heart of Warsaw, depicts a huge rainbow made of artificial flowers created by hand with the help of volunteers as a symbol of peace and tolerance. The Rainbow has been repeatedly vandalised and burned, and requires constant reconstruction. This is a testament to how the forces of creation and destruction, acceptance and aggression compete in Polish streets and, generally, in its public life.

The biggest challenge facing LGBTQ citizens in Polish cities is the protection of their safety from verbal abuse and physical violence in public. This holds true for all Eastern European countries where LGBTQ people are a controversial, if not taboo, minority whose increased public visibility ignites social conflicts and resistance. Much of Eastern Europe is still conservative in its attitudes towards queer participation and love. But things are changing: the level of diversity differs significantly between these new EU countries and their cities. It is no longer possible to treat the entire region as one “anti-gay” entity. Instead basic queer rights are legally protected in Eastern European countries that are part of the EU. In virulently homophobic Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, however, this is a completely different story.

Yet all of Eastern Europe continues to lag behind Western countries when it comes to societal acceptance: Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia have no legal recognition of same-sex unions. On the other hand, the East is at the forefront of robust activism for queer participation, as numerous social initiatives counter the discriminatory residue left over from the old system or supported by the religion-turned-ideology in right-wing fundamentalism.

Therefore queer expression in the public spaces of Eastern Europe has a very political character that is linked to the democratic diversification of the public. This stands in contrast to the commercial and entertainment-based element of public queer presence in urban spaces in Western cities. Prides in Polish cities are not urban festivals or street parties – local governments do not use them as tourist attractions or massive money-making events.

Dividing our time between Britain and Poland – that is, Brighton and Lublin – we live between two poles of the EU when it comes to LGBTQ issues. We have noted this East versus West divide in Brighton, which is considered to be the gay capital of the UK, but in fact is no different from other British urban centres in the twenty-first century. In Brighton, Pride has been turned into an amusement park, an all-city festival for everyone – including children who enjoy the colourful costumes and music – bringing together thousands of young people from the region. Although it includes political, artistic and religious initiatives (such as solidarity with LGBT people in Russia), the event has become commercialised. In stark contrast, the Polish city of Lublin, which is similar in size to Brighton, has never had a Pride, or even one long-lasting gay nightclub for that matter. Thus when queer events are launched in Poland, they have a radical edge. In Eastern Europe projects focused on queer urban presence are characterised by a vanguard social and cultural character that attracts progressive audiences and media attention. The Transeuropa Festival, which we co-curated in Lublin, can serve as an example.

Held in Lublin from May 5 to 15th, 2011, the festival celebrated hospitality, ecology and the rights of women, minorities and refugees. Through free public arts events such as exhibitions, performances, debates and workshops held in a variety of public, institutional and alternative spaces, the festival fostered acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the broader framework of women’s rights and transnational culture and history. Transeuropa sought to revive the city’s murdered intercultural life. Before the Holocaust, Lublin was a key home to Jewish life, learning and politics. The diverse and transnational character of Lublin was explored during the festival in presentations by Jewish, Romany and Ukrainian communities. We also involved Chechen refugees who presented their precarious situation: exclusion, unemployment, problems with education and housing. Transeuropa Festival demonstrated how LGBTQ people mobilise as active citizens, helping themselves and other “Others” (including non-citizens, refugees and other migrants) join and transform urban life in Poland.

Lublin hosts the nonprofit Transeuropa Festival to promote wider social change. Because we have lived in both Brighton and Lublin, we have experienced how central cities are to the acceptance of LGBT communities throughout Europe. Historically, big cities, with their diversity and anonymity, have provided gay people with shelter, refuge and opportunities for meeting and cultural expression. Cities have offered an escape from claustrophobic and controlling communities, as historian George Chauncey demonstrated in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940.

We deplore the ban on Prides in Russian cities, imposed recently for the next 100 years. Lublin is in between Brighton and Moscow: hostile at times and only beginning to become tolerant. And yet it was turned into a rainbow city for a week during Transeuropa in celebration of the EU’s sexual-affective diversity. We invited two Polish politicians, Anna Grodzka and Robert Biedron, who happen to be transgender and gay, respectively, and who half a year later would become the first out and proud LGBTQ members of the Polish parliament. At the same time, many Transeuropa events took place in the anti-capitalist squat and vibrant countercultural hub Tektura.

Queer events in Polish cities bring together not the mass culture of public entertainment, but independent activists, organisations and coalitions that oppose the right-wing government and the rising far-right fringe.

The Transeuropa Festival in Lublin underscored the role of alliances in the movement for democratic participation in Poland. As in Lublin, there is a rich history of queer cultures in other East European cities, as well as collaboration with the feminist movement, labour unions, anarchists, Greens and minority rights initiatives. Queer events in Polish cities bring together not the mass culture of public entertainment, but independent activists, organisations and coalitions that oppose the right-wing government and the rising far-right fringe. Queer events in cities have been protected by anarchist partners from fascist youth aggression – as seen when the Human Library, run by the informal NGO Rainbow Lublin, was looked after by antifascist members of Tektura. This alliance links the LGBTQ community’s political agenda to the radical left movement, which seeks to reclaim urban spaces from commercial or governmental control.

Yet the situation is more complicated: many big cities in Poland and Eastern Europe also have a thriving commercial clubbing scene that plays a major role in queer urban life. There is no denying that the commercial entertainment sector is also present and increases the visibility of LGBTQ people and their participation in city life, alongside activism manifested in cultural urban projects. Both commercial and social components within urban spaces help to ensure that the queer community is not only visible, but also actively and openly involved in creating our own space and defending our rights while opposing homophobic speech and actions by some parts of society and the political elite. Queer life in big Polish cities is not clandestine but highly visible through clubbing, demonstrations and, most importantly, inclusive, participatory projects as Transeuropa, Human Library and visual actions as Let Them See Us.

We believe that in contemporary Europe the question of LGBTQ rights and inclusion must be connected to broader engagement with the issues of democracy and an attitude of social acceptance toward all kinds of otherness in the public realm. With the expansion of the EU and the current economic crisis, European societies are both becoming increasingly mobile and mixed while remaining chained to old divisions and prejudices. When Poland and several other East European countries joined the EU in 2004, many LGBTQ people left the East to start a new life in more tolerant Western European cities. Yet they have only traded their second-rate “queer” citizenship status in their own old countries for the even more precarious condition as the migrant in their new residence. We have experienced this ourselves, which has convinced us that there must be close cooperation between queer and migrant rights’ groups in Europe.

Queers are like archetypal strangers in hetero-normative society – the strategies and achievements of the LGBTQ movement must be employed in order to advance migrant participation in all European cities. The urban strategies of inclusion and acceptance are historically necessary in both Western and Eastern Europe. And here the stereotype of a progressive West versus a backwater East is collapsing. The two halves of our continent are both caught in a deep ethical crisis. We are as outraged by far-right militias and soccer thugs who unleash their gender norms by terrorizing Polish streets as we are by the British immigration officers who target and arrest unjustly named “illegal” migrants in the streets and railways stations of London, using the most crude forms of racial profiling. There cannot be queer participation in European cities without the recognition of migrant rights, as for ages intercultural European cities have been safe havens for both groups. The norm-challenging diversity we bring to the city could not be further from conformist, aggressive ultra-nationalism. The Other Europe needs more participation and solidarity from the Other: queers, migrants, the unemployed, homeless and all precarious residents. Instead of globalisation, we call for cosmopolitanism as an ethics of care for the democratic diversity of minorities.

Image: Brightonlite.wordpress