At first glance, the idea seemed risky at best. After Madrid, Stockholm and Zürich, this year’s EuroPride, Europe’s biggest gay parade, is set to be hosted in Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Slated for tomorrow, 17 July, this will be the first time the annual parade has been held in a former communist country. Given Poland’s conservative reputation, and the absence of legal recognition of gay civil unions under the Polish law, many expect the rainbow parade to be twice as powerful and colourful as usual.
While Polish organisers anticipate between 50,000 and 70,000 participants, including about 20,000 from abroad, the marchers might face trouble on their way through the city centre. Extreme-right groupings are planning a counter-march for the same day, supposedly to celebrate the 600th anniversary of a medieval battle between Poland and Germany.
But this is hardly surprising to the Polish LGBT community. Its annual Equality Parade, held in Warsaw since 2005, sees several thousand participants, and a few dozen protesters, each year. Five years ago, the parade’s organisers encountered rock-solid opposition from the city authorities. Warsaw’s then-mayor Lech Kaczynski, who later became the country’s president, banned the parade on grounds that it could lead to “disturbing public order”. The several-thousand crowd marched through the capital anyway, and since a more moderate Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz was elected Warsaw’s mayor in 2006, the Equality Parade has established itself in the city’s calendar for good.
Konrad Ozdowy of Mustache Warsaw, a cultural association that is co-organising some of the events accompanying this year’s EuroPride, argues that even though Poles are renowned for their conservatism and traditionalism, Poland’s capital is a city that runs at fast pace.
“Warsaw isn’t like Berlin or Paris but it draws the creative class from around the country. For them, the possibilities here are unlimited,” argues Ozdowy. “Many young Poles get comfortable with the atmosphere of tolerance and freedom in other parts of Europe. When they come back, they want to have it at home as well,” he argues.
As tolerance for homosexuality grows in Poland, so do has the number of celebrities coming out. Tomasz Raczek, noted film critic and former editor of Playboy magazine’s Polish edition, and the popular soap-opera actor Jacek Poniedzialek are among those who breached the taboo and admitted to being gay in interviews. Such frankness had been, until recently, unthinkable, yet not only did it not damage their lives, but on the contrary, it put their careers on a fast track, and made them favourite breakfast television personalities.
“For years, Poles have been told they’re conservative and intolerant. Politicians want us to believe that, and the media reiterate this message. But Poland has a rich tradition of tolerance. Throughout our history, we never had any witch hunts, and we showed tolerance for religious dissenters,” Raczek argued in a press interview.
“It seems obvious that EuroPride won’t change some people’s attitude overnight. However, the democratic breakthrough that Poland achieved in 1989 has paved the way for progress in other fields, and the appetite for freedom will only grow,” believes Ozdowy.