“What did I miss while I was gone?” my friend J asks a few hours after getting back from leading a student trip to Portland. She lived off the grid for a week while doing service work throughout Oregon, and is now feeling a strange disconnect from the World At Large.
I ask if she’s heard about the plane crash in Russia, where more than 80 Polish politicians and civilian leaders died on Saturday. She gasps and asks what happened. It was apparently a human error during the landing sequence that killed the Polish president, his wife, and scores of top military officers, parliamentarians, and other notables.
J grimaces. “That’s terrible. So tragic. Oh my god.”
“Yeah, I’m feeling kind of conflicted about it. I mean, they’re ‘my people'”—my father is a 2nd generation Polack who never lets me forget it—”but the President was a total homophobe. He apparently called homosexuality a ‘disease’ and banned a Pride march from taking place in Warsaw a few years back.”
“That’s terrible. I mean, it’s still awful that he died, but…what a jerk.”
“I know. I considered going down to the Polish consulate and leaving flowers or something…”
“You didn’t, did you?”
“No. I couldn’t convince myself it was all that important, given how he’s treated the queer community.”
“Yeah. It’s still terrible that all those other people died, though.”
I had no idea how terrible. Among the dead is the former Deputy Prime Minister, Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, a feminist and outspoken advocate for Poland’s LGBTQ community. Sadly, most Westerners have only gotten to know of Izabela’s good work through the irony of her death—that she was even on a plane with such a “homophobe” as President Kaczynki has been pointed out as a strange and unfortunate twist of fate. And her death is but a small footnote in comparison to all the awful things and disgusting stereotypes that the LGBTQ community at large has to say about Kaczynki specifically and Poland in general.
Learning about Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka for the first time through her death—which I’m guessing was the first time that 95% of other Westerners heard of her, as well—and reading the way that people describe Kaczynki and Poland has put a lot of stuff into perspective for me (not to mention how deeply it offended me to read the blatantly anti-Polish bile that’s being spewed in the wake of all of this). How myopic we Western queers are when it comes to how we view other countries and their politicians. How little we pay attention to the good things that are happening around the world with regard to LGBTQ rights. The condescension (conscious or not) with which we view developing countries, and countries whose religions are an important part of their national identity. The ridiculousness of the fact that a lot of liberals eschew the validity of nationalism (which is, at its basis, pride in one’s country and the self-reliance of its people), while we at the same time encourage others to embrace other ‘identity politics’ (i.e. being a ‘proud Black man,’ or celebrating ‘queerness,’ or observing Women’s History Month, etc) and condemn globalization and cultural imperialism. And the assumption that because America is “post-bigotry” with regard to the Polish (or the Jews, Italians, and Catholics, for that matter), that we can trot out old stereotypes (stupid Polacks, backwards Eastern European babushkas, Poland as the forever-victim of Nazi-era oppression and violence, Catholics as mindless followers of an evil Papal plan against women, gays, and liberals in general) without worry of offending anyone.
Let’s be clear: Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka was not the only good person on the plane that day. Hers is not the only death we should mourn. Even if we don’t agree with their views and we (and our Polish brothers and sisters) were oppressed by their policies, it doesn’t mean that we should relish the fact that Kaczynki and his wife died, nor that other conservative politicians or leaders within the ‘military-industrial complex’ died. Kaczynki probably was a very conflicted man, having to reconcile his religion with the fact that his twin brother is gay. He was an elected leader within a country where a majority of citizens wouldn’t want to see gays marry, and where a gay pride march probably would cause a riot (thanks to a small but violent faction of neo-nazis and far-right hooligans who protest many centrist and leftist demonstrations). Just because he was representing the will of the people does not make him a terrible person, or a backwards, “dumb Polack.” It just proves that the Polish people in general are a people that are somewhat more conservative than we are, and more traditional—many still hold dear their religion and their beliefs about gender and sexuality. Yes, they have a ways to go on these issues, but undoubtedly they are more progressive than most Westerners are in at least some other respects. Further, if Poland were all that conservative and backwards and terrible towards women, liberals, queers, etc, how could Jaruga-Nowacka have even risen to such prominence, being as unabashedly progressive as she was?
Let’s also make it clear that Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka’s contributions to the Polish people were more than her words in support of Poland’s queer community/against Kaczynki when he banned Warsaw Pride in the 00’s. She was a champion for the women and children of Poland, the poor, those exploited by big business, and many others who are oppressed. She was vocally anti-war and pro-worker, and was a consistent advocate for victims of domestic violence, for both women seeking pre-natal care and access to safe and legal abortions, and those whose personal rights were in danger of being ignored due to age, nationality, ability, gender, etc. In short, she was someone whose name we should have known far before she died.
Something needs to happen—in the Western LGBTQ press, in the queer blogosphere, in the myriad of ways that we communicate our news and pass our history on to each other—that honors people like Jaruga-Nowacka while they are doing the great things that they are doing. Something also needs to happen so that we stop being so reactionary, and start being proactive in our coverage of world LGBTQ news. We shouldn’t be profiling the Jaruga-Nowackas of the world only when they are speaking out against intolerance, but also when they are doing things, no matter how small, that forward the cause of queers in their country.
We should also start communicating fuller understandings of queer culture in other parts of the world, so that people like Kaczynki are understood in their own cultural context and are not caricatured as homophobic ogres, no matter how awful or “backwards” their actions may be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an apologist for Kaczynki and his tirades against homosexuals, and especially not for those in other parts of the world who are doing terrible things like defiling the graves of gays or publicly executing those thought to be queer. I’m just saying that when we describe future Kaczynkis and their words against the LGBTQ community of their country, it should be done with a respectful and nuanced conversation about that country’s particular political climate and that politician’s personal beliefs and, when appropriate, relevant details about their personal life. Full coverage should also be given to those who are advocating on the behalf of queers in that country, for their work is just as, if not more important, than the work for those who speak against us.
Finally–I can’t believe that I even have to take the time to write this–we need to acknowledge the fact that bigotry towards the Polish (and the Jews and Catholics and Italians, etc etc etc) still exists and that it informs a lot of coverage that Poland gets in the press. I can’t tell you how many times I cried growing up because I was teased on the playground for being a dumb Polack, and how insidiously that stereotype infiltrated my psyche, so that to this day I still have a complex about proving my intellectual capabilities. And how often I still hear people bandy about that stereotype, and other stereotypes of Poland as an cultureless Eastern European shithole that’s trying to recover from all times they’ve been dominated/raped/what have you (whether by Nazis or the Communists or the Cossacks). Even the most culturally-sensitive among us liberals tends to be condescending when they talk about Poland, its people, and its politicians. It’s more “Poland is still in recovery from Communist-era policies,” than it is “Poland is a democratic country whose people and leadership are strong and resilient, having come a long way in the twenty short years since the fall of the Iron Curtain.” Fuck that noise. Poland doesn’t need our sympathy for anything other than the great loss that they are facing with the death of many of their political and civilian leaders in the crash at Smolensk last weekend. Stop being such a smug Westerner. Do you really think that our country is any better than theirs? Well, it’s not.
(And don’t even get me started on how stereotypes of Jews prevail, and how much Antisemitism influences anti-Israel sentiment. No, I’m not Abe Foxman. I just have eyes, ears, and a brain. But I digress…)
I realize that this post is pretty out of place on a blog such as Soul Ponies, where we really only talk queer arts & culture and rarely (if ever) international politics. I guess that news of this catastrophe touched a nerve with me, since I hold my Polish-American heritage pretty dear. I do hope that my words can be a catalyst for others in evaluating their own biases, and maybe changing the way that we all cover international LGBTQ news. If we don’t honor each other (“enemy” and “ally” alike) and recognize our heroes in other parts of the world, who will?
Let’s get back “on the grid” and start engaging with the rest of the queer world instead of just talking at it, shall we? I don’t want to miss any more than I already have.