Last Saturday around two and a half thousand activists marched through the center of Warsaw in support of gay and lesbian rights. This did not please the Mayor of Warsaw, however, who had banned the parade. The march also spoiled the weekend for a few hundred skinheads who were determined to stop the demonstration.
The Equality Parade, as it was called, was meant to be the centerpiece of Equality Weekend – two days of debates and educational initiatives about homosexuality and universal human rights in Poland.
Though homosexuality has been legal for decades in Poland, during communist times it was a bit of a taboo subject and was swept firmly under a rather tatty red carpet. Now that communism has gone everyone is free to give their opinions about everything. Unfortunately, westerners and many Poles find some of these opinions slightly antiquated, to say the least.
Hence the Equality Weekend. But the organizers of the Equality Parade quickly run into a few problems when organizing the event. The Mayor of Warsaw, the conservative right-winger Lech Kaczynski, decided that he was not going to allow gays and lesbians and their supporters to march through the streets of the capital.
The whole affair began to resemble ‘groundhog day’ – you somehow got the impression that you had been here before. And you had. Exactly the same thing happened last year.
In 2004, Mayor Kaczynski had refused permission for a similar march to go ahead. He said that he thought that it might constitute a 'danger to law and order'. Kaczynski is the head of the populist Law and Justice Party, whose central platform rests on promises to stamp out crime and corruption in Poland and to usher in a moral regeneration of the country.
Though the mayor had banned the gay parade he had given his permission for a counter-demonstration by far-right groups to go ahead. In the event, nobody showed up from either group.
But this year, gay and lesbian groups decided that enough was enough: they had the right to free assembly and expression just as much as everyone else. So, though officially illegal, they went ahead with the march, regardless of the consequences.
And I went along to have a look.
Showdown at high noon
Though the march on Saturday was illegal, a meeting outside the parliament building at 12 noon had got permission from the mayor. The Deputy Prime Minister and other left wing politicians gave speeches, and then the illegal march began to weave its way through the main shopping streets of Warsaw, heading for the Palace of Culture and Science, smack bang in the center of town.
Accompanying the two and a half thousand gays, lesbians and human rights activists were members from the Green party in Germany, plus a few hundred police in riot gear. There were also about 300 skinheads and members of far-right political groups who had been given permission to demonstrate and march against the illegal Equality Parade.
But Polish skinheads aren’t what they used to be. For a start, because modern day fashion dictates that virtually all young men in Poland sport very short hair these days, the average Polish skinhead to has been forced to make a radical decision: he has decided to grow his hair. Not by much, just a few millimeters, but enough to distinguish him from the rest of Polish youth.
Soon, in the not so distant future, everyone will look a bit like Polish skinheads, apart, that is, from Polish skinheads, who will be wearing long curly hair, and love beads.
But longer haired skinheads are at a noticeable disadvantage, as it makes them look significantly less scary.
In fact, last weekend, your average Polish skinhead didn’t look very scary at all. Not only because of their radical sartorial re-think, but also because there just wasn’t enough of them to seem particularly threatening.
Occasionally they chanted a few obscene remarks and made threatening gestures. But the Warsaw police, who recognized many of these characters as local football hooligans, had obviously decided that if there was going to be a law and order disturbance then it was going to be coming from the direction of the skinheads, and not from the gays and lesbians.
At one point along the route the Polish skinheads decided to have a sit-in in the middle of the street – a tactic utilized to great effect, of course, by 1960’s hippies. It seems that having slightly longer hair really is going to Polish skinhead’s heads.
The police were not going to put up with this, however, and as soon as they had sat down they were hauled off to a secure location away from the demo.
Once gays and lesbians got to the Palace of Culture – their numbers now swollen to over three thousand due to numerous weekend shoppers you had stopped to have a look, they were confronted by what was left of the skinheads, their numbers now down to about one hundred.
This is when the skinheads started throwing eggs. I was standing right next to someone who was on the receiving end of one these homophobic omelets and I can report that the skinheads had not even the wit or forethought to have prepared rotten eggs – they were fresh as a daisy and recently bought from the supermarket near by.
Along with the eggs came a few bottles and rocks. But you could see that the heart had gone out of the far-right demonstrators, and when the police charged they ran off into the Palace of Culture, pursued by a few police with very long sticks.
Mayor Kaczynski, and members from the far-right League of Polish Families have complained of police brutality against the skinheads, who, they remind us, were taking part in a legal march; whereas the gay and lesbian demonstration was not.
The human rights supporters proclaimed the whole event as a success for democracy and the Polish constitution. The skinheads, though, after running away, simply disappeared. Perhaps they went off to have a hair cut to make them feel big and strong again – a kind of Samson experience in reverse.
Gay Pride in Warsaw ‘a Great Success” say Activists Gay News UK, June 13
Gay activists lobby EU Catholic World News, June 10
Antigay protesters clash with police in Poland The Advocate, June 14
Twins lead polls Cnews June 13
This article was originally published on the Radio Polonia web site