Gender and Sexuality in Poland

"For a country like Poland that’s struggling with both democracy and religious fundamentalism, the problem of sexual difference can give art a margin for subversiveness and even revolutionary potential.” ( Pawel Leszkowicz, 2003, “Poland: The Shock of the Homoerotics")

Gender discussions in Poland were and are a difficult issue in the country. The reason for this are of social, political and religious nature.

Religion in Poland

According to 1990 research data, 94 percent of Poles are Roman Catholics and 79 percent of adult Poles considered themselves religious or deeply religious. These are unusual high numbers for Postcommunist country. Especially when considering the Polish Anti-Religious Campaigns (under the doctrine of Marxist-Leninist atheism) between 1945 and 1990. The church had an influential role in promoting opposition views and had a close relationship with the Solidarity movement. In 1989 virtually every significant public organization in Poland saw the church as a partner in its activities and decisions. The most esteemed person for many Poles is John Paul II, Pope between 1920 and 2005. Although one can argue whether Pope John Paul II was personally the fulcrum of revolt, Solidarity and the demise of Polish Communism are hard to imagine without him, it stood in opposition to the communist system.

Kobiety na traktory! (Women onto the tractor!)

Polish writer and feminist Agnieszka Graff noted recognised a return to traditional female roles after 1990; it was a kind of retraditionalization. 

The Polish Communist state (established in 1948) forcefully promoted women’s emancipation in both family and work. This was initially the government's response to a deficit of workers. Due to this, the government considered womens' demands fulfilled. The state surpressed open discussion about womens' problems. Feminist texts since 1950 were controlled and generated by the government. In fact, any true and open feminist debate was virtually suppressed. Officially, any ‘feminism of Western type’ did not have the right to exist in the Communist state.
After the fall of the Communist state in 1989, Poland experienced new democratic structures, a new concept of freedom and Poles were confronted with Western feminism. The latter vat once met with fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Western feminism has often been erroneously identified with the prior Communist reproductive policy, similar in some aspects, and feminism for that reason has often been regarded as ’suspect’.

Graff says that women in Polish society are very family-oriented.(s. Although the classical "stay-at-home-model" is out of reach (this is especially significant due to the Communist past, and the promotion of

working women in the Communist state), women are devoted to the well-being of their families. Miroslawa Marody calls this model "brave victim".
The photo series "Supermatka" (Supermother) by Elżbieta Jabłoński perfectly illustrates the situation.
The artist shows three images of mothers, disguised as superheros (Batman, Spiderman and Superman), in a kitchen. The Polish mother has to be a superwoman in the family, be a perfect mother, cook and - sometimes - has to work to earn money for the family.

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Graff: "Today, feminism is a dirty word because, Slavova writes, it 'smacks of Leninism, Bolshevism, and Marxism'.”
The recently propagated family model has a patriarchal character with the woman professionally inactive and playing only the role of mother.

Prostitution is legal, but abortion is not. Both sexual education at schools and universities, and state funding for gender-issued projects have been strongly suppressed since 1998.
Sexual education is kind of a taboo in Poland.
Children frequently join church's ‘Family Life’ classes, where they learn that condoms are barriers to partner unity and love. In Poland, classes called “Preparation for Family Life” are officially required of all schools, and are the closest thing to sex education offered to Polish students. However, the official requirements are more than vague and are opened to (subjective) interpretation by the teachers. Above all, parents have to give their permission that their children may these classes. Most Poles consider matters relating to sex as part of the privat sphere.

One work which adresses the lack of sex education is "To nie jest muszelka" (This is not a shell) from 1999 by Monica Zielinska (also known as Mamzeta). The titel referred to "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" by Rene Magritte. But while in the famous painting of the surrealist painter the title shall indicate the mutual inadequacy of describing a object (or the 2-dimensional representation of an object), with word, the work by Zielinska focuses on the gap between women and language and the lack (or shame) of using appropiate words for their vagina. "Small shell" is an infantile synonym for vagina. The work therefore comments the apparent inability to speak about the female body (without using these kinds of metaphors). The female body is blankspace and taboo, and it seems to be hard to speak about sex and sexuality in Poland, especially as there is hardly any sex education in schools.

The artist worked in cooperation with the Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia). The work was part of an public installation. It was installed on billboards at o.a. a trainstation.

All in all, the promotion of stereotypes and a "classical" familiy is very strong. The visible presence of gender-role stereotypes (fashion, behaviour, openly shown emotions, attitudes...) has a strong and continuing impact on male/female behaviors and on feelings about that behavior in Polish society, though the sociolegal status of male and female are similar (same right to vote, same professional possibilities, equal rights for employment and education etc). 
In her examination on Polish Sexuality (at the Humboldt-Uniersity in Berlin), Anna Sierzpowska-Keter wrote: "Among married people, premarital relations were acknowledged by 80 percent of the men but only 50 percent of the women. This reflects the attitude of women towards virginity. Contrary to men, women paradoxically more often reveal their belief in the need to preserve virginity until marriage."

Art and Feminism

The issue of Feminism and Gender in Poland is an important issue in the Polish art-world. However, displaying sexuality is a minefield. Female artists who critically explore these issues have to suffer from censorship-like processes in today's Poland.
The feminist art that developed during the 1970s and '80s more or less was (strongly) influenced by Western tendencies. Sometimes they seemd to be mere imitations. Besides, women artists often were afraid to be labelled "feminist".

Following some examples for critical art and its difficulties. These "difficulties" mainly consist of conservative political forces in Poland, the authority of the Catholic church and the conservative public reaction. Both, church and government, claim to return to traditional values, and this has an effect on the role and position of women in society. Female artists frequently critised this "retraditionalization" and the lack of open discussion on sexuality and feminism.

Dorota Nieznalska has been physically assaulted, persecuted and prosecuted. 
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Her installation Pasja (2002) (Passion) consisted of a metal cross with an image of a penis on it and a video close-up of the face of an exercising bodybuilder. The group exhibition at which the installation was presented was closed down by the authorities.
Members of the League of Polish Families, an extreme right-wing party that sits in parliament, attacked Nieznalska verbally in the Wyspa gallery.
There was a trial and the artist had to defense herself (sucessfully) in court. This was the first Polish witch trial against art.

One of the most important figures in this context is Ewa Partum. She belongs to the first generation of conceptual avant-garde in Poland in the 1960s and 70s. As early as the 1970s she actively expressed her opinion on the question of the equality of women and their discrimination. She did performances, in which she would walk on the street completely naked. She organised public interventions and actions and ran a "flying gallery" (for mail art and art theory, which she managed until 1977).
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Partum was a pioneer for conceptual and feminist art in Poland. She created the first installations in public space ever documented within Poland (with the title "Presence/Absence"). In 1981, with "Stupid Woman", Partum parodied the ways in which women try to conform to men's idealized expectations of them. Much of her work was banned by the Polish censors, as was its reproduction in catalogues. In 1982 she presented her performance "Homage to Solidarity" in an Underground Gallery in Lodz. Again naked, she formed one by one the letters of the word "Solidarnosc" with her lips.
In connection with the imposition of Martial Law she left the country and has worked and lived in Berlin since 1982. It wasn't before 2006 when her work was acknowledged in Poland (with the retrospective "The Legality of Space" at the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk).

"Original Sin" (1994) was a video installation by Alicja Zebrowska. The title recalls bible story (Eve's exile from paradies, her punishment that she was subordinated to man and the condemnation to give birth in pain).
The videos shows a vagina provoked by fingers and a dildo. At the end, a Barbie doll is born. In her work Zebrowska advanced a drastic and physiological vision of female genitalia and broked down with stereotyping vision of women's sexuality. The Barbie doll might by a symbol for an artificial femininity and ideals of beauty. But it might as well symbolise the creation of the artist's own creation (according to Izabela Kowlaczyk). One year before Zebrowska shot the film, the ban on abortion was introduced (1993), which might be an important fact for the work's message.
 The video installation was a fierce provocation. It combines different aspects (sexuality, religion, bodily experience and the role of women in the Polish society). Of course the reaction to this work was severe. The exhibition (Anti-bodies at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw) became the object of several attacks. There were trials, in order to block and forbid the exhibition. The exhibition was also refused financial support. 

Natalia LL, Post-consumer Art, 1975
Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, better known as Natalia LL, is enganged in the International Feminist art movement and took part in various symposiums and exhibitions. She was one of the first Polish artists to claim the term "feminist" in the mid-1970s.
She started her career in the 1960s. In that time she concentrated on "erotic photography", to some point "inspired by the writings of de Sade and Bataille" (as one can read on her website, The photographic series "Intimate Sphere" (1969) shows a naked couple on a bed, having sex.
Surprisingly these works were neither forbidden nor censored. Compared to the processes and reaction to the works mentioned above. This might prove that the term "retraditionalisation" and the observations by Agnieszka Graff are appropriate.
The artist's own body was always the main object in her works. But it was not before the mid '70s when the focuse slightly changed to feminist issues and the role of women in society.
In 1975 she created the series "Post-consumer Art". The series of photographs evoke comparisons to pornographic advertisements and introduce a discursive tone to the rigid view of women. "Sex sells" is a well-known slogan in the world of advertising. But in most of the cases the sex-part is played by women, because they do have an effect on male and female consumers.

Male artists dealt with problems of women and their social position. Zbigniew Libera made a video called "How to train the girls" (1987). It shows a little girl and an adult's hand, which gives the little girls stuff like a perl-necklace, earrings or a lipstick, and trains her how to use these things.

In 1999 Katarzyna Kozyra's piece "Blood Ties" was scheduled to be shown on billboards in Poland. The work consisted of four square photographs. Each of the panels features a naked woman – the artist herself and her disabled sister (with an amputated leg) – on the backdrop of a red cross or crescent surrounded in the two bottom panels by cabbages and cauliflowers. The media soon became aware of what was about to be exhibited and began contacting Catholic organizations and municipal governments to see if they would object to the piece. This became a call to arms and the artist was forced to blue-pencil the nude women so that the cross and the crescent became indecipherable. 

Kozyra made another, very interesting video called "Men's bathhouse" (1999). Originally shown in the Polish pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the multichannel projection work follows the artist, who is disguised as a man, wandering through a male bathhouse in Budapest. The camera was hidden and the "real" men had no idea that they were about to be filmed. They surely would have posed and reacted differently if they had known that there was a camera. Kozyra herself had a fake penis and chest hair and tried to behave like an man (whatever that should mean). Here she demonstrates different things: and women are separated in different areas, the bath house is just one example. There are male domains, usually not visible, nor accesible for women. 2. "Beauty" is a (social) construction. 3. The work raises questions of media ethic. Kozyra transgresses the mens' personal rights and violates their private sphere.
Imagine what would have happened if her cover would have been blown! How would men react in such a situation? Would that start to behave differently or would they destroy the camera?
Although she is not facing a prison sentence, Kozyra’s unauthorized filming of a men’s bath in Budapest was condemned for invading the privacy of the men the artist caught on camera, naked.

This is a topic, hardly written about: Why is there such a big difference between naked men and naked women in the media? The German newspaper "Zeit" recently published an article on that topic. ( The author claims that female nakedness is common (look at advertisements, pornography, television etc.), but it is difficult to find any "normal", not erected penisses in the media (except from a few giant ones in pornography and - maybe - in biology books).
The image of a naked man seems to be connected so homosexuality. The authors says that men desire, that are not the object of desire, and continues by quoting John Berger: "Men act. Women appear (or present themselves. Men look at women. Women see, how they are looked at."

Redefining Masculinity

While women (thanks to feminist thinkers and writers) rethink their position in society, and criticise false or constructed images of women in the media, there still seems to be a stringent idea of masculinity and typical male patterns. They should be brave, omnipotent and strong.
Zofia Kulik examines male attitudes and motions in a series of photographs shown at the Venice Biennale in 1997.

Dorota Nieznalska made an installation called "Omnipotence. Gender: Male" (in 2000), in which she examined the ambivalence of bodybuilding. The ambition to have a muscular and perfect body (in a common sense, mediated by advertisement) is a symbol for power, strength and potence.
The installation consists of a metal constructions (a reference to gym equipment), red fluorescent lamps, a rubber mat and a sound-installation. The sound was recorded in a gym. One can hear groaning of men lifting weights. The sound can be confused with moans of sexual climax. The resemblance between the sounds made during sex and during a work-out is no coincidence (nor is the red light, which might remind of a brothel). Nieznalska made this deliberately. It shows the difficulties men have in fulfiling their (cuturally) assigned role. Feminist writers try to interprete this piece as a symbol for the violation of men against women and the power-structure in socially imposed roles.
This can only partly be true. Why do men want to have a perfect body? The reason is not that they can be stronger than women. The reason is that they want to appeal to the other sex (for the self-awareness and self-confidence of women has tremendously crown in the last decades).


A similar work is the "Universal Penis Expander" by  Zbigniew Libera.

The project consists of different structures, ideas and machines to lengthen the male penis. These methods do really exist, penis elongating practices, apparently used for thousand of years in South America and Asia, for instance by the Sadhu tribe in the Ganges Valley.
With his "Universal Penis Expander", as well as the "Birth Beds for Girls" and the earlier body building set "Body Master" (for children under nine), Libera exaggerates today's body-cult and the longing for a perfect body, which allows us to match the idealised Model.
In case of men this is an enormous penis. 
As already said, one of a few ways to see penisses are in pornography, and of course these sources mediate a strange, falsified image of male sexuality.

The young Polish artist Karol Radziszewski is interested in the male body as well. In his Studio photographs on the theme of the artist’s backstage space, and, in particular, on his relationships with his models. On his website he says: "The work gives rise to reflections which center on such issues as media manipulation, redefining of the male nude and the concept of masculinity in contemporary culture."

Beyond that, Radziszewski problematises the situation of homosexuals and transgenders in Poland, which is a very difficult topic, too.

Homosexuality in Poland

During the 1990s, social minority groups that officially did not exist in a `normal, healthy and noble' socialist political system, became active. The first homosexual movement and organizations started in 1985. Until this time, the public had little knowledge of homosexual issues. And, as one can imagine considering the problems of women in the retraditionalised society in Poland, the status of homosexuals is not easy in the country.
However, homosexuality is not illegal in Poland. There was never any anti-homosexual law under a free Polish government. The current criminal legislation does not mention homosexuality or homosexual relations at all. As with heterosexual contacts, only the homosexual intercourse of an adult with a partner under 15 years of age, or forcing a person to have intercourse against his or her will are against the law and liable to penalty. Furthermore, there are no legal restrictions on transvestites. However, transvestism is a marginal phenomenon in Poland.
There is a massive gap between liberal legislation and possibility for homosexuals to openly take part in the social life.

A 2010 study published in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita revealed that Poles overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage. 79% of Poles opposed gay marriage, with only 16% in favor. Meanwhile, 93% of Poles opposed the adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples, with only 5% taking a favourable view. Most Poles also oppose gay parades. A 2008 study revealed that 66% of Poles believe that gay people should not have the right to organize public demonstrations, with 27% taking the opposite view.

Of course, the Catholic Church is one of the strongest enemies.Between 89 and 95% of the Polish population is Roman-Catholic. Catholicism plays an important role in the country. It is seen as a symbol of Polish heritage and culture. The Church enjoys social  prestige and has a high political influence.
Homosexuality is considered to be a “moral disorder”. In the Church’s opinion, sexual relations are morally right only in marriage.

Three examples

It is not only the Catholic Church that fights against homosexual actions.There were examples for a governmental resistance, as well. In March 2007 Roman Giertych (in that time deputy prime minister) proposed a bill that would ban homosexual people from the teaching profession and would also allow sacking those teachers who promote the "culture of homosexual lifestyle". Fortunately, the bill did not pass, but it shows a dangerous tendency in Polish society.

Tinky Winky
In 1997 British television production Ragdoll invented the series Teletubbies. No matter how stupid the series might be, one character caused a lot of fuss: Tinky Winky. The purple character carried a bag that looks much like a woman's handbag and wears a triangle on his head (a gay pride symbol).

The BBC, who co-produced the programme, made an official response, "Tinky Winky is simply a sweet, technological baby with a magic bag." Ken Viselman of Itsy-Bitsy Entertainment, who distributed the show in the USA, commented, "He's not gay. He's not straight. He's just a character in a children's series."
The series was broadcasted in Polish television, too.
In 2007, Polish Ombudsman for Children Ewa Sowińska wanted to forbid the screening of the series. Tinky Winky, so she believed, could promote homosexuality. Sowińska said she would " judge whether it can be shown on public television and whether the suggested problem really exists."

(Thanks to Aleksandra Waligórska for the informations)

3.The independent organisation "Love does not exclude" reworked a famous poster of the Solidarność movement. The red-white flag got substituted by a rainbow-colored flag and the image of Gary Cooper got doubled, so it might appear as a homosexual couple. The "new" picture quickly spread via Facebook.

Organizatorzy akcji "Miłość nie wyklucza" przerobili słynny plakat Solidarności.  Biało-czerwoną flagę zastąpił sztandar środowisk LGBT, a Gary Coooper się rozdwoił. Solidarność zażądała usunięcia plakatu z facebooka.

Members of Solidarity made efforts to remove the image from the web - succesfully. Of course, many people make inappropriate use of the Solidarity logo, but what is Solidarity about? Isn't this a clear statement against homosexuality, and a symptomatic example for homophobia in Poland.

Artists and Organisations against Homophobia 

In 2001 an organisation called Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia) was founded in Warsaw. The KPH is a nongovernmental, non-profit organisation. It fights for equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

They organise events such as the "Festiwal Kultura dla Tolerancji w Krakowie" (Culture for Tolerance in Cracow Festival) or "Jestem gejem, jestem lesbijką. Poznaj nas." (I'm gay, I'm a lesbian. Get to know us.) - a tour around Polish universities.

One important actions was "Niech nas zobaczą" (Let Them See Us) in cooperation with the artist Karolina Breguła. The artist made a series of 30 photographs portraying gay and lesbian couples standing in the streets and holding hands. The organisation planned to put these pictures on billboards in major Polish cities in 2003 (Crakow, Warsaw, Sosnowiec and Gdanks). Before putting the images up, the actions caused an enormous public outcry. Many of the printers refused to print the images, companies withdrew from contacts and the municipalities stopped the plans. In the end, the posters were hung up at only 25 from 500 planned locations. These few installed images were besmeared and destroyed by right-winged groups (like the right-wing extremist, militant organisation "Allpolish Youth".
This however, was the point when according to some, discrimination became apparent and obvious (and publicised about) in Poland for the first time.

Artist Karol Radziszewski mimics this aggressive form of homophobia and turns the tables. His ongoing project "Fag Fighters" (since 2007) is a fictional urban, gay guerilla. On his website the artist writes: " a gay-gang operating at the margins of mainstream society, marking their territory with graffiti signatures and committing acts of violence, including sexual violence. The Fag Fighters’ identification mark are their pink balaclavas.
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The "gang" uses the typical visual representation of real groups: they fabricate graffitis, pictures of their actions (amateur-like photos of them "torturing" straight men. 
Their pink masks were knitted by the artist's grandmother. Radziszewski frequently includes his family in his films and actions. In doing so he contrasts intimate, familiar scenes (which shows that his family accepts his homosexuality) with grotesque, violent. Family and the gay subculture. Both of these social spaces belong to the realm of the artist’s private life and yet they seem to be worlds apart.

The border between drama and simulation is blurred; fiction appears disturbingly realistic.

The portait plays an important part in the promotion of homosexuality. 

In his self-portraits "Somebody else" (1988) Zbigniew Libera makes use of "female" accessories like make-up or tights. Queer genre was an unknown formulation at that time in Poland. The artists says that the work refers to classical photographs of Claude Cahun. Both play with the unknown, strange and the "image of the Other". 

Very similar to this approach is the work by Maciej Osika. He criticizes the visual and cultural criteria for determining sexual identity, creating self-portraits as a woman in the convention of fashion photography. His portraits oscillate between feminity, beauty and dignity. Both artists, Libera and Osika, do not show themselves as victims, nor do they display the violation against homosexuality in Poland. 
Osika shows himself and how he sees himself or how they he wishes to be (seen). The transformation of the artist is astonishing convincing. They show the construction of beauty. It reminds of the ancient hermaphrodite, a hybrid god/dess. This used to be an ideal in former times. Gender aspects are mostly constructions. What is typically masculine, what is feminine? And why? 
As soon as a person understands that his own fashion and behaviour is as false as he accuses the people in Osika's images to be, he will understand the construction of gender. 

The image above shows Rafalala. Rafalala is a transgender artist. The name consists of two parts "Rafał" (the artist's official name) and lala (Polish word for dolly). Rafalala calls her/himself: Women with penis and uses strategies, catching the attention of the media, in order to destroy dominant, heteronormative gender-classifications. The artist maintains a blog, shoots videos and pictures. One of her best-known action was in 2007. Accompanied by German and Polish camera crews, she tried to give her vote for the parliamentary elections. Rafalala went to the polling place, but was wearing her everyday clothes (which means: female clothes). On her passport she (definitely) looks male, so the authorities were not able to identify the artist and she was not allowed to give her vote.
Finally the police had to come, but they agreed with the election workers. A fierce debate on the issues of identity and sex followed in the Polish media.


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