Volume 5, Number 13 | March 30, 2006, 1 a.m.

Gays, political dissidents, artists, and intellectuals arrived at Poland's Le Madame Tuesday night to defend a 48-hour-truce negotiated to stem a police crackdown on this iconic symbol of Warsaw's defiant counter-culture.


A Polish Stonewall?

Le Madame survives a first siege by Warsaw police, but what will happen on Thursday?

BY DOUG IRELAND

This week saw dramatic new evidence of the ultra-conservative and homophobic atmosphere reigning in Poland since the election last October of a new hard-right government led by the reactionary, gay-baiting President Lech Kaczynski and his equally queer-bashing twin brother Jaroslav, who controls the Polish Parliament.

On Monday, March 25, Warsaw police blockaded Le Madame, a hugely popular gay club that is also the hub of counter-cultural activities and political dissent in Poland's capital, and prepared to evacuate its patrons and shut it down-for good. The shutdown of the club was ordered by the Warsaw City Council, which is controlled by the Kaczynski twins' Law and Justice Party (PiS).

But police got a surprise-those inside refused to leave, declaring they would stay as long as necessary to protect the club from the police. More than 200 people began an overnight sit-in. And the police barricades at the entrance to Le Madame didn't prevent reinforcements-some from out of town and including women and children-from sneaking into the club through windows and back entrances to join the sit-in.

A group of militants from a small political party, Nowa Lewa (New Left), led by its chairman, Piotr Ikonowicz, eventually broke through the police barricades while lobbing a few beer bottles at blockading forces. Negotiations between the representative of the Warsaw city government, Jaceck Bogiel, who was in command of the police blockade, and the club's openly gay owner, Krystian Legierski, a Polish-born black gay activist with the Warsaw Lambda Association, eventually led to withdrawal of all but a skeleton crew of police.

The authorities gave assurances that no action would be taken against the club for 48 hours. But the promises were met with skepticism by those occupying Le Madame, and on Tuesday night-following a large party to thank Le Madame's supporters for bringing the police to a standstill and obtaining the temporary truce-more than 30 people staged a sleep-in at the club to protect it from the police.

Why has Poland's ruling party targeted Le Madame for elimination?

“We represent everything the Kaczynskis hate,” the club's artistic director, Kastia (Kate) Szurstow, told this reporter by telephone from inside Le Madame, as police stood guard outside. The lavishly decorated club, which opened three years ago in the Old Town neighborhood of the center city, sprawls over two floors of a converted electronics factory. Originally a gay venue, it has become in addition the host to a whole skein of multi-cultural and counter-cultural artistic and political activities.

“We work with 61 theater groups and have produced 204 plays and pieces of performance art-everything from Chekhov and the classics to a play featuring only actors who were all schizophrenics. Our primary focus, however, is contemporary theater and art,” said Szurstow.

“We also have exhibits of all kinds of art, paintings, and photographs. Some of the exhibits have included nude photos, and the authorities used this to try to have us condemned for 'pornography,'” Szurstow chuckled, “even though no sex acts were portrayed.”

Moreover. the club is regularly host to contestatory political groups of all stripes for forums and debates about ideas.

“Gays, feminists, anti-globalization activists, pacifists, anarchists, the left-wing opposition parties, we welcome them all here, especially when they find it hard to get meeting rooms elsewhere,” Szurstow said. “Everyone is welcome here , gay, straight, whatever. We can be having a political debate on the first floor and a huge party and discotheque on the floor above.”

The Warsaw Green Party has its offices on the club's first floor. And there's a dark backroom for customers' trysts on the second floor.

This rainbow gathering place for every sort of sexual, political, and cultural ferment is, indeed, everything the Kaczynski twins hate. Coming to power in an election in which 77 percent of the vote went to parties calling themselves right wing-from the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice Party, which promised a “moral cleansing” of Poland, to the anti-Semitic, homophobic League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin) and the neo-fascist, xenophobic, and homophobic Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona)-the Kacyzinski government chose as prime minister a radical Catholic fundamentalist, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who is militant in his condemnation of homosexuality as “unnatural” behavior which the state must stop from “infecting” others. As mayor of Warsaw before becoming Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski banned Warsaw's Gay Pride Parade for two years running-and as president, one of his first acts was to abolish the government human rights office charged with enforcing nondiscrimination against homosexuals.

The president's brother Jaroslav, who controls Parliament with an iron first, has proposed banning gays from teaching in the schools at any level. And just weeks after the election, in the city of Poznan, on November 19 the local government dominated by the twins' party sent police to assault and violently break up a March for Equality organized by gays and lesbians, with 68 arrests and many injured.

It was fear of this sort of homophobia from the Kaczynskis and their ultra-right allies that motored a January 18 resolution passed by the European Parliament at Strasbourg condemning homophobia as “an irrational fear and aversion” and calling on member states like Poland to provide gay people "the same respect, dignity, and protection as the rest of society."

The resolution passed 469-129, with support from parties of both left and right.

The attempt to close down Le Madame shows that the Kaczynskis and their

political followers don't give a fig for the pro-gay human rights pronouncements emanating from Strasbourg. But the attempt to shut down the club has met with widespread criticism from left-wing political leaders, writers, and celebrities in Poland, said Lukasz Palucki, an activist with the Equality Foundation and one of the organizers of Warsaw Gay Pride.

“On Monday night, we had political leaders come to the club in solidarity,” Palucki told me from inside the club, “including Marek Borowski, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and Wojciech Olejnicsak, chairman of the Social Democratic Union. So did a famous polish feminist, Kaziera Szczuka, who also hosts two television programs on the TVN network; the head of the Green Party, and many more.”

Both Palucki and Szurstow said they had even received expressions of sympathy from national government ministers of Kaczynski's own party-“but not in public,” Szurstow said. “These ministers, these big politicians, come by for a drink and say, 'It's terrible what's happening to you, but what can we do? We have no power over the local authorities.'”

The siege of Le Madame was extensively covered in the media-and largely sympathetically. Although the siege was blacked out on government-owned TV, six private TV networks sent camera crews, and it was the lead item on the evening news broadcasts of nearly all of them, Palucki said.

The country's largest and most respected national daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, edited by Adam Michnik, the well-known former dissident leader under Poland's Communist governments, devoted the entire front cover of its daily Warsaw supplement to the siege of Le Madame, with team coverage. The newspaper's columnist, Roman Pawlowski, wrote that Le Madame was “a great civic institution” and “one of the most artistic venues in town” which had, “without getting any government money, put on more plays, and plays of quality, than all the subsidized theaters put together.”

Similar expressions of support could be found in all but the most extreme-right newspapers.

When the temporary truce ends on Thursday, what will happen? Will the police conduct an evacuation of Le Madame by force, with resistance from inside the club turning the assault into a kind of Polish Stonewall? Will the stalemate continue while the conservative authorities try to use other, bureaucratic means to dislodge the club, like raising its rent sky-high? (The building housing Le Madame is owned by the city of Warsaw.)

Or will the police stand idly by and let the skinhead thugs who make up the youth arm of the League of Polish Families, noted for their violent gay-bashings, do the dirty work for them?

“I don't think they will dare to use police force to throw us out,” said the club's Szurstow, because, she believes, the government is afraid of a reaction like the one after the Poznan gay-bashing of the March for Equality, which saw demonstrations in solidarity with the gays there held in every major Polish city and a huge public outcry denouncing the break up of the march.

Gay activist Palucki, however, is expecting the worst.

“When the truce is over,” he said, “ on Thursday things are going to get hot-very hot.”

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.

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