Nobel laureate suggests “bench ghetto” for LGBT people in Poland

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Lech Walesa, Nobel peace prize laureate, ex-president of Poland and a symbol of pro-democratic changes in the Eastern Block, is known in his country for his frequent faux pas. Last Friday, he sparked controversy by saying in a TV interview that sexual minorities must not bother the majority.

According to him, LGBT members of Parliament should sit on the back benches in the Parliament house – or better yet, behind a wall.

“We have to be fair, but they also have to know they are a minority and adjust to smaller things.”

While Poland, a mostly catholic society considered conservative, the tides have recently been changing.

In the 2011 parliamentary elections, Anna Grodzka, a transgender woman, and openly gay activist Robert Biedroń, were both elected to the lower house of the Parliament.

Last January, Poland witnessed a debate on three draft laws on civil partnerships (all of them eventually rejected), which transformed into a discussion about same-sex unions.

Walesa might have been referring to these events, when he clarified on Monday: “I’m not threatening (sexual and gender minorities), I proved it through my life and my fight. But now these minorities are dangerous, these minorities threaten majority, they flaunt themselves and want to impose their rights on the majority. As a democrat, I don’t agree with it.”

Here, using the rhetoric of justice and democratic values, Walesa turned a discriminated minority into a social threat.

Knowingly or not, he also made a reference to an infamous historical event known as “bench ghetto,” when in the 1930s Jewish students were not allowed to share seats with non-Jewish students at universities.

While no one was surprised at the gaffe, the statement caused intense reactions from media and politicians.

Monika Olejnik, a prominent TV host, said Walesa “disgraced the Nobel prize.” Piotr Pacewicz, a journalist and a co-author of a book about sexual and gender minorities, reacted to Walesa’s statement: “[h]e has his merits and nobody will take them away from him, but today at a family gathering, he just blathers something between the toasts for the successes long past.”

Walesa’s son, Jaroslaw – a member of European Parliament – said he clutched his head in disbelief when he heard his father’s harmful words.

“It might be good (for him) if he has problems in the West,” he said, expecting a harsh reaction from LGBT activists.

“If he doesn’t want to listen to our voices, maybe his Nobel laureates colleagues will persuade him.”

More conservative commentators dismissed the statement as a boisterous grandpa’s harmless quirk. Some called his statement “unfortunate.”

To lawyer and journalist Domagalski, it is clear that Walesa is not a proponent of hatred for sexual minorities or their discrimination – he merely meant that they should play a secondary role in politics. Another publicist, Filip Memches, was less moderate: “[h]e spoke out loud what the vast majority of the society that has been bombarded by fairy tales affirming homosexuality thinks. He demonstrated healthy, simple sense that there exists a (heterosexual) norm that no ideological gibber or pseudo science will negate.”

Yga Kostrzewa, an activist and a spokesperson for the oldest LGBT organization in Poland, Lambda Warszawa, recalls that when 10 years ago the LGBT community wanted to present the ex-president with flowers for his 60th birthday, he did not accept the gift.

She told 429Magazine: “[h]is words are reprehensible, and what’s more, they fall within hate speech and unfortunately will adversely affect his image abroad.”

Polish democracy is only 24-years-old, but it seems like some of its more prominent participants still don’t get what it’s about. Walesa advocates for marginalizing LGBT politicians – the way he understands it, the rights and presence of minorities in the public sphere should be proportionate to their numbers.

There is a certain irony in the fact that an icon of the fight for freedom and democracy doesn’t realize that one of its rules is to protect rights of minorities. The Lech Walesa Institute website calls its founder “an advocate for international and human solidarity.”

Apparently what they mean by human, is like-minded bigotry.

429Magazine

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