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A Postcard from Gay Poland

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By Łukasz Pałucki

WARSAW,  July 17, 2010    There is a State called Poland in the middle of Europe.  For unclear reasons to me, Poland is described as a part of Eastern Europe.  This qualification is more mental than geographical because Poles are being perceived as homophobes.

This stereotype strengthens Poles’ image as fanatic Catholics whose intolerance results from conservatism and is deeply rooted in the state’s long history.  There is nothing more false than that!  There are only a few countries in the world where the history of social tolerance is of such great importance, as in Poland.

I’m going to tell you the story you certainly don’t know.  This is a history of a State that was a safe refuge for many types of ‘unaccepted’ minorities, where homosexuality was never a crime, where several rulers were homosexual, and catholic priests gave church weddings to same-sex couples.

You will find out something about the greatest homosexual king since the days Alexander Macedonian, and about what was the most expensive gift in the world that one gay handed to his partner.

Welcome to the Poland you don’t know!  Welcome to Kingdom of Tolerance!

Some people quote a wrong date, 1932, as the date of decriminalisation of homosexuality in Poland.  This mistake comes from a lack of knowledge.  In this year, the ‘Makarewicz’ Penal Code was actually established – and it  didn’t include a penalty for homosexual acts.

This was the first Polish Penal Code prepared after Poland had reclaimed its independence (Poland was not on the map of Europe in 19th century).

But the history of tolerance towards homosexuals is much older.  In order to understand it, we have to go back in the past, to the beginning of  the Polish State.

Most of primitive communities presented positive or neutral attitude to homosexuality.  We know little about Slavic tribes’ attitude towards this phenomenon, but we know they were aware of its existence.

The Slavic term mużolożeństwo has arisen from link of two words: husband and bed – and has remained in the Russian language up to now.  Medieval Poles were using the word mężołóstwo as a general term and paziolubstwo which was reserved for those of noble birth.

In a nutshell, in the Kingdom of Poland the phenomenon was well-known, named, and, what was the most interesting aspect, seldom punished.

Medieval church courts could sentence sodomites to burn at the stake or hanging, but a nobleman could replace it (as an act of favour) with beheading.

It happened like that throughout most of Europe.  But not in Poland.

Polish historians have been proud that Poland was a state “without stakes”.  There was no death penalty for homosexuality.

The date February 27, 1493, is very important here.  On this day, King Jan I Olbracht finally separated secular and ecclesiastical judicaries and placed a ban on the clergy’s interference in law courts.

Since that date, homosexual acts have not been penalised in Poland.  There was no such tolerance towards homosexual individuals as in Poland at that time.  

Another state that abolished the penalty for homosexual acts was France, during its famous Revolution.  Polish tolerance was flourishing for ages, becoming one of the sources of Poland’s power.  The respect for democracy and tolerance could exist thanks to power of economy.  Also in this context, the old Polish State resembled today’s European Union.

How was the state of tolerance born?

Everything started at the end of 14th century, when Poland and Lithuania were unified by the political union and military alliance that was to secure them against the aggression from the Teutonic Order and to avoid the war between these countries for the Russian land.

The victory over the Order in the battle of Grunewald in 1410 established the Jagiellon dynasty and gave rise to the union of the two states.  The Commonwealth of both nations, composed of the Polish ‘Crown’ and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, was formed in 1569 in Lublin.  This gave rise to one of the largest countries of contemporary Europe.  The Commonwealth was a country with the Parliament dominated by the gentry.  Kings were elected.

The law guaranteed everyone the right to practice any religion, which was of high importance in particular in the 16th century, when Poland was to a large extent a Protestant country.

Society was formed by a mixture of nationalities and religions.  Next to the Catholics, there were the Protestants, the Orthodox, and a large Jewish minority, which for centuries (until the outbreak of World War II) kept immigrating to Poland and Belarus from across Europe.

Moreover, the famous Polish tolerance – although nowadays this sounds sarcastic – also referred to Muslims (Tatars) who received privileges from Polish kings as early as in the 16th century.

The Tatar settlements had their peak in the 15th century, and the Muslim minority has been living in Poland until now.

Democracy, cultural and language variety, and tolerance were the terms defining this first ‘Eastern European Union’.

Furthermore, the country kept enlarging because of the expansion of Lithuania.  But this ‘colourful empire’ was not formed solely by military conquers.  Even contemporary Russian historians, who are usually unfavourable towards Poland, increasingly write about the economic base for the development of the Commonwealth of Both Nations.

The Union applied on a mass scale the ‘tax dumping’ procedure, so the further lands in Eastern Europe willingly allied with the Poles and Lithuanians to lower taxes rather than the ones enforced by the Duchy of Moscow.

Gays and Authority

First rumours about the homosexuality of Polish rulers were in the 13th century with King Boleslaus the Bold, and Leszek Bialy.

The latter died in interesting circumstances during so called ‘Invasion of Gąsawa’.  It happened in 1227 during the meeting of Polish Princes.  When Prince Świętopełek invaded Gąsawa he met few Princes naked, without security, in an urban sauna.

However Jan Dlugosz, the Polish analyst, has described for the first time a homosexual incidence among rulers concerning King Wladyslaw III Jagiellon called Warneńczyk, who never got married.

Wladyslaw was fighting with Turkey in the defence of Christian Europe (formally it was a crusade) and he was killed during a battle in 1444 near Warna.

The King’s corpse has never been found.  There are several legends about his further history.  One of them suggests that the King survived and escaped to Turkey with his lover.  The Church officially recognised his homosexuality and because of that, Wladyslaw is only King Crusader who has never been beatified.

Gay Prides in XVI century?

Some reports about the first homosexual individuals, directly demonstrating their orientation (they simply paraded) on market in Cracow in 16th century, have been kept.  A well-known historian, Stefan Bratkowski, has described them (but very shortly) in one of his books.  It wasn’t actually a gay parade as we know today, unless we consider a Polish word paradować (which translates as public manifestation) as a Parade.

Even King Sigismund the Old was suspected of at least being bisexual…

However, the greatest ‘star’ of these times was King Henri de Valois – the first Polish elected to be king, who became later the King of France.  He was stayed just 123 days in Poland.  But what he had done in Wawel in Cracow was remembered by the Polish nobility for a long time.  He wasn’t gay, he was transsexual.

History, like nature, likes balance. So surely that’s why Wladyslaw IV (1595-1648) , a son of the ‘king-Jesuit’ Zygmunt III, Waza, started to rule.  The same-sex affairs of the king Wladyslaw IV constituted a secret for ages.  But fortunately, my friend Sergiusz Wróblewski, a well-known LGBT journalist and historian from Poznan, has spent some time on revealing these interesting stories.

This is perfect story for a movie.  Wladyslaw IV was very powerful gay.  He was king of Poland and Sweden, he was Tsar of  Russia and Great Duke of Lithuania – and he was gay. This story is very long, so I will give only the precis…..

Symbol of Warsaw is gay

Only a few people know that the Sigmund Column – a symbol of Warsaw and the oldest civic monument in the city – was erected after conflict between conservative ultra-Catholic father and his homosexual son.

There is quite a lot of evidence on homosexuality of the king Władysław IV Vasa.  The emotional tie linking the king’s son with Adam Kazanowski was noted by several known people at the beginning of 17th century.  Kazanowski and his family benefited from it greatly. However, let’s concentrate on the Warsaw City.

King Sigmund III Vasa wanted his unruly son to be his successor. I n order to facilitate his the election, he bought Bobola’s manorial estate near Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw and refashioned the building into dignified residence that was donated to his son.

From chronicles, it can be concluded that it was the one of the most beautiful (and the most expensive) palaces in Europe of the time.  Young Wladyslaw gave it as a present to his lover Adam Kazanowski so the gift constituted beautiful expression of Wladyslaw’s love.

Since that time, this building has been called Kazanowski’s Palace.  When king Sigmund found out about this, he went mad.  There were many conflicts between father and his son, but this was the greatest.

The king ordered the sealing of the castle.  Nobody could predict how this situation would have turned out (particularly Kazanowki), if the king hadn’t died suddenly.

Supposedly, Wladyslaw Vasa had ‘stings of remorse’ and because of that he hadn’t reconciled before his father died.  So he decided to commemorate him somehow.

The idea of Column building that commemorating Zygmunt III Vasa, met with unexpected opposition.  Actually nobody, with except of young ruler, wanted to realise this challenge.

Polish nobles didn’t want it.  And because of that they weren’t satisfied with king’s rule.

The Church claimed pagan Romans had built columns and Christians should not have done it.  Church resistance had greater weight because the Bernardines Monastery was the owner of the ground where the sculpture was planned to be erected.

Church protests against the construction had some interesting aspects.  For instance, a sculpture of the Blessed Virgin was placed to discourage the ‘king-sodomist’.  However, after lots of adventures, Wladyslaw erected the Column.  This is the history of Warsaw’s symbol that today is associated more with catholic conservatism than with family scandal.

We also have in our history two bisexual kings: Michal Korybut-Wisniowiecki and the last Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski.  The latter started his political career in the English ambassador’s bed, from where he jumped into Tsarina Catherine the Great’s bed!

Catholic same-sex marriages

In 15th century Poland, two men, as long as they were from the nobility, could marry each other.  It happened in Catholic churches.  A ceremony had unique character.  Men joined their hands and kneeled down at the altar.  A priest blessed them and read ceremonial prayers.  Next, both knights pledged that they “would love each other as whole brothers”, would support themselves with health and fortune till the end of their lives.

An oath was long and full of flourishes, in accordance with rhetoric of the rime.  After that, the priest put the rings on their fingers and blessed them again saying: “To glory of God. I wish you all the best wholeheartedly”.

The ‘newlyweds’ kissed the steps of an altar and joined their hands, bowing to moved nobles and marched through the church.

In eastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine there are lots of common graves of men that they spent their lives together.  If the Catholic church ever takes the decision to support gays and lesbian’s partnerships, it will be enough to go back to the ritual that was established five hundred years ago.

Poland means Tolerance

At the end of 18th century, Russia, Prussia and Austria changed the situation of Polish homosexuals.  Poland disappeared on the map of Europe – and with it went the Polish ‘rights’.

For 123 years of ‘slavery’, Polish gays were imprisoned and forced to hard labour.  Liberation came through the socialist , ózef Piłsudski.

When the Makarewicz Penal Code was introduced in 1932, there was no word about penalty for homosexual acts in its content.  That was a radical leftist move of the time.  Western Europe took 40 years in ‘catching up’.

One legend states, that Pilsudski didn’t want to punish gays because of the fact he was in a good relationship with Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski.  This Cracow poet, a radical anti-clericalist and abortion advocate, became the first gay lobbyist in Poland.

After the World War II, came Polish Socialist Republic (PRL).  There followed a degree of eccentricity – Poland was the only state within the Soviet ‘Eastern Europe’ that didn’t punish homosexuals.

Some myths have arisen around this situation.  One of them says that Gomułka (the first Secretary of the Communist Party after World War II) allegedly remarked, during working on a new penal code: “a man with another man?  But this is impossible”, in much the same way as Queen Victoria of Britain is reputed to have said about lesbians in the 19th century.

Here, then, is the potted history of ‘Gay’ Poland.  A history of the state, where sexual minorities have been tolerated, or even accepted, for hundreds years.

Polish mężołówcy has enjoyed freedom and tolerance for hundreds years before the word “homosexualist” started to exist in France, and the word “gay” was used for the first time in by the American-born author Gertrude Stein in her book, Miss Furr & Miss Skeene, written in Paris in  1922, and was used seven years later in a song , Green Carnation, by Noel Coward for his musical Bitter Sweet.




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Posted: 17July 2010 at 10:00 (UK time)


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