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TESTING TOLERANCE: GAY CLUBS IN WARSAW

 

By Colin Graham

WARSAW, 15 August 2006 —Chilling out in the Jacuzzi at Warsaw’s "straight-friendly gay club" Tomba Tomba is an object lesson in tolerance. Complete strangers climb in naked and kick back shoulder to shoulder, regardless of sexual orientation. If only the rest of Poland could show as much accommodation towards those who dare to be different.

As with another club—Le Madame—which until recently was also located in the Polish capital’s Old Town—Tomba Tomba is struggling to survive, mainly because in its managers’ view city hall is headed by aggressive homophobes.

"They won’t give us permission to sell alcohol," said co-owner Krystian Legierski, a gay activist, who up until late March ran the ‘gay friendly’ Le Madame as well. "This means that we cannot advertise Tomba Tomba as being open to everyone— only members—and we’re not able to earn enough money to keep the place at the standard we’d like."

Legierski believes that Warsaw’s political leaders are itching to pounce on the club should it dare to operate more conventionally and cites his experience at Le Madame as a portent for Tomba Tomba. "They are waiting to see if we do anything illegal so they can send in the police," he said. "They want to show that gay people are always engaged in illegal activity."
 
That might smack of paranoia to those in Western Europe and the USA where gay clubs have flourished but Legierski has the trauma of seeing another of his ventures come to an unpleasant end fresh in his mind.

Le Madame—unlike Tomba Tomba it has to be said—was more than just another nightclub, though it did its job as a weekend venue for fun and frolics just as well as any other and often better. Located in a former warehouse, its vast, yet labyrinthine space allowed it to host gigs, plays, films and political meetings as well. Then, in late March, a raid by private security guards—overseen by police—led to its closure, despite a four-day occupation by supporters and a visit by John Malkovich—in town to promote Being Stanley Kubrick —who gave his backing to the protest.

"This sort of cultural centre is very important," he said at the club on March 30th. "I wish it every success in trying to stay open."

The city authority said it had various grounds for shutting down Le Madame. Neighbors’ complaints at the noise late at night, rent arrears, a need to renovate the building and supposed ‘gay orgies’ were all cited at one time or another, leading many of the protestors to believe that there was an anti-liberal agenda at work. Legally, one of these reasons would surely have been sufficient, they argued. Why wheel out others, unless you are engaged in a propaganda war? During the week of the occupation Legierski bargained hard with city heads over the rent issue, which he pledged to sort out, but to no avail.
"This council is terrified of anyone who thinks differently to them," said one demonstrator, Wojciech, at the first day of occupation on March 27th.

The Warsaw local authority is led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is openly hostile to homosexuality. Current Polish president Lech Kaczynski and co-founder of PiS was until his election last year mayor of Warsaw and twice banned the annual ‘Equality Parade’ while in office. He has since made comments that though he has nothing against homosexuals "as individuals, I see no reason to encourage their behaviour because it would lead to the end of humanity."

Though the Le Madame saga made national news throughout the last week of March, more recent developments regarding "gay rights" issues have taken on an increasingly international gloss, particularly as the European Union has expressed deep concern at the spoutings of certain  politicians after PiS formed a coalition government with the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) and farmers’ party Self-Defence in May.

In early June the European Parliament singled out Poland for criticism for what it referred to as a "rise in racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic intolerance" which it attributed largely to the presence of the LPR in government. Odd as it may seem given the atmosphere, this year the Warsaw "Equality Parade" actually did go ahead on June 10th, despite threats of violence from the LPR’s militant youth wing, the All-Polish Youth. LPR representative Wojciech Wierzejski said he hoped marchers at the parade would be "beaten with batons. They won’t come back after that because gays are by definition cowards." In the end, though   a group of right-wingers did throw eggs and bricks at the 3,000 demonstrators—leading to the arrest of 12 of them—the march passed off more peacefully than expected.

Yet the tension between gay activists, leftists and concerned liberals and the government shows no sign of abating. The coalition with the LPR meant that its leader Roman Giertych became Minister of Education, which has led to frequent protests by student groups opposed to his ‘family values’ and nationalistic policies. And with each demonstration, Giertych unleashes his pit bull Wierzejski, to make evermore slanderous remarks against gays, who he equates with paedofiles and drug dealers, and as having engineered the uprising against the Minister of Education.

"What was really interesting was that on one of the very days he made those remarks, the police came around to check up on us," said Ela Solanowska, Legierski’s fellow co-owner at Tomba Tomba.

Tomba Tomba
ul Brzozowa 37
Warsaw, Poland
Open Friday, Saturday: 22h - 12h
Sunday: 21h - 4h 
No cover charge

 

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture in Central and Eastern Europe.  He also gave an inside look at  trendy clubs in St. Petersburg, Russia for Culturekiosque.com.



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