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Poland LGBT8

With Poland’s LGBTQ+ community under attack, its club scene is resisting

With homophobia on the rise in the build-up to national elections, we meet the music community voicing solidarity and creating safe spaces

It wasn’t raining, but marchers in the northeastern Polish city of Białystok were clutching their umbrellas tight to their chests at this July’s Pride celebrations. They were doing their best to protect themselves against stones, glass bottles, and flash bombs being hurled at them by gangs of mostly male, burly counter-protestors. With the first ever such event taking place in a conservative stronghold of the ruling far-right Law and Justice party, the Pride marchers were far outnumbered by those who were marching against them – 1,000 people holding rainbow flags and placards voicing support for LGBTQ+ people, and an angry mob of 4,000 hurling abuse, with some at the scene describing grown men tearing at the clothes of teenage girls. 

It was the culminating event of increasingly frequent attacks on Poland’s LGBTQ+ community. Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice party have consistently whipped up fears that LGBTQ+ people are a threat to the Polish national identity, and aligned their policies accordingly. In 2018, they introduced education curriculum guidelines that reinforce discriminatory attitudes towards gender and sexual minorities, and in July, the right-wing Gazeta Polska newspaper started distributing “LGBT-free zone” stickers.

Electronic music and clubbing scenes around the world have often contained pockets where queer people can express themselves freely, and Poland’s underground is no different. After Białystok, several prominent promoters voiced their support for the marchers: Oramics, a Polish promoter and independent booking agency, released the 126-track LGBTQ+ fundraising compilation Total Solidarity days later, while Warsaw-based record label Brutaż and annual music and visual art festival Unsound also offered statements of solidarity. Others, however, took a neutral stance: when techno promoter Revive expressed that they were “free from politics”, a divide opened up within the scene, leading to the cancellation of the Revive-promoted Interior Festival, whose guests were to include French electronic artist Kangding Ray and American DJ Avalon Emerson. As Unsound’s Łukasz Warna-Wiesławski puts it, the cancellation “sparked a much needed discussion” in the scene, but it also “created a strong rift, reinforcing the stances of centrists and homophobes”.

Poland’s introduction to techno coincided roughly with the fall of the Iron Curtain, when neoliberal democracy replaced state socialism. Rock’s protest songs fell out of favour and electronic music’s westernised, lyricless sound started to rise in popularity. Still, in their shunning of the Polish language, Polish musicians appeared to shun Polish problems. In Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz’s 2002 film Love for a Vinyl Record, a documentary that captured the country’s techno scene at the time, the prominent Polish techno DJ and producer Angelo Mike says that he knows nothing about politics and only recently learned there was a recession in Poland.

At the same time, Poland’s neoliberal reforms had a devastating effect on its queer club scene. Brutaż is a Warsaw clubnight-cum-record label whose support for the LGBTQ+ community and strong stance against harassment in nightclubs has been credited by groups like Oramics as inspiring a new wave of activism among the country’s club promoters. According to RRRKRTA, who heads up the Brutaż label, the speed of privatisation in the 90s left the LGBTQ+ community with nowhere to go. “The prices of property started going up and everywhere belonged to somebody, so you couldn’t really occupy a space, you couldn’t squat anything,” he says over a beer in Warsaw’s book-lined Resort bar. “If it wasn’t clear who a property belonged to, then usually the mafia got in there.” The 2000s weren’t much better. RRRKRTA recounts hearing about the overnight closure of prominent queer nightclub Le Madame in 2006, and how people chained themselves to its doors in protest.

“Getting privilege and using that privilege to shine a light on others – this is our advantage over here; this is our core” – RRRKRTA, DJ, Brutaż

Since then, things have only gotten worse. After winning the 2015 parliamentary election, Law and Justice turned their anger towards the LGBTQ+ community, having attacked migrants during their previous parliamentary campaign. In the lead up to this month’s October 13 elections, they’ve doubled down on this tactic, demonising what they describe as western “LGBT ideology”, bolstered by support from parts of the culturally and politically influential Catholic Church (in August, for example, the archbishop of Kraków described Poland as under siege from a “rainbow plague”).

It’s a bad situation, but RRRKRTA says that it provides an opportunity for Poland’s club scene to create its own mode of operating. “For many reasons, we are really fucked up over here,” he says. “We have fucked up politics and a fucked up attitude towards minorities, but we are also fucked up in what we perceive to be an acceptable social norm. The fact we’re not a multicultural society – anymore at least – is something to be dealt with. We have a different language to when you’re throwing parties in Berlin or London, where you have people from different countries, different ethnicities.”

As he has done in previous interviews, RRRKRTA dismisses the idea that the currently inactive Brutaż clubnight is explicitly political, and says that providing a space “to become” in an otherwise homogeneous society is most important. It’s a point that he comes back to throughout our two-hour conversation, and one that’s circling inside my head when we meet at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art later that evening when an arty crowd descends on its makeshift club space, its pristine white marble dancefloor becoming a safe space for same-sex couples making out. It’s the second of three To Be Real events commissioned by the cultural institution and hosted each time by a different team of artists and DJs (this time by Warsaw promoters Syntentyk and visual artists Zuzanna Czebatul and Marc Hunziker) to explore the tradition of clubs as a space for the “radical acceptance of the Other”. Artist Bella Ćwir gives a mesmerising performance in the centre of the room, seemingly signalling that ‘the Other’ has been accepted, spatially at least.

The event was relaxed and politically subtle – not dissimilar to how Brutaż operated, from how RRRKRTA tells it. Still, it’s miles away from the kind of explicitly political LGBTQ+ parties found in my hometown of Manchester, for example, where nights like Bollox use in-your-face signage and sloganeering to voice their anti-TERF sentiment. “Clubbing here has to become rooted in intelligentsia,” RRRKRTA asserts, referring to a Polish tradition whereby organisations exist to help or enlighten others. “Getting privilege and using that privilege to shine a light on others – this is our advantage over here; this is our core.”

Others on the scene talk about a more hands-on approach. At Pogłos, a cooperatively owned  punk venue set up by six friends in 2016, a metal gig is starting as a safe abortion fundraiser commences in another room. “This kind of programming shows people that other types of identities exist – in essence, it’s educational,” says club manager Zuzanna Gierszon. “But also, as soon as we started out, we immediately reached out to the organisers of Pride and other such organisations, to show our support for the LGBT community, not to prove that we are ‘gay friendly’, but that this is their space too, that it’s a space for everybody.” 

Patryk Chilewicz, a media personality and creator of satirical brand Vogule Poland, used to DJ at the now closed Warsaw gay club Saturbator as part of the Blaster Bitches collective. He says that creating an event within the mainstream while keeping true to his values as a publicly gay man is the best way to educate others on the issues facing LGBTQ+ people. “There will always be a queer underground scene, and there should be, but to be able to fight for equality and acceptance, you have to enter the mainstream,” he asserts. The popular music events he throws across Poland with his partner promote inclusivity. “A lot of people worry that to enter the mainstream, you have to do so playing by the rules of heteronormativity. And it is like that oftentimes, but I think it’s important to try and do so on your own terms.”

“I feel a lot of people from western Europe are still afraid to visit... people just need to come here and see us” – Monster, DJ, Oramics

Still, even in a place as cosmopolitan as Warsaw, Chilewicz gets attacked for how he looks. He’s chosen a centrally located upmarket cafe for our meeting, with waiters whose fashion is not dissimilar to his own. He draws attention to the lack of infrastructure on the strictly gay club scene. “In Poland, people who aren’t heterosexual are underground in legal and social terms and as a result don’t feel comfortable,” he says. “The effect of this is that the LGBT community is thwarted from the inside – there’s no clear rules, clear boundaries, people are distrustful and take advantage of one another. Unfortunately, the ideology of neoliberalism which entered in the 90s still rules. Everyone is out for themselves. There’s an attitude of making as much money as possible, and money being a marker of success. This is the attitude of the owners of (the gay) clubs, too. They treat each other as competition. They don’t realise that working together, you can achieve more. I’m generalising of course, but in generalisations there’s often truth.”

This year, the theme for Unsound festival is ‘Solidarity’, and they’re hosting a panel discussion on Polish clubbing and the LGBTQ+ community. Avtomat, one of the panellists and a part of Oramics, says that “people are only realising now that if you’re doing your own little thing which is small and people all over the country are doing their own small things, then if you bring it all together it becomes a huge thing. It’s just a matter of sitting down, working, sending out a shit loads of emails and making it work.” He continues: “Now almost all of the people who do some sort of involved work in the Polish club scene know each other, and we make a point of it not being a race, a competition, of who gets the most fame or the most people, so that every single week in Warsaw, in Poznań, in Gdańsk, you have a party where you can go to and feel safe and not be harassed, act as you want to act as yourself.”

The collective’s Monster also asserts that the international electronic music community has a role to play. “I feel a lot of people from western Europe are still afraid to visit, with this idea that Poland is just a conservative country where you can’t meet really open-minded people. I mean, I live in Poznań, three hours away from Berlin, and I go to Berlin and I meet people who say, ‘I’ve never been to Poland’. There is this slightly racist way of thinking about eastern Europe, that everyone here is crazy, but people just need to come here and see us, and support us.” 

Still, Oramics’ dogheadsurigeri is keen to point out the ripple effect that the recent local activity of promoting safe spaces for women and queer people is having: “There’s this shift in venues. Venues are more open to care about what is happening on the dancefloor. If you spot some harassment and you come up to security and say, ‘There’s something wrong going on,’ then they’re acting on it. In the past, it was more likely you’d hear, ‘We can’t do anything because we don’t want to invite bad opinions about the club.’ Now it’s changing – and even the bigger clubs are getting into this.”

Indeed, Unsound’s executive director, Gosia Płysa, concurs, saying, that “a lot of initiatives, initially coming from club parties run by people connected with Brutaż or Oramics, have been adopted by bigger media and festivals. Seeing how these rules are slowly being incorporated by the venues and festivals, shows we are going in a good direction”. However, she concedes that “it is a process that is taking time”. Avtomat at least, is hopeful for the future. After all, Total Solidarity has received overwhelming and ongoing support, and raised €5,000 and counting. “People are finally starting to realise that there’s no running away from LGBTQ people, that we live here, that you meet people like us every single day,” he says.

Unsound runs in Kraków until Sunday October 13