Intolerance After Trauma: LGBT Life and Unerasing History in Poland
by MELISSA MOTT
“Every day I look forward to a time when I can hold my boyfriend’s hand, and not worry about being beaten,” wrote Lukasz, one of my students at the University of Warsaw. Lukasz and his friends Basha and Aleksandra attended the weekly LGBT meetings I held at the American Embassy when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Poland.
They confided in me without hesitation, seeking a role model, an openly gay authority figure, maybe a guide for their journey. This was remarkable only in its universality: I saw this the same yearning for “proof-of-life” in a potential future when I worked with court-involved youth in New York City, and from high school students when I was a teacher in Newark.
In Poland, I heard the stories of LGBT people living in the conservative backlash that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Admission to the European Union required Poland to officially accept liberal LGBT policies. But anti-EU and nationalist factions inside Poland encouraged hate speech and street harassment of LGBT people. Their case? Tolerance of LGBT people is part of a Western campaign to erase Polish traditions. To be Polish is to be straight. To marry and have children. To build citizens of the state. This toxic nationalism spread through Eastern Europe and Russia and created not only immediate danger for LGBT people: it erased their existence in these countries’ history
Invisibility isn’t accidental. Stories don’t just fade into history, neglected like a dusty antique. They are willfully and systematically ignored. In the years following the Holocaust, LGBT criminalization laws deterred LGBT victims of the Holocaust from telling their stories. As a result, few first-person narratives exist about the experiences of gay people persecuted by the Nazi regime. These are stories we may never know.
While I am teaching in Poland I remind my students of this. I remind them of 1930s Germany. I show them the 2014 scene from the show, Transparent, where we are transported to cosmopolitan Berlin, 1933, to a scene of glorious, unapologetic, LGBT people dancing in a smoky cabaret. They are filled with life. As the audience, we are haunted with our knowledge of what the future holds. We are reminded that even in great civilizations, progress can retract into carnage.
“There are only three reasons people come to Poland,” Isabella my Airbnb host told me during my first night in Warsaw, “to forgive, to forget, or to remember”. I think there is a fourth reason: to unerase. I showed the scene from Transparent in an effort to tell the erased stories of LGBT people whose lives were cavalier and humble, bawdy and bookish. I want them to understand that our history is long and the path to liberation is not linear. My students described the oppression they experience in public, in their churches, and at home; they are skeptical that it will get better. LGBT young people are migrating to cities that are tolerant, even celebratory, of LGBT people: Berlin, London, Edinburgh. My students feared what this migration meant for the gay people who stayed.
As educators, we have the power not only to remember but to unerase. To uncover the stories that are not in textbooks, to add back the absent LGBT identities of the troublemakers and builders who came before, and to introduce those whose stories have not yet been told. The tools for liberation lie, in part, in understanding our true history. It’s time to set the record straight.