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The Ties that Bind

The EU gets in the way of queer liberation

A cloud of tear gas greeted Croatia’s first Pride march in 2002. The small crowd went into center of the nation’s capital, Zagreb, assailed by threats (“fags to concentration camps!” “die!”) and physical violence. Less than ten years later, a strange thing happened: on the eve of Croatia’s accession to the EU, fifteen thousand people marched in Pride. Backed by international NGOs, celebrities, and even the prime minister’s wife, the crowd chanted “This is a country for all of us.” A heavy police presence monitored the event. Those marching were safe beneath the watchful European flag: they might soon marry each other, start families, perhaps adopt children, move to Paris for work. That summer, Zagreb exploded with gay potential.

By the end of the year, though, with Croatia tied to the EU in sickness and in health, the nation voted overwhelmingly to amend its constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman. Gay couples were relegated to the status of “life partnerships,” a term with a distinctly 1990s flare, and had no ability to adopt children. EU parliaments and officials, though “deeply concerned” by the regression, largely remained silent. There were holidays along the Adriatic to be had, visas be damned: it’s all One Europe now.

Nevertheless, the EU weighs LGBTQ acceptance and other human rights as part of its accession process, and states vying for membership are encouraged to symbolically position themselves as open, tolerant societies. Current candidate states Serbia and Albania have adopted explicitly pro-LGBTQ provisions as part of their accession processes. The Serbian prime minister, Ana Brnabić, is an out lesbian who is open with her partner and their shared child. Hate crime and anti-discrimination laws in both nations protect against sexuality-based violence, though the Serbian law is not explicit about gender identity. Potential candidates Bosnia and Kosovo have also rapidly passed protections for sexual and gender minority discrimination. By law, gender and sexual minorities have more protections in Sarajevo and Prishtina than in Italy or Spain, but queer lives of safety and comfort often elude them. These laws are liberal, for sure, but with an explicitly libertarian flavor. While LGBTQ individuals in these states possess legal mechanisms to protect themselves from the types of interpersonal violence that a politics of tolerance and acceptance requires, this politics comes at great material cost.

Scapegoating queers has proven a useful election strategy.

A bleak choreography of provisional progressivism thus becomes the norm. Aspiring EU parliaments, mostly in the Slavic, post-communist states, pass in-vogue legislation to offer legal protections for queer people that have minimal effect in changing the material structure and safety of their lives. Representing the stated “values” of the Union, these anti-discrimination laws abet a given state’s admittance to the block. The EU and right-wing parliaments subsequently manipulate LGBTQ issues to maintain their respective spheres of influence. While the EU verbally signals support for queer people and chastens the far-right in member states for not supporting “European values,” the far-right stokes fears of “LGBT-ideology” to maintain power, supported by the precarious material conditions of life on the fringes of Europe. Both groups profit from this arrangement: the EU gets access to inexpensive laborers from new member states, and the ruling far-right parties in places like Poland, a member since 2004, keep a grip on the government and access to the EU’s relative economic security.

In July, the far-right Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party narrowly won national reelection, having campaigned against the enemy within: “LGBT ideology,” President Andrezj Duda proclaimed, was worse than communism. Less than a month later, Duda oversaw the arrest of forty-eight LGBTQ activists who were protesting the arrest of a fellow activist. Those arrested were released the following day but face up to three years in prison for “taking part in a mob, with the knowledge that its participants will join forces to violently attack a person or property.” Activists dubbed the event “Polish Stonewall.”

PiS has led the majority coalition in Poland since 2015, deepening their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions over that time. The ideological leader of the party, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a fervent “pro-family” and anti-communist politician from the days of the Polish Solidarity trade union movement. In 2010, he ran for the presidency in a special election and narrowly lost, but by deflecting his own anti-EU stance and his Catholic nationalism via Duda, a man who listens to “both sides,” PiS secured the majority that holds today. Scapegoating queers has proven a useful election strategy. In the run-up to July’s election, a party leader tweeted that Poland is “most beautiful without LGBT,” attaching images of a shaggy Jesus and a nest of bird eggs, the product, apparently, of “God’s plan.” Beginning in early 2019, Polish municipalities began declaring themselves “LGBT-free;” by the following year, nearly one-third of them had done so, and an “Atlas of Hate” was released by activists to map municipalities with explicit anti-gay resolutions. Meanwhile, the party complemented their social conservatism with expanded welfare programs, including tax breaks for low income earners, and increases to pensions and minimum wage.

Duda, Kaczyński, and the PiS’s successes in EU-era Poland represent a solitary drop in the rising tide of the reactionary right in Europe. They join the likes of leaders across the continent: Orban in Hungary, Le Pen in France, Johnson in the UK, Matovič in Slovakia, Iohannis in Romania and so on. But the question must then be asked: Why does the EU cultivate these types of leaders, particularly on its poorer peripheries?

A partial answer lies in the EU’s response to the tumult in Poland. In 2019, a “deeply concerned” EU parliament condemned the “LGBT-Free” zones Poland claimed to achieve and called for the rollback of resolutions targeting queer people. As the number of “LGBT-free” municipalities increased, over seventy international writers and thinkers rushed to voice their “grave concern” in a statement against the Polish government this August. Leftists from Edouard Louis, Polish Pulitzer Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, and Slavoj Žižek, along with liberal darlings Margaret Atwood and Judith Butler, called on the European Commission to defend “core European values—equality, non-discrimination, [and] respect for minorities.” This language has the strength of a hairdryer in a hurricane.

Since the most recent arrests, the EU has ramped up the pressure. Using the same lever of power that hollowed out Greece—austerity—the block announced in July a “modest” withdrawal of funding for EU cultural activities in six Polish towns that declared themselves “LGBT-free.” According to the New York Times, the figures range from $6,000 to $29,000, but it isn’t the amount of money so much as the meaning of the mechanism itself that has power. Economic austerity should be thought of alongside the hollow humanist language of the statements about the meaning of the European Union vis-à-vis Poland. The EU is a non-binding political unit of independent states with a plethora of interlocking conventions and commissions—but it is a distinctly binding economic unit.

The logical outgrowth of EU austerity is the further insulation of the Polish far-right, and thus more attacks on gay people, a symbolic scapegoat for worsening economic conditions.

The poorer member states exist foremost to provide cheap labor to the rest of the Union, and by rhetorically positioning Poland as non-European in its values, Brussels discursively defines the borders of “Europe,” a term bound up with “the West,” “culture,” and “civilization.” The soaring rhetoric of the statements should then be understood not as a strong stance in favor of human rights, but as the opening bid in para-colonial negotiations. The money withdrawn by EU bureaucrats leverages economic security against human rights, which dismisses the inherent contradiction of starving communities of funds. The impact will be felt by workers: limited job prospects in Poland force more workers, queer or otherwise, to Berlin or Paris, and as economic fallout from Covid-19 continues to accelerate, so, too, will the movement of workers to the continent’s metropoles, populating those cities with a labor surplus that capital can exploit.

Such movement is not without resistance. Migrant Polish workers are routinely characterized as culturally backward job-thieves in Western European states. Boris Johnson chastened migrants for treating Britain as “their own country,” while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki demanded the British “give us our people back.” All this plays out while the bosses of French auto-manufacturers happily welcome migrant workers to weaken unions, and Germany passes legislation aimed at filling gaps in the service sector with “skilled” migrant workers from outside the EU. This movement of workers into Western European cities represents a formal scheme of the economic union of Europe: these are frontier people in the metropoles of the One European Economy.

Of course, Poland’s exploitation at the hands of both right-wing politicians and cosmopolitan liberal capitalists isn’t limited to LGBTQ issues. In 2017, PiS’s aggressive stance against Syrian War refugees represented the nation’s willingness to follow EU marching orders as a frontier state. Despite some belly-aching by the EU court system, there is no practical way to ensure Poland takes in asylum seekers now or in the future. Border patrol remains Duda’s mandate, and if some queers get bashed along the way, well, western bureaucrats wag their fingers, take away a little funding, and tell Poland’s workers how much better wages are in Berlin, only to the benefit of German capital.

Such are the ideological limits of the human rights framework championed by the EU. It exists within and is constrained by liberalism and capitalism; under that theoretical boot, there is no conflict between the economic devastation of austerity and the call to uphold human rights. The logical outgrowth of EU austerity is the further insulation of the Polish far-right, and thus more attacks on gay people, a symbolic scapegoat for worsening economic conditions. In Hungary, the EU inflicted austerity measures; Orban continued to ratchet up his harassment of LGBTQ people, while the EU limits Hungarian postal worker wages as punishment. For now, their gamble is paying off. If the Polish economy collapses during the all-too-likely recession, and/or EU austerity measures deepen, then PiS has the ability to turn to its constituents and say, “Look, we were right. Europe wants to attack Poland and Polish values; we are not at fault here.” At the same time, any economic fallout in Poland, either from austerity or the workaday vagaries of capitalism, actively benefits the richer states, ensuring a future supply of cheap migrant labor.

In the same vein as the EU, fifty U.S. ambassadors and other representatives released a milquetoast statement expressing “support for the efforts to raise public awareness” of issues affecting queer Poles. In its defense, the letter’s signatories toil under a Republican White House. But it’s not that simple. As Joanna Wuest argues in The Nation, in the recent Supreme Court decision Bostock v. Clayton County, which extended employment protections to LGBTQ people, Justice Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, had “little trouble squaring his personal—and now political—support for his gay colleagues and friends with his faithful devotion to the forces of capital that brought him to the bench.” Put simply, the right wing in the United States understands that queer people can and should be exploited just like any other worker.

The EU and Gorsuch share a common logic: fears peddled by the right about queer people rile up the base, turn out the votes, and keep the right in power. Meanwhile, the EU’s insistence on culture war terms like “European values” reveals the material alliance between EU liberalism and the far-right leaders of the frontier states. Again, both parties profit from this arrangement; cheap labor heads west, while in the east, the right stays in power. To be sure, the arrest of LGBTQ activists in Poland is horrific and undemocratic, but it’s worth placing the PiS claim about the importation of “LGBT-ideology” from Western Europe in the context of the EU’s para-colonial policies of austerity and exploitation.

The terms used internationally to discuss sexual and gender diversity arise from the American capitalist context, even if same-sex desire and gender diversity have existed across human history. But the shift to identity terms in cataloguing sexual and gender diversity wouldn’t have taken place without the rise of the capitalism. As John D’Emilio writes in “Capitalism and Gay Identity:”

Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity—an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex.

The American Pride movement then, despite its lack of intellectual and strategic foresight, drew on distinctly American language of procedures and rights to achieve the freedoms that many now enjoy. The same could broadly be said for Western Europe. Those choices have given queer people access to the marriage contract and rainbow face masks, but the rate of homelessness and attempted suicide remain disproportionately high among LGBTQ youth, and the HIV/AIDS crisis continues to ravage the most marginalized.

There is space in Polish politics for the type of broad, working-class movement that achieves personal and economic security for LGBTQ individuals that doesn’t rely on EU stick and carrot austerity measures.

Consider then, the modern history of Poland: its reemergence as a sovereign state, followed by Nazi-occupation, Soviet-rule, the anti-Communist Solidarity movement, shock doctrine, EU accession, and brain drain. Consider that history along with the Polish MP who wrote in Polish with the English-language acronym “LGBT.” Polish has words for discussing sexuality, desire, and identity, yet both the right-wing and the liberals use the English acronym, which for the right bolsters their cultural colonization argument, and for liberal activists globalizes for profit-making (rather than internationalizes for solidarity) an identity—even when it might not be appropriate, or most importantly, politically efficacious.

An EU human rights framework around LGBTQ rights, with its baggage of Western European capitalism and the economic chaos and poverty of the last thirty years, collapses the Polish context. There is space for a distinctly Polish gay liberation movement, but it should draw on Polish characteristics and symbols. To achieve lasting safety for Polish LGBTQ people requires a synthesis of the pro-worker, economic rights of The Polish Workers’ Party with modern Poland; it must reject the neoliberal framework to build a mass movement in opposition to the far-right PiS and the morally bankrupt liberalism of the EU.

There is possibility. Robert Biedroń, an openly gay former mayor, ran for president in the 2020 Polish election with the endorsement of left-wing parties. While he finished with just over 2 percent of the national vote in the first round of elections, his mere presence on the ballot has meaning. However, power for the Polish left rests in labor, specifically the coal miners’ union, who must be brought into any coalition to transform Poland. The most militant unions in the country and the strongest, with Poland producing 90 percent of the EU’s hard coal, recently won protections to ensure a just closure of the mines by 2049. The deal allows miners to stay employed and subsidized by the state until they retire from work, or to join one of the newer solar or wind farms to be built in place of existing mines. Over the horizon of twenty-nine years, the agreement is mostly symbolic and hinges on the EU agreeing to extend subsidies. Earlier in the year, the same coalition of unions achieved a pay increase against both declining coal sales and a shrinking economy. (PiS won only a slim margin of 51 percent in the major mining region of Ruda Salska.) Queer activists should develop solidarity partnerships in this crucial economic region. There is space in Polish politics for the type of broad, working-class movement that achieves personal and economic security for LGBTQ individuals and, more broadly, workers—one that doesn’t rely on EU stick and carrot austerity measures.

The way forward for Polish LGBTQ activists then shouldn’t be a reinstatement of the same neoliberal civil rights regime, but rather, they should reach into the rich, socialist tradition of the Polish Workers’ Party as the way forward to actively transform and protect the lives of queer Poles—of all Poles. It follows the Foucauldian adage that it isn’t enough “to affirm that we are gay, but we must also create a gay life.” What could Polish gay life be? It should be founded on a rejection of austerity in all forms, but particularly the EU rainbow-clad austerity that serves the economic ruling class of Berlin and Paris. A movement for LGBTQ rights in Poland requires broad, socialist thinking, historically grounded thinking. Alas, one need only look to the example of Greece for what happens to member states that misbehave in a socialist manner. Perhaps the EU has outgrown its usefulness—if it ever had any for queer people, or the working class.