Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the honor and privilege of traveling to several Eastern European countries to meet with people who are involved in religiously-themed queer protest art. They have generously made time to meet with me, shared meals and insights, introduced me to their friends and collaborators, showed me around their cities, and generally helped me to understand the cultural, political, and religious contexts of their work. Although this trip is part of a larger project, a follow-up to Queer Nuns and an initial foray into sorting out the focus of my next book project, here I offer a bit of an academic travelogue in order to share some of what I’m learning and to bring more attention to the exciting work these folks are doing. There are four post(card)s, one for each city in which I conducted research: Bucharest, Romania; Odessa, Ukraine; Prague, Czech Republic; and Poznań, Poland.
Poznań is a thriving smaller city of around 500,000 people whose architecture tells a complicated story of changing leadership and warfare. In the nineteenth century it was actively colonized by Prussia, along with surrounding areas in western Poland. The Prussian government intentionally moved not only government agents but everyday Prussians – possibly including some of my own ancestors – to the area in order to make it more “German.” Architecture from that time reflects both German aesthetics and a certain German nostalgia: ornately decorated apartment buildings on one block give way on another to nineteenth-century versions of half-timbered construction. Polish resistance to the colonization seems to have been slow and steady, and when Poznań’s new International Trade Fair attracted several million visitors in 1929, shortly after Poland had been reunified, a massive building boom reflected not only broader developments in art deco design but also uniquely Polish design elements, some of which I’m told are unique to Poznań.
I was charmed, the first morning of my stay here, by what appeared to be sixteenth- or seventeenth-century buildings clustered shoulder to shoulder around a church in the old town square (pictured above). Later that day, I learned that the entire square is a mid-twentieth century reconstruction: Poznań, not only strategically located but considered by the Third Reich to be stolen territory, was a major target during the Second World War, and its entire town square was destroyed. Restoring it seems, in the telling of my new friends Piotr and Paweł, to have been the act of a people seeking a renewed sense of hope – and interestingly in this regard, Poznań was also the scene of one of the earliest salvos in the Polish resistance to communism. A monument in the city attests to this history.
Poland is noticeably religious, and due to its restrictive policy on immigration and the legacy of the Holocaust it’s also fairly religiously monolithic. Still, having begun my journey in Bucharest, I found religion far less obviously present here than I might otherwise have expected. It might be more relevant to say that Poland is quite conservative and, as also stood out to me in Romania, that conservatism is bolstered by a dominant religion that is for all intents and purposes a state church.
Religions enjoy certain protections and privileges in Poland, but they must be officially registered with the state to benefit from these. And while all religions have an equal right to registration in theory, in fact my conversations indicate that officials find ways to avoid registering religions of which they disapprove. Paweł, who was my host and guide during my time here, explained that one group whose members are challenging the national government to live up to its constitutional commitments regarding religion are the Pastafarians, also known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarians have been responsible for important developments in Europe regarding minority religious rights; in 2011, for instance, a Pastafarian in Austria won the right to wear a colander on his head for his driver’s license photo, thus easing the way for other religions whose adherents cover their heads in some way. Pastafarians in Poland work with a lawyer who defends their religious rights and is helping them to work toward registration. Currently, however, they seem to be stuck in a cycle wherein an official refuses their application, they sue, the court rules that they must be allowed to register, and then a new official takes office and the process restarts. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion, an LGBT-inclusive church that also ordains women, is facing similar challenges: every application they submit for registration turns out to have some sort of technical “error” and is denied on this technicality. Leaders of NARTH, on the other hand – a religiously conservative promoter of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic pseudoscience – receive a warm welcome and an attentive ear as “American professors,” and I’m told that protestors who named disgraced homophobic psychologist Paul Cameron a “pseudoscientist” were charged with slander and fined.
Much has been made in the press and the academy of Poland’s blasphemy law, Article 196, so I was interested to hear the activists with whom I spoke downplay its force. Although one called it a “dead law,” it’s clearly still in use – but in ways that may allow the government to walk a line between harassing religious dissenters and avoiding charges in the European Court of Human Rights. Complaints of religious offense, which must be brought by private citizens under this law, are frequently dismissed by the courts, and when not dismissed they typically result in a fine and not in jail time. Nevertheless, those who are in any way vulnerable and especially those without easy access to legal advice and representation can quickly be deterred or silenced by the experience or the threat of being accused and having to appear in court even when the charges are subsequently dropped. This is exactly what happened in 2016 to a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, now a former Sister, who lives here but who was apparently unwilling or unable to meet with me: he stopped answering phone calls from Paweł shortly before my arrival in Poznań. Paweł, experienced in both LGBT activism and activism for religious rights, and with access to experienced legal assistance through the Pastafarians, is more phlegmatic about these concerns, and is close to becoming a fully professed Sister; he hopes to start the first house of the Sisters in Poland. In Poznań he believes he has the right city for such a house; it is, he and others claim, the most liberal city in Poland, with a mayor who’s marched in the pride parade each year since his election three years ago and a parade which saw no counter-protestors last year, only a week of homophobic and transphobic prayer vigils prior to pride week. Many cities in the U.S. should be so lucky.
Speaking with activists in Poznań gave me food for thought in several ways. It made me consider the fact that I’ve never heard a discussion in the U.S. of any European population as the victim of settler colonialism rather than the perpetrator, and made me wonder whether there’s anything to be learned from such a discussion. It challenged the image I had – indeed, the image I think many Westerners have – of Poland, since I spent most of my time with a Poznań-born Pastafarian and novice Sister of Perpetual Indulgence who rides a bike decorated in rainbows all year round, in the midst of the whirlwind of an incredibly packed pride week that relies on the support of around a hundred volunteers, and ended my day in a crowded theater watching a docudrama about Tom of Finland.
I’d been particularly interested in meeting with Sisters in Poland because of Article 196 and the rumors that had reached the U.S. of a Sister “being arrested for blasphemy.” My time with activists in Poznań offered me a more complex view of this law, and indeed of human rights concerns in Poland more broadly. In a country where same-sex eroticism was never criminalized, sexual discipline has been left up to vigilantism while government officials look the other way. In a country that has a blasphemy law that seems questionable, at the very least, in an E.U. member state, identification of perpetrators relies primarily on citizen accusers. Religious discrimination thus travels from the general populace into the courts via this system; while the courts may throw out many cases and may keep the punishments minimal (minimal to people with economic stability, that is) in cases that do result in a conviction, the structure of the law ensures a high likelihood that it will serve in practice to target dissenters and minorities. This observation is in no way meant to suggest that there are better ways of having blasphemy laws, by the way, but only to notice the interesting way in which the Polish state manages to create the appearance of keeping its hands clean while enabling the tyranny of the majority to access the penal system. Whether such a system can be subverted in the absence of an ability to change or undo it remains, I think, an open question – but a question that’s certainly timely for both Pastafarians and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
As I head off to Vienna for the Queering Paradigms VIII conference, built this year around the theme of “Fucking Solidarity” and the specific context of Western attempts at solidarity with LGBTQ Russians (see http://qp8.univie.ac.at/), I bring with me more questions than answers – and this is just how I like things to be. A new academic year looms in the immediate future, which always feels to me like floating in a tiny canoe toward a massive waterfall. I’ll check in again from the pool at the bottom, once I manage to resurface. In the meantime, from the Frankfurt airport – Tschüss!