The Geopolitics of Sexuality: Poland, Europe and the Gender Question
University of Amsterdam
The symbolic violence and increasing levels of physical brutality targeting Polish LGBTI+ activists during the summer of 2020, coupled with the virulent attacks by government politicians on an ‘imported gender ideology’ that corrupts national mores, mark an important shift in the radicalization of such attitudes. Nevertheless, while today’s manifestations of intolerance may have become more extreme and more visible, it is important to remember that the obsession with gender ideology as an external imposition threatening not just the morality of the Polish nation but also its very biological survival goes back much further. In this short piece, I would like to reflect on how gender and sexuality have been a ‘crucial hinge of moral and political boundary-making’ (Renkin and Koscianska 2016: 159) for almost two decades now, fundamentally shaping relations between Poland and the European Union (EU).
There is now an extensive scholarly literature examining the geopoliticization of sex and gender. This literature has urged us to rethink the geopolitical as not simply about state power and state agents but, rather, comprising a much broader set of actors, practices, objects and spaces. Contemporary geopolitics is also about the intimate: it is also about ‘bodies, personal decisions, religious beliefs, families, feelings, mundane objects and everyday speech acts’ (Carter and Woodyer 2020: 3). In the context of today’s Poland, we can consider how the geopoliticization of bodies has become a crucial locus around which the geopolitical identity of the Law and Justice Party (PiS)-led state has been demarcated vis-à-vis the EU.
The Polish example is not unique: the imagined perils of a creeping gender ideology have also been very successfully mobilized by Viktor Orbán in Hungary as a tool to purge foreign incursions (it is interesting to note that the first institutional attacks against the Central European University came with calls to remove accreditation from its Gender Studies programme in 2018). Sexual politics has been a crucial, not simply an additional, facet of the illiberal restructuring of the Hungarian polity. As Grzybalska and Peto (2018: 164) have argued, we need to ‘conceptualize illiberalism as adeeply gendered political transformation which is reliant on a certain gender regime […] which transforms the meanings of human rights, women’s rights and equality in a way which privileges the rights and normative needs of families over women’s rights’. The almost decade-long war on gender in both Hungary and Poland
must thus be understood as both permitted by illiberal transformations and, equally importantly, as a key symbolic glue that helped such changes to take hold.
Appeals to sexual and gender politics have in no way been limited to these two national contexts alone. As a report published by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Kovats and Poim 2015) highlighted, anti-genderism has increasingly been shaping the discursive strategies and mobilization of nativist and far-right parties across Europe, functioning as an extremely powerful symbolic glue connecting a wide variety of progressive issues under one umbrella term and thus serving to unite different conservative actors and interests in the quest to challenge the values underlying European liberal democracy. In contexts such as Hungary and Poland, gender as a symbolic glue has served, moreover, a double purpose: both as a locus of political identity shaping from within but also as a site for the constitution of geopolitical identities, in particular in delimiting relations with the EU, as both an institutional and ideational space.
Securing the borders of Europeanness
‘It is important to understand the extent to which the idea of sexual freedom is instrumentalized in discourses that are, in fact, concerned with neither freedom nor sexuality – their real investments are national identity [and] state boundaries’ (Graff 2010: 601).
In order to better place the veritable obsession with sexual difference that has become a mainstay of PiS discourse today, it is important to look back as far as the late 1990s. Women’s and sexual rights had already become a key geopolitical battleground by then: claimed as a mark of modernization and Europeanness by those seeking European accession, while vilified by nationalist forces as ‘enforced’ by a morally bankrupt EU and threatening to undermine the ‘most fundamental aspects’ of the recently acquired sovereignty of post-communist states (Graff 2008; O’Dwyer 2010).
The connections between the politics of gender and sexuality and resurgent nationalisms in the region have been extensively explored by numerous scholars (among others, Gal and Kligman 2000; Kulpa and Mizielinska 2011). Nevertheless, what is relevant for us here is not just the crucial role of sexual and gender politics in the (re)assertion of national sovereignty of the post-communist states (just as they would subsequently shape the turn to illiberalism): it is also the way in which sexual politics profoundly came to mark, right from the start, these states’ relations with institutionalized ‘Europe’.
The relationship between past, present and future has always been essential in defining European identity: what ‘Europe’ was, where it began and ended. Presumed temporal divides have long served as surrogates for spatial and geopolitical distinctions. Ever since the late 18th century, the division of Europe into East and West implied not only a particular geography but also a particular temporal divide. As Maria Todorova argued in her Imagining the Balkans (1997), the ‘East’ came to be identified ‘with industrial backwardness, lack of advanced social relations and institutions typical for the developed capitalist West, irrational and superstitious cultures unmarked by Western Enlightenment’. This, she suggested, ‘added an additional vector in the relationship between East and West: time, where the movement from past to future was not merely motion but evolution from simple to complex, backward to developed, primitive to cultivated’.
Although such explicitly colonial metaphors have (largely) disappeared, the habit of defining Europe and Europeans within a particular spatio-temporal matrix has tended to re-emerge in moments of geopolitical flux. The transitions of the early 1990s were inscribed, indeed, within a distinct understanding of Eastern and Central European states as somehow ‘delayed’, ‘not-yet European’, and indeed having to ‘learn’ European mores and behaviours: social, political, economic – and sexual. Indeed, in the imagined geographies framing the post-communist states’ ‘return to Europe’, the catalogue of lacks included not simply political and economic failings but also sexual and civilizational backwardness, their homophobic and gender-traditionalist attitudes a marker of an innate difference from modern Western European sexual tolerance. Ideas of sexual backwardness thus served to place Eastern and Central European societies both in space (outside the European civilizational core) as well as in time (not-yet modern). In this way, sexual and gender norms came to play ‘a key role in securing the internal biopolitical borders of modern Europeanness’, as Renkin and Koscianska (2016: 161) argued, taking on direct geopolitical relevance with the process of EU accession in the early 2000s.
Poland became the most acrimonious battleground in this bio-/geo-political struggle, in particular during the period of PiS rule from 2005 to 2007, a period that earned the country the mark of the most homophobic and sexually backward in Europe. As Graff (2010: 584) has argued, in the midst of the negotiations for Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, ‘the question of sexuality became a boundary marker, a reference point for political self-definition and national pride’. In the run-up to the accession, political discourse in Poland was ‘overflowing with gender talk: a nostalgic and anxiety-ridden […] discourse that linked national culture to traditional gender roles while associating Europeanization with a crisis of masculinity as well as with sexual excess and perversion’ (Graff 2008). The right to maintain our culture (including the culture of certain sexual attitudes) became a battle cry for the PiS and other nationalist and Catholic groups, especially following the passing of three separate resolutions by the European Parliament in 2006 and 2007, chastising new member states (and Poland most visibly) for their failure to fully respect ‘all human rights’ and specifically ‘to firmly condemn homophobia’ (Graff 2010: 588–9). The right to maintain certain sexual attitudes became a question of securing Poland’s sovereignty, refusing to be ‘educated’ by the European Parliament: as the Polish Conference of Bishops wrote in an official response, ‘one cannot accept a situation where moral beliefs are bureaucratically imposed upon us’ (KAI 2006).
The geopolitical reframing of the issue as a question not of individual human rights but of national sovereignty and, more specifically, of the sovereign rights of the Polish state within the EU, proved highly effective in political terms. It not only allowed for the weaving of an alliance between nationalism and religious fundamentalism, but also allowed for the mobilization of a wide range of constituencies, appealing to a range of anxieties that had little to do with questions of gender or sexuality per se. Yet as Grzebalska and Peto (2018: 165) have suggested, the articulation of the opposition to liberal and Europeanizing forces in anti-gender terms would not have been so effective had it not ‘been grounded in the very real inequalities and contradictions created by the globalized, neoliberal model’. For while the EU model may have promoted gender equality as an ideal, ‘it simultaneously dismantled the welfare state using austerity rhetoric for legitimization, undermined social solidarity, and rejected any structural reforms needed to reach genuine equality’ (2018: 165). The gender talk of EU institutions all too frequently boiled down to a market-driven vision of equality that effectively left most women behind: to cite Nancy Fraser (2017), a discourse of diversity and empowerment that ‘equates emancipation with the rise of a small elite of “talented” women, minorities and gays in a winner-takes-all corporate hierarchy instead of with the latter’s abolition’.
The neoliberal logic driving many if not most of the EU’s policies in the new accession states in this arena provided the perfect ground for the reaction of conservative and nationalist forces, able to present themselves as battling for ‘ordinary women’s dignity and rights’ – cultural as well as political and economic. The calls to resist ‘gender ideology’ invoked both by religious leaders and PiS politicians were articulated, already from the early 2000s onwards, from the by-now familiar populist perspective of ‘authentic people’ countering a ‘corrupt elite’, but also from an ‘anti-colonial’ perspective, with the EU and its institutions presented as a formidable ‘other’ poised to impose a new totalitarian ideology: an ideology ‘worse than communism and Nazism put together’, as Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek thundered in 2013 (Sierakowski 2014). Genderism could thus be decried as simply a new project of wholesale social engineering, promoted by another totalitarian project, the neoliberal EU superstate.
The disappearing nation
There is another set of transformations that has enabled the success of anti-genderism as a symbolic glue of illiberal politics, in Poland as well as in other countries of the region. It is the question of demography or, more accurately, how demography has been imagined geopolitically and made to matter. As The Economist noted in jest in its editorial on ‘the new natalism’, across Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe ‘toddler-production statistics have now become the new tractor-production statistics’ (2020).
The role of demography has always been prominent in the geopolitical imaginaries of authoritarian states, evident in the natalist policies of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy and Francoist Spain. In more recent demographic geopolitics, it is not just native natality that has obsessed state leaders, but also the putative threat posed by migrant bodies to the biological strength and integrity of the nation. As I have described elsewhere, over the past 15 years such ideas have become not just the prerogative of far-right fringes but have made their way into what can be considered acceptable political discourse across Europe (Bialasiewicz 2016).
While in countries such as France and Italy the discourse of the far- (and by now also centre-) right has focused on the perils of ‘hyper-fertile’ migrant populations that threaten to submerge and supplant the native bodies, in Europe’s depopulating East and South-East, the fears of national disappearance are focused more on declining domestic populations, rather than the mass arrivals of foreigners. These fears are significant, and it is important to take them seriously in order to appreciate why the anti-gender discourses of illiberal regimes are able to stick – whether in Hungary or Poland, as Ivan Krastev has argued in his book After Europe (2017).
In the lead-up to the European elections in May 2019, the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned an opinion survey (carried out by YouGov) under the telling title ‘What Europeans really want’ (ECFR 2019). One of the unexpected things that the survey revealed was Europeans’ attitudes towards migration and, in particular, what those surveyed understood by ‘concern about migration’. While in most of Northern and Western Europe migration was almost uniformly understood as the inflow of outsiders, in Europe’s South, East and South-East, most people were much more concerned about their own citizens leaving. In both Poland and Hungary, almost 50 per cent of respondents noted that they would favour their governments making it illegal for their own citizens to leave for long periods of time.
The concerns with national disappearance (or, as in the case of the above cited survey, the disappearance of the most productive segments of the national population) are thus very real. Hungary – perhaps the best/worst example of demographic panic made into state policy – has lost almost a million citizens to emigration since EU accession in 2004 (out of a population of less than ten million). The Orban government has tried to counteract this with targeted pro-natalist policies (along with the active ‘passportization’ of ethnic Hungarians living abroad), but with little success. Poland has lost over two million citizens since accession to the EU and the PiS has, similarly, made the ‘rescue’ of Polish demography a crucial part of its electoral platform; here, too, with little success. Since its inception in 2016, the PiS’s 500+ programme has utterly failed in raising birth rates: in fact, in 2019, Poland registered a record divergence between live births and deaths (over 30,000, the highest divergence since the Second World War).
Such demographic facts have not stopped either the Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) in Hungary or the PiS in Poland from continuing to pursue natalist politics and, indeed, from continuing to advance a broader familialism as a fundamental building bloc of the illiberal nation-building project. Such familialism draws directly on the demographic imaginaries of totalitarian regimes, seeing the traditional heterosexual family as the geographical foundation of the nation, subjugating individual reproductive rights to the need of reproduction of the national body writ large. The threat of gender ideology is thus not only a political-economic threat to national sovereignty and national cultural norms, as described above, it is a threat that also intimates the very physical disappearance of the nation.
It is important to note here that while the 500+ programme did not increase birth rates (and certainly did not increase the cause of gender equality), it could be seen in some ways as having ‘served women’s practical gender interests linked to children’s wellbeing and household welfare’, as Grzebalska and Zacharenko (2018) observed. What the PiS’s demographic interventions are doing, then, is not just very ably hijacking the discourse of women’s social and economic rights, but indeed building what scholars have dubbed a ‘parallel civil society’ that ‘supports women’s real needs’. Here, again, geopolitical distinction is very easy to trace: between such ‘domestic’ initiatives, aimed at the ‘real needs’ of the ‘real people’, opposed to EU (or other foreign) funded organizations and institutions aiming to diffuse a ‘gender ideology’ that is not just extraneous, but indeed anti-national.
Countering gender talk?
So how can such notions of national (in)security be successfully countered? And what role can the EU play in this regard? In today’s geopoliticization of bodies, just as in the early 2000s, the EU makes for an easy villain in the PiS imaginary. In this geopolitical imaginary, not only does Europe draw away millions of productive young Poles, it also attempts to diffuse through its policies a gender ideology that challenges the traditional reproductive family, thus also threatening to undermine the nation physically from within.
The actions of EU institutions to combat anti-genderism and homophobia risk, in fact, having the opposite effect. As described by Agnieszka Graff, the European Parliament’s highly publicized resolutions from 2006 and 2007 condemning homophobia in Poland actually provoked an increase in publicly expressed homophobia, as well as anti-EU sentiment. ‘Good intentions notwithstanding’, Graff noted, ‘the language of the resolutions [was] disturbingly self-righteous, filled with pathos and a thinly veiled sense of the EU’s moral superiority vis-à-vis those new “Member States” that fail to live up to EU standards’ (2010: 589; see also Graff 2008). The result? The ‘right to be a “homophobe” became a question of Poland’s sovereignty, the term always in quotation marks, now appropriated as an identity by proud “patriots”’ (2010: 589).
How, then, can the EU avoid such a capture and the geopoliticization of questions of gender and sexual rights today? On 10 August 2020, the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI+ Rights sent a strongly worded letter to President Ursula von der Leyen, condemning the detention of LGBTI+ rights supporters in Warsaw. Unlike previous European Commission communications, the widely publicized letter went beyond simply denouncing the violent and unjustified actions of the police, pointing directly to how ‘the government led by the Law and Justice Party has been contributing to the rise of homophobia in Poland by tolerating and even praising such acts, whilst President Andrzej Duda described LGBTI+ people as “invasive ideology”’. What is more, the signatories of the letter (including Polish MEP Robert Biedroń) suggested a series of very concrete measures.
Citing the recent decision of the Commission to block funding to those Polish cities that declare themselves ‘LGBTI+ free zones’, they called upon President von der Leyen to take a strong stance against ‘the spreading of anti-LGBTI+ narrative by representatives of the Polish government’ through actions that are not simply symbolic but also financial, thus also ‘ensuring [the] rule of law conditionality’. The suggestion to link the Multiannual Financial Framework to a respect for the rule of law is a very important one. It allows the Commission to move beyond condemning violations of basic human rights in words alone (as it has done thus far). For it is not a question of affirming any sort of ‘moral superiority’ or ‘lesson giving’ but rather the respect of basic human rights enshrined in the EU’s treaties, to which Poland is a signatory.
In this sense, too, the letter marked a departure from previous condemnations of homophobia in Poland, steering clear of drawing moral–geographical divides. Rather than appealing to external EU legislation or to putative EU values, it cited the words of President Duda himself: ‘our treaties ensure that every person in Europe is free to be who they are, live where they like, love who they want and aim as high as they want’. Capturing Duda’s own words allowed the signatories to operate an important semantic – and thus also geopolitical – shift. The letter reminded both the Commission and the Polish authorities that the treaties are, in fact, ‘ours’ – and that it is the role of the Polish government (not external overseers) to ensure their application. Now also with the potential of real, not simply moral sanctions.
Yet as much as the letter writers may have attempted to avoid a geopoliticization of the events, they were framed in precisely these terms by the Polish government. Just days after the Commission confirmed that it would cut EU funding to those towns that had signed anti-LGBTI+ declarations, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that the Polish state would not only compensate the cities for this loss, but indeed offer them additional funding. Ziobro termed the Commission’s actions ‘ideological revenge’, and said that ‘the Polish state, in a legitimate reaction condemning the European Commission’s action, would stand together with the local authorities and the citizens’ (Wanat 2020). In describing the decision as ‘harassment’ and ‘unauthorized’, Ziobro very ably reframed the events: this was not about the legitimate rights of the Polish LGBTI+ community (and the legitimate right of EU institutions to enforce them), but (again) part of an ongoing moral–geopolitical struggle between Poland and Europe.
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