Friday, 7 August 2009

Soyez réalistes!

Demo for civil unions, July 14th, photo by Magda Mosiewicz
Demo for civil unions,
14th July 2009
(photo by Magda Mosiewicz)
Yesterday, I took part in a meeting of Polish LGBT activists organized to discuss the question of same-sex unions. Some activists initiated the discussion in order to establish, which legal form of recognition of gay and lesbian relationships would be preferable. Not that we have a generous offer from any parliamentary party at the moment. The political context is not helpful, to say the least, but even in unfriendly conditions it may be worthwile to take some effort and fix the direction for future struggles. And it is especially valuable that we discuss a common strategy. Ii is a new quality in Polish LGBT movement. The important decisions are less and less the prerogative of a few organizers. Approximately a year ago we started to form an anchored public sphere of our own.

Obviously enough, the question of legal recognition is controversial in the eyes of general public. But it is also potentially divisive within LGBT community itself. For some, gay marriage would be a fulfillment of our emancipation, the symbol of equal dignity and recognition. For others, marriage as such is a survival of patriarchy with no real value, and gay marriage would be a depressive sign of cooptation of once radical movement into the System. For some, the French PaCS is a wonderful, flexible, and open institution -- not limited to gay or straight couples. For others, it is an unacceptable solution, since it is not a vehicle of public recognition, and is even open for non-sexual and non-intimate, purely contractual relationships. For some, separate civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples is a second-best to marriage, or even a proud badge of difference. For others, it would be a form of "sexual apartheid," effectively creating second class citizens. So, whatever the result of our discussions, some will be happy with it, and some will be sad, disappointed, even hurt.

Unfortunately, there are no progressive forces in power that could create an inclusive system of institutions suitable for people with different dreams, needs and self-conceptions. The question is which solution would open the process of further social change in that direction. Perhaps this is the one that should be given priority. But who really knows which one it is?

What struck me at the meeting was readiness of many activists to subordinate to the notion of "being realistic." Being realistic means not demanding too much, but focusing on small steps that hopefully might be accepted by a majority. In particular, it means not speaking about adoption or marriage. And the acceptance of the Constitution with its apparent ban on gay marriage as the unsurpassable horizon of LGBT demands.

For many people the idea of demanding a change to the Constitution seems unthinkable. I can understand that. In Poland, projects of constitutional change are the domain of the right and especially of the extreme right. They want to change the Constitution in order better to protect foetuses, to end the system of proportional representation, to trim social entitlements to free health care and education, and so on and so forth. In recent years, progressive forces have been mainly focused on protecting the Constitution. Whereas the Right does not lack courage to revolt and demand a radical change, the Left is focused on the conservative task of defending the status quo. For many left-to-the-centre people, the attitude towards the Constitution constitutes a dividing line between decent and undecent politics.

But what if one should be somewhat less "decent" in order to gain anything?

The Constitution of 1997 says in Article 18 that "Marriage as a union of a man and a woman, as well as the family, motherhood and parenthood, shall be placed under the protection and care of the Republic of Poland." It is generaly undestood -- and was meant to -- "protect" marriage as a straight-only institution. But as some lawyers have pointed, it may be understood as protecting straight marriage not only against gay marriage, but also against other forms of legal recognition of straight couples. So even a law establishing civil unions as open for both gay and straight couples deems at the moment too radical. The Constitutional Tribunal may strike it down. That is why civil partnerships as an LGBT-only institution seem to be the most realistic from the legal point of view... of course, unless it is too similar to marriage.

It is a catch-22 situation, isn't it? Perhaps we should finally stop thinking about what is and what is not constitutional, and focus on what is actually desirable. We have a chance to learn to be truly realistic, and demand the impossible.

Adam Ostolski

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