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Eastern Europe Project: LGBT+ Lives in Poland (part 2)

Svaja (right) at Baltic Pride

Our choir project for 2021 is focussed on LGBT+ lives in Eastern Europe and throughout the year we will be collaborating with two other LGBT+ choirs: Voces Gaudii based in Warsaw, Poland, and Obochina, based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Following our second event looking at Lives in Poland. Svaja, one of our lovely Altos, talks about how the event resonated with her and reminded her of what it’s like to be LGBT+ in Lithuania.

Hi, I’m Svaja and I’m a recent member of LGBT+ choir, The Pink Singers. It’s been a great joy and honour to be a part of this friendly and creative community where I feel safe and welcomed for who I am. Being part of the choir has taught me a lot about diversity within the LGBT+ community, and it’s been a pleasure to see that every individual is celebrated and accepted for their differences. 

I had a chance to attend the second event for our Eastern Europe Project and hear speakers from Voces Gaudii talk about life in Poland. I was deeply touched and overwhelmed hearing all the stories of how the government is depriving LGBT+ people from their basic rights and absolutely ignoring their existence. Seeing all those scary videos of the way people where treated when attending a pride parade reminded me of the first gay pride march in Lithuania in 2010. Although I didn’t have a chance to attend that pride, the parade was recorded and published over the news and it will always stay in my mind. I couldn’t believe what I saw, 350 participants from the Lithuanian LGBT community had to be protected by 800 policemen and were told to  march in the least public street in Vilnius. Barricades had been built to protect from homophobic people; among them quite a few politicians, who were shouting and expressing their discontent and disgust to what was happening. People were holding offensive banners and trying to jump over the barricades. I could see so much hatred and anger in people’s faces that it shocked me. Some of the politicians were walking with speakers and shouting offensive slogans and were inciting angry gangs to fight the ‘’gay agenda’’. 

Seeing such a hostile environment for LGBT+ people left a trace for many people and sent the message that this must be changed. Thankfully Baltic countries established the international Baltic Gay Pride, which will commence annually in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In 2013 Lithuania had a second gay pride and this time I was able to participate in it.

Over 1000 people came, including some guests from Sweden and American LGBT activists. This time we were able to march on the main street of Vilnius, protected by over 2000 policemen. Most of the crowd were very hostile: shouting slurs, holding offensive banners and throwing eggs to the participants.  The same politicians from 2010 gay pride came and expressed their negative feelings. One of them was arrested by the police for violent behaviour. It was an amazing feeling to be a part of the march and see quite a lot of supportive people, waving rainbow flags, which indicated that things are getting better in Lithuania. However, once the event was over me and my girlfriend threw away everything that could disclose our participation in the pride and ran as fast as we could, so that no homophobe would be able to attack us.

Here is a little bit about me… I was born in Lithuania and my first years of childhood were happy as I was surrounded by love and affection. Things started changing growing up as I started developing feelings for the same sex. At first, I was trying to deny them and decided to date men. Obviously, things didn’t work out and I had a hard time understanding what was wrong with me. I could not face the fact that I might be gay and was terrified by anyone finding out who I really am. There was very little information about homosexuality and most of it was translated from Russian, which was very bias and incorrect. Finally, I came to terms that I am a lesbian, and it was a very traumatising experience knowing how badly people were perceiving homosexuality in Lithuania. We lived under Soviet Union oppression for 40 years and homosexuals were sent to prison.  We were compared to pedophiles and our perverted ways were condemned by society.

My personal life was a big secret and I had to lie to my mum and my friends about it, which made me feel very lonely and dishonest. Finely, I decided to come out to my friends, my brother and my mum. Some of my friends said they already knew about it, and so did my brother. They were okay about it, but unfortunately my mum didn’t take it so well. It’s been a long journey for my mum to come with the terms of my sexuality, but I’m happy to say, that despite all the negative media information, she finely was able to accept that and came to see me in the next Lithuanian gay pride. 

Living in Lithuania became very awkward once I found a girlfriend and started living with her. I was not able to hold her hand in public or to declare my love for her to any living soul (apart from the LGBT community), not mentioning that there are no legal rights to marry or be in a civil partnership. Although Lithuania became a part of the EU in 2004, the situation with human rights was not improving. There was a scandal with one of lecturers from the University of Kaunas who was dismissed once he came out as gay. Seeing this situation unfold, me and my girlfriend decided to emigrate to the UK. It was a massive change for us and liberation for not having to hide our identity. Although the relationship didn’t work out, I decided to stay in the UK and attend every gay pride in Lithuania. I was pleasantly surprised with the last pride in 2019 seeing how Lithuania improved, as I could see rainbow flags in the centre of Vilnius and we were marching through the centre of the city, surrounded by friendly, smiley faces. There was no great need for as much security as before and there were very few people who expressed their anger. 

I am glad to acknowledge that a left-wing government was elected in 2020 and are considering to pass civil partnership law in Spring. I am very happy how Lithuania is becoming more tolerant and a modern country. And I know it’s going to be a long process, but we are definitely taking the right steps towards a happy and diverse society. 

Svaja, Alto

Check out our Eastern Europe Project page for more details on our project mission and our past blogs on LGBT+ lives in Russia.

Eastern Europe Project: LGBT+ Lives in Poland (Part 1)

Charly from the sopranos
Charly

Our choir project for 2021 is focussed on improving our awareness of LGBT+ lives in Eastern Europe and throughout the year we will be collaborating with two other LGBT+ choirs: Voces Gaudii based in Warsaw, Poland, and Obochina, based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In January 2021 we held our second event for the project looking at LGBT+ lives in Poland, here is a summary of what was discussed

Poland has been featured all over the news the last couple of years due to a huge backwards step for LGBT+ rights. Their current  President, Andrzey Duda, is proudly expressing his anti LGBT+ views and recently passed the controversial bill of the “LGBT free zone”. We wanted to get a better understanding of what it was like to live in Poland with these changing attitudes and what it’s like to grow up in a country so close to the UK but so far behind for LGBT+ people gaining acceptance in society, so members of our partner choir Voces Gaudii organised an online event for members of the Pink Singers.

A map of Poland showing that about a third of the country is effectively an “LGBT-free” zone. Map courtesy of activist collective @StrefyAntyLGBT Source: atlasnienawisci.pl

Throughout the session we were shown some videos and members of the choir provided us with personal stories. Kristof first took us through a potted history of LGBT+ rights in Poland from the 1800s to the present day.  They explained how attitudes were far more relaxed many years ago and Poland was one of the first to decriminalise homosexuallity, in 1932. 92% of the population is Roman Catholic and prior to the recent shift in attitudes, the main LGBT+ issue was that the religious community considered gay sex as a sin and most LGBT+ people hid their sexuality to “keep their grandmas happy”. However, in recent years the landscape has changed and since 2010 extreme right wing groups have been pushing back, to demonise homosexuality, stating that it threatens the traditional heterosexual Polish family. Most political parties are 90% conservative and side with these right wing attitudes, claiming homosexuality to be a Western ideology and not wanting to upset the Roman Catholic church.

Check out the video below following the recent vote and more about the ‘LGBT free zones’.

We heard that LGBT+ people are an unknown entity for many in Poland. There are no openly gay politicians, no openly gay singers and no-one on TV. It appears that everyone in the media is 100% straight and no famous person is out. There just aren’t any LGBT+ role models for those growing up and needing someone to look up to.  With these role models missing from every day society and the constant message that being queer is  wrong, 70% of LGBT+  teenagers have reported struggling with their mental health and having suicidal thoughts.

Polish law is blind to LGBT+ issues and it’s like these people are invisible apart from the clause that if you lose your job for being homosexual then this is illegal. There is no way to legalise your union  with someone of the same sex. If you are transgender then you have to sue your parents for assigning you the wrong gender at birth to enable you to change gender.

https://www.facebook.com/170500696298873/videos/439525853262406

We heard from another choir member, who talked about growing up in a small town and not knowing what a gay person was. They said that homosexuality had been eradicated from history as there were no references to it; the topic was non-existent. Now, young people find out about homosexuality from the internet or from programmes on Netflix. When she became financially independent she came out to her parents and was subsequently kicked out of the family home and ended up living in Warsaw. She said that she was lucky as the clothing she wears means she passes as a straight person and therefore doesn’t have too much hassle from homophobic people. She has cut ties with her old school friends so they don’t find out that she is gay. She has seen her parents and her family have met her partner after 10 years of being together, but her parents don’t talk about it with others and just say that she lives in Warsaw and has no husband or children. Warsaw is one of the more relaxed areas in Poland and has been holding an Equality Parade since 2001; a community pride parade. In 2019, there were over 50,000 attendees.

We were also introduced to a member of the Polish Rainbow network in the UK. This group organises direct action and social events in London and other cities in the UK for Polish LGBT+ people. They talked about leaving Poland after being beaten and thrown out for being gay. This  came after years of being bullied at school and at university. It was a fight or flight reaction and they decided to just leave and live in London. They said that young LGBT+ people in Poland feel like they are just not strong enough to stay there. When he returns he dresses down so he doesn’t stand out and is scared for his life. In some areas of Poland, LGBT+ people’s flats are set alight for no apparent reason. He said that gay rights are not seen as human rights and it’s just a lifestyle choice or a personal choice so it can’t be addressed.

Look out for Part 2 of our blog series coming soon. If you’re interested to find out more from LGBT+ people in Poland, visit Ideologia LGBT.

Charly, Soprano

LGBT+ History Month – Capturing our stories

This February, the Pink Singers is celebrating LGBT+ History Month with a series of talks, bringing to the surface the fascinating and diverse experiences of people within the choir, as well as those of the people we have had the pleasure to partner with.

In our final talk on 28 February 2021, Chris, the Pink Singers archive manager, sat down with Annie, Hsien and Pippa to reflect on the stories we have heard over the month and what we might learn from them.

  • What is “history” and what does it mean to “queer” history?
  • What are the barriers to our stories being collected and archived?
  • How is the story of the Pink Singers constructed and who gets to tell it? 
  • Where are the gaps and what can we do to fill them?

With the 40th anniversary of our choir just around the corner, we take a deep dive into how LGBT+ community groups like ours can preserve and (re)present our histories for ourselves and to others.

As part of our charitable aims promoting equality and diversity, the session was recorded and edited and can now be found on our Pink Singers YouTube channel.

Other talks in the series:

Week 1: Pink History With Sue Sanders

Week 2: Strike a Pose: The Northern Ballroom Scene with Oskar

Week 3: It’s a Sin!

LGBT+ History Month – It’s a Sin!

This February, the Pink Singers celebrated LGBT+ History Month 2021 with a series of talks, bringing to the surface the fascinating and diverse experiences of people within the choir, as well as those of the people we have had the pleasure to partner with.

Our third session on 21 February 2021 was themed loosely around the show “It’s A Sin”. Our host Will was joined by Pink Singers from the 80s Rosa and Howard, and Jules, Bruce and Sally-Anne who lived through this tumultuous time.

  • What was it like to leave home and come to London then?
  • What was the scene like and how did people find their chosen family?
  • How did HIV and AIDS affect individuals and communities?

We heard experiences of diagnosis and treatment, of community reaction and resistance, and of recent progress in the management of HIV/AIDS including U=U and PreP.

As part of our charitable aims promoting equality and diversity, the session was recorded and edited and can now be found on our Pink Singers YouTube channel.

Other talks in the series:

Week 1: Pink History With Sue Sanders

Week 2: Strike a Pose: The Northern Ballroom Scene with Oskar

Week 4: LGBT+ History Month – Capturing our Stories

Remembering Greenham Women – #IWD2021

In celebration of International Women’s Day we are remembering the women of Greenham Common.

During LGBT+ History Month we were scouring our archives and came across a recording by a former Pinkie about the great work of the Greenham women. We thought it would be a perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

It all started in 1981 with a march to RAF Greenham Common by a group of men and woman to protest against the decision to deploy US Cruise Missiles on British soil at the airbase and people stayed. It soon became “women only” with some women staying for many years. The base was surrounded by a nine-mile fence and the groups of women camped outside the various gates into and out of the base which were re-named after the colours of the rainbow (eg “blue gate” “orange gate” etc).

“I wrote this song to celebrate and recognise the triumph of the Greenham women who stayed for years. Despite of the intimidation, the bad press, the bullying and sometimes even suffering violence against them, they didn’t give up and they didn’t go home till the missiles were removed. These were brave women who came from all walks of life but a large majority of them were feminists and lesbians. It’s part of our woman’s history…. we must not forget.!!”
Rosa MacCormack (former pinkie)

The Greenham Newsletter, Winter ’87-’88.

Some, but by no means all of the woman there were lesbians and homophobia was very common in the popular press in the 1980’s. There was a strong feminist aspect to the camp which was influenced by the Suffragettes. Conditions at the camp were very basic. Woman created  a safe space where they could get involved in non-violent direct action. The women were however subject to abuse by some of the local residents and  evictions by bailiffs.  Many were arrested and several served prison sentences.

One of the most famous episodes was when 30,000 woman held hands around the base and another when a group danced on the silos! 

It was an important protest and the Cruise missiles were eventually removed. The Common has now been restored to the public and the efforts of the many women who protested and camped in the 1980s were an important factor in that. The women have been compared to “Extinction Rebellion” and many were profoundly affected by the Peace Camp. 

In the words of Rosa’s song:

Greenham woman don’t you go home, Greenham woman you’ve been there too long, Greenham woman in the danger zone, Greenham woman stands alone.. oh no.

They tried so hard to get their voices heard, tried so hard but no one hears a word.

The bombs, the guns, the soldiers and war games, and the politicians do this in our names.

Greenham woman don’t you go home….

Soldiers burst into their tents at night, A helicopter searches with a light.

Women climb the fence to get around and the soldiers come and knock them to the ground.

Greenham woman don’t you go home…. 

Children are the future of our world, they need a safe and loving home, they need a planet they can call their own so their mothers will not leave them without hope.

Greenham woman don’t you go home…. 

Standing on the frontline for peace, standing firm and standing fearlessly, soldiers try to scare them all away.. but while the bombs are there, the woman stay.

Greenham woman don’t you go home…. 

People demonstrating for world peace, come and join us stand defiantly, to stop the arms race stop the bloody war, to stand and shout we ain’t gonna take no more.

Greenham woman don’t you go home….