Can Europe Make It?

Trans rights: Poland's last iron curtain

A new iron curtain in Poland is being drawn between mainstream society and its most vulnerable groups. Part of our series on What's Left in Poland?

Wiktor Dynarski
5 February 2014

Warsaw Equality Parade 2012. Demotix/Lukasz Novosadzki. Some righst reserved.

When one considers the recent political history of Central Europe, one should definitely think about the fall of the Berlin Wall and its effect in the bringing down of the Iron Curtain. When Communism and Socialism fell, democracy immediately prevailed, creating a whole new understanding of what constitutes a state, its values and whom it swears to protect.

This is, of course, a less-than-basic overview of the region's history and a quite ironic glimpse at contemporary Poland and its attempts to balance the idea of a democratic government with a somewhat inherited need to be in control of society in general. And when it comes to the rights of vulnerable groups, this is no exception.

Not a minority

Vulnerable groups (a phrasing which, unlike the word minority, concentrates on issues faced by a number of people sharing a similar feature rather than their numbers) are very often misunderstood by a society prone to judge them using simplified ideas and attitudes. When one defines themselves outside of a vulnerable group and lacks a need to engage in a dialogue with the group's representatives, a line is drawn between the group and what can be identified as “society in general”. A line separating the two, often blocking any type of information exchange, including communication surrounding the needs of those seen as vulnerable (or even the recognition of such needs). This is where the idea of the Iron Curtain serves its metaphorical, rather than historical, purpose. Much as there was (officially) little talk about and need for democracy behind the actual Iron Curtain, today, even less is being said about trans* rights and the needs of trans* people.

An emerging issue

One cannot escape the obvious fact that trans* (or transgender) rights are a relatively new idea, especially when one considers a human rights perspective on these matters. Trans* rights are, naturally, not as recent as the emerging intersex agenda, but continue to baffle both the Right and the Left.

On one hand, they are seen as an issue of mental health, which is mostly due to the fact that for many people, Gender Identity Disorder, a category existing in the current version of the International Classification of Diseases, functions as a gateway to proper healthcare. And it does. In many places around the world a lack of a transsexual diagnosis automatically bans a person from transition-specific healthcare and a possibility to live in their preferred gender, whether legally or socially.

On the other hand, since transgender as a concept challenges biological determination of future gender roles, identities and expressions, it is often seen as a lifestyle choice. The need to transition is often dismissed as a simple wish and crossing gender boundaries as a mean to change (and therefore simply better) one's social status. A common, and quite often mentioned, effort to picture transgender issues as a social hoax in Poland is the image of “a man transitioning into a woman to gain his pension rights faster”. Needless to say, if one is aware of the social, legal and medical implications of transition, such an argument remains not just invalid, but simply absurd.

Protecting people from themselves

As much as the pre-democratic system claimed it is the best solution and the only available option for its society, consciously distorting the image of the West, today's laws and medical practice put itself as all-knowing, working for the better good. One can argue that a pre-transition mental health assessment followed by a diagnosis, often restricted to those who pass a number of tests, including the much criticized real life experience, and therapy sessions to convince the system (both medical and legal) that one is transgender – does not resemble a process aimed to work on the actual well-being of transgender people. It is rather a safe-guard for the system itself. What trans* people often hear when are confronted by the reality of a long and highly medicalized process is an argument that cannot logically stand on its own: “We need to make sure that you are who you actually claim you are”. In other words – “We are here to protect you from yourself”.

And only from yourself. Poland has one of the most complicated legal gender recognition procedures in Europe (eg. a civil court case involving one's parents), but does not provide affordable trans-specific healthcare. A decision to transition is often a struggle between having one's gender recognized and being able to simply survive. With Poland's already poor employment situation, such a vulnerable group stands little to no chance without proper state insurance schemes.

There is almost no legislation protecting transgender people from discrimination, especially when one considers those who do not transition. Neither gender identity nor gender expression are recognized as a discrimination ground. Although discrimination based on gender recognition is seen as gender discrimination (through the EU Gender ReCast Directive), it still leaves a number of trans* people unprotected. Trans* people face extreme difficulties on the job market (including receiving new certificates of employment), trans* youth are confronted with school bullying, a distinctive lack of general information on their rights and, what is rarely acknowledged, homelessness. A transgender child is often left on their own, very often not being able to voice their needs even to their parents. The system glorifying itself as absorbed with family issues and children's well-being does not have any answers to trans* youth's needs.

Advocates of their own cause

Bringing down the Iron Curtain in Europe was inevitable and could not have been achieved without a revolution, however one decides to define it. Although, to be successful a revolution first needs to capture the people's hearts and minds, and it seems that it is exactly what we are witnessing in Poland. After 1989 there was a number of initiatives to help embrace the feeling of a community and, in the end, change the overall situation of trans* people in Poland. Most of them have either dissolved or kept their activities on a low level, working as support groups and online message boards. In 2008, a new organization for supporting trans* people was created. Even though the initiative aimed to create a network of accessible support groups and social spaces, in just a few years it has found itself on a road to advocacy and – to almost everyone's surprise – created professional trans* leaders, one of which made her way to the Polish Parliament.

The 2011 elections and Anna Grodzka's new political path have indeed set both Trans-Fuzja's possibilities and goals very high, they have also shown that one can achieve significant change (or a chance for one) when demonstrating the power and will to do so. What happened became a milestone for those seeking self-empowerment and tools to argument for their own cause – there was now a person whose trans* agenda was not only clear but simply hones. We gained our own stateswoman.

The LGBT agenda

With Anna Grodzka and Robert Biedroń, two former LGBTI activists, in the Polish Sejm, it was only a matter of time before various initiatives aimed to better the situation of the LGBTI community were submitted to the Polish Parliament. From three registered partnership proposals and a draft law on gender recognition culminating in 2013, it was only the trans* agenda which made it through the political machine, as each and every registered partnership proposal fell under huge criticism and accusations of violating the Polish Constitution. The Gender Accordance Act, Grodzka's signature trans* proposal, passed the so-called “constitutional test” and its first reading in the Sejm with 224 votes giving the proposal a chance and 198 opposing it. The Iron Curtain cracked.

What is next for Poland?

With extremism on the horizon and on the rise in Europe, as observed with the latest opposition to the “Lunacek report” and the emerging discussions about the question of “gender ideology”, it is hard to say what are the next real steps for the Polish trans* agenda and whether it will withstand the current ongoing attacks from its opposition. What is certain, though, is the fact that the revolution is already in our hearts and bringing down the Curtain is simply a matter of time. We will prevail.

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