A Tarnished Icon

Article excerpt

Byline: Kamil Tchorek

Lech Walesa brought down Communist Poland, but now he's besmirching his own reputation.

By 1984, Lech Walesa was an icon. A Polish shipyard electrician with modest farming roots, he had come from nowhere to inspire a workers' revolt that brought the monster of communism to its knees. He was discussed by statesmen in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. He had demonstrated the power of religious faith, and had privately met with Pope John Paul II. The way he cut his mustache had become fashionable. The blood-soaked logo of his Solidarity trade union sold T-shirts in Paris, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. Western publications had named him "Man of the Year." The rock band U2 had dedicated a song to him. He had played himself in a movie made by Poland's greatest director, Andrzej Wajda. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He had served an 11-month jail term for his fight for freedom. On release, he had turned down a cynical attempt by the regime to co-opt him into their dictatorship. Instead, he had returned to his children and to his wife, to his church and to his humble day job. He was an everyman and yet he was a superman. He was the salt of the earth and yet he had changed the world.

That same year, at his little flat in Gdansk, Walesa shared a bear hug and a celebratory bottle of champagne with a visitor many people today will find surprising. It was none other than the openly bisexual pop star and gay-rights campaigner (now Sir) Elton John. Nearly two decades later, Walesa's once impregnable reputation outside of Poland is in ruins, because of his comments about gay people.

"They have to know that they are a minority and must adjust to smaller things. And not rise to the greatest heights, the greatest hours, the greatest provocations, spoiling things for the others and taking from the majority," he said in a recent television interview. He argued that gay people do not have the right to sit on the most prominent seats in Parliament and, if represented at all, should sit "closer to the wall or even behind the wall."

"A minority should not impose itself on the majority," Walesa added. "I don't want this minority--with whom I don't agree, but tolerate and understand--to demonstrate in the streets and twist the heads of my children and grandchildren."

Though Poland is steeped in Catholic tradition, it is also going through spectacular social change, which appears to have left Walesa in the 20th century. Openly gay celebrities appear on television every day, gay nightclubs are a feature of every big city, and in 2010 Poland was the first country in eastern Europe to host the Europride demonstration (for days after, gay couples walked hand in hand through central Warsaw). In 2011, Poles elected their first openly gay M.P., Robert Biedron, who was previously a gay-rights campaigner. In the same election, Poland became the first country in European history to elect a transsexual M.P., Anna Grodzka (previously known as Krzysztof Begowski). Walesa's remarks were made in the context of a failed civil partnerships bill.

They might have gone unnoticed if they had been said in the more conservative Poland of the 1990s. But this month, condemnation from Polish public figures has been immediate and fierce. Walesa "disgraced the Nobel prize," said Monika Olejnik, one of Poland's most prominent journalists. A pressure group filed a complaint with prosecutors in Walesa's hometown of Gdansk, alleging "propaganda of hate against a sexual minority." Biedron, the gay M.P., asked: "If we accept the rules proposed by Lech Walesa, then where would blacks sit? They are also a minority." (Poles have elected two African-born M.P.s out of their black community of just 5,000.) A public-opinion survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose Walesa's position. In Poland's Parliament, in pointed defiance of Walesa, lawmakers with front-row seats gave up their places for Grodzka and Biedron. …