Who can be a true Pole? On gender panic

Gender has become one of the most frequently used words in the Polish public arena. The economy, foreign relations, immigration – nothing raises the temperature of a discussion like “gender.” According to one side of the debate, feminists, women, and LGBT movements are seen as a main threat to the substance of “Polishness.”

Foto: CreativeCommons/ Paul Sableman

On December 29, 2013, the day on which Catholics celebrate the Sunday of the Holy Family, a letter written by bishops was read to the congregations of all Polish churches: “This truth [about the institution of marriage] comes from God, for ‘God himself is the author of marriage’… God created the human being as a man and a woman and made the existence – in flesh and in spirit – of a man ‘for’ a woman and a woman ‘for’ a man a great and irreplaceable gift and task of married life. God based the family on the foundation of marriage joined for life by the unbreakable and exclusive bond of love. He decided that such family will be a suitable environment for bringing up children that the family gives life to and ensures their material and spiritual development [sic].

The very bad “gender” word

The bishops emphasized that the Christian concept of marriage derives from nature and should be protected. But whose attacks does it need to be protected from? According to the authors of the letter, the attacks are coming from “supporters of the gender ideology.” “Gender ideology” (in Polish ideologia gender) is a term which appeared in the Polish media in summer 2013 and quickly became widely discussed, first by Catholic priests and lay Catholic journalists, and next by feminist scholars who tried to explain that gender was not an ideology, but rather an analytic term very helpful for understanding the cultural and social sources of discrimination against women, domestic violence, and male and female social roles and sexual identities. After a few months, everybody was discussing gender – surprisingly, this academic term had become the main topic of Polish public debate. The pastoral letter appeared at the precise moment when the debate had become really heated. Bishops decided to explain what it was all about and to defend Catholic values: “Confronted with increasing attacks against different aspects of family and social life coming from this ideology, we are compelled to speak out clearly in defence of the Christian family and the fundamental values that support it, on the one hand, and on the other, to warn against threats stemming from propagating new forms of family life.”

They start with the definition of “gender ideology.” According to them, it is “the product of many decades of ideological and cultural changes that are deeply rooted in Marxism and neo-Marxism endorsed by some feminist movements and the sexual revolution. This ideology promotes principles that are totally contrary to reality and an integral understanding of human nature… According to this ideology, humans can freely determine whether they want to be men or women and freely choose their sexual orientation. This voluntary self-determination, not necessarily life-long, is to make the society accept the right to set up new types of families – for instance, families built on homosexual relations.”

Next they stressed “the danger of gender ideology.” According to the bishops, it is destructive for individuals and for society: “Humans unsure of their sexual identity are not capable of discovering and fulfilling tasks that they face in their marital, family, social and professional lives. Attempts to form different types of relations de facto seriously weaken marriage as a community created by a man and a woman and the family built on marriage.” Finally, they perceive it as overwhelming: “the gender ideology has been slowly introduced into different structures of social life: education, health service, cultural and education centres and non-governmental organisations. Some media portray this ideology in a positive way: as a means to counteract violence and to aim for equality.”

Next, the bishops continue to the topic of discrimination: “The Church unequivocally opposes discrimination on the grounds of sex, but at the same time recognises the danger of eliminating the differences existing in the sexes. The fact that there exist two sexes is not the source of discrimination; it is the lack of a spiritual reference, human selfishness and pride that need to be continually overcome. The Church will never agree to debasing persons with a homosexual inclination, but at the same time it strongly underscores that homosexual activity is profoundly disorderly and that marriage as a community of a man and a woman as a social phenomenon cannot be put on par with a homosexual relationship.”

Finally, they “appeal to institutions responsible for Polish education not to yield under pressure from the few but very loud groups with not inconsiderable financial resources, which in the name of modern education carry out experiments on children and young people. We call on educational institutions to engage in the promotion of an integral vision of man.” By “experiments,” they meant sex education based on WHO standards, as well as anti- discrimination classes held in some Polish schools by feminist and LGBT  NGOs.

Although the bishops’ letter sounds like a very strong critique of gender, in comparison to other Catholic statements on the topic, it seems very moderate. For instance, Father Darius Oko, a philosopher and the most prominent critic of gender in Poland, compares “gender ideology” to totalitarian regimes of the 20th century; he is explicit that “the gender ideology” and the “homolobby” (as he calls the LGBT movement) are the creations of Satan. 1

Poles, Catholics and others

Why do Catholics fight so fiercely against gender? Feminists, LGBT activists, secular public intellectuals and left-oriented journalists offer at least two interpretations: according to the first and the most popular, Catholics started to discuss gender to shift the public debate away from pedophilia scandals in the Polish Church. To support this explanation it is stressed that, for instance, Archbishop Józef Michalik, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, said that “the gender ideology” was the reason for pedophilia. According to the second understanding, this is the Church’s way of responding to the recent crisis of Poles attending religious rituals and leading a Catholic lifestyle less and less. Social research shows, for instance, that only the minority (less than 15%) of Poles follow the Catholic rules regarding contraceptives. Both explanations could be partly true; however, I would argue for a more systemic interpretation. In my view, the recent debate over gender is part of a broader struggle over what social scientists call “cultural citizenship.” Cultural citizenship is more than having a passport from a given state; it is more than citizens’ rights and duties. It is about the sense of belonging and identity: could feminists, gay and trans people, or men and women who do not follow patterns of traditional gender roles fully belong to the Polish nation? Could gay people identify as true Poles? Could they call themselves Polish patriots? Could they be national heroes?

The debate over cultural citizenship can be traced back to at least 1989. The fall of communism started the struggle over gender and sexuality. In Poland, as well as in other countries of the region, the beginning of the 1990s were marked by substantial change, the transition from the state-regulated economy to the free market, from socialism to neoliberalism, from the totalitarian regime to democracy. After years of struggle, Poles could finally express their thoughts freely. What was the first big public debate in Poland? Was it the economy? Was it the state? Was it the Church? No – it was abortion. Under communism, in Poland as well other Central European countries, abortion was legal and easily accessible. The debate over abortion was very much about the role of women: could they have careers outside the household, or should they focus on childbearing? The Church, an important actor within this debate, argued that true Polish women should dedicate themselves to rebuilding the Polish nation after socialism; abortion was perceived as a threat to the nation (leading to fewer Poles). The heated debate ended with the total ban of abortion in 1993. (It is allowed only when a woman’s health or life is endangered, the fetus is seriously malformed or the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act. But even then, it is not easy to find a hospital where it can be done.)

The abortion debate was not the only one in that period, and the ban was not the only change in Polish law related to gender and sexuality during the time of transition. Under socialism it was relatively easy to change one’s gender. Gender reassignment surgeries and the psychological therapy that goes with them were fully sponsored by the state; since the early 1990s, however, patients have had to pay for them. The legal procedure of changing gender had before been rather bureaucratized, but since 1989 it has become way more complicated and requires a lawsuit against one’s parents. 2 Contraceptives and in vitro fertilization were subsidized by the socialist state. 3 This was also changed in the 1990s. Apart from the 1993 abortion debate, the beginning of the 1990s also witnessed other public discussions on gender and sexuality – for instance on masturbation, which Catholic intellectuals argued was a threat to the Polish nation, while the other side argued for more sexual diversity in Poland. In all cases, the Church has used gender and sexuality to strengthen its position in Poland.

The rainbow of change

At the same time, feminist and LGBT movements emerged and gradually started to make claims about citizenship and belonging. “We are Poles too” was the message implicitly expressed during marches and parades where the Polish flag appeared next to the rainbow one, as well as when feminist and queer historians and literary critics argued that important figures of Polish literature and history were homosexuals. For instance, Maria Konopnicka, the author of Rota, one of the most important Polish poems and the symbol of the Polish struggle for independence and connection to the Catholic Church, was described as a life partner of Maria Dulębianka, an early Polish feminist. 4

If we place the debate over “the gender ideology” in this context, it becomes clear that this is the continuation of earlier debates over cultural citizenship – especially heated now, as more and more often the Polish national identity is defined as diverse, not necessarily Catholic, and increasing numbers of Poles do not follow a Catholic lifestyle.

Since the early 1990s many analysts have claimed that the 1993 abortion debate, along with other discussions over sexuality and gender, are just red herrings designed to redirect the public debate away from more important topics, such as the economy. In an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, Marcin Król, a philosopher and an important figure in the anti-communist opposition, criticizes Polish elites for paying too much attention to gender, morality, sex and gender discrimination and argues that this causes a lack of attention towards social and economic inequality.

I would argue that sexuality and gender are at the center of the construction of national identity. Belonging to the national community and gaining cultural citizenship depends on the proper sexual and gender behavior and identity. The Church and feminist/LGBT activists have different views on Polish national identity. The struggle is ongoing. A brief look on the Polish public debate – wherein feminists have to explain that feminism does not cause pedophilia, as the Church claims – may lead to the conclusion that the Church is winning. But a deeper analysis of Poles’ lifestyle and beliefs shows that Poles are not so Catholic anymore, and the Church is simply using gender and sexuality to defend itself.


  1.  See for example “Gender – ideologia totalna (Gender: the totalitarian ideology),” an interview with Father Dariusz Oko, . I provide more examples of Catholic discussions on homosexuality in: “Churches and religious communities in view of LGBT persons”. In: M. Makuchowska, M Pawlęga, eds. 2012, Situation of LGBT Persons in Poland. 2010 and 2011 Report, pp. 145-165, trans. Grzegorz Łętowski.
  2.   Dębińska M. 2013. Natura, kultura i hybrydy. Prawne konstrukcje transseksualizmu, „Lud” 97, pp. 221–224.
  3.  In vitro fertilization has been a subject of heated debates since then. See Radkowska-Walkowicz M. 2012. “The creation of ‘monsters’: the discourse of opposition to in vitro fertilization in Poland,” Reproductive Health Matters, vol. 20, no. 40.
  4.  See e.g.: Tomasik, K. 2008. Homobiografie. Pisarki i pisarze polscy XIX i XX wieku (Homobiographies: Polish writers of the 19th and 20th century). Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej. It is worth noting that similar debates took place in other post-socialist contexts, see e.g.: Renkin, H.Z. 2009. “Homophobia and queer belonging in Hungary”. Focaal—European Journal of Anthropology 53, pp. 20-37.
Agnieszka Kościańska

Agnieszka Kościańska

is a cultural anthropologist and Vice Director of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. Recently she published Płeć, przyjemność i przemoc. Kształtowanie wiedzy eksperckiej o seksualności w Polsce [Gender, Pleasure and Violence. The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland].