Pen and ink drawing of Fermoy Weir and Kent Bridge by ©Donal O'Keeffe.

With a quarter of Poland declaring itself ‘LGBT free’, it’s frightening to see how little we have learned from the Holocaust. Fermoy has to reject its twin town’s homophobia, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

When the National Socialist German Workers Party came to power in Germany in 1933, it quickly identified gay people as one of many groups to be targeted for persecution. The first thing the Nazis did to gay people was to outlaw homosexuality even as a concept.

Germany’s vibrant gay community was criminalised and gay clubs were shut down. Scholarly works on homosexuality, including those by Jewish gay rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld, were publicly burned. Gay people, condemned as “degenerate”, were not allowed to socialise. Sexual acts between men were proscribed under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code. Homosexuality, you see, would impede the spread of Hitler’s beloved – and entirely imaginary – Aryan race. Gay men and women were arrested and tortured to compel them to identify other people as gay. 

Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested and charged with being homosexual. About half were jailed. Estimates vary, but between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, where leading scholar Rüdiger Lautmann reckons at least 60% died.

In the camps, those wearing the pink triangle – which marked them out as what we would now call LGBTQI+ – suffered levels of cruelty, horrific even by the standards of the Nazi death camps. Gay prisoners were subjected to brutal medical experiments to “cure” homosexuality, and many were murdered for target practice.

It is deeply depressing, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, to look at Poland’s ‘LGBT-free’ zones and realise that humanity really hasn’t moved on at all. Approximately a quarter of Poland has declared itself unwelcoming to ‘LGBT ideology’, which effectively means LGBTQI+ people are unwelcome in those areas. (Poland is one of just six European countries yet to legalise marriage equality.)

As is often the way with sex-obsessed right-wingers – and we still have them in abundance in Ireland – this all began with sex education. In February 2019, politicians from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) objected to the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski’s signing a declaration in support of LGBTQI+ rights, and announcing his intention to follow World Health Organisation guidelines and integrate them into Warsaw schools’ sex education curriculum. 

PiS party leader, former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, called the Warsaw mayor’s statement ‘an attack on the family and children’ and declared LGBTQI+ rights an ‘imported’ ideology. The background to this was that, two weeks before the 2019 European elections, the online release of a documentary about clerical paedophilia in the Polish Catholic Church was expected to hurt the electoral performance of the Church-aligned PiS.

According to feminist scholar Agnieszka Graff, “The attack on LGBT was triggered by the [Warsaw] Declaration, but that was just a welcome excuse” for PiS to demonise LGBTQI+ people in an effort to woo rural and traditionalist voters. A few months later the Archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewski, condemned ‘LGBT ideology’ as ‘a rainbow plague’. 

By January 2020, over 80 ‘LGBT free’ zones had been declared in Poland, most of them in the south-eastern and central parts of the country, a move condemned by the EU Parliament. 

A 2019 study by the University of Warsaw found that two-thirds of LGBTQI+ people in the country have experienced psychological or physical violence. 70% of LGBTQI+ teenagers in Poland admitted to having had suicidal thoughts.

In last week’s Avondhu, Donal O’Siochru broke the story that Fermoy’s twinning committee intends to sever ties with its twin town in Poland, Nowa Dęba. Nowa Dęba is smack in the middle of the bright-red south-eastern quarter of Poland which is ‘LGBT free’. A member of the committee told The Avondhu “We would deplore anything associated with any statement of homophobia”. 

The twinning committee is a non-political body, acting solely as an agent of Cork County Council, so any decision to un-twin would have to be taken by elected representatives. That said, my friend Owen O’Keefe, who campaigned for Yes Equality in the Avondhu region during the 2015 marriage equality referendum, told me that he remembers – during the referendum campaign – the twinning committee welcoming to Fermoy the mayor of Fermoy’s other twinned town, Ploemeur in France, and making a point of noting warmly and publicly that the Mayor had recently presided over Ploemeur’s first same-sex wedding.

We’re all political, in our own way. It’s a political decision every single day just to try to be a decent human being.

Owen and I were chatting, a month or so ago, about Nowa Dęba, and about the likelihood that Fermoy would soon have to make a decision as to whether it would take a stand against such blatant homophobia. Owen told me at the time that he hoped his native town would do the right thing and send a clear signal of solidarity to Poland’s LGBTQI+ community.

Councillor Noel McCarthy says he intends to raise at the next meeting of Cork County Council the prospect of Fermoy un-twinning from Nowa Dęba. (I have a 2015 photo of Noel with his then-Labour Party colleague Seán Sherlock TD and me in Fermoy with a Yes Equality poster (see underneath) – I like to caption it ‘Seen here in happier times’.) 

L-R: Noel McCarthy, Donal O’Keeffe and Sean Sherlock campaigning for marriage equality.

Ireland was, until far too recently, a cold house for our own LGBTQI+ community, only decriminalising homosexuality in 1993. Indeed, it was hard not to see the result of our marriage equality referendum, and the subsequent outpouring of goodwill, as a heartfelt apology from Ireland to countless generations of Irish people whose lives were destroyed by our own institutionalised homophobia, and a solemn promise that Ireland will never again discriminate against anyone for the love in their heart.

Fermoy voted, like the rest of Cork East, by 61.7% in the marriage equality referendum, just below the national average of 62.07%. Polish friends have told me of Catholic priests railing from the altar that ‘LGBT propaganda’ must be resisted, lest Poland suffer the same fate as Ireland, once a staunchly Catholic country, and now, God love us, ‘corrupted by homosexuality’. 

As one of the thousands of people who knocked on doors for marriage equality, and who were met for the most part with overwhelmingly positive responses, I’m very glad to live in a country so ‘corrupted’ and am proud to hail (almost) from a town where we’re not afraid to stand up to bullies, or to show unambiguously whose side we’re on. I am confident that Fermoy will do the right thing.

In Ireland, five years ago, we embraced our fellow citizens and told them we are desperately sorry for our past cruelty. And while the Irish sex-obsessed right-wingers screeched about ‘the children’, we ignored the Flanderses and embraced all of our children and cherished them equally and looked to a kinder future. 

In time, too, Poland will do the right thing. When it does, Fermoy will embrace again our friends in Nowa Dęba. Until then, we stand with Poland’s LGBTQI+ community.