Polish LGBT activist discusses progress past and present
Krzysztof Śmiszek, a Polish human rights lawyer, activist, and managing editor of The Anti-Discrimination Law Review, spoke Monday at Weiser Hall to University of Michigan students and faculty about the obstacles and successes with modern LGBTQ rights in Poland. Śmiszek’s lecture was broken up into four key parts: the legal system of Poland, the lack of transgender rights, how the European Union influences Poland’s laws and the future of LGBTQ rights.
Śmiszek spoke to the legal system of Poland being particularly difficult to crack through, and how he and his team of lawyers are working to legalize civil unions.
“Since 2003, there were eight attempts to introduce civil unions,” Śmiszek. “So far, we are one of the last European Union countries without any legislation of this kind. Poland is also another country without any protection against homophobic, transphobic hate speech and hate crime, which has been condemned many times by the council of Europe.”
Śmiszek noted similarities between Poland and the U.S.’s struggle for LGBTQ rights. He brought up a Polish Supreme Court case known as the “printer case” that bears resemblance to the well-known Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision in which a same-sex couple sued a Colorado baker for refusing to make a wedding cake. The main difference between the cases, however, was that the Polish Supreme Court said that sexual orientation, race or gender could not be the basis for refusal of services, whereas American courts place a much larger emphasis on freedom of religionl.
Śmiszek said coming to the University helps to promote the exchange of ideas within international legal systems, and helps him identify areas of improvement in Poland’s activism.
“I’m a human rights lecturer and academic, but at the same time, I’m an LGBT activist and lawyer litigating different pieces on LGBT discrimination,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “I think it’s important to present this perspective to American colleagues. I get to learn whether the U.S. is behind the equality agenda or not. Exchanging experiences and thoughts about where is the place of LGBT rights in the American or Polish legal system is important. I am here to learn from the American perspective, and I am astonished at what the LGBT community has achieved in this country in the last 40-50 years.”
Sociology Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui, director of the Donia Human Rights Center, said their center brings in speakers based on the desires of the students.
“I teach a course on human rights, and in that class and outside of the classroom I sense and I hear our students having questions about what is going on in the world,” Tsutsui said. “They want to learn about human rights’ standards in the world, the various laws- international and domestic. So we are here to provide that information because we have a lot of people on campus and outside campus who have great expertise on human rights issues, politics, and law.”
While many of the people in attendance were professors, LSA freshman Jagienka Timek, a Polish student, was one of many students who came to the lecture. Timek said she tries to keep up with news from her home country, but didn’t feel like she knew a lot about LGBTQ issues.
“My parents are from Poland, and I am strongly Polish,” Simek said. “I like to stay up to date with the current political climate in Poland, and LGBT rights, it hasn't been in the mainstream in news outlets necessarily. Going to Poland every summer, and seeing the referendums, seeing people on the streets, demonstrating, it makes a personal impact on me. There are no protections against discrimination or hate crimes, and that was crazy to me.”
The event also drew people from outside the University community. Kasia Kietlinska, an English and Rhetoric professor at Oakland University, said she was excited when she saw the event because of her immersion in Polish culture.
“I’m Polish and live in Ann Arbor –– I follow everything,” Kietlinska said. “I'm addicted to reading Polish publications. It just seemed incredibly perceptive. He really knows his stuff. And just noticing how LGBT rights have progressed, from being not being not very popular for the center to right parties, to then becoming accepted by these relatively conservative groups of people, even in the mainstream.”
At the end of the lecture, Śmiszek emphasized there are great strides being made in the LGBTQ community, and there has been a vast increase in participation in public demonstrations and events.
“In 1998, the Pride Festival brought together only three people with their faces covered –– three brave activists,” Śmiszek said. “And twenty years later, there were almost 80,000 people marching on Warsaw streets.”
Śmiszek also mentioned the election of Anna Grodzka was the first openly transgender member of parliament in Poland, and these achievements give hope to the future of the movement. In contrast, the United States has never had an openly transgender member of Congress. Śmiszek said he hopes students will continue to fight for the progression of LGBTQ rights here in America as well.
“You have to talk to others,” Śmiszek said. “It is a challenge to speak to those who are hostile. But, you have to believe in your fight and not give up. It took 20 years in Poland, and it started with extremely brave people who started this discussion around LGBT rights. And now, I would say you have a blossoming of LGBT infrastructure and activism.”