The fish rots from the head.
It’s a Polish expression. I heard it through the simultaneous translation at the “Bridges of Tolerance” conference in Krakow November 27-29. The interpreter told me it’s a common Polish expression when talking about problems in politics or society. I take it to mean that if you’re thinking is corrupt, your actions will be corrupt as well.
I was invited to the conference to provide an “American” perspective on how the media covers gay and lesbian issues. Of course, there is no monolithic “American” perspective but I did my best.
The topic is especially sensitive in Poland, which is deeply Catholic, unlike Ireland with its strained distrust thanks to ongoing priest and nun abuse accounts which continue to pop up, and unlike the United States where many American Catholics are quite happy to break to with the Vatican on birth control, abortion and accepting gays and lesbians without believing they are sinning.
In Poland, the Catholic Church is the symbol of resistance against the Russians and before them the Nazis, and before the Nazis, the Russians again. Pope John Paul II was Polish, and involved in the underground during World War II, so Poland has a special relationship with the Vatican, and have a deserved pride (although few Poles would comment on the Vaticans conspicuous silence during the Spanish Civil War, the 20th century’s bloody Catholic fratricide from which the Vatican stayed away.)
But what they refer to as the “homosexual problem” in Poland has caught them, and the rest of Europe, off guard. The country is not only traditional but homogenous, so when gays and lesbians flexed their free expression muscle by putting on a gay pride parade in Warsaw in 2005 without permission from the city, it was the country’s first experience with a minority demanding to be recognized. And like many other countries before them, it was met with resistance.
The Vatican is quite clear about how it regards homosexuality, and Poland takes its cue from Rome. But it has now become an issue for many gay and lesbian activists who say they are discriminated against. They won a small victory the summer of 2006 when the city of Warsaw allowed a gay pride parade, but gays and lesbians face a much tougher opponent: Polish national identity, which many feel threatened by entry into the European Union, and the introduction of the euro by 2012.
The Polish press is a mirror of this confusion about how to address “the homosexual problem”. And I think that’s quite normal, as I said on this panel about how gay and lesbian issues are covered in the media. Participating in a democracy, whether as a journalist watch dogging government and powerful organizations, or whether as a private citizen marching in a gay pride parade, or advocating for restricted recognition of gays civil rights, is messy, and often times unpleasant. But it’s the anti-perspirant on the stench of corruption and injustice, and without an independent media and press, the foulness of the fish head rotting would creep deep into the roots of Polish society.
The more the topic is debated in Poland in an independent media and press, the more I think gays and lesbians will be recognized as a part of Poland. The door has opened, and the church is right to think now it will lead to greater demands. But that is the natural progression of a society that values freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and the rule of law – the smell of rot disappears once the fish grows a new head.