TCDS Shrinking of Democracy Series: Moral Panic over Gender and Sexuality in Poland and Central Europe

On July 16 & 17, 2016, an amazing cohort of Europe’s leading scholars and intellectuals, many of whom are alumni of TCDS and The New School,  converged at The New School summer campus in Wroclaw, Poland for a conference on “The Shrinking of Democracy,” which provided a much needed analysis of European democracy in these unsettling times. Below is the first publication in a series inspired by the conference that we are calling the “Shrinking of Democracy Series.” To see the video of the first conference panel click here, for the second panel click here

Moral Panic over Gender and Sexuality in Poland and Central Europe
By Agnieszka Kościańska


Gender Ideology

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 the Polish churches regarding the institution of marriage: “This truth 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 bishops emphasized that the Christian concept of marriage derives from nature and must 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 the summer of 2013 and quickly became widely discussed, first by Catholic priests and lay Catholic journalists, next by feminist scholars trying to explain that gender was not an ideology, but rather an analytic term 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 discourse had become heated. Bishops decided to explain what the debate entailed 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 defense 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 began with the definition of “gender ideology.” According to them, it is “the product of many decades of ideological and cultural changes deeply rooted in Marxism and neo-Marxism endorsed by several feminist movements and the sexual revolution. This ideology promotes principles that are both completely contrary to reality as well as 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 centers and non-governmental organizations. Some media portray this ideology in a positive way: as a means to counteract violence and to aim for equality.”

The bishops progressed onto the topic of discrimination: “The Church unequivocally opposes discrimination on the grounds of sex, but at the same time recognizes 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.”

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.[2]

Although the bishops’ letter sounds like a very strong critique of gender, in comparison to other Catholic statements on the topic, it’s actually perceived as 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.[3] Others link gender with transsexuality, pedophilia and anti-family activity.[4]



Why do Catholics fight so fiercely against gender? Feminists, LGBTQ activists, secular public intellectuals and left-oriented journalists offer several 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. In support of this explanation it is stressed that, for instance, Archbishop Józef Michalik, back then the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, said that “the gender ideology” was the cause of the pedophilia. According to the second understanding, this is the Church’s way of responding to the recent crisis of Poles attending fewer religious rituals and leading a less and less Catholic lifestyle. Social research shows that only the minority (less than 15%)[5] of Poles follow the Catholic rules regarding contraceptives, for instance.

Other arguments present the debates over gender and sexuality as a ‘red herring’. Since the early 1990s many analysts have claimed that the 1993 abortion debate, along with other previous and contemporary discussions over sexuality and gender, are designed to redirect the public debate away from more pressing 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 the issues of gender, morality, and sexuality and gender based discrimination, arguing that this is ultimately responsible for the lack of attention towards social and economic inequality[6].

Another interpretation comes from Polish sociologists Elżbieta Korolczuk.[7] Korolczuk shows Polish situation in the broader context of global conservatism. She points to similarities between the Polish case and other Eastern European cases, Western European cases as well as the US anti-sex education campaign of the 1990s. Another Polish sociologist, Magdalena Grabowska stresses the local context. While she agrees with Korolczuk about transnational nature of the right wing, she argues that “the current backlash against women’s rights and sexual rights in Poland can be traced to two historical moments: the post-1953 «thaw» and the 1989 systemic transformation”[8]. They set the stage for the current developments.

All explanations are perhaps partly true, especially the combination of Korolczuk’s and Grabowska’s arguments. The recent moral panic is both the effect of global trends and the result of local history. I would push their argument even further and argue for a more systemic interpretation, however. In his study on homophobia in Central Europe, cultural anthropologist Hadley Renkin argued that attacks on LGBTQ marchers in the region could be seen as part of the struggle over cultural citizenship and national belonging.[9] I would suggest that the recent debate over gender in Poland is also a part of a broader struggle over cultural citizenship and the definition of “Polishness.” 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 individuals, 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? Hence, this is not (only) about the Church, but about national identity.


Toward Diversity

The recent debate over gender and sexuality can be traced back to at least 1989, or even earlier, as state socialism opened this debate by trying to solve the women’s question. This attempt failed. Women’s emancipation was only partial and state socialism’s message regarding it was contradictory: women enjoyed reproductive right and were encouraged to enter the labor market, but any new division of labor within the household was not developed nor a new gender identity. The fall of communism bought the freedom of speech and began the struggle over gender and sexuality, which was at the time strengthened by the international flow of ideas and activism, both progressive and conservative. 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 centered around 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 almost 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 relating 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 accompanying psychological therapy were fully sponsored by the state; since the early 1990s, however, this practice has been reversed and the patients themselves are now responsible for the payment. The legal procedure of changing gender had been rather bureaucratized, but since 1989 it has increasing complicated and now requires a lawsuit against one’s parents.[10] Contraceptives and in-vitro fertilization were previously subsidized by the socialist state,[11] but this was also changed during the 1990s. Apart from the 1993 abortion debate, the beginning of the 1990s witnessed several other public discussions regarding gender and sexuality –on masturbation, for example, in which Catholic intellectuals argued that the practice was a threat to the Polish nation, while the opposition argued for more sexual diversity in Poland.[12] In all cases, conservative circles have used these debates on gender and sexuality to strengthen its position in Poland with both sides supported by the transitional flow of ideas. We are typically reminded of the appearance of Western feminism in Central Europe in the 1990s, but tend to forget the conservative anti-sex movements that also came to the region which, reinforced by local conservatism, have gradually gained support. The very term “gender ideology” was one of these transnational influences, arriving to Poland from Germany through the publications of the conservative sociologist Gabriele Kuby.

At the same time, feminist and LGBT movements gradually started to make claims about citizenship and belonging. “We are Poles too” was the message implicitly expressed during marches and parades as the Polish flag flew adjacent to that of the rainbow Pride, as well as when feminist and queer historians and literary critics argued that several 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 having a life partner, Maria Dulębianka, an early Polish feminist.[13] These actions caused re-actions. As Hadley Renkin wrote about the Hungarian context:  “LGBT activists propose their own competing vision for post-socialist Hungarian identity. This vision fundamentally challenges right-wing notions of identity and community and has contributed to the dramatic growth in public homophobia over the last several years, culminating in the attacks on the last two Pride Marches.”[14]

If we place the debates surrounding “the gender ideology” within this context, it becomes clear that these are the continuations of far earlier debates over cultural citizenship –which have become especially heated, as more and more often the Polish national identity has become diverse in definition, not necessarily Catholic, as an increasing numbers of Poles choose not to follow a traditional Catholic lifestyle.

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 definitions of proper sexual and gender behavior and identity. The Church and feminist/LGBT activists have different views on what constitutes Polish national identity. The struggle is ongoing. A brief look at 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, especially in light of the 2015 parliamentary election won by the right wing. A deeper analysis of Poles’ lifestyles and beliefs shows that Poles are no longer so conservative, and the Church and the political right are simply using gender and sexuality in defense of itself.


[1] An earlier version of this article appeared in Visegrad Revue, I would like to express my gratitude to Rebecca Murray and Patrycja Bukalska from Visegrad Revue for their encouragement and editorial assistant.

[2] All quotes come from an official translation of the pastoral letter at the website of Polish Bishops’ Conference: (accessed Sept 16, 2016).

[3] ‘Gender – ideologia totalna (Gender: the totalitarian ideology),’ an interview with priest Dariusz Oko, (accessed Sept 16, 2016). More examples see: “Churches and religious communities in view of LGBT persons”. In: M. Makuchowska, M Pawlęga, eds. Situation of LGBT Persons in Poland. 2010 and 2011 Report, 2012, pp. 145-165, trans. Grzegorz Łętowski.

[4] For more example see: (accessed Sept 16, 2016).

[5] Zbigniew Izdebski. Seksualność Polaków na początku XXI wieku: studium badawcze, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2012, p. 253.

[6] Grzegorz Sroczyński, ‘Byliśmy głupi’ (An interview with Marcin Król), Gazeta Wyborcza, Feb 7, 2014,,124059,15414610,Bylismy_glupi.html?disableRedirects=true (

[7] Elżbieta Korolczuk, ‘«The War on Gender» from a Transnational Perspective –Lessons for Feminist Strategising’. In: E. Aghdgomelashvili, A. Arganashvili, A. Nikoghosyan, B. Juhász, Z. Maďarová, E. Korolczuk, M. Grabowska, T. Zlobina, T. Martsenyuk, V. Piatrukovich, J. Smiggels Kavková, V. Šprincová, J. Višnjić (2015) Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategising for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation. Available on-line: (accessed Sept 16, 201r).

[8] Magdalena Grabowska, ‘Cultural War or Business as Usual? Recent Instances and the Historical Origins of the Backlash Against Women’s Rights and Sexual Rights in Poland’. In: E. Aghdgomelashvili, A. Arganashvili, A. Nikoghosyan, B. Juhász, Z. Maďarová, E. Korolczuk, M. Grabowska, T. Zlobina, T. Martsenyuk, V. Piatrukovich, J. Smiggels Kavková, V. Šprincová, J. Višnjić (2015) Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategising for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation, p. 45. Available on-line: (accessed Sept 16, 2016).

[9] Hadley Z. Renkin, ‘Homophobia and queer belonging in Hungary’. Focaal—European Journal of Anthropology 2009, no. 53, pp. 20-37.

[10] Maria Dębińska, ‘Natura, kultura i hybrydy. Prawne konstrukcje transseksualizmu,’ Lud 2013, vol. 97, pp. 221–224.

[11] In vitro fertilization has been a subject of heated debates since then. See Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz. ‘The creation of ‘monsters’: the discourse of opposition to in vitro fertilization in Poland.’ Reproductive Health Matters, 2012, vol. 20, no. 40.

[12] Agnieszka Kościańska, ‘Czy onanista to też Polak? Debata o masturbacji 1993–1994,’ inter alia. pismo poświęcone studiom queer, 2012, no. 7, (accessed Sept 16, 2016).

[13] See e.g.: Krzysztof Tomasik, Homobiografie. Pisarki i pisarze polscy XIX i XX wieku (Homobiographies: Polish writers of the 19th and 20th century). Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej 2008. See alos Agnieszka Graff, ‘Polskość nie jest własnością endeków’ (accessed Sept 17, 2016).

[14] Renkin, ‘Homophobia and queer belonging in Hungary’, p. 27.


agnieszkas Agnieszka Kościańska received her PhD (2007) and habilitation (2015) in ethnology/cultural anthropology from the University of Warsaw, Poland. She is Deputy-Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. She participated the TCDS D&D in 2004 in Krakow and spent a semester at the New School in 2006. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, sexual violence, religion, and gender. She is the author of The Power of Silence. Gender and Religious Conversion (in Polish, 2009) and Gender, Pleasure and Violence. The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland (in Polish 2014). Recently she co-edited a special issue of Sexualities on Central Europe.