Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina. Kike Arnal with an introduction by Josefina Fernandez. The New Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-62097-287-8 (paperback).
Out: LGBTQ Poland. Maciek Nabrdalik with an introduction by Robert Rient. The New Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-62097-369-1 (paperback).
My country, my community, is neither Poland, nor Warsaw, nor Germany, nor Europe. It’s the international LGBTQ community because with them I can be myself.
This quote from Out: LGBTQ Poland could well be the defining theme of this series of books published by The New Press, a non-profit American publisher whose mission is to publish books “that promote and enrich public discussion and understanding of the issues vital to our democracy and to a more equitable world”. They are largely photography books, although in execution the treatment of their subjects varies greatly. Of the two books I have in hand, Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina is mostly photographs while in Out: LGBTQ Poland text plays an important part in illuminating Maciek Nabrdalik’s evocative portraits.
What the two books have in common is their unique ability to humanize their subjects. In Revealing Selves, this is accomplished through Kike Arnal’s compassionate series of photos that portray trans people in the most mundane circumstances. The commonality of the human experience is suggested merely by showing trans people taking care of their children, depicting their relationships, and forming their own families when their original families have failed them. I may have been overly affected by these photos by virtue of being a trans woman myself, but the humanity of these photos so obviously connects trans people to a society that often pretends that we are somehow separate from the rest of the population.
Argentina is interesting because it has some of the most progressive legislation in the world regarding trans people. Legislation passed in 2012 made Argentina the only country at that time to allow people to change their gender status without facing preconditions such as hormone therapy, surgery or psychiatric diagnosis. The law states that all persons have the right to free development and recognition of their gender identity. In 2015, the World Health Organization cited Argentina as an exemplary country for providing transgender rights.
It’s rare to see lawmakers lead through legislation when the rest of the country has not yet adopted the same generous attitude toward trans people. Revealing Selves shows that trans people still have difficulty finding jobs and that many trans women are still employed in sex work.
There is an entire chapter in the book on the residents of the former El Gondolin hotel in Buenos Aires. It was and is difficult for transwomen to rent accommodation. The Gondolin’s owner turned this to his advantage by charging them higher rates. When he passed away, the women took over and turned the hotel into a self managed squat that is a shelter for transgender women. Most of the women are employed in sex work and the status of their shelter is at best precarious, but it is the women’s mutual support and regard for one another that makes for a hopeful story. The book’s cover photo (see above) shows the women entering the Buenos Aires subway on their way to classes at the Mocha Celis high school.
Out: LGBTQ Poland is a collection of personal stories accompanied by a photograph of each individual. Each portrait is shaded according to how openly that individual lives their life, with the faces in the first three photos being largely in shadow. Poland is a conservative, patriarchal and very Catholic society without any of the protection in law that trans people in Argentina have. Astonishingly, trans people in Poland have to sue their parents to change their gender in legal documents, an obviously painful process for all concerned. A bill to end this preposterous law was passed by the Polish parliament in July 2015, but ultimately vetoed by the Polish president later that year. (The situation for queer people took a turn for the worse with the election in 2015 of the socially conservative Law and Justice party.) Poland’s hate crime legislation also does not recognize crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Clearly the situation for queer people in Poland is not ideal, and yet the country is not nearly as tradition bound as it is often portrayed. An urban-rural split divides the country, with most city dwellers aligning themselves with European values. So while queer youth often flee the countryside for the relative safety of Warsaw, Poland also elected Anna Grodzka, Europe’s first transgender lawmaker. Grodzka is one of the people featured in this collection. She is also founder of the Polish trans rights organization Trans-fuzja.
What struck me when reading these histories was how the fight for GLBTQ rights in Poland resembled the situation in Canada 25 years ago. In short, there is no GLBTQ but rather separate rights groups and organizations fighting for the rights of their respective tribe. Even the respective tribes get subdivided into hierarchies. Often masculine gay men don’t associate with feminine gays while trans groups organize themselves under similar delusional notions of superiority. Many of the people in this collection are activists and they universally regret this deplorable situation which hinders progress for all queer people. However, we did the same thing in this country. The more oppressed you are the more you scramble for morsels from the dominant society, and if that means trampling on the other guy or gal to get them, well okay.
Poland’s oppressive Catholicism also comes up frequently. While some of the people here had no qualms discarding their religion, many others struggled. From this struggle arose the organization Wiara i Tęcza (Faith and Rainbow), whose mission is to assure believers that they are indeed beautiful and good (despite what the Church might say), and “to invite them into the Church if they still want to be a part of it.” It is an organization of a few hundred activists that includes several Polish clergy who want to help. Considering the power of the Catholic Church in Poland, this is a David and Goliath story if ever there was one.
Family is big in Poland too, and there are some painful stories here of rejection, but some surprising ones too. Once the parents overcome their fear of what the neighbours might say – a common reaction – many work their way towards accepting their queer children. It’s an act of bravery and love when up against a society that is decidedly unfriendly to queers.
Being of Polish heritage and having visited the country often (though not since my transition), I saw myself in many of these people’s stories. Their struggles often affected me deeply. There is much in Polish history that is honourable. It was the first country in Europe to pass a fully fledged liberal constitution. This threat to autocratic rule, and because Poland was politically weak at the time, precipitated its dismemberment by the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires in the 18th century. Poland is often associated in modern times with the anti-semitism of the 1930s but in 1265 the Polish king granted the Jewish community a Royal Charter that guaranteed their safety and specified their role in Polish society. By the time of its dismemberment, Poland sheltered about four-fifths of the world’s Jews. The struggle for freedom is embedded in the Polish character. The revolts against foreign powers that occupied Poland many times over the last 250 years are legendary. That the fall of Communism started in Poland could be no surprise to anyone with a knowledge of Polish history. Imposing communism on Poland, Stalin once said, is like trying to fit a saddle on a cow.
But the battle for Poland’s soul now is sadly mimicking the dark political battles of the 1930s. These are hard times for queer people in Poland, and I fear for my second country. There is a quote in this collection by a lesbian whose mother was Austrian and who could have lived in Austria that gives hope: “I’ve chosen Poland. I’m not sure why. It’s something about the Slavic soul. We Poles always fight for something. We become united in a fight.” Let’s hope for LGBTQ people in Poland that the freedom loving aspect of the Polish character prevails.
For more books in this series, see http://www.thenewpress.com
The Trans-fuzja web site is in English, Spanish and Russian, as well as the original Polish: http://transfuzja.org/
July 16, 2018