The Power of QueerStory
This story was first written for and read at Queer Freedom Everywhere in Soho Square, 1st Sept 2020.
'Does anyone remember when Bialystok happened?' Karol asks.
He doesn't have to explain what he means. We all know.
'Yes' I reply 'July... 27th, I think, let me double check'
20th, as it turns out when I do. It’s easy to check, because to commemorate the anniversary, the people behind Tęczowy Białystok (‘Rainbow Białystok’) have done an incredible job this year - putting up huge rainbow billboards all over town, to say ‘we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re proud’. It was beautiful and very memorable. And still, this is not what comes immediately to mind when Karol asks his question.
Tęczowy Białystok's billboard campaign
Bialystok is my home town. It's a small(ish) town in the East of Poland. Not the touristy part. Poland B, they used to call it. Because it is less well funded. Less visited. Less known. It's been this way for decades. My home town had never been particularly famous for anything. Until last year.
The date of what has made it so famous - or infamous, rather - is the day of the first ever Pride march locally. But not because it was so beautifully queer. Rather, because it was so violently attacked. Because it became a moment in Polish history when vile, political, open attacks on the LGBT+ community in Poland became an almost-daily occurrence.
And so, 20th July 2019 is the day that my home town became known around the world, for the first time. For violence against people like me. For the period in our history when rainbow flags became urgently political in Poland. For the hate that led to such a state of affairs.
The peaceful LGBT+ demonstrators had bricks and fireworks thrown at them by an angry mob. 'Patriots' they call themselves. Nationalists, we call them. Or fascists. The people who want to bring 'the good old days' back. When husbands could hit their wives without shame. When everyone was straight… allegedly.
The violence sent a wave of shock across the queer community across Poland and beyond borders.
And the weekend after, a huge wave of solidarity demonstrations took place in the town of Bialystok and nationwide (and beyond). It was beautiful and heartening to see the massive turnout in my home town. Despite the violence, despite the hate, People young and old, queers and allies, stood strong together, loud and proud. I had tears in my eyes watching it from afar.
But no one remembers that. The violence of the weekend before has become a defining feature of my home town. It is still what most people in the Polish LGBT+ community refer to when they say the now dreaded word 'Bialystok'. It is how it will be remembered for years to come.
Our collective memory is so important. Our queerstory. Creating a space for celebrating our wins, not just commemorating our losses. Making space for joy, for happiness, for collective celebration is crucial to keeping us going, as activists, as communities, as people.
“The facts of our oppression are not the heartbeat of our struggle…
Love, courage, imagination, solidarity, music - [these are the] things that help us come alive in the face of deadly conditions”
My favourite writer, Rebecca Solnit also talks about this. And extends the message. Her book Hope in the Dark is one I read in the early days of lockdown. It was such a strange time. I really needed this book, as much as I didn't realise it when I picked it up.
In it, she explores the importance of our collective memory, and the reasons why it is grounds for hope. Our governments and the media want us to doubt ourselves. To believe that humanity is incapable of doing better. That we have to be managed. That solidarity is not in our nature. It gives them an excuse to control us, by any means necessary. By controlling and twisting our history, they sell us the myth that without them we would be lost to chaos.
That's why we need our collective history, or queerstory rather. We need to save it, know it, and pass it on. We need to remember that it is evidence to the contrary. That the only constant in life is change. That change only ever comes from action. It's just that our stories have been systematically stolen from us and twisted to teach us that we are incapable of change, of love, of solidarity and community.
A lot has happened since 'Bialystok'. Both good and bad. I'm sure you've all heard Margot's story by now. But have you heard of the amazing acts of solidarity of the dozens, hundreds even, of activists who stood with her the day that she was arrested? Many of them were also arrested. Hundreds of demonstrations of solidarity followed, across Poland and the world.
And yet, the only known thread of the story remains 'queer activist, Margot, arrested by the police in Poland'. Some stories talk about the violence surrounding the arrests. Few talk about the incredible acts of solidarity that followed and accompanied, or the reasons why.
A couple of weeks ago, we held another one of our London solidarity demos. And we danced outside the Polish Embassy. It was amazing, beautiful, colourful, empowering… And yet, the media attention was only attracted because we were 'attacked'. More like heckled. One of the counter-protesters was arrested for hate speech. Others did the same but managed to get away with it. That's about it. Not particularly interesting if you ask me. But the media loved it.
We continued to dance until the end of the demo. Despite the attacks. Perhaps even more fiercely because of them. But the message and the beauty of the solidarity action was largely lost in the follow up. A dozen idiots managed to steal our energy and our story.
Let's reclaim it. Our queerstory. Our magic. Our love. Our solidarity. Our capacity for change and for creativity. Our collective joy. Our immense ability to hope, against the odds. And win.
This coming Sat, 5th Sept 2020, we march along the Thames in a beautiful rainbow parade of love and solidarity. Join us! 11.30am outside the Chopin statue by the Southbank. Let's paint London rainbow and send a truly marvellous message of hope and solidarity to our siblings in Poland.