Only hours after we had made it official during Stockholm Pride 2017 that we were going to Poland for Mr Gay Europe 2018, we received several emails, Facebook-messages and text messages asking us, “Are you crazy?”
To be totally honest, I was concerned. About the Polish political climate, anti-gay forces, and the safety of our delegates and our team.
We also received some alarming feedback from groups and people in Poland that did not want us to come, but at the same time we received warm and welcoming feedback from the LGBT community in the country.
We were in dialog with the Norwegian embassy in Warsaw (Mr Gay Europe headquarters is based in Norway), and they assured us that as long as we were in dialog with local authorities and they guaranteed our safety, we should be on the safe side.
Representatives from some countries were in contact with us and very openly expressed worries about the safety of the delegates; some counties even bailed out and did not show up because of the rough conditions for gay people in Poland.
Safety on top pf priority list
For the MGE team it was never a question whether we should go ahead with the international finale in Poland or not, but the safety and wellbeing of the delegates was on top of our priority list.
Each year there are local producers who take upon themselves to produce the international finale. To do so you need financial back-up and sponsors, and this can be tough enough in gay-friendly countries, so we can only imagine the strain on the producer team in Poland getting support and finances together.
Ok, so we had to make changes in the program more than a few times, we did not stay at five-star hotels and there were other logistical challenges along the way. But the delegates, international judges from Europe, Asia and Africa and MGE team were not in Poland to be treated like divas on a holiday. Those who shows up with those kinds of expectations are politely asked to go back home.
I don’t want to dwell on stereotypes, but the Polish people are well known all over Europe to be a hard-working crowd and this also applied to our Polish producers. Short on manpower, sponsors and financial support they did one hell of a job. They worked day and night, they went all in and without them there would not have been a Mr Gay Europe 2018. Those sponsors who did stand up and supported us contributed to make the event a success, with anything from excellent food to premises to host challenges and social events.
A lof of role models
Before the parade on Saturday I was asked to say a few words to the people gathered in the area where the parade was to start from. On my way to the park I had to pass several police check-points and the police all dressed up in riot gear made a strong impression. This was not going to just be “a walk in the park”.
As I walked onto the podium and looked out on the crowd, my heart was beating fast and an overwhelming feeling hit me in my chest; talking about pride and human rights is so easy and too often used in slogans without much weight behind – but these people were truly proud and brave heroes, sticking their necks out for their right to love and to live.
Mr Gay Europe strides to find role models for the LGBT community across Europe and looking out over the park I realized I was looking at a lot of role models.
In the background we could hear hostile and scary shouting and noise from the rather aggressive conter-protesters; the mobsters, about 200-250 hooligans that had arrived with trains and buses from the suburbs and countryside, to protest against love and human rights this Saturday in August.
Because it was not the people of Poznan that protested against the parade. As we walked along the route there were many people out; old and young, men and women who waived, cheered and showed their support. It is important to not forget that we also have friends outside the community, even in societies like the very conservative Poland.
Even though our Polish hosts did not like to show off the fact that we needed police protection during our stay; the Polish police did an excellent job. Some of them may even agree with some of the anti-gay protesters, but they did their job in a discrete and professional way. Well, not always discrete; when the parade was attacked by some of these protesters, the police was swift and effective, and the hooligans were taken away in armed police cars.
No such thing as “partial human rights”
Sadly, we cannot count on this kind of support all over Europe and certainly not all over the world. As I am writing this I am sorry to learn that Mr Gay World has cancelled their Hong Kong event next year because of concerns over LGBTQ crackdown in mainland China.
For me, the MGE team, the delegates and the producers that showed up, and our Polish brothers and sisters; it was never a question of giving in to the haters. As I said from the podium in the park; this is not a fight we can win by ourselves, we need to stand together, unity through diversity.
As I was asked by the LGBT community in Poznan to comment on the fact that the public transportation company bailed out and took down the rainbow flags from their trams, I was attacked on social media, accused of being an outsider trying to tell the Polish people right from wrong. That is not the case.
We can only show the Polish community – gay and straight – how other countries have gone before them; we can tell them about the Irish referendum on gay marriage, the neutral Norwegian marriage law, the gay leaders, politicians and lawmakers across Europe.
It isn’t either or. And then it is up them to do the right thing. But we can remind them that there is no such thing as “partial human rights”, and there are certain conditions that come into play in order to be considered a modern and enlightened democracy with free speech and human rights for all.
Before the parade on Saturday I was asked to say a few words to the people gathered in the area where the parade was to start from. Photo: Stonewall Group
Even though our Polish hosts did not like to show off the fact that we needed police protection during our stay; the Polish police did an excellent job. Photo: Cobus Benade
The delegates, international judges from Europe, Asia and Africa and MGE team were not in Poland on holidays; here are Niels Jansen (Denmark), Enrique Doleschy (Germany), Christopher Price (Wales) and Phillip Dzwonkiewicz (England) exchanging views and networking. Photo: Cobus Benade