Gay atheist in Catholic heartland plots to save his country

Robert Biedron is Poland’s first openly gay politician. (AFP pic)

WARSAW: A dozen Virgin Mary figurines decorate Robert Biedron’s office in Warsaw, picked from about 400 or so he’s gathered from across the world. Some show her smiling or suffering, some with dark or pale skin and others skinny, plump or even pregnant.

Such a collection might not be unusual in Poland, a devout bastion of the Catholic Church and birthplace of Pope John Paul II. What’s unusual is the collector: a gay atheist who wants to pull his country back into the European mainstream and away from the pious nationalism and homophobia that’s permeated society under the government that won power in 2015 and is seeking re-election this year.

Biedron, 43, is the first openly LGBT politician in Poland, which has emerged as a key battleground in the war between the rival political forces fighting over the European Union’s future. His party, Spring, is less than three months old, but opinion polls suggest it could get to play kingmaker should a pro-EU alliance of opposition parties eat into support for the governing Law & Justice party.

Poland is the EU’s “enfant terrible,” according to Biedron, as the government puts billions of euros of subsidies at risk by clashing with Brussels over everything from the independence of Polish courts to refugees. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has stated that his “dream” is to re-Christianise the demoralised continent, which he says has ditched its traditional values in the name of kowtowing to liberal forces.

“When we’re struggling with the climate catastrophe, still unregulated immigration, Brexit and economic crises, the Polish premier wants to re-Christianise Europe,” Biedron said in an interview at his office. “We need politicians to fix real problems, such as frustrations of young people who don’t see a future for themselves, not a crusade.”

Opinion polls show Spring is backed by up to 15% of the electorate, making it a natural governing partner for the pro-EU coalition built by Civic Platform. That group was co-founded by Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council. It’s running neck-and-neck with Law & Justice, which calls itself “euro-realist” rather than eurosceptic.

Yet Biedron, the former mayor in a town of about 100,000 people in northern Poland, has been fiercely critical of potential allies. Civic Platform hasn’t offered a viable alternative besides that it’s anti-Law & Justice, while the government has simply boosted public spending in a critical election year, he said.

“The government has dug deeper into its bag of social transfers to stay popular, and the Platform continues to chase the rabbit,” he said.

Biedron said that Law & Justice has presented its standoff with the EU as an us-against-them political battle over cash for agriculture, roads and even municipal swimming pools. Instead, he’s campaigning on issues such as phasing out Poland’s dirty coal-based power plants, new green economy jobs, higher minimum wages and separating church from state. He also wants the EU to help with affordable housing and higher wages for teachers.

“We are European fundamentalists,” he said. “Poland’s raison d’etre is not only to be in the EU but to be a partner shaping it.”

Biedron doesn’t want LGBT issues to define him as a public figure in a country where civil partnerships are still illegal. When Law & Justice said last month that the advancement of the gay agenda is a “grave danger” for Polish families, seeking to make the issue of gay rights into a major campaign topic, he wasn’t on the front lines of the public debate that dominated local media for weeks.

Gay rights should long be considered basic human rights, he said. Large swathes of Polish society have already accepted this, but lawmakers who still “fear their pastors” haven’t yet grasped it, he said. “It doesn’t take that much courage to fix this once and for all,” he said. “Poland has a problem with tolerance. It’s already tailing most EU nations on gay and women’s rights.”

What draws Biedron to the statuettes of Mary is their diversity, while they all carry the same message of hope for believers. Some are from as far away as Brazil and Sudan. The next months will show how much he has passed that message on to voters.