Interview
26 Apr 2019

Watch, learn and embrace otherness -- the politician Robert Biedroń

I know the struggle one undergoes when caught between social pressure and the desire to be oneself -- an interview with politician Robert Biedroń.

Wysokie Obcasy
Karolina Sulej Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Watch, learn and embrace otherness -- the politician Robert Biedroń  - NewsMavens
Robert Biedron, Wikimedia Commons

The following selections from Karolina Sulej’s interview with Robert Biedroń, former Mayor of Słupsk and former member of the Polish Sejm originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in November 2017.

Robert Biedron (b. 1976) is a Polish LGBT+ activist and politician. In February 2019, he gained widespread visibility across Europe for forming Wiosna (Spring), a progressive political party meant to rally the fractured Polish left. The party is currently third in the polls, behind the right-wing ruling government and the center-left coalition. Wiosna also submitted a list of candidates for the May 2019 elections to the EU parliament.

Karolina Sulej: We are sitting in your foundation’s new office. It’s spacious with large windows but do you find it comfortable?

Robert Biedron:  This place is still not set up, and in any new space [to be comfortable] I must get set up immediately.

KS: Where will you start?

I’ll bring books. I do not like empty shelves. My partner Krzysztof and I live in three apartments -- in Warsaw, Gdynia, and Słupsk -- and all of them are crammed with books. From time to time I take some to my mother’s place, but there’s no room there either.

There is nothing quite like touching the printed page, or smelling it -- reading is one of my daily fundamental needs. I am the child of a teacher. I was a publisher. I’ve always had books near at hand. I can’t exist without them.

KS: So, your homes are full of things, but when you travel, you always try to take as little as possible?

I'm extremely practical on the go. Today, you can buy everything when you need it -- underwear, a toothbrush, or a shirt. So I don’t worry about carrying too many things and most often I go with a small backpack. However, I always make space for books and magazines -- often old ones, because I cannot throw away a magazine if I have not read it from cover to cover.

KS: Are you more frugal about other things?

You got me!

I respect what I have and don't like waste. At the office I pull paper clips off old papers so as not to throw them away.

I grew up in Krosno, in humble conditions, and my parents taught us to be careful. There were four of us, and I had to share everything with my younger brother. I knew that I could not destroy my clothes, because my brother would need them.

Buying too much stuff and throwing it away when it's a bit worn out is not my natural behavior.

KS: Today's world prefers things with a short expiration date.

I don’t like over consumption, and luxury tires me out. I have no interest in gadgets either. I drive an old rickety car. My colleagues believe it is because I am modest. But for me, a car is simply a useful thing and while it works, I will use it.

KS: Do you wear the same clothes every season?

I don’t follow trends, but clothes are a way for me to express myself. I buy when they have good sales. Everything is inexpensive, but I hope it is still stylish.

Krzysiek and I have similar sizes and shared wardrobes. This is very practical but also pleasant. Our books are in a relationship. And our clothes too.

KS: You’ve also admitted that you always look for a bargain.

It’s true! God, how embarrassing. For instance these nuts and chocolates that I offered you, I purchased them at the drug store from the discount shelf. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But on the other hand I am not a penny pincher, because I like to share things.

Every month I give a portion of my salary to charity, and have done regularly for years. I gave up my limousine for the use of city employees. If I don’t make use of my car, I’d like for someone else to ride in it. It shouldn’t just sit there when I can take the bus or hop on my bicycle.

KS: Are you comfortable in a suit on a bicycle?

Only in Poland am I asked that. Ministers and businessmen ride bicycles all over the world.

KS: And your suit  doesn’t get wrinkled?

I have a sense that this question is in essence about whether a bicycle can support the gravity of my office.

It is curious, because the fact that I am gay, that I am an atheist, and that I avoid meat have not aroused as much controversy as when I declared that I am not going to ride in a limousine and would prefer to go about on two wheels.

I assumed people would say, “Wonderful! You aren’t concerned about prestige!” But instead they said, “What do you mean? The mayor on a bicycle?! That just won’t do!”

KS: People worried that you were violating tradition. This seems similar to the fear you aroused when when you arrived at the Sejm and openly acknowledged that you were gay. You joked that the members of parliament thought that you would go around with pink feathers and a rainbow flag in your hand.

People were afraid to shake my hand. That’s how much they didn’t want to be associated with me. There are only a few in the Sejm who are not afraid depart from the so-called “normality".

Anna Grodzka (a Polish MP and the first transsexual to serve in the Sejm) told me that when she functioned socially as Krzysztof, she allowed herself to dress with discreet transgression of the men's dress code. For example, she would wear a discreet brooch, have longer hair, put a little pink on her cheeks. Not enough that anyone would notice, but just so that she would know it was there.

Of course, I will never understand the hell that Anna underwent, but I understand her in the sense that I know the struggle one undergoes when caught between social pressure and the desire to be oneself.

KS: The dynamics of fashion are very similar to the dynamics of democracy -- it is the eternal conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community.

Yes, but all democracies are not the same. In the West, for example, there is more individual freedom, and this also translates into expressive clothing. I know a lot of people in Poland who would like to dress differently, but they will not do it, because what of people will say.

KS: Where does this reluctance come from?

We live in a society that strongly pushes for one pattern of normality. You have to craft your appearance to reflect the mold you are trying to fit into. Women must look feminine, have a manicure, pedicure, skirt, carefully arranged hair. They must be consistent. The same applies to men. They also can not stand out, break out of the die of masculinity.

Many gay men dress up as heterosexuals every morning.

KS: You speak of transgression. But the Polish man, in my opinion, is afraid [...] someone, God forbid, call[s] him “gay”.

This is slowly changing, though the stereotype is still strong. Today it is more and more of an embarrassment when you don’t take care of yourself.

For women it is a condition of existence in the public sphere and in politics. But a man in politics does not have an obligation to take care of himself so scrupulously. My colleagues in the Sejm would walk around in a sweaty shirt for a few days with their bellies sticking out and in a state of mild intoxication. For a woman, such a situation would be an abomination.

A woman in the Sejm, as in social life in general, is infantilized. Both her colleagues and associates feel that they have the right to judge her physical appearance and emotional state.

KS: And you see -- I just came to you for a conversation about clothing.

Would you have asked that of EC President, Donald Tusk, or the Polish party Nowoczesna (“Modern”) founder, Ryszard Petru? They’d have answered, “You want to talk about that with me? Please ask me about serious matters, major policies, defence.” They’re afraid of such topics, because they are regarded as feminine, and anything feminine is infantile. And they don’t want that.

KS: But we know that the way a politician looks is insanely important. Voters have chosen image and presentation ever since the time of John F. Kennedy.

Politicians have become celebrities. The media need politicians who are showmen and not introverted experts. I am also that kind of politician. I understand that this is how I have to operate in this system.

KS: We’re betting on a good performance and the politicians give it to us. And we forgive them if they don’t look like movie stars. The US President Donald Trump looks like --I’m sorry -- an old grandfather. He can’t manage to choose a suit or a tie, and has the appearance of a troglodyte.

In my opinion, the career of such politicians is the last gasp of the longing for familiarity. It is a nostalgia for the politics of the old days, when it wasn’t important what you looked like, but rather that you banged the table and made a decision. But today, fewer and fewer people want such authoritarian power. They don’t want someone to pose as the tough guy.

KS: We need different [male politicians]. 

[We need] men who are not afraid to be feminists and are not afraid to loosen up. Women are the future of the world and of politics. They are also my most important constituency.

***

Translated from Polish by David Goldfarb

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