The Rainbow of Flowers

"We thought that instead of sending this gem to a junkyard, we could give it a proper home and let it stand in Warsaw. Warsaw needs art in public spaces, things that will make people and passer-by's smile against their will."
– Paweł Potoroczyn
Today, in our daily article series that will be continuing for five more days, we look at not an individual, but an object - a rainbow in Poland. First, we must have a brief overview of queer rights in the country we are about to discuss. While Poland has always allowed same sex sexual activity, something that is rare for any country, and now has an equal age of consent law, same sex marriage and adoption are still considered illegal. As the political climate for same sex relationships can be described as mixed at best, the social attitude is even more confusing. A very clear example of these mixed attitudes is found in the Tecza in Warsaw.

In 2012, an art installation by Julita Wojik was put up in the capital city of Poland, Warsaw in Plac Zbawiciela. It is important to mention that the installation was not originally meant as a queer symbol. It was just a rainbow made out of artificial flowers and was meant to be a wholly apolitical symbol as a part of a series. It was moved from its original place in front of the European Parliament by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. It was meant to convey peace, hope simply, and love - though, as we know, the far right hates every single one of those ideas, anyway.

However, the rainbow has become a symbol for the queer community, as it is what is on the gay pride flag. Naturally, the far right in Poland was not pleased to see Ms. Wojik’s sculpture on display, as they misinterpreted it as a symbol of queer rights. That seemed to be a common factor for how queer people were viewed in Poland; they were allowed to exist, but not in public. We see that attitude clearly in the controversy over the pride parade in Warsaw. 

The legality of Pride in Warsaw waffled until 2007 when the ban against it was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. Despite this, the public’s opinion on Pride is still very mixed, and though the parade has grown to have over eighteen thousand attendees just last year, the most recent poll showed that only 45% of the population of Warsaw supported the pride parade. It is not so much the act itself, but the public display of it that causes outrage with the Polish public, and it is what caused the negative reaction over the rainbow.

First, it is important that we look at how the politicians reacted. While it is not unusual for politicians not to reflect the exact ideals of everyone in a given place, in this case, the politicians showed how deep the prejudice was ingrained in society. The homophobic sentiments were so commonplace that many politicians shared them without fear of ruining their political career. Bartosz Kownacki called the installation a "gay rainbow," making it clear in his statements that he was not using gay as a positive adjective. 

Stanisław Pięta said that "The hideous rainbow had hurt the feelings of believers," as the art installation was near a church. Priest Tadeusz Rydzyk described it as a "symbol of deviancy." Another politician, after seeing the vandalism of the rainbow, celebrated by dropping some homophobic slurs.

Then there was the general population’s reaction to it, and the reason it is so well known: the vandalism. The sculpture was subjected to six counts of arson, the most famous of which was during Polish Independence day. It was started by members of a far right march, who damaged other property during their riots as well.

If we are going to look at the adverse effects of the rainbow, however, we must, in turn, look at the positive ones. While it was not originally intended as a symbol of queer pride, when the attacks were shown to be open attacks against the queer community, we were quick to adopt it as our symbol. Where there were violently homophobic politicians, there was Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who announced that the installation "[would] be rebuilt as many times as necessary." She was joined in her support by many Polish celebrities, including Edyta Gorniak and the Swedish ambassador to Poland, who is also an LGBT activist in their own right.

Where there were far right protesters, there was also the queer community. They organized an event, a peaceful protest that you can see here, to counter the hate after one of the arson attempts on the rainbow.

Despite promises to the contrary, on August 26th, 2015, the rainbow was taken down overnight.

There are times when a tactical retreat is necessary for a battle. Those fighting against the queer community were fighting with fire, while we were fighting with flowers. However, we can look at the effect one piece of art had on the entirety of Poland. Even when it was not intended as such, a rainbow was seen as an attack against a homophobic government. It incited anger in politicians and the general populous alike; it inspired our community to the point where we adopted it as our own. Not only does this speak to the power of art, but it speaks to the nature of our community. We are not a passive folk; while we may fight with flowers, we fight. We found ourselves a symbol where one was not intended, and we use it, now, to stand up against those who find not only our symbols but our existence, incendiary.

We do not fight with fire because we are the fire. We are fire and flowers both, making a place for ourselves in a world that does not want to understand us. We take things like rainbows, flowers, and fire; we wave them in people’s faces, and we say, “here we are.”

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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