MEET THE QUEENS OF POLAND
MOVE OVER DRAG RACE, POLAND IS COMING. THE QUEENS OF POLAND ARE CHANNELLING POLAND’S HISTORY, TRADITIONS, AND TRAUMAS THROUGH DRAG
Every year the LGBTQI+ organisation, ILGA, announces a list of European countries ranked in order of their treatment and protection of its LGBTQI+ citizens. This summer, Poland sits just above Russia and Belarus, after ranking a dismal 44 out of 49 countries. But for many, this doesn’t come as a surprise, as Poland’s Law and Justice party, headed by President Andrzej Duda, has allowed the passing of a number of discriminatory laws and policies, including anti-LGBT zones in some parts of the country. Despite this, Poland is home to a flourishing drag community, the queens of Poland, who are turning their pain into art.
“I’m a non-binary clown/psychedelic hallucination/gender-bending alien/sleep paralysis demon,” says Cosmia, a queen from the small village of Torun, who uses folklore, surrealism, and their Kashubian heritage as sources of inspiration. “What drives me the most to Folklore and ‘Village-ness’ is the sense of community.” Cosmia recalls their childhood hometown, which is a place where “experiences, struggles, celebrations, and mourning” are shared amongst the community – something which is not too dissimilar to the typical ‘drag family.’
Poland is rich with mystical tales, peculiar sayings, and unusual traditions – some of which Cosmia intends to incorporate into their drag: “Koza (the goat) occurs mid-January to mid-February. During Koza, colourfully dressed archetypical characters would wander around my village, collecting candy from every household, whilst singing songs.”
“The second tradition is Majowe (The May Adorations) in which the children and elderly from the village would gather around the local statue of Mary and sing religious songs.” Cosmia continues: “The celebration is joyous and pastoral in colour. The imagery of a people singing in a circle around a flower-adorned cross evokes cultist imagery – a sort of Ari Aster’s “Midsomer” aesthetic.”
Traditions such as these, have strong routes in religion, and in Poland, the Catholic Church has continuously stifled the Polish queer community. In 2019, three activists were put on trial for adding the rainbow flag to an image of the Virgin Mary, causing uproar throughout the country. Although they were finally released, the trial was proof that Poland’s government – and a large proportion of its society – are still very conservative and are overwhelmingly against the LGBTQI+ community. Despite the hostility, Cosmia bravely incorporates religion into their performances as a display of dissent: “I treat it [religion] as an act of subversion; by ridiculing the pathos of the church, one can subvert its dominance on Polish culture.”
“I create drag inspired by sadness, fear and suffering,” says Poznan-based, Babcia (Grandma). Babcia finds beauty in Poland’s troubled past: “Visually, I try to refer to the fashion of older women. I am inspired by post-communist spaces, neglected apartments and staircases. I like everything that is old and not renewed, and that which is already decayed.”
“I love wooden, post-Polish People’s Republic interior,” says Babcia, obscurely referencing the old, stained wood on the fourth floor of Poznan’s Scenea Robocza. Babcia finds creativity in Poland’s dark Communist history and therefore incorporates its cold and concrete aesthetics into their art.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Poland became an independent state. Now free, capitalism and Catholicism filled the ideological vacuum that Communism left behind. With this change came an influx of maximalist, overindulgent designs, and tacky religious symbolism; a taste that Babcia relishes: “I really like devotional and indulgence aesthetics, because it is terribly kitschy and cheap, and at the same referring to some higher, ultimate values and ideas.”
Whether it’s genocide in World War II, or the oppressive Communism that followed, Poland has had a dark, recent history. Babcia draws upon these traumas and turns them into something creative: “Once I made a video introduction to a song by Ewa Demarczyk , called Tomaszów, because it is an extremely sad and touching song. I thought for a long time that he was just talking about abandonment and lost love,” she says. “It wasn’t until my friend made me realise that she was talking about the extermination of the Jewish population in these regions of Tomaszów.”
When creating a drag persona, many queens often look to the contemporary cultures circulating in the big cities; however, this isn’t the case for Ciotka, born Dawid, who is all about championing her humble and rural roots: “I’m from a small city, but before moving to Warsaw, I was living in the countryside. I was taught about my region’s history and culture: the Neofolk, electro-folk and classic folk, which is symbolic in my region, but which can also be found throughout other Slavic countries.”
“Polish cities, in my eyes, are mostly grey. That’s the reason why I’m so interested in folk, because of its vivid colours.”
While American and Western drag references mainstream pop from the likes of Lady Gaga and Madonna in their performances, Ciotka takes a more alternative approach: “I am inspired by Polish music, like the band Żywiołak, Laboratorium Pieśni or Percival Shuttenbach, and their neofolk and folk songs.”
Polish drag has a unique depth and irony to it. “Catholicism is a common theme in Polish drag, especially to mock,” says Ciotka. She recalls a specific performance: “In one of my gigs, I announced myself as Magna Mater, a female pope. In the show, I was mocking the popes, by pretending to be a strict conservative, and not letting the LGBTQ community live in peace.”
The conservative ideology is growing in Poland, and this can arguably be seen more visibly in rural communities. Drag culture and queer identities are incompatible with the “right-wing” vision for the future of Poland. Ciotka carefully considers this: “Culture isn’t a monolith, it evolves, and we as human beings are evolving too. The dark ages are behind us and now we just want to celebrate some parts of our culture, not mock it. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to achieve this, as the right-wingers aren’t listening, they just shout.”
“My hometown Warsaw inspires me on daily basis,” says the “dragvatist” taking the capital by storm. “The rhythm of this city is inimitable. I have been living in various Polish cities, but only Warsaw is such a bridge between history & modernity. This clash of past, present & future sometimes gives me a headache in terms of an architectural mishmash, but at the same time, because of that, I am looking at each square meter, each building on its own. This chaos in architecture is sometimes very pleasing and enables us to rediscover history or embrace the present.”
Although Poland’s LGBTQI+ community are facing increasing persecution in recent years, cities like Poznan and Warsaw offer some pockets of freedom in the form of bars, clubs, theatres, and cafes. Rainbow flags can be seen sprawled across the city in support of the community, but also as a symbol of rebellion against right-wing and conservative ideologies.
Despite Warsaw’s progressive movements, the drag queens of Poland, voguers, and queer performers still have to fight for survival. Just this year, one of Warsaw’s most cherished safe havens for the LGBTQI+ community, Klub Pogłos was demolished, and without little support from local authorities. The community is now forced to cling onto some of the few remaining progressive spaces dotted around the city. Because of the instability, Polish drag queens are becoming voices of the community, and ShadyLady is no exception. “My drag is oriented around activism,” she said. “I am always trying to be the best advocate & spokesperson for the Polish LGBTQ+ community.”
“I think that Polish drag is very different and dark due to our wounds,” says ShadyLady. “Wounds that we have as Poles – due to the complicated history, but also wounds that fellow Poles wish upon the LGBTQ+ community. We are like Lotus flowers – we thrive in the harshest conditions and that is where the beauty of Polish drag comes from in my opinion.”