“I’m not giving up”: Poland's first transgender MP Anna Grodzka on her activism

Anna Grodzka discusses the future of the euro, the Polish left, and her autobiography describing her gender transition.

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Books by politicians are hardly rare – they are rallying cries, ways to connect with the electorate and associate the authors with specific values. Autobiography is a small part of the genre, and an autobiography about getting to grips with deeply private issues  getting back in touch with one's biological family and starting a new life consistent with one's gender identity, as opposed to birth certificate sex – is striking. The personal and the political are inseparable.

This is the book Anna Grodzka, Polish MP, entrepreneur, and activist, wrote two years ago. Its title – My Name is Ania – is not as simple a declaration as it may seem. The road to writing it was winding: after studying clinical psychology, Grodzka (born in 1954 in Otwock, Poland) went on to work in publishing, advertising and media production.

She started her political career at university, and, throughout the years, belonged to a succession of left-wing parties, most recently the Green party, which made an unsuccessful attempt to gather enough signatures for her to run in this year's presidential elections.

She has recently initiated FAIR Society, a movement for balanced social development. When talking about which moments she considers to be the milestones of her career, she mentions an amendment of the Tenant Protection Act, which she considers to be “contrary to its name. I wanted to stop evictions from council and communal housing and change the housing policy in the country. I didn't succeed, but it was important”.

She has also worked on projects relating to curbing hate speech and modifying labour law, with a view to improving employment security.

In 2008, she co-founded the Trans-Fuzja Foundation, an NGO committed to battling transphobia, supporting the trans community and educating the general public about transgenderism. After she transitioned – the process was documented in a film produced by HBO – she became the first openly transgender person in Europe to be elected to parliament.

Speaking about her book, which was published in Poland two years ago, Grodzka says: “I wrote it knowing that, in the context of transgenderism, my life story is repeated in dozens of other similar stories. I hope I gave those who decided to read the book an opportunity to understand transgenderism better, because nothing is more important to transgender people than the understanding and acceptance of those they are closest to.”

In July this year, the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) passed a new law regarding legal gender recognition, which simplifies legal procedures for people whose gender identity differs from the sex on their birth certificate. As the driving force behind the project, Grodzka was “very happy” because she thinks, “laws are necessary. They civilise the citizen-state relationship, maybe even have a certain power to shape culture. But they don't regulate issues stemming from our relationships with our loved ones, don't soothe pain or solve problems. I hope, however, that the Act helps – if it does eventually pass.”

Still, she admits: “This act isn't a dream come true for me – it's a result of a compromise in the parliament. We didn't manage to convince the MPs that medicalising transgenderism is a mistake. We transgender people do not feel sick, although sometimes we do need medical help. Unfortunately the act allows us to correct legal gender only once a medical diagnosis has been made.”

The act is now awaiting the presidential sign-off from the Polish President Andrzej Duda. “I'm very afraid that he won't sign," says Grodzka. "But I'm not giving up. I want to meet with him and dispel his doubts. But will he see me and hear me out?”

Duda, who is associated with the right-wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party (PiS – Law and Justice), became president in August this year. At the end of October, the first parliamentary elections since then will take place. Grodzka is apprehensive: “It's impossible to rule out a victory for PiS and the whole nationalistic, conservative, right-wing bloc, and it should be seriously feared. I say 'feared', because this may be a very bad scenario for the Polish society, in many ways.”

She adds: “I'm particularly wary about whether European standards regarding human rights will be upheld and whether the mechanisms of democracy, which are already weak, will survive. The populistic PiS party is not a good alternative for the left; its conservative views and subservience towards the Catholic Church present a real threat of a theocracy forming in Poland.”

The problem – which is hardly exclusive to Poland – is what she describes as the “weakness of the left and the absence of left-leaning media in the political mainstream”. The concise history of the Polish left after 1989 that she supplies does not paint a pretty picture. Blighted by corruption scandals, directionlessness and accusations of cooperation with the previous regime (which have been made against Grodzka too), the left emerged fragmented and passive.

She gives the example of Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD – Democratic Left Alliance) a once-powerful party that the second president of free Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was associated with. Grodzka particularly criticises the fact that it “wouldn't let go of neoliberal economic policy and acted submissively towards the structures of the Catholic Church” and alienated its electorate. “SLD's electoral defeat contributed to the lengthy domination of the de facto right-wing duopoly of Platforma Obywatelska (PO - Civic Platform) and PiS.”

There are signs of change, however: “The crisis of left-wing mainstream representation in Poland led to attempts at creating a coalition (Zjednoczona Lewica – United Left). It also gave rise to new leftist social movements – Partia Razem (Together Party), Ruch Sprawiedliwości Społecznej (The Social Justice Movement) – and reinforced the position of the Green party in Poland. The autumn elections will show their real power. However, regardless of the results of those elections, I am convinced that in the long run a leftist perspective will become the one for Poland.”

Grodzka's background as an entrepreneur comes to the fore when we discuss the future of the euro. “European economy was adversely influenced by the introduction of the euro with an exchange rate that gave Germany an advantage in export. The euro became a tool for Germany and its partners from the Economic and Monetary Union to build their export monopoly," she says.

"Adopting a common currency plunged their partners in current account deficits. Germany's trade surplus of around 5 per cent is reflected in the trade deficits of its European partners. For example, in 2000, Greece had a deficit of 3 per cent, while in 2009 – 14 per cent.”

Hence, “The only way for Germany's EU partners to regain competitiveness was internal devaluation, that is a wage reduction.”

So while she thinks that European integration “can be of enormous benefit to Europe's societies”, there is a caveat: “A common currency and a common market cannot be the main indicators of European integration. If it is to make sense for all European countries, integration needs to go much deeper. It should encompass a common fiscal system, labour laws, social security and human rights: a common economic and social policy.”

Commenting on the issues that worry her the most about the current political debate, she states: “It's more of a war than a debate, on many levels. This stems from increasing social inequality and from the drawbacks of modern democracy: the mechanisms of deliberation are insufficient and citizens have no real influence on policy and the state. This system has other issues too, such as the pathological feedback loop between politicians and the media, the virtual lack of public media, the catastrophic state of civics in schools.”

Still, when I ask whether she thinks the discourse about social tolerance changes depending on which party dominates the Polish political scene, Grodzka is cautiously optimistic: In a sense, because politics influences collective emotions and ideas. On the other hand, however, it is precisely human emotions and ideas that lead to the domination of any of the political options. But this doesn't mean that a conservative government which formulates conservative law will succeed in imprinting conservative values onto the social consciousness. Precisely the opposite may happen – it may stir up rebellion and resistance.”

There is certainly an element of hope in what she says. When asked about her experiences as a transgender person in a country as conservative as Poland, she demurs politely: You must know, surely.” Grodzka belongs to a scant handful of openly transgender people in Poland and a short research session is enough to show that her mere presence in the media riles many people up.

In January last year, a meeting with her at one of the biggest Polish bookshops was interrupted by a group of young men chanting homophobic and anti-Communist slogans, as was her public lecture at a university in Warsaw in March. Despite all of this, Grodzka, through her book, has found a voice for herself and others like her.