The Warsaw-based Chrząszczyki Football Club is known as “Poland’s first lesbian football club”. This week, and in light of Andrzej Duda’s recent re-election, we had the chance to speak to its founder, Italian-born Suzi Andreis, who has been living and fighting for LGBT+ rights in Poland for more than two decades. She tells us about her work, her projects and her experience living in Poland.
Hi Suzi, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. First things first, restrictions are slowly easing up. What has been your experience during the pandemic?
Covid had a huge impact in our activity, we had to cancel our annual Football Against Homophobia tournament which was planned for March 14. We had also to stop our weekly meetings of our Womxn’s Football Academy project. We managed to start training again at the Academy at the beginning of June but, so far, Covid limitations make it impossible to organize a tournament, which have all been cancelled.
Strange times indeed. But let’s start at the very beginning. How did Chrząszczyki Football Club start?
Chrząszczyki started very informally in the summer of 1999. As part of the LBT+ environment, a few members of a lesbian mailing list had the idea meet in a park in Warsaw, to spend some time together, and to play football. It was a kind of a joke. We didn’t have a team and very few of us had any football experience. But we liked that very first game so much that we decided to continue.
What happened next?
In the first years, our main goal was to create a space for womxn in the LGBT+ community in Warsaw. Games would happen on a weekly basis, they were open (pickup), we hardly ever played on a real pitch. The priority was to create a space where non-heteronormative womxn could meet. Football was a secondary issue. But things changed in 2007 when we organized our first tournament… and it was a success! We then decided to focus on football, to develop as a soccer team, not only as community of womxn.
You are known as “Poland’s first lesbian football club”, yet your club is open to everyone. How do you define yourselves?
Yes, our football club comes out of the LGBT+ community. But we don’t ask members who want to join us about their sexual orientation or identity. Probably the best definition of Chrząszczyki is a female club with a majority of lesbian, bisexual, transgender womxn. Our visibility as a “lesbian” team is our political statement in Polish homophobic society. It is important but it’s not our only goal.
Is that why you call it “inclusive soccer”?
We are aware that there are several cultural barriers that prevent womxn from taking part in the game. Football is for instance culturally considered an exclusively male discipline. We call our game “inclusive soccer” because we try to address as many barriers as possible to make our projects accessible. Though society in Poland is rather homogenic in terms of race, our LGBT+ community is not, LGBT+ people are different.
Can you expand on this?
Well, our projects are always free of charge, or have symbolic fees, so that people of lower income can take part. We don’t focus on performance, nor competition: we want to create a space where womxn of any age and of different ability, with or without sport experience can start their adventure with football. Many at our Academy are womxn who have not practiced any sport since their childhood and have to build from scratch their basic body coordination and skills. Furthermore, some womxn within the migrant community often have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet in Warsaw. This is why our trainings are on a voluntary basis, you don’t have to be there every week, you can come, join and play anytime you want and still be member of the team. We also offer child caring during trainings
You mentioned a few times your Academy. Can you tell us more about it?
In 2013, we started the Womxn’s Football Academy, a football school for adult womxn, meaning cis/trans, queer and non-binary people. The idea of our work is to create a safe space where womxn can practice football, free of any form discrimination where participants can feel safe. We also organize debates, film screenings, exhibitions where we talk about our experience. We miss a strong anti-discrimination movement in Polish football.
Yes, there’s a growing movement and the situation of “women” in football is more and more visible in the media. But discussions relate to “women” as a homogenic social group, to sexism and gender discrimination only. We participate in this movement, but we think that the only way to make the game accessible is a wider, intersectional approach to address cultural barriers and prejudices that lead to systemic discrimination and exclusion.
You’ve been personally active in the LGBT+ scene since you moved to Poland in 1997, how have things changed over the past two decades?
Things have changed for better and for worse. The LGBT+ movement is now much bigger, more people are involved, there are more organizations and more events. More letters of the acronym LGBTQAI+ have at least one organisation to represent their perspective and share their voice. Still, as it is everywhere else, there is an overrepresentation of cis-gays in the LGBT+ movement and media in Poland. But even from this point of view the situation is much better than 20 years ago. The language we use in the LGBT+ environment has improved and become more inclusive. We do have a national political debate about LGBT+ demands, like same sex marriages, adoption, sex reassignment procedure, hate crimes, sexuality and anti-discrimination education in schools, though this didn’t lead us to changes in legislature yet.
But. As the LGBT+ movement is more visible and active in Poland, the reaction to our visibility also has increased. 20 years ago we were an insignificant topic, we were rather ignored as well as our demands. In the last few years, we’ve been facing an escalation of hate speech toward our community and this is particularly noticeable in politics and far-right dominated environments, like football games.
And how would you compare it to the situation in other countries, like in your native Italy?
Italian legislature does not differ much from the Polish one. A few years ago, we finally passed a law that allows the registration of same-sex couples, local laws. The Italian parliament will however soon discuss the hate-speech and LGBT+ violence law. The situation in Europe is getting worse everywhere because the far-right environments are becoming more influent and powerful in politics and society. And this affects LGBT+ environment everywhere though in different ways. In those countries where LGBT+ community can count on specific laws and a higher level of tolerance; the situation is much better than in Poland and in Italy. On the other hand, the LGBT+ community is made of people of different background. And I think that the situation of LGBT+ migrants or queer non-white individuals is worsening everywhere in Europe despite the legislature that may protect the whole LGBT+ community in some European countries.
What do you mean?
A big difference between Poland and western or southern countries is the level of cooperation between LGBT+ organizations and groups and public administration. Our organization’s friends and partners from France, Germany, the UK and the Nordic countries can rely on a certain support from local and national institutions. In Poland, this kind of cooperation hardly exists. LGBT+ organizations rely on funding from abroad and international grants. National, public or private support for LGBT+ initiatives is rare. This is much more visible in football, one of the most conservative areas of society.
You say you’ve been attacked, both verbally and physically, because of your orientation. How would you describe your experience living as a lesbian and member of the LGBT+ community in Poland?
First of all, I live in Warsaw which means that I can be visible as a lesbian in my everyday life and feel relatively safe from direct violence. When I say relatively, I mean that I consider verbal or physical violence that happened to me in the past rather an exception to the rule. Living in big cities like Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, Wrocław or Poznań is much safer than in smaller cities, towns or in the countryside.
Safety has a direct impact to LGBT+ people visibility in society: the further from the big city, the less visible is LGBT+ community. So, in Warsaw we feel relatively safe but still our rights are violated and, despite our visibility, we are not protected by a single law in this country, except for the Job Act. For instance, me and my partner, like any other group of people who define themselves as a family, are strangers toward the law with all the consequences it implies.
Yes, emigration is an option I’ve been thinking of since at least 2005, when Jarosław Kaczyński first came to power and made a coalition with a neofascist party (Liga Polskich Rodzin). For now I stay here, I try to focus on my life, my team, activism, but with my partner we already have a plan B. It’s hard to state whether our situation is already dangerous enough to realize it? Is history repeting itself? Is the current anti-LGBT agenda just a political trick of Kaczyński to win this presidential election or a real political agenda that soon will produce discriminatory changes in legislature? And what then? These thoughts keep nurturing me.
During his campaign, newly re-elected President Andrzej Duda’s made remarks against LGBT+ people and what he calls “LGBT ideology”. How crucial were these elections for the LGBT+ community?
I believe that LGBT+ people and generally leftists, liberals and centrists (non LGBT+) were scared by the possibility of second term for Duda. And again, it’s not easy to vote, because every time, it’s about chosing the lesser evil. Trzaskowski was not a reliable ally of the LGBT+ community either, even if he was not a clear enemy like Duda. But this election has worrying aspects other than for the LGBT+ issue. We are clearly going in the direction of an authoritarian country. In 2015-16, there used to be a visible difference in the social and economic agendas of the more “social” Law and Justice party and the neoliberal approach of Trzaskowski’s Civil Platform. But in the last couple of years and especially during the pandemic, the government approved a series of anti-crisis laws which were clearly aimed against workers and in favor of entrepreneurs. It is now clear to me that Kaczyński’s Law and Order party is not going to towards any kind of real social reform.
Worrying, indeed. So final question, out of curiosity, why call yourselves “Chrząszczyki”, meaning “Little Bugs”?
We chose the name Chrząszczyki in 2001 when we took part in the IGLFA tournament in London. Since we knew we had a very weak team and that we weren’t going to be noticed or remembered for our performance, we chose a name that was difficult to pronounce. It was supposed to be our peculiarity.
Very hard to pronounce indeed! Glad I’m not the only one then… Thank you for your time Suzi and good luck!
Main photo credit: Emilia Oksentowicz/ kolektyw