A country with a reputation for being staunchly conservative defied that stereotype this weekend, when residents of Słupsk, a city in northern Poland, elected Robert Biedroń, a well-known gay rights activist, as its mayor.
Though he doesn’t even live in Słupsk yet, Biedroń, a member of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, received 57% of the vote in the second round of the country’s local elections.
Voters didn’t raise his sexual orientation as an issue during the campaign, Biedroń said. “No one was interested in these things. People wanted to talk about unemployment, the city’s development,” he told the Polish news service TVN24.
Biedroń, who rose to prominence as the head of a Polish gay rights group, the Campaign against Homophobia, was elected to the Polish parliament in 2011. Along with him, Poles elected Anna Grodzka as their first transgender member of parliament.
Homophobic incidents still occur regularly in Poland, but now many of them are called out by the media and gay rights groups. Hate speech is less permissible in the public sphere than just a few years ago. In May of this year, for example, several television stations refused to air (link in Polish) a campaign ad from a right-wing party because it featured an anti-gay caption.
Nearly 20 candidates came out as gay or bisexual before the latest round of elections, a record number in Poland, where over 90% of the population identifies as Catholic, and where the November vote was largely split between the center-right and the right. None of the LGBT candidates won seats other than Biedroń, a member of the progressive Your Movement.
The mayor-elect is hopeful, however. “I see how fast Polish society has learned its lesson of tolerance,” Biedroń told the Associated Press two days before the Sunday election. “So I am very optimistic and happy with Polish society, and proud.”
Biedroń also isn’t actually Poland’s first openly gay local official, though he is the most prominent. In 2011, a tiny village in the country’s north elected 26-year-old Marcin Nikrant as village mayor.
The 38-year-old Biedroń is known for his inflammatory rhetorical style, especially when criticizing other politicians, but he toned down his language during the campaign, sticking to the problems plaguing the city of 100,000. Słupsk is drowning in debt, and has seen many of its younger residents leave for bigger, richer cities and abroad, Polish media report.
Biedroń pledges a modest, austere style of governance. “I promise the residents that the three limousines at the mayor’s disposal won’t be my limousines. I travel by bike,” he told the Polish Press Agency. He emphasizes the importance of renewable energy and aims to make the city more eco-friendly. And he has promised to eradicate the partisan nature of Słupsk politics, as well as the city’s paralyzing cronyism, he said.
One thing is certain: The whole country will be watching.