The street fitness movement defying Poland’s conservative mainstream

18 November 2021

Warsaw’s Krasiński Square is packed on this cool July afternoon, but not with the usual groups of local and foreign tourists paying homage before a bronze monument that stretches upwards 10 metres. Today, thousands of people have gathered in the Polish capital to commemorate the subject of this imposing piece: the 77th Warsaw Uprising. Flower wreaths are carefully placed on the larger-than-life burnished figures that represent the insurgents.

Amid the red-and-white floral arrangements and dark olive military uniforms, there’s a sudden explosion of colour: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple buds, set against green ferns with no words or message. It is carried by two young men in rainbow masks — members of Homokomando, a self-styled gay sports team. Their rainbow wreath is the first to ever pay homage to gay members of Poland’s Second World War Resistance at this solemn and emotional annual ceremony.

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Homokomando was founded in July 2019 with the specific goal of holding physical training sessions in public spaces for Poland’s LGBTQ+ individuals. Groups meet on a regular basis to work out together in major cities like Warsaw, Gdańsk, and Gdynia. Last August, Marcin Jaworek joined the Warsaw group, which always trains with a visible rainbow flag.

“The flag evokes a lot of feelings, and the majority are positive,” he tells me in a recent Zoom call. Passersby often ask if they can take pictures for their social media accounts. Marcin always says yes: “Being present in public with the flag is essential.”

The flag also draws ire and harassment. “We’ll be running and someone will open a window and yell out a gay slur,” he says. “We’re used to it. We carry on.”

For Jaworek, showing that non-heteronormative people aren’t physically weak is important. Homokomando’s sessions usually include a group run as well as calisthenics exercises, a form of strength training using only one’s own bodyweight. The group also organises kayak and bike rides, as well as paintball sessions. Focusing on physical movement and strength gives Jaworek a sense of empowerment, as well as a welcome forum to focus solely on the task at hand: this set of pushups; this climb up a hill.

Homokomando founder Linus Lewandowski

The workouts usually happen in Warsaw’s public spaces, and that’s important to Jaworek: it matters to him that queer people are visibly present in society, in their communities, and in everyday life. And if these seem like fairly obvious goals, they’re not in today’s Poland, where politicians and church leaders regularly spout anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and physical violence against non-heteronormative individuals is at an all-time high.

In March 2021, 10 members of Homokomando were attacked in Gdańsk during an outdoor workout session. Two were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalised. Their attackers numbered roughly 30, wore ski masks, and hurled homophobic slurs as they punched and hit. Homokomando Gdańsk has since resumed its workouts, but no longer displays a rainbow flag and doesn’t announce upcoming sessions on public forums. It’s unclear how the attackers found the group — it could have been online or at various protests and events the group attended throughout the past year.

That’s how Zuzia Nikołajuk found the group: during a Women’s March in Warsaw, protesting one of Europe’s harshest abortion laws.

“I saw rainbow flags,” she tells me during a Zoom call. She walked over to the group, which introduced itself as Homokomando, and spent the rest of the march with them. They soon invited her to join their workouts. She liked the idea of a gay sports team for the camaraderie and fitness, though initially wondered if it was for men only. (It wasn’t.) But what cemented her participation was the group’s activism. She saw them at the same protests she was attending, and realised that the group was as passionate about human rights as she is.

Homokomando member Tomasz Sarosiek
Homokomando member Marcin Jeziorek

“The rainbow flag in Poland,” she says, “is about LGBTQ+ and so much more. It’s become a symbol of support for all those who need it, for all who are discriminated.” She’s since marched alongside Homokomando and the rainbow flag in support of human rights in Belarus and Palestine, as well as at various women’s rights protests. Over the years, she’s noticed how many various marginalised groups have come together under the flag, a united symbol for so many who face oppression. “People have begun to understand that we can be different but we march together and support each other,” she said. “Who knows which group will be the next to lose its rights?”

A month after Homokomando Gdańsk was attacked, Nikołajuk took part in the annual commemoration of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was the first time the group had joined a ceremony of such profound national significance. When they initially contacted the ceremony organisers, they weren’t sure if they’d be welcome.

“We’re so used to not being accepted,” Nikołajuk says. And when the organisers responded positively and Homokomando secured its spot, “it was still difficult to believe that we could actually do this.” At the ceremony, the rainbow wreath stood as tall as her shoulders; she and two other Homokomando members, including founder Linus Lewandowski, wore rainbow masks.

“People have begun to understand that we can be different but we march together and support each other”

A few months later, the group contacted the organisers of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising: could they come representing Homokomando and present a rainbow wreath? They could and did. They were elated: the uprising holds tremendous importance to Poles everywhere, symbolising the fight against oppression and cruelty and hate against insurmountable odds. Yet in recent years, the Warsaw Uprising event had drawn large groups of nationalists, who loudly espouse hate towards marginalised groups, including LGBTQ+.

“This was our time to take back this important day,” Jaworek says. “Nationalism isn’t patriotism. Hating people isn’t patriotism.”

It’s unclear how many members of the Second World War Polish Resistance were queer. Two are known; for others, it’s almost impossible to be sure many decades later. For Jaworek, honouring their memory was a profound experience. And for Nikołajuk and Jaworek, it was not only a statement about the past — but also the future. They believe that their presence at such high-profile ceremonies will help others.

Tomasz Sarosiek works out with Homokomando
Jan Luczkiewicz and Marcin Jeziorek talk mid-work out.

“I want young people to be safe,” says Nikołajuk, who moved out of her parents’ home at 19 because they did not accept her. “I want the level of public awareness about us to increase so that others don’t have the same fate.”

Jaworek agrees: “I want people to be safe when they walk down the street.” He also wants marriage equality (in Poland, homosexual marriage is illegal and gay couples cannot adopt children). And he wants Polish law to protect LGBTQ+ individuals. “I want to be respected as a human,” he says, “and not judged solely based on my sexuality.”

During the Warsaw Uprising Ceremony, Jaworek stood behind Homokomando’s wreath in a rainbow-colored mask. In front of him were Warsaw Uprising veterans — many in their 90s, some using wheelchairs, due to being unable to stand for the lengthy ceremony.

In photos from the event, two men in navy suits stand nearby: Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda. Both have made copious anti-LGBTQ+ statements while in office, including Duda’s declaration during his 2020 presidential race that the LGBTQ+ community are “not people, they’re an ideology.”

Homokomando member Marcin Lewandowski
Homokomando member Jan Luczkiewicz

When it came time to present the flowers, the veterans accepted Homokomando’s wreath graciously. The president and prime minister said nothing. In the photos, both are looking away from the rainbow wreath — something Jaworek remembers wishing he could change. “I was thinking, ‘Look! We’re here! We’re human. The ‘ideology’ is standing in front of you!”

The morning after the ceremony, the rainbow wreath was gone. While other floral tributes remained spread out across Krasiński Square, Jaworek heard from other LGBTQ+ activists who had gone to take photos that they couldn’t find the Homokomando wreath. That afternoon, it was discovered in a nearby portable toilet.

A few weeks after the ceremony, members of Poland’s ruling conservative PiS party proposed measures to ban pride parades and any “promotion of homosexuality.”

“We may not be able to train with the flag anymore,” Jaworek says. It shocks and saddens him that fellow Poles — who once fought against communist oppression, Nazi and Stalinist oppression, and earlier the oppression of the Russian tsars — “today fight against us.”

But he and Nikołajuk are undeterred.

“I was there,” Jaworek says. “I was with the veterans. They accepted our wreath; they accepted us.”

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