In an indoor sports hall in the Polish town of Zamosc, two women’s football teams prepare to kick off a match when pepper spray is thrown on the floor, spewing gas around the hall.
The players are forced to evacuate as the air clears, but outside the hall they come face to face with the officials – local hooligans who should have been watching the men’s club they are supporting during the match. ‘a fourth division championship match taking place in the nearby stadium.
“Some of us met them in the hallways. Fortunately, no one was seriously affected by the gas and it did not become physical ”, explains Suzi Andreis, speaking to Sky Sports from Warsaw. She reflects on the event, titled “Queer Futbol”, which she organized on a Saturday afternoon last October.
“When things like this happen, I am more outraged than scared. The police called us in the morning and told us they were going to close our event and no one would enter.”
Yet it’s not the disruption that frustrates her the most. “It was supposed to be an open event. While I’m glad on the one hand that the police were there, because it would be worse without them, on the other hand, they don’t understand why we are doing it. We wanted that. people come to watch. We need visibility. “
Andreis is an anti-discrimination activist in a country ranked low in the European Union for LGBT + rights. She is also passionate about football and KS Chrzaszczyki – the club she founded – has become a vital community space for women like her living in and around the Polish capital. His name translates to ‘Beetles FC’ in English and Andreis is rightly proud of his thick-skinned and diverse family of players.
The Zamosc event was supposed to be a bigger tournament, but in this part of south-eastern Poland it has proven difficult to attract teams. The area surrounding the city is a so-called ‘LGBT-free zone’ and the location was chosen on purpose, to make a statement as well as to provide an inclusive sports space for local women. Resolutions against “LGBT ideology” taken by more than 100 local authorities across the country have led to a proliferation of these “zones”, but Andreis is not discouraged.
Football against fascism
Originally from Turin, she moved to Warsaw in the late 1990s to continue studying Slavic Studies. Calcio culture had started to lose its appeal as it reached its late teens, with club Torino forced to play in the unpopular concrete bowl of Stadio Delle Alpi and attitudes around male play seemingly stuck in it. ‘stone Age. Once in Poland, she joined a mailing list of lesbians and other women who accepted their sexuality.
“We had a summer meeting in a park and played football. We quickly got it back up and running and the following year was almost every week. It was the beginning of Chrzaszczyki, and it was me who really took it over.
“We never advertised the games as being ‘for lesbians’, but it was clear that most of the people who came in were gay or bi. We created a space where these women felt comfortable. For many of them, it was a feeling they felt. an LGBTQ + environment for the first time.
“Some had problems with internalized homophobia and admitted to being homosexual. Football games became a means of accepting it for many women.”
Regaining their childhood enthusiasm for the game away from societal pressures was enough at first. They accepted an invitation to the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association’s 10th World Cup in London in 2001 but “barely crossed the center line,” Andreis recalls, with teams from Germany, the United States. United and the Netherlands taking the competition very seriously. However, within a few years, she was organizing tournaments on her own.
“From that moment we realized that football was becoming more than just lesbians and bi women meeting each other. We started looking for better pitches and better players started to join the club. This pushed the level further. high – it was a natural evolution. “
At this time, Andreis could feel the political mood shifting to the right in Poland. Chrzaszczyki’s tournaments always had a message – stand against sexism or celebrate visibility – but against the backdrop of Warsaw Pride Parade bans and increasingly organized neo-fascist groups with football links , the campaign element of the club’s identity has become more pronounced.
“We got to watch these groups grow up. There are two ways they appear in society – one is in a suit and tie, the other is as a football fan, usually a skinhead. In 2005, they had homemade banners, then later the banners were all printed. For 10 to 15 years fascism grew but nobody said it. “
In 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party, which has close ties to the country’s powerful Catholic Church, won the Polish parliamentary elections with an absolute majority. “Everyone knows the story ever since,” says Andreis. A legal change allowed the government to appoint officials of TVP, Poland’s largest television network and public radio. In autumn 2019, 54 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe described TVP as “the propaganda channel of the ruling party”.
Through it all, Chrzaszczyki continued on and his reputation grew across Europe as an inclusive LGBT + club for women and non-binary people. “We are the only such club here in Poland, but we are very local in Warsaw,” says Andreis. “Our work has been extremely effective in terms of helping individuals and developing the women’s amateur football community in the capital.
“But we’ve never been able to get enough money to develop ourselves. We get positive feedback, but the sport is seen as a secondary part of the culture I think. All my friends across the way. Europe who are sports activists say the same thing. “
There is no LGBT + visibility in football in Poland – we are talking more about invisibility. In the whole sporting environment here, there are only a few people.
The pandemic put the brakes on Chrzaszczyki as a club, but last summer Andreis was so outraged by a further development of Polish opposition to LGBT + rights that she again mobilized her football network. Cities across the country that had declared themselves “ LGBT-free zones ” found that their requests for EU funding were rejected as a result, only for the government to step in and tell them that they would instead receive money. state money.
“It was a shame,” she says. “Some municipalities had learned that they would lose their partnerships or that they would not receive money from the EU. Then the Ministry of Justice gave one of the cities (Tuchow) more money than they would have obtained from the EU.
“I was so upset that it was the spark for me to call all my friends and say, ‘let’s do something’. The event in Zamosc was difficult but we made it a success.
“It turns out that the men’s soccer match that was being played in the stadium is famous in the region for being one of the most aggressive matches, in terms of the radical far-right among the supporters. It was strange because we thought we’d be ignored.
“We tried to advertise – we had articles in the local media and newspapers – but we thought ‘they don’t care about us.’ If we were gays, they would have come without lesbians, I was quite sure no one would. be interested. But they still threw pepper spray at us. “
Despite the experience, Andreis hopes to organize more LGBT-friendly football events in so-called “ LGBT-free zones ” and while she appreciates that homophobia is more evident in Polish men’s football, she says that fear of sexuality and gender identity is peddled. in women’s football too.
“As for the hooligans, they treat male problems more violently,” she explains. “But the experience of women is totally different. This talk about hierarchy and the fact that homophobia hits men more than women is part of the patriarchal culture.
“Even at this level, women are seen as less important. I tried to use the specific term lesbophobia, but it hasn’t really been part of the public discourse yet.
The “ rock star ” and other models
Lesbian Visibility Week is celebrated in the UK but not in Poland. Andreis works in a school and would like to show students examples of positive role models – some world famous sports stars and others who are easier to understand.
“I didn’t have role models like this when I was a teenager,” she adds. “The only lesbians in sport were victims of homophobia, like Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna – they were successful, but their sexuality was either silenced or the subject of jokes. It was the attitude.
“Now we have women like Megan Rapinoe – a superstar, a rock star! I’m sure it’s useful, that kind of visibility. But she’s aloof. Young people need role models around them in life. everyday. Look at us, we are here! “
Andreis and his fellow ‘Beetles’ will be rushing back to gyms and outdoor fields now that Warsaw’s latest lockdown restrictions on activities have been lifted. As she looks back on two decades of Chrzaszczyki, she is proud of the number of women who have told her about how the club has changed their lives.
“Many say it was the start of a journey for them. It’s very emotional, to say the least. Plus, most of our events attract women at the beginning or the end. in our twenties and that’s a sign that we still live in the same cultural wilderness that I did when I was a teenager. “
As a Turin supporter, it was a familiar feeling at the time for Andreis to be a bit in the shadows. When the opportunity to celebrate arose, it was taken. “Every Monday morning the mood depended on the outcome of the weekend. When Torino won and Juve lost, it was wonderful!”
It was a more innocent time in its history, before politics, prejudice and pepper spray kicked in. Andreis’ unwavering faith in football as a force for good is a breath of fresh air fresh.
Lesbian Visibility Week runs from Monday April 26 to Sunday May 2.
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