Lech Walesa, the man who championed the struggle for democratic rights in Poland against Communist rule, has kicked up a storm of controversy after he suggested that gay politicians should “sit behind a wall” in the country’s parliament.
In a television interview that re-enforced his reputation for making bluff, off-hand comments, the former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner attacked the status of gay politicians.
“They should sit at the back, and not on the front bench in the parliament hall,” said Mr Walesa. “In fact they should even sit behind a wall.
“They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights,” he continued. “A minority should not impose itself on the majority. I don’t agree with this and I will never agree to it.”
A devout Catholic with eight children, Mr Walesa also added that he did not want gays coming out on to the street so his children and grandchildren could meet them.
His comments, made in a TV interview on Friday, prompted a furious backlash this weekend from across the Polish political spectrum.
“Why does Lech want me to sit in the back row?” asked Robert Biedron, an MP from the opposition Palikot Movement and Poland’s first openly gay politician. “If we accept the rules proposed by Lech Walesa then where would blacks sit? They are also a minority. And what about the disabled?”
Leszek Miller, leader of the Democratic Left Alliance, and a former prime minister, said he wondered if the former president’s words reflected “ignorance or arrogance”.
“Either way, they are hard for his supporters to accept given his rich legacy,” he added.
The storm over Mr Walesa’s comments is set against a backdrop of passionate debate over gay rights in a country regarded as socially conservative and where more than 90 per cent of the population declare themselves as Catholic.
Last month, the Polish parliament rejected three bills proposed by Civic Platform, the dominant party in Poland’s coalition government, that would have allowed gay couples to form civil partnerships after rebel Civic Platform MPs sided with the opposition.
Poland’s press has speculated that the rift over gay rights between conservative and socially progressive factions in Civic Platform could undermine the unity of the Polish government.
Mr Walesa’s comments look set to harm his reputation both in Poland and beyond. Although no longer active in the domestic political scene, the moustachioed former shipyard electrician, who shot to world fame as the leader of the Solidarity trade union in its titanic struggle with the might of the Communist bloc in the early 1980s, is still a regular commentator on Polish politics although a penchant for gaffes and curious off-the-wall comments have already undermined his reputation.
Now his international reputation and career as public speaking on the global lecture tour could be at risk.
“Now nobody in their right mind will invite Lech Walesa as a moral authority, knowing what he said,” Jerzy Wenderlich, a deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, said.