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INTERVIEW

Joanna Ostrowska – Queer history is part of human history, and we should remember it

University of Warsaw lecturer on Jewish and gender studies discusses the danger of ignoring the history of LGBT* communities throughout the world

Joanna Ostrowska, lecturer on Jewish and gender studies at the University of Warsaw

Nicole Bogart | 03.07.2017

History often serves as a stark reminder of atrocities committed against the persecuted; their stories serving as an education for future generations. Yet, with ongoing concerns about the safety of LGBT* people in Chechnya, Joanna Ostrowska, lecturer on Jewish and gender studies at the University of Warsaw, fears some may have forgotten about the importance of queer history. During the fifth gathering of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Wellness, and Belonging – Ostrowska discussed the importance of documenting the history of LGBT* people throughout the world.

“Queer history, I think, is one of the most important things when talking about the community,” she says. “In Poland, we have this situation where everybody thinks that before 1990 queer history was some kind of myth. After 1990, because the ‘Western demons’ came to Poland, we [had] gay people, lesbian people, and ‘the others.’ Before it was like heaven for the heterosexual people.” 

This “legend,” as Ostrowska describes it, is far from the truth; but she warns many influential voices in the country, including politicians, believe this so-called myth to be true.

“I think the historical impact is a kind of education for us; not only for the minority but for the rest of society. This is [a] weapon to show other people that the queerness, the queer history, is not legend. It’s not ironic myth which you can use to show that somebody is different, or weird. This is a part of human history, and we should remember it,” Ostrowska says.

Ostrowska’s research currently focuses on sexual violence in Poland during World War II, and forgotten victims of the Holocaust, with a particular focus on homosexual victims. She believes her research is of increasing importance in light of allegations of “gay genocide” in Chechnya, noting the allegations are reminiscent of paragraph 175 under Nazi Germany, which added homosexuality to the criminal code. “This is a situation that tells me we should remember,” she stresses.

Building on the theme of “Home,” participants of the fifth annual Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum spent time listening to the stories of LGBT* refugees, many of which fled to new countries to seek asylum due to discrimination over their sexual orientation or gender identity. During the Forum, refugees from Syria, Ethiopia, and beyond, shed light on how difficult it is for an LGBT* individual to flee their home and integrate into a new society. These stories, Ostrowska says, are the future of queer history.

“I’m really happy that people of the LGBT* minority are responsible [for] making archives. I think this is the most important thing; it was really important for me when I started researching the field of homosexual victims of the Holocaust,” she says. “We didn’t have enough materials.”

Though the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum brings together LGBT* allies from all backgrounds, whether it be activists, lawyers, artists, or researchers, Ostrowska says her participation has helped her feel more involved in the LGBT* movement.

“It was always a hard thing for me to feel like an activist because my work is somewhere else. I’m some kind of supporter – [an] ally – but I’m not an activist,” she says. “But after a couple of days here, I feel like I’m part of this movement.”

*LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, but we would not wish it to be read as exclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender-nonconforming identities.


Joanna Ostrowska was a participant at the fifth annual Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Wellness, and Belonging. The session was supported by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth; the Archangel Michael Foundation; Open Society Foundations; Stiftung Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft; the Austrian Development Cooperation; UNDP; and Canadian 150. More information on the session can be found here: http://www.salzburgglobal.org/go/578.html

03.07.2017 Category: FACES OF LEADERSHIP, JUSTICE, LGBT
Nicole Bogart