Sarah and Melanie Penicka-Smith, Pacific Pride Choir
Sarah and Melanie Penicka-Smith, Pacific Pride Choir

Equality isn’t great for LGBT people in Poland and this choir is aiming to change that.

Poland is one of the three worst countries to be gay in the European Union, according to the equal rights organization ILGA-Europe. So what better place to launch a new queer touring choir from down under? Pacific Pride Choir, made up of 50 choristers from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, New Zealand and even Germany, will travel to Poland this July for a series of friendship concerts and outreach activities.

Founded by Sarah and Melanie Penicka-Smith, Pacific Pride Choir has been created as an occasional touring choir, to contribute to the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQI people in areas of the world where homosexuality is legalized but not fully recognized. As well as performing public concerts, the choir will work in partnership with local LGBTQI organisations and individuals to help create visibility, solidarity and recognition through the uniting power of music.

The Roman Catholic Church is a major force in Polish society and politics. While homosexuality has never been illegal in Poland, the country constitutionally bans same-sex marriage and adoption and refuses to recognize transgender people. The last two years have seen a concerning swing towards discrimination and away from recognition.

The ruling Law and Justice Party is a right-wing national-conservative party that came to power in October 2015 with an unprecedented majority. The party’s chairman and former Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczyniski, has previously stated that the “affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization”. In January this year, the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, publicly stated that gay marriage would never be legalized in Poland. Recently there has been a noticeable increase in anti-LGBTQI hate speech and violence. Most cases go unreported as it is often assumed that authorities will be unlikely to act.

However, there are many people across the country working at a grassroots level to foster recognition and acceptance. The seventeenth annual Equality Parade will colour the streets of Warsaw on Saturday 3 June. And, earlier this year the small village of Bobrowniki almost unanimously elected an openly gay man as mayor.

Sarah Penicka-Smith, former Music Director of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir said, “The idea for the Pacific Pride Choir was born during Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir’s 2014 tour to Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga. We were overwhelmed by the response to our time in countries unused to seeing out gay and lesbian people. The LGBTQI advocacy groups we met with, chronically understaffed, told us that gaining any kind of media coverage was a struggle.

But SGLC’s tour attracted the media’s attention and the words ‘gay and lesbian’ appeared on national television in a positive context.” Sarah’s wife and co-founder of the Pacific Pride Choir, Melanie Penicka-Smith said, “Local queer folk told us how they felt less alone seeing us sing in public, how they wished they could have their own choir, and how we were so desperately needed in other parts of Europe. With Australia also still fighting for marriage equality, we see this as a journey to be shared.”

On July 10, Pacific Pride Choir will travel from Australia to Berlin in Germany, assisted by international music tour specialists KI Concerts. There they will meet together as a group for the first time and rehearse for three days, before performing a joint evening concert with Berlin’s queer a-cappella choir Rosa Cavaliere at the historic Emmaus Kirche on Friday 14 July. The choir will then travel to Krakow in Poland for a joint concert with Krakofonia on Sunday 16 July. Then it’s on to Warsaw where there will be a joint concert with Chor Voces Gaudiae on Wednesday 19 July. Both of these small Polish LGBTQI choirs were formed as recently as 2014 and are looking forward to the encouragement and boost in the profile that international collaboration will bring.

Sarah Penicka-Smith said, “When Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir was in Estonia in 2014, performing inside a 17th-century town hall, a woman in the audience came up to us afterwards and said, ‘You must come to Poland’. She was worried about her gay daughter who lived there. An equally moving moment on that tour was when we sang one of Latvia’s national songs during a free concert in one of Riga’s beautiful parks.

Hearing a culturally important song, performed in their language by a queer choir who had travelled all the way from Sydney, was an eye-opening and moving experience for many of the elderly Latvian people in the audience, and we were met with a standing ovation, tears, and even flowers.

“Those experiences led to the idea of Pacific Pride Choir as they showed us how the power of song can build bridges, break down walls and change perceptions. For Pacific Pride Choir’s first tour we will be talking with us a varied repertoire of music including the joyful new song Marry Me by Lawrence and Kathleen McGuire, the beautiful Australian indigenous song Inanay as performed by Tiddas and the Irish pop hit Take Me To Church, which Hozier wrote in response to his frustration at the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. We will also be learning some Polish language songs.”

The plan is for Pacific Pride Choir to meet every two years, starting with a rehearsal camp in a friendly city, and to then tour to places where it is felt that LGBTQI outreach can make a real difference. The choir is open to anyone in the LGBTQI community and its straight allies, from anywhere in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and beyond. Experience singing in a choir is preferable but not essential.