Thirty years ago, on 15 and 16 November 1985, the police forces of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRP, 1952-1989), in cooperation with the Secret Service, conducted an undercover operation, code-named Hyacinth. The aim of the operation was to detain, interrogate, and register both actual and alleged homosexuals in order to create a kind of state Pink Archive. The operation was relaunched at least twice, in 1986 and 1987, and perhaps in 1989. It is estimated that altogether the police forces gathered around 11,000 files. To date, conclusive information about many aspects of the operation remains elusive: How were homosexuals defined and identified? What was the real motivation behind the operation? What is the precise number of the files in the Polish Pink Archive? And where exactly are they located?
Because Polish politicians and state institutions, such as the Institute of National Remembrance and Polish National Police, continue to ignore or silence discussion of the event, our knowledge about Operation Hyacinth remains limited to a few brief academic papers and articles in the mass media and LGBT magazines. This ignoring and silencing not only creates the conditions for misusing the files, for example to blackmail prominent and public figures, but also works to write off homosexuality as unworthy of historical recognition.
The police forces dragged us out of our homes and even from our workplaces and cafés. Someone simply rang my doorbell at six in the morning. I was really sleepy, as I had let a friend out from my apartment late at night… And I was so confused… Three Security Service guys barged into our hallway. I was still living with my parents back then. They called out my name… ‘Please come with us… ‘ They took me to the police station, where they tried to take my fingerprints and my photograph. In the beginning I tried to protest, but they intimidated me very quickly.
They arrested me when I was at work (I was a nurse working in a hospital). During the interrogation the investigators filled in a document entitled “The Dossier of a Homosexual” […] Above all, they asked for names. But also about sexual techniques; about our favourite sex positions and preferred types of lovers.
Some of the detained were also asked to sign the statement: ‘I hereby declare that I, [name and surname], am a homosexual since birth. I had many sexual partners in my life, all of whom were adults. I am not interested in minors’. They were threatened that unless they cooperated, their sexual orientation would be revealed to their families, friends, or colleagues. We do not know with certainty why the statement emphasized the natural character of homosexuality and differentiated between homosexuals and pedophiles. In a personal conversation, Kisiel suggested to me his belief that the interrogators used this innate definition of homosexuality to convince as many as possible to sign the statement, and then later blackmail them into cooperating with the Secret Service.
Some of the first to be detained, usually activists in the nascent Polish homosexual movement, were used by interrogators to identify other homosexuals. In an interview with Replika, Zboralski admitted that he involuntarily became an information source for the police forces:
[At the time of the arrest] I was carrying a bag with a note book. I kept in it all the information from Andrzej Selerowicz [a Vienna-based contact for Polish activists] about people with whom I wanted to cooperate. They searched me, found the note book and copied it. It was a mine of information about homosexual activists.
But the initial information about who, allegedly or not, was a homosexual came from the police’s raids on gay meeting places such as cafés, parks, and public toilets, as well as from the archives of the PRP’s institutions that had begun gathering information about homosexuals long before Operation Hyacinth was launched. Since the country’s independence in 1918, homosexuality has never been criminalized in Poland. By the 1950s, however, state secret agents were readily using homosexuality to blackmail their potential and existing assets or to discredit public figures. One famous victim of such tactics was philosopher Michel Foucault. Soon after he moved to Poland in October 1958 to work for the French Institute in Warsaw he was caught in a classic honey trap and ordered by the French Ambassador to leave Poland as soon as possible.
It was not until 1985’s Operation Hyacinth, however, that the regime mounted a systematic and large-scale action against homosexuals. Why did homosexuals attract special attention of the state at this time? The motives for launching the operation are still unclear. In fact, for some time, the authorities denied that the operation had even taken place. Yet, an article published in the government weekly W Służbie Narodu in 1986 relayed that ‘the operation was not directed against homosexuals nor was it caused by the concern related to AIDS [the first case of HIV infection was registered in Poland in 1985] … It was directed against the parasitic and criminal elements operating within this social group’. At least in the official version, then, the operation was bizarrely justified by a desire to protect homosexuals (and those who happened to interact with them) against the criminals who indeed robbed, assaulted, or even murdered them.
Scholar Paweł Kurpios points out, however, that one of the prime motives for launching the operation could have been to ‘intimidate the leaders and activists of the nascent social movement of homosexuals’. The first informal and ephemeral homosexual groups in Poland were only formed at the beginning of the 1980s. By 1983 somewhat more systematic initiatives were undertaken, such as the foundation of the group Etap in Wrocław. The key person behind these was Andrzej Selerowicz, a Polish activist based in Austria who in 1983, with the support of HOSI Wien and the International Gay Association (today ILGA), started organizing the first national meetings of homosexual activists and publishing a gay zine Biuletyn. These first homosexual groups in Poland were not directly connected to the pro-democracy movement Solidarity, which from 1981 (when it was made illegal) established stronger ties with the Roman Catholic Church and adopted its stance on issues related to sex and sexuality. Nevertheless, homosexual groups were surely considered oppositional since, as Agata Fiedotow points out in a recent book Kłopoty z Seksem w PRL [The Troubles with Sex in PRP], ‘In the centralized communist system any initiative expressing social discontent was interpreted as violating not only social but also political order’.
Finally, the precise number of files in the Pink Archive, as well as its exact location, is another great unknown. A small part of the collection has been found in the archives of the Polish Police Headquarters. Some may also be stored in the Institute of National Remembrance. Fiedotow suggests that most of the files remain scattered in the archives of local police stations. The information about the location of the files is of critical importance: there is a risk that those who continue to have access to the files will misuse the knowledge they contain. For that reason, in 2004, Campaign Against Homophobia (CAH), the largest Polish LGBT organization, asked the Ministry of the Interior and Administration to destroy the Pink Files. Robert Biedroń, the leader of CAH at that time, argued that ‘The files were used in the 1990s for political blackmail. This situation could be repeated’. The issue was abandoned, however, because the files could not be located.
While I recognize the possibility of misusing the Pink Files, I strongly advocate against their destruction. Those files constitute an invaluable source of historical data on the repression of homosexuals by communist authorities. To destroy this source would mean to once again render homosexuals invisible within the official version of the history of socialist Poland. Polish politicians and state institutions should actively engage in locating and securing the Pink Files to eliminate the risk of misusing the knowledge they contain, but also to allow their thorough and careful examination by historians.
Łukasz Szulc is a postdoctoral fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He has a PhD in Communication Studies (University of Antwerp) and MA and BA in Journalism and Communication Studies (Jagiellonian University, Poland). His key academic interests include the cultural and social roles of media, as well as sexuality and transnationalism, especially in regard to Poland and the Polish diaspora. More about Łukasz is available on his website. He tweets from @LukaszSzulc.
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at NotchesBlog@gmail.com