How underground magazines helped liberate gay men in the Cold War

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

In an extract from his new book, Lukasz Szulc explores life behind the gay magazines in Communist Poland.

Born in 1948 in communist Poland, Andrzej Selerowicz immigrated to Vienna in the late 1970s, where he started to work for a foreign trade company and joined a local gay and lesbian organisation HOSI Wien.

He became one of the key persons behind the Eastern Europe Information Pool programme, launched in 1981 by the International Gay Association (now ILGA), and started to publish what was most likely the first Polish gay magazine Biuletyn, later renamed Etap.

How underground magazines helped liberate gay men in the Cold War

In one issue, he explained to his readers that ‘the main objective of the magazine is to provide you with information about important issues for the homosexual community in the West in exchange for your news from the country’.

Selerowicz published the magazine regularly, four times a year, since March 1983 until December 1987 in the form of a letter, usually starting with the words ’Dear friend’. In total, he made 20 issues, each consisting of one, two or four pages.

Etap was a typical do-it-yourself magazine, or zine, produced only by Selerowicz at his home and work. The first step in the production was to type the magazine’s content using a typewriter available in Selerowicz’s office.

Because the typewriter did not have Polish fonts, the second step was to manually add all the dots and dashes required by some Polish characters such as ą, ś or ż. The third step was to copy the magazine using a photocopier, again the one available at his work.

How underground magazines helped liberate gay men in the Cold War

Selerowicz started to distribute the magazine by handing it to the people he met during his travels to Poland or by mailing it to about 50 addresses, which he had collected by the mid-1980s.

However, most often he sent Etap not from Austria but from Hungary, where he was travelling regularly for work. He explains that ‘Stamps to Poland were cheaper from Budapest than from Vienna. Besides, mail from Budapest was less suspicious for the Polish Postal Services than letters from the West’.

There was a threat that the magazine could be confiscated.

In communist Poland, authorities imposed strict censorship but Selerowicz learnt that all self-published documents up to 100 copies were exempt from censorship. Therefore, the circulation of Etap was never higher than that, at least officially.

The content of the magazine was very diverse but focused on men only. It included information about the development of the homosexual movement, the spread of HIV and AIDS epidemics as well as homosexuality-related articles, books, films, pop songs and theatre plays.

Occasionally, Selerowicz published translations of homoerotic poems and reprinted homosexual drawings, for example of Tom of Finland.

Besides, he included many personal tips on such topics as safer sex, coming out and legal rights but also on what to wear: in one issue, he criticized Polish homosexuals for blindly following the trends promoted in mainstream magazines, explaining that in the West people take fashion less seriously and homosexuals prefer ‘simple, casual and sport look’.

The main aim of Etap, however, was to mobilise Polish homosexuals and encourage them to start organising themselves. Selerowicz wanted to convince them that, as he once noted in the magazine, ‘Homosexuality is not just about two men going to bed, it has also a socio-political aspect if it is related to discrimination’.

Later on, he added that the discrimination against homosexuals is rooted in centuries-long prejudices, which will not change all of a sudden, but ‘you won’t fixed the problem by burying your head in the sand’.

His efforts paid off. Over time, he started to collaborate with homosexuals from Wrocław who took over the distribution of the magazine and organized an informal group which adopted the magazine’s name.

The group even enquired about the possibility of official registration in communist Poland but received a negative reply from the authorities. Nevertheless, activists from Wrocław continued to organize themselves informally and in 1990 – together with homosexuals from Warsaw and Gdańsk – managed to register the first officially recognized gay and lesbian organization in Poland, the Association of Lambda Groups.

Selerowicz stopped publishing Etap in December 1987. In the last issue of the magazine he wrote that ‘Its primary aim – to mobilise homosexuals – has been in my opinion reached. Group consciousness has grown and first organisations have been formed. It is their job now to take responsibility for the future of the gay movement in Poland, including its publishing activity’.

This article is an edited excerpt from the book Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Border Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines by Lukasz Szulc.