Transgendered lawmaker likely faces vote for leadership post as Poland sheds taboos

The before and after photos of Anna Grodzka show how much she — and her country — have transformed.

As a man, she once wore a thick beard. Now, Poland's first transgendered lawmaker favors big dangly earrings and form-fitting dresses, her hair in a feminine bob.

Grodzka attracted huge attention when she was elected in 2011, and as a vote in Parliament comes Friday that could make her a deputy speaker she is earning even more. Whether or not the 58-year-old wins the post, she has already had a huge impact on the political scene, becoming perhaps the most prominent symbol of liberal change in a country that has traditionally been deeply conservative and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

"Certain taboos are being dismantled," said Jacek Kucharczyk, a political analyst and the president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw.

Serious news magazines have featured her on their front covers, with analytical pieces examining the role of gays and other sexual minorities in society. The tabloids zero in on more frivolous things, like the difficulty the nearly 6-foot-2 (nearly 1.9-meter) Grodzka faces finding pretty clothes. Or how she freezes in panty hose in the frigid Polish winters, but still refuses to wear pants.

Grodzka said she herself is still sometimes surprised that she garnered 20,000 votes in her conservative home city, Krakow, to win a seat in Parliament. People have attacked her office, throwing things at the windows or ripping her rainbow flags. But all in all, she feels a growing acceptance from society, she told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

She is aware she is a symbol of historic change in Poland, she said, and is trying to meet that challenge by doing the best work possible as a lawmaker, and, should she win the post Friday, as deputy speaker.

"I am above all trying to be a normal politician, like any other person, but maybe even better. I am really trying so that people who observe me will know that transgendered people are no worse in any way than any others," Grodzka said, her fingernails painted a bright blue.

The social transformation has been visible in other areas too, including growing support for the state to fund in vitro fertilization, despite conservative Catholic opposition. But it is particularly notable for the new attention given to the rights of sexual minorities, an issue suppressed in communist times and after the fall of communism in 1989, as many Poles looked to the powerful Catholic church for guidance through the economic and social turmoil.

The church's role was long bolstered by its reputation for standing up to the communists and because of the authority of the late Polish Pope John Paul II. But its influence has waned since John Paul's death in 2005 and as Poland joined the EU in 2004 and became more closely integrated with the West.

A key turning point came as a new progressive party — Palikot's Movement — swept into power in 2011 as Parliament's third-largest force, one fighting for gay rights and against the church's traditional influence over public life. Its representatives include Grodzka and Poland's first openly gay lawmaker, Robert Biedron.

It can be an uphill battle. Last month lawmakers tackled the issue of civil partnerships, but rejected legislation that would have given unmarried couples — gay or straight — any legal rights.

The rise of the liberals "doesn't mean that we have suddenly become a very progressive country or that we are already on the level of West European countries in recognizing the rights of sexual minorities," Kucharczyk said. "There is still a long, long way to go and we see ... a backlash against Grodzka" getting a leadership role in Parliament, he said. "But what has changed is that we are discussing this openly and people have become visible."

Grodzka had sex change surgery in 2010 in Thailand after a lifetime of feeling she was born the wrong sex. Before the change her name was Krzysztof Begowski, and she had a wife and a son. Grodzka's son has been supportive of her through her change but the wife could not accept it and the two are now estranged.

The ruling party automatically gets the position of deputy speaker, with other major parties each allotted one deputy speaker post each. Grodzka has a shot at it after the lawmaker currently holding the post for her party, Wanda Nowicka, drew the ire of its founder and leader, Janusz Palikot, for accepting a bonus of 40,000 zlotys ($13,000) for her work as a leader in the legislature last year. The bonuses have been controversial because they come as Poland's economy faces a slowdown and the government raises taxes and forces other austerity measures on the public.

Biedron, the openly gay lawmaker, said he believes Grodzka's candidacy for a deputy speaker post is a huge step forward for Poland whether she gets it or not. Deputy speakers have the power to propose issues for lawmakers to debate, and they also gain a certain level of prominence, taking part in delegations that visit foreign countries or that welcome dignitaries to Poland.

"If she goes to a homophobic country representing Poland, this will be something," Biedron said. "I am proud that she is even a candidate."

However, Palikot's withdrawal of support for Nowicka has also been unpopular with many in the party and beyond because Nowicka, one of the country's leading feminist activists, is widely admired.

Nowicka could in theory refuse to step down and remain in her post if she changes her party allegiance. Lawmakers are expected to vote early Friday on whether to dismiss Nowicka, but the ruling Civic Platform and a left-wing opposition party, the Democratic Left Alliance, are supporting her and vow to vote to keep her in the post. Should she resign, however, that would pave the way for a vote on Grodzka.

Grodzka says she will be ready.

"There is a new spirit in the parliament, a new breath," she said.