A transsexual woman and an openly gay man took seats in Poland's newly elected parliament Tuesday, historic firsts that reflect profound social change in this traditionally Roman Catholic country.
Anna Grodzka, who was born a man but underwent a sex change operation, entered the assembly hall wearing a burgundy skirt and jacket. Several men and women shook her hand, while one male lawmaker kissed her on the cheek.
Grodzka then took a seat next to Robert Biedron, a leading gay rights activist who is the first openly gay person to be elected to parliament. Both belong to Palikot's Movement, a new progressive party that became the third-largest party in parliament in Oct. 9 elections.
Grodzka was previously known as Krzysztof before having surgery in Thailand, . She said she felt overwhelmed by emotion, particularly when the session opened with the playing of the national anthem and when she later took her oath of office.
"It is a symbolic moment, but we owe this symbolism not to me but to the people of Poland because they made their choice in the elections," Grodzka told The Associated Press.
"They wanted a modern Poland, a Poland open to variety, a Poland where all people would feel good regardless of their differences. I cannot fail them in their expectations."
Palikot's Movement, led by outspoken entrepreneur-turned-politician Janusz Palikot, has vowed to push for liberal causes. It opposes the power of the church in society, promotes gay rights, and wants to challenge the country's near-total ban on abortion.
Former president remembered
The first session of the new parliament was opened by a former speaker, Jozef Zych, who invoked words spoken by the late Polish pope, John Paul II, and acknowledged the presence of archbishops and other church leaders who observed the ceremonial opening from a balcony.
Zych also remembered the late President Lech Kaczynski and lawmakers who died with him in a plane crash last year — words spoken as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late leader's twin brother, sat with other conservative lawmakers.
Kaczynski heads the country's largest opposition party, the nationalist Law and Justice party, which is riven by deep divisions and internal turmoil after expelling three key leaders on Friday who had called for a more democratic leadership style from Kaczynski.
The 460 lawmakers to the lower house, or Sejm, gathered for the first time since the elections last month gave the center-right prime minister, Donald Tusk, a mandate for a second term. The 100-seat Senate will meet for the first time later in the day.
The elections marked the first time since Poland threw off communism 22 years ago that a government won a second consecutive term, another historic first that reflects growing stability following political turmoil and revolving-door governments in the early years of democracy.
Lech Walesa, the hero of Poland's anti-communist revolution and a former president, also watched the ceremony from a balcony in the assembly hall.
Tusk has remained popular thanks to an image he has cultivated of moderation and because the economy has grown impressively since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. It was the only EU country to avoid recession during the global crisis of 2008-09.
President Bronislaw Komorowski addressed the newly elected lawmakers, urging them to work together to maintain Poland's strong economic performance as Europe faces a new financial crisis.
He called on them to show the courage to make changes that would bolster the nation's development, including trimming bureaucracy, reforming the judiciary and the health system and tackling state debt.
"We know that the state exists for the citizens, and not the other way around," Komorowski said.
Lawmakers then rose, one by one, to take their vows.
Tusk formally resigned with his outgoing government, and later in the day will be ceremoniously tasked by the president with forming a new Cabinet. The new government will then face a confidence vote in parliament in coming weeks. No date has been set yet for that vote.
Tusk plans to keep governing with his junior partner of the past four years, the conservative agrarian Polish People's Party. He also plans to keep many of his key ministers in their jobs, including Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski.