WARSAW, Poland (AP) — 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 transsexual lawmaker favors big dangly earrings, her hair in a bob.
Grodzka attracted huge attention when she was elected in 2011, and earned even more recently when she became a candidate to be a deputy speaker for her leftwing party.
She lost that chance on Friday when lawmakers voted overwhelming to keep the incumbent in the job. Even so, the 58-year-old 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 Grodzka 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.
"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 transgender people are no worse in any way than any others," Grodzka said.
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 when 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 — currently Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform — automatically gets the position of speaker of Oarliament, with other parties each allotted one deputy speaker post each. Grodzka appeared to have 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), along with the other deputy speakers. The bonuses have been controversial because they come as Poland's economy faces a slowdown and the government is raising taxes and forcing other austerity measures on the public.
Lawmakers, however, voted overwhelmingly Friday against a proposition put forward by Palikot to dismiss Nowicka, a prominent activist who has worked for women's causes for many years.
Nowicka then addressed the assembly, saying she was encouraged by their support and that she would not resign. Nowicka said there was no merit to the case against her and that she still had work to do for women and her constituents.
Grodzka, who has expressed admiration for Nowicka's work, was among those who voted to keep Nowicka in place. After the vote, she said she was not upset by the outcome.
"I don't regret it — believe me," she said.