A culture war is raging in Poland. Over the last few years, Polish political discourse has been characterised by hostility to LGBT rights.
Toxic rhetoric, driven by the current government, has only served to deepen the eternal divisions between religious conservative and socially liberal Poles.
In 2020, in the Rainbow Maps annually compiled by ILGA-Europe, which assess European countries’ commitment to LGBT+ rights and equality, Poland plummeted from an already weak 28 points achieved in 2014 (its best result to date) to the lowest ranking among all EU countries with just 16 points.
It is clear to see why. A landmark LGBT+ declaration, which pledged to protect teenagers from bullying and harassment by implementing the politics of inclusion, almost immediately became a target of harsh criticism articulated by Catholic clergymen and conservative politicians when it was signed by the mayor of Warsaw and recent presidential candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, in February 2019.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, slammed the resolution as “an attack on children” aiming to impose “early sexualisation on children starting at the age of 0 to 4”.
In an official letter, Warsaw bishops stated that: “The declaration is contrary to parents’ constitutional right to raise their children in accordance with their own believes and biding educational law”.
‘An imminent threat’
While recent events are ongoing skirmishes in the conflict, the start of the war itself can be traced to the ushering in of the current government.
“The year 2015, when the Law and Justice party came to power, is a significant pivotal moment marking the beginning in systematic decline in the quality of living conditions of the LGBT community in Poland,” said Karolina Gierdal, a lawyer at the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Warsaw-based rights group established and co-founded in 2001 by Robert Biedroń, Poland’s first openly homosexual MP and a current member of the EU parliament.
“Before that, it was possible to have this feeling of hope that slowly but surely things were moving in the right direction, that we were on the right track to convince our society that the LGBT community is entitled to human rights and protection,” she added.
The ruling populist PiS party has built both presidential and parliamentary campaigns on a stigmatising narrative portraying the LGBT people as an imminent threat to the Polish national identity and religious values.
During the peak of campaigning for his re-election this year, President Andrzej Duda denounced the LGBT rights movement as an “ideology worse than communism” and signed a draft amendment to the constitution banning same-sex adoption in a bid to protect Polish children.
“PiS decided to put the LGBT rights on their agenda because this is one of the topics that allows them to back the opposition into a corner and to strike fears and aversion in the society,” Magdalena Fillips, an MP with centre-right Civic Coalition, told Euronews.
“In a deliberate, premeditated act, they incite hatred towards gay people without a second thought on the possible consequences,” she added.
LGBT ideology and LGBT-free zones
With a political climate fuelling the rise of homophobia, the city council of Świdnik, a small town located in a region of eastern Poland regarded as a PiS stronghold, was the first to have passed a resolution declaring the municipality free from the so-called “LGBT ideology”.
Soon, dozens of others followed in Świdnik’s footsteps and signed similar acts. As a result, now nearly a third of the country’s territory consists of local authorities that have signed the declaration.
While none of these bills are legally binding, they were met by widespread condemnation from the international community and EU institutions. Some Western European towns suspended their year-long partnerships with their Polish sister cities over the adopted anti-LGBT bills.
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, labelled them: “humanity-free-zones” that “have no place in our Union”.
Speaking to Euronews, Radosław Fogiel, a PiS spokesperson, said: “A few municipalities passed resolutions not to support from the local budget initiatives that in some way might question the traditional social order and they are entitled to do so”.
“These decisions were made by members of the city council elected by the residents. There is nothing controversial about that”.
‘We are not changing our position’
Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, filed legal complaints against nine such resolutions to administrative courts and has won four cases so far. The judges ruled that the resolutions violated the constitution stipulating that its anti-discrimination clause has unlimited scope. The court had also rebutted the municipalities’ arguments that the resolutions were not directed against any members of the LGBT community, but merely against the so-called “LGBT ideology”.
“Claiming that LGBT are not people but an ideology is turning a blind eye to the reality when you do not want to acknowledge the full consequences of such words,” wrote Krzysztof Wujek, a judge at the Provincial Administrative Court in Gliwice who presided over one of the cases, in his justification.
Due to the lack of governmental steps ensuring the protection of the LGBT community, the EU undertook even more restrictive measures by denying funds to six such Polish towns that applied for the Town Twinning programme.
Yet, the government has consistently rejected the accusation of promoting anti-LGBT attitudes.
“The position of Law and Justice regarding that matter is clear and remains constant. It is obvious that no Polish citizen should not be subjected to discrimination and this is beyond any discussion,” said Fogiel.
“At the same time, not from today we have been talking that the support of the families and the protection of children are incredibly significant matters and we are not changing our position.”
The radicalisation of the LGBT movement
“I was raised in this narrative that we have to be polite and should proceed with our advocacy cautiously, that we are not entitled to be granted our rights yet, because people are not ready for this,” said Adek, a 25-year-old transsexual activist.
He believed in this approach until a few years ago when he joined the Stonewall Group in the western city of Poznań, one of the heartlands of the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party.
“But in the end, all that rhetoric is simply ridiculous. I just don’t understand what could happen to the society if I could legally finish my transition?”, added Adek.
Since shaking off the yoke of communism in 1989, democratic governments in Poland, a country where 98 per cent of people identify as Catholics, have defined national identity through the prism of Christian values.
Despite years of peaceful legal and social advocacy by the LGBT community, none of the previous governments undertook steps encouraging society to cultivate tolerance towards Poland’s two million sexual minority. In fact, numerous bills proposing the legalisation of same-sex marriages have been rejected. The penalisation of hate crimes and hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation has never been written into the Polish criminal code.
Consequently, the vans that belong to Foundation Pro, an NGO campaigning against abortion, had been legally driving through key Polish cities and spreading through loudspeakers messages associating homosexuality with paedophilia.
“Our goal is to inform the parents and other interested people that the so-called ‘sexual education’ leads to sexual abuse of children,” said Mariusz Dzierżawski, Board Member at the Foundation Pro.
One such truck has been regularly driving through the neighbourhood of Margot Szutowicz, a 25-year-old non-binary LGBT activist and co-founder of Stop Bzdurom – Stop the Nonsense, a radical, feminist queer collective. Margot faces accusations of vandalising one of these trucks and assaulting its driver back in June. The court issued an order for two-months pretrial detention.
“There are people who will not withstand that fact that such a truck is driving in front of their houses and they will explode. And the truth is that there are fears hidden beneath every act of aggression. Therefore, I think that the radical actions and protests will intensify,” said Filiks, co-founder of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy and organizer of hundreds of protests.
The situation escalated in early August, when police arrested and briefly detained 48 LGBT activists who attempted to stop the arrest of Margot in an aggressive crackdown.
The event triggered a wave of LGBT and anti-LGBT protests across the country. The activists continued to block the homophobic trucks and come to the marches with legal aid phone numbers written on their forearms. Margot and Stop the Nonsense faced criticism for reverting to methods deemed too radical.
“I think that, lately, we have asked many times, we have been polite, stood at the frontlines of the movement. We have been reasonable because the Campaign Against Homophobia is still advocating for LGBT rights. What has changed is that we have grown tired of asking, and started to demand,” said Gierdal.