By Declan Purcell
For some time now, Poland’s LGBT+ community have been suffering: with discrimination and hate crime rampant, and without any legal protection, attacks on Pride marches, political witchhunts and the practice of conversion therapy have become commonplace. But as the world finds itself wrapped up in the fight against COVID-19, queer people in Poland find themselves in one they are bound to lose.
A vote in August 2019, albeit mostly symbolic, saw large swathes of the country declare themselves as so-called “LGBT+ ‘ideology-free’ zones”. Accounting for around a third of the country, these regions emerged largely as a response to the support of LGBT+ rights by liberal Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who sought to integrate LGBT+ issues into Warsaw school curricula. However, following his signature of the Karta Rodzin, or Family Card, incumbent president Andrezj Duda has declared the entirety of Poland an “LGBT+-free zone”. In a move designed to galvanize and mobilize Poland’s conservative electorate ahead of the general election, Duda has since branded LGBT+ people as “enemies of the state”, stating that the propagation of “LGBT ‘ideology’” was “worse than communism”.
But it doesn’t end there: when questioned on live TV, Duda’s campaign manager told viewers: “I don’t want to listen to this idiocy about some ‘human rights’ or equality. These people [LGBT+] are not equal to ‘normal people’”. Similar organizations, such as Młodzież Wszechopolska (All-Polish Youth), have been seen arriving in protective clothing to “disinfect the streets after LGBT+ people”, where a Pride march had taken place, believing lesbian, gay, bi and trans individuals to be “poisonous and impure”. Kraków’s Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski, went as far as to label “LGBT+ ‘ideology’” a “rainbow plague” which looks to “undermine the institution of marriage and the family”.
Accused of democratic backsliding, Duda, as an independent candidate closely affiliated with the Christian right-wing populist party PiS (Law and Justice), is strongly opposed to gay marriage or adoption by gay couples. In response to the Warsaw mayor’s declaration, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński condemned LGBT+ rights as a dangerous, “imported”’ ideology which undermines traditional Christian values. In truth, some argue that the extension of rights and protections to LGBT+ people would erode the Catholic Church’s influence which, by extension, would weaken the sway of right-wing ideology.
Similarly to many other countries across the world, the debate surrounding LGBT+ people in Poland is often framed by the right as an issue of “free-speech”; in reality, the dehumanisation and stigmatisation of LGBT+ people highlights one of the recurring tropes of far-right populist parties – scapegoating. During the 2015 parliamentary elections, much of the political debate used by Duda and PiS pedalled strong anti-immigration rhetoric.
At the time, the “threat” of immigration, fuelled particularly by incessant media coverage and scathing political commentary surrounding the European migrant crisis, was at the forefront of public consciousness; five years later, immigration in Poland has dropped sharply, and ahead of this year’s elections, Duda and PiS found themselves in need of a scapegoat, novel yet provocative enough to guarantee a public reaction. In short, Poland’s conservative masses have capitalised on Trzaskowski’s actions to bolster support and assert political legitimacy – ultimately to the detriment of queer people.
Right-wing populism thrives off of the emotional, the antagonistic, the reactionary; the construction and positioning of threats to mobilize a typically rural or traditional demographic is key in ensuring electoral success. Here, right-wing demagogues assert themselves as virtuous, the one true representative of the people; this rather fragile dogma is, of course, inherently traditional, conservative and nationalist. In this way, Duda and PiS have weaponised the LGBT+ community as a way of evoking nationalist sentiment and consolidating his political influence.
A Polish survey in 2019 asking to name the biggest threat to Poland revealed that “the LGBT+ movement and gender ideology” was the most popular answer among men under 40.
Let me make one thing clear: In 2020, there should no longer be a ‘debate’ surrounding LGBT+ issues. LGBT+ equality is not a partisan issue, and the use of the term “LGBT+ ideology” by Polish conservatives represents a deliberate effort to dehumanise and persecute citizens. In a statement releaised by Polish gay rights organization Campaign Against Homophobia, “‘LGBT+ ideology’ [is] just a homophobic construct. LGBT+s are lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people who personally experience the consequences of homophobic and transphobic hate which you also fuel.
Despite the relentless attacks against Poland’s LGBT+ community, a brave few are fighting back: In the tri-city towns of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, a gay couple have been handing out free “rainbow-coloured face masks” to help remove the stigma and educate Poles on homosexuality. But much more needs to be done in order to tackle the country’s historical intolerance for, and persecution of, the LGBT+ community. The fight for equality for any marginalized group is not a minority interest – LGBT+ rights are human rights, and none of us are equal and safe until we all are. Of course, the issues faced by LGBT+ people in Poland may feel distant and far-flung, but the reality is that the rights and freedoms of queer people across the world are constantly being curtailed and suppressed. In the US, President Trump recently announced he would be revoking Obama-era legislation which protects trans folk from discrimination in accessing healthcare. Adding to his long list of attacks on queer Americans, the announcement came on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida – a deadly attack against predominatly LGBT+ people of colour. Fortunately, in a six-to-three vote, the US Supreme Court recently overturned the changes proposed by Trump’s administration. Despite the Court’s verdict, LGBT+ people – particularly trans folk – are still not safe. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2020 has already seen 14 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed. In the USA in 2019, the number was 26, the majority of whom were trans women of colour.
Here in the UK, a report leaked by government officials last week revealed plans to ditch a bill regarding gender “self-identification”, despite a 70% public backing. The form would allow transgender people to change their birth certificate without a medical diagnosis. Instead, the government plans to put in place additional ‘safeguards’ to protect single-sex spaces for women, which could see trans women unable to access women’s bathrooms, facilities and safe-spaces. In this way, the UK government is sending a very clear message to the trans community, and particularly trans women: you are not welcome. Finally, within the last 12 months alone, figures from Stonewall UK show that as many as two out of five LGBT+ people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Particularly during these turbulent times of uncertainty and social change, not only must we be ready to be allies, to empathize and to be aware, but we must also remind ourselves that without our combined efforts, people across the world, in Poland and beyond, will continue to suffer. Gender identity, sexuality, religion, nationality, skin colour, able-bodiedness … Bigotry exists in many forms. But right now, the LGBT+ community in Poland are fighting an uphill battle, and they need our help. Sign petitions, donate, repost, raise awareness … and make no mistake – the consequences of our silence and inaction, however far-removed from our own personal situation, are very real, and often deadly.