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A Country Divided by Violent Politics: LGBTQ+ Rights in Poland

By Zoe Schulz, myGwork

 

As of late, it seems every time Poland is in the news it is for all the wrong reasons, with LGBTQ+ rights under attack and violence against queer Polish people spurred on by right-wing politicians it may seem as though a lot of hope has been lost. However, it hasn’t always been like this, with Poland once flying ahead of the rest of Europe in liberating their LGBTQ+ people. A stark reminder to marginalised people everywhere that your rights can be taken away, just as quickly as they were given. Yet, in the face of adversity, many LGBTQ+ activists and allies have stood strong, with many holding onto the hope of change and progress. 

 

Poland is now ranked as the worst country in the EU for LGBTQ+ human rights, according to a recent report from ILGA-Europe citing “hateful rhetoric from the government and the church” against LGBTQ+ people as a major factor for the ranking, as well as anti-LGBTQ+ marches, one Pride parade being “brutally attacked” with smoke bombs and bottles and another with a home-made explosive device. The extreme violence and terror perpetrated against LGBTQ+ lives leave little choice for the queer people of Poland, with many suggesting the only option is to get out of the country. However, life for LGBTQ+ people in Poland was not always this way. Looking back, Poland was actually thought of as progressive, granting rights and freedoms to queer people decades before other European countries. Same-sex love is currently legal in Poland and has been since 1932, which was 35 years before UK laws followed suit. Gay and bisexual men can openly serve in the Polish Armed Forces and are also permitted to donate blood, an activity still restricted in the UK. Polish laws also ban discrimination based on sexuality and the country has policies in place to allow trans people to legally change their gender marker.

 

Despite these steps in the right direction, homosexuality remained taboo across the country and same-sex marriage was never granted. However, it wasn’t until 5 years ago when the right-wing populist party, named PiS, won the election and began to govern Poland that any rights and freedoms LGBTQ+ people had have been backtracked. Since then, the party has weaponized anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, using this as a political strategy to gain re-election and halt any progress that was being made to protect queer lives. Writer, Lukasz Szulc explains “Picking a vulnerable group of people, demonising them and convincing your voters that you will protect them from the threat the group allegedly poses has long been a proven strategy for electoral success. This, at least, seems to be the golden rule for the currently in power conservative and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland.”

 


Riot police protect participants of the first equality march in the north-eastern Polish city of Bialystok, July 2020

 

Since their initial election in 2015, the party has had strong anti-LGBT and anti-feminist policies with a history of discrimination against marginalised groups. Upon becoming the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda vetoed the Gender Accordance Act, which would have allowed transgender people to legally change their gender marker without parental approval. Then in 2016, the party slashed the budget of the Polish Ombudsman, a governmental department that exists to advocate for its citizen's human rights, with the defence that “the Parliament is not going to pay for gender” and in 2018 they began to attack the countries abortion laws, making these even more restrictive. It wasn’t however until 2018 that the party began a particularly malicious attack against LGBTQ+ people whereby they have done all they can to convince the public that paedophilia and LGBTQ+ identities go hand-in-hand and that this is a community that is “sexualising children, attacking traditional family values [and] disrespecting the Roman Catholic Church”. The party has purposefully created a divide in the country, othering the LGBTQ+ community and targeting their rights as a threat to society. Dividing a country in order to garner support for an election is not a new strategy, but is one we are sadly seeing more and more of as global politics becomes increasingly polarised. Anton a member of the polish LGBTQ+ community explains how this played out in his country “We’re a country of huge divisions. It’s a country that’s this conservative Catholic place on the one hand, and on the other, is willing to be a western European country. We have this huge tension between the progressive part and the traditional one, and the politicians in Poland know how to play those tensions perfectly.” This year the president has taken this even further, describing LGBTQ+ identities as an ‘ideology’ worse than the former Polish communist regime and banning schools from discussing LGBTQ+ topics. This in turn has opened the flood gates for a wave of violence and hate towards an already marginalised and vulnerable group. Since this statement, ‘LGBT free zones’ have popped up in over 100 small towns, almost a third of the country and minister Janusz Kowalski remarked that “all of Poland should be an LGBT-free zone”.

 

On top of this, we have seen crackdowns against LGBTQ+ activists as the authorities have tried to silence any queer support by arresting many peaceful protestors. Kyle Knight from the Human Rights Watched explains this “Polish authorities should immediately stop targeting activists who exert their basic free expression rights… Scapegoating and targeting a vulnerable minority is becoming a routine and nasty part of the government’s playbook, with dangerous repercussions for human rights.” Then in June this year, an activist named Margo Szutowicz was arrested, sparking thousands of demonstrators to gather outside of the Warsaw's Palace of Culture in support of Margot and LGBTQ+ rights chanting "give us Margot back" and "the rainbow does not insult you".



People take part in a protest against the detention of an LGBTQ activist, Margot, in Warsaw, Poland, 2020 

 

Despite the danger of being visible, we have seen resilient voices speaking up for LGBTQ+ human rights and allies who refuse to stay silent. At the president’s inauguration in August this year, Polish MP’s arrived in rainbow colours and rainbow masks, a powerful act of solidarity. A Polish campaign, ‘I am LGBT’, recently also went viral with tens of thousands taking part. Support rushed in across Twitter with the hashtag #jestemLGBT and was described by Polish professor Michal Bilewicz from the University of Warsaw as a “mass coming out in Poland at the same time as the right is carrying out a homophobic campaign.” The campaign meant a lot to a member of the LGBTQ+ Polish community, Martyna, who shared that “The ‘I am LGBT’ viral campaign was also very helpful because you can see people, you can see faces, you can see a real someone behind this four or five letters. It’s important because what we’re lacking is representation in media, in films, in TV shows, in books – there’s this hole in Poland. [In the future] I see more people coming out. I see changes in language because we don’t have non-binary words, so we have to create them. It makes for a huge opportunity to create something new, to create ‘Polish queer’ – something of our own.”


 

 

Polish MP’s in coordinated rainbow outfits, August 2020


The world has also been watching and condemning the actions of the Polish government. Politicians from around the world have shown their solidarity to the Polish LGBTQ+ community, with diplomats from over 50 countries calling for an end to the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in an open letter to the Polish government. International demonstrations have taken place at Polish embassies around the world as the public demands that their officials step in to stop these atrocities. Joe Biden recently made a statement that LGBT free zones have "have no place in the European Union or anywhere in the world" and the EU has denied funding to any towns with such zones. Whether the Polish government likes it or not, we have become a global community and news can no longer be contained to one area. This means that we have a global responsibility to protect and speak up for one another, and in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in Poland this has never been more vital.




Warsaw, Poland, July 2019


What will happen next in Poland is unsure, but what we do know is the whole world is fighting by the side of their queer community. For many, leaving will be the safest option, but for those that stay organisations such as Federacja Znaki Równości (The Federation of Equals) which is a virtual Polish LGBTQ+ community exist to offer support where they can and we hope that more allies will stand up, strong in the face of adversity. Filip, a member of the Polish queer community shared the hope that he has for the future “[The biggest issues right now are] obviously not having the same rights as everybody else, but also violence and anger – I’ve been witness to many instances of discrimination recently. But, hopefully, it will get better... I see there are many more LGBT marches in Poland than there were a year or two ago, and they happen in the smaller cities which I think is very uplifting. The community wants to show that something is truly wrong — they really want to make a difference.”

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