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Activists demand EU action against Poland’s LGBT free zones

October 13, 2020
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Law and Justice party (PiS), #LGBTQ Rights, #NGO, #petition, #European Commission, #homophobia
by:Yair Oded
A petition urging the European Union to take immediate action against Poland’s crackdown on LGBTQ rights has garnered over 300,000 signatures and was submitted to the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dali, on Tuesday, September 22. The petition is part of a campaign launched by AllOut, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organisation, Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (KPH) (Campaign Against Homophobia), and Lambda Warszawa in response to the declaration of over 100 Polish municipalities as “LGBT free zones” and the intensified scapegoating of the queer community by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

The petition was submitted during a meeting in Brussels with Commissioner Helena Dali as part of an attempt by the three NGOs to build on the existing momentum of solidarity within key EU institutions and have them translate their condemnations into concrete action.

“It was a useful meeting. Helena Dali has been very much on our side on this issue,” Matt Beard, AllOut’s executive director, told FairPlanet. 

The meeting was followed by a projection of the campaign’s message on the façade of the EU Commission building with the intention of galvanising both institutional and public support for the Polish queer community, which is currently under attack. 

Hate, violence, and state-sanctioned oppression

Poland, a predominantly Catholic and largely conservative nation, has a long and complicated history of discrimination against minority groups. The queer community, too, has been marginalised for decades in the country.

Same-sex marriage and adoption by queer couples are prohibited and anti-LGBTQ violence isn’t legally a hate crime. But matters took a sharp turn for the worse with the advent of the Law and Justice party, which embarked on a blatantly homophobic campaign in order to secure a second term in office.  

“There were three electoral campaigns, and every time Law and Justice was playing the LGBT card to scare people and scapegoat us just for their own electoral game,” said Justyna Nakielska, a Campaign and Mobilisation Coordinator at KPH, Poland’s largest LGBT advocacy organisation. “So they were raising the homophobic narration to gain votes.”

The anti-queer rhetoric promulgated by PiS, as well as like-minded sentiments emanating from the Catholic church, have fanned the flames of hate in Poland and legitimatised the scapegoating, harassment, and repression of LGBTQ people across the nation.

Public figures, both religious and secular, have taken to mainstream media outlets to speak out against the queer community, blaming its members for threatening Polish values and the traditional family structure. Some have gone as far as to label them as perverts, paedophiles, and criminals. 

This atmosphere of hate appears to be having dire repercussions on the ground. 

Emboldened by the country’s top political leaders and the growing state-funded homophobia, over 100 Polish municipalities, covering a territory larger than the size of Hungary, have declared themselves “LGBT free zones” in which the promotion of queer “ideology” is prohibited. Condemnations by the European Union and withholding of funds for twin-city projects have thus far proved ineffective in pressuring these municipalities to nullify the resolutions.

“All those zones, those resolutions, are against something that does not exist. There is no such thing as LGBT ideology. They are just people. So they aren’t voting against anything else but us”, said Nakielska. “Those resolutions, in principle, are against the law,” she added, claiming that they open the door to discrimination in employment and access to services and legitimatise homophobic behaviour.

“It gives a lot of permission to use aggression towards LGBT people,” said Nakielska, “because people in power give a very clear, straightforward message to other people living in those municipalities that LGBT people have no place there.” 

Over the past couple of years, Poland has seen a sharp rise in cases of homophobic attacks, some of which involved physical violence. “[Queer people] are afraid to go out from their homes with their partners, to take their hands and go out on the street together,” said Nakielska. “There have been homophobic marches around the towns, homophobic attacks, homophobic buses that go from city to city saying that LGBT people are paedophiles and want to molest kids. People are afraid to show the rainbow in public spaces. They feel that they can’t be themselves anymore, or even less than before. They have panic attacks.” 

During a 2019 pride parade in the Polish city of Białystok, for instance, thousands of anti-queer protesters took to the streets, yelling homophobic slurs, throwing bricks and flour bags, burning rainbow flags, and physically attacking participants of the march. 

'Polish Stonewall'

Throughout Poland, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies have been marching, protesting, and organising in order to send the unequivocal message that they will not stand for their oppression and marginalisation. 

The government, on its part, has escalated its effort to stifle queer resistance, resorting to noxious displays of police brutality and intimidation. In July, activist Margot Szutowicz, member of the Stop Bzdurom (Stop Nonsense) campaign, had been arrested for defacing a truck that used loud speakers to spread anti-queer propaganda. After being interrogated by the police under duress, Szutowicz was finally allowed to walk free, only to be arrested again on 3rd August for hanging Pride flags on monuments across Warsaw. Protests of solidarity with Szutowicz broke out at the site of her arrest, and culminated in the detention of nearly 50 protesters. 

The violent crackdown of police forces on protesters in August had sparked an even larger wave of resistance across the country, and is now regarded as the “Polish Stonewall.”

Szutowicz is now pending trial, facing charges of participating in a riot, property damage, and physical assault, for which she could face up to 7 years in jail. 

“We’re under attack in Poland”

Through their campaign titled “We’re under attack in Poland,” AllOut, KPH, and Lambda Warszawa seek to highlight the fact that the Polish queer community must not be left to fight on its own. As a member-state of the European Union, Poland is obliged to abide by its treaties and charters. Under the current circumstances, the authors of the petition contend, it should be up to the EU to pressure Poland to terminate its campaign against LGBTQ people and pass legislation that guarantees their protection under the law. 

In her recent ‘state of the union’ speech, European commission president Ursula von der Leyen had called out Poland’s Law and Justice party, saying that “LGBT free zones” are “humanity free zones” and that they have no place in the Union. Von der Leyen’s comments were welcomed by Polish activists who now request that these sentiments be manifested in concrete action against the Eastern European nation’s government. 

Commenting on the meeting with Equality Commissioner Dali, Beard stated that, “I think the initial response from the commissioner and her staff was very much around the idea that there are legal mechanisms, and that they would really welcome Polish LGBT+ citizens using legal mechanisms. So, for example, if someone is dismissed from employment as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, that they can challenge that in the courts.”

Beard mentioned that he believes in the efficacy of this course of action only if it is accompanied by two additional measures. “Firstly, the clear political will of the European Union that this is not acceptable, and we did see that in the president’s state of the union address last week. Those words were unequivocal, they were incredibly strong, and I think that this level of political pressure needs to continue.” The second measure, Beard continued, should be the application of economic pressure on Poland.

“The EU has just signed off its 1 trillion Euro budget for 2021-2027, and there is a new linked coronavirus recovery fund with another 750 billion Euros. We really believe that these funds need to be made conditional on member states upholding treaty commitments and democratic values.” 

The next steps

Compelling the Polish government to cease its attack on the LGBTQ community and pledge to guarantee full rights and protection under the law to its members would most likely take a unified, continent-wide, inter-governmental effort. This could prove to be a challenge for a multi-tentacled entity such as the EU, which has so far struggled to rein in member states that exhibit authoritarian leanings. 

Beard points out, however, that the enlistment of prominent figures such as Dali and von der Leyen to the fight for queer rights can nonetheless constitute a crucial first step in the right direction, referring to it as “a series of moving cogs, that all impact on each other within the European Union institutions.

“I think someone like the Equality Commissioner can really make a significant impact […] I think it’s a start, and I think it’s all about continuing to raise the volume on these issues, bringing [them] to the attention both of decision makers and of the public,” he added. 

Emphasising the need to engage with the general population and tackle deep-rooted prejudice, Nakielska stated that as part of their work, KPH members endeavour to “change hearts and minds.” They do so by “showing that the LGBT population is a part of the society,” said Nakielska. “We are normal people working in the bakery. We are your neighbours [...] we are not like an abstract entity. We are just humans like everybody else.” 

But despite the rising tide of homophobia in the country, Nakielska believes that change is gradually happening.

“The rainbow and LGBT community have become like new symbols in the fight for freedom and democracy in Poland,” said Nakielska, “and we have more and more allies, calling us, participating in our actions.” “Also, on the local level, a lot of municipalities say ‘no’ to those resolutions. So I think there is a change in society,” she added.

A global concern

The persecution of LGBTQ people is spilling well beyond the borders of countries such as Poland and Hungary, where their oppression is presently more pronounced. In every continent on the planet, queer people are being scapegoated, discriminated against, and murdered.

If continued uninhibited, the strengthening of authoritarian elements across the world will be sure to exacerbate the violation of queer people’s human rights.     

In Beard’s eyes, this is a perfect example of the “metaphor of a boiling frog in a saucepan that doesn’t realise until it’s too late that it needs to jump out.” “If we don’t hold the line, if we don’t hold on to the rights that we have fought for for fifty years, then there is a real risk within this current environment that we could start to lose them,” he added. “I think it’s incredibly important that we don’t see progress as linear […] we have to be aware. We have to be ready to jump into action, not just to progress LGBT+ rights, but to defend the ones we’ve already got.”

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
The petition was submitted as part of an attempt by the three NGOs to build on the existing momentum of solidarity within key EU institutions, and have them translate their condemnations into concrete action.
Embed from Getty Images
Poland, a predominantly Catholic and largely conservative nation, has a long and complicated history of discrimination against minority groups.
Embed from Getty Images
The anti-queer rhetoric promulgated by PiS, as well as like-minded sentiments emanating from the Catholic church, have fanned the flames of hate in Poland and legitimatised the scapegoating, harassment, and repression of LGBTQ people across the nation.
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