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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, 22 September.

The petition is a key element of a campaign initiated by AllOut, an LGBTQI advocacy organisation, Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (KPH) (Campaign Against Homophobia) and Lambda Warszawa, in reaction to over 100 Polish municipalities declaring themselves as “LGBT free zones” and the increased targeting of the queer community by Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS). It was presented in Brussels to Commissioner Helena Dali during a strategic meeting, where the three NGOs sought to capitalise on the existing wave of solidarity from crucial EU institutions, urging them to transform their condemnations into tangible actions.

“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. 

Hate, violence, and state-sanctioned oppression

Poland, a country with deep Catholic roots and a broadly conservative outlook, has a complex history of discrimination against minority groups. For years, the queer community has also faced marginalisation within this national context. Same-sex marriage, and violence against the LGBTQ community is not recognized as a hate crime under the law.

But the situation significantly deteriorated with the rise of the Law and Justice party, which launched an overtly homophobic campaign 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, coupled with similar sentiments from the Catholic church, has exacerbated hate in Poland and legitimised the scapegoating, harassment, and repression of LGBTQ individuals nationwide.

Public figures, both religious and secular, have taken to mainstream media to voice their opposition against the queer community, accusing it of undermining Polish values and the traditional family structure. Some have escalated their rhetoric further, branding community members as perverts, pedophiles 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-sponsored homophobia, over 100 Polish municipalities, covering a territory larger than the size of Hungary, have declared themselves “LGBT free zones,” banning the promotion of queer “ideology. Despite condemnations from the European Union and the withholding of funds for sister-city initiatives, these measures have yet to effectively pressure the municipalities into revoking these 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, arguing that they encourage 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.” 

In recent years, Poland has experienced a significant increase in homophobic attacks, including cases of 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, belting homophobic slurs, throwing bricks and flour bags, burning rainbow flags, and physically assaulting march participants. 

'Polish Stonewall'

Confronted with this surge of hostility, members of Poland's LGBTQ community and their allies have been actively marching, protesting and organising nationwide, delivering a clear message that they will not tolerate their oppression and marginalization.

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, only to be arrested again on 3 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, now seen as the “Polish Stonewall.”

Szutowicz is currently awaiting trial, charged with participating in a riot, property damage and physical assault, offenses that could lead to a maximum of seven years in prison.

“We’re under attack in Poland”

Through their campaign “We’re under attack in Poland,” AllOut, KPH, and Lambda Warszawa aim to underscore that the Polish queer community should not be left to battle alone. As a member-state of the European Union, Poland is obliged to abide by its treaties and charters, they stress.

Given the current circumstances, the petition's authors argue, it falls upon the EU to pressure Poland to end its campaign against LGBTQ individuals and to enact legislation ensuring their legal protection.

In her recent State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen criticised Poland's Law and Justice party, stating that "LGBT free zones" are "humanity free zones" and have no place in the Union. Von der Leyen's comments were welcomed by Polish activists, who now urge that these expressions of support be translated into tangible actions against the Eastern European nation's government.

“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," Beard said, commenting on the meeting with Equality Commissioner Dali. "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 further mentioned that he believes in the efficacy of this tactic 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

Pressuring the Polish government to halt its attack on the LGBTQ community and commit to ensuring their full rights and protection under the law would likely require a concerted, continent-wide effort involving multiple governmental bodies. This task presents a significant challenge for a multi-tentacled entity like the EU, which has historically found it difficult to curb member states displaying authoritarian tendencies.

Beard, however, noted that involving high-profile individuals like Dali and von der Leyen in the advocacy campaign for queer rights represents a critical initial move towards progress, likening it to interconnected cogs within the European Union's machinery that influence each other's movement.

“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 said. 

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.” 

In the face of mounting homophobia, Nakielska maintains optimism, stating that gradual change is underway.

“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.”

A global concern

The oppression of LGBTQ individuals is not confined to countries like Poland and Hungary. Across every continent, queer people face scapegoating, discrimination and violence.

If left unchecked, the rise of authoritarianism globally will undoubtedly worsen the violation of queer people's human rights.

For Beard, this situation is akin to the metaphor of a boiling frog in a saucepan, unaware it needs to leap out until it's too late.

“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 said.

“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 presented in Brussels to Commissioner Helena Dali during a strategic meeting, where the three NGOs sought to capitalise on the existing wave of solidarity from crucial EU institutions, urging them to transform their condemnations into tangible actions.
Embed from Getty Images
Poland, a predominantly Catholic with a broadly conservative outlook, has a long and complicated history of discrimination against minority groups.
Embed from Getty Images
The anti-queer rhetoric promulgated by PiS, coupled with similar sentiments from the Catholic church, has exacerbated hate in Poland and legitimised the scapegoating, harassment, and repression of LGBTQ individuals nationwide.
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