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Are Poland's LGBT-free zones here to stay?

March 16, 2023
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#LGBTQ+ rights, #Poland, #EU, #grassroots activism
by:Katarzyna Rybarczyk
The EU's decision to conclude its legal proceedings against municipalities pursuing anti-queer policies sent a chilling message to Poland's queer community. But activists refuse to stop the fight.

Three years ago, more than one hundred municipalities in Poland declared themselves LGBT-free zones. Since then, queer activists and their allies have been pressuring the authorities to scrap the legislation, but to no avail. 

For a while, the international community, and specifically the EU, expressed solidarity with Poland's LGBTQ+ rights advocates. "Europe will never allow parts of our society to be stigmatised: whether because of who they love, because of age, ethnicity, political views or religious beliefs," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in 2021 after the EU took  legal action against Poland over the so-called LGBT-free zones.

And yet, although entire provinces in Poland still endorse discriminatory policies towards queer individuals, the bloc concluded its proceedings a few weeks ago - an act that has raised the question of whether Poland will ever be safe for LGBTQ+ people. 

The need for activism

The EU concluded its investigation claiming that the responses provided by the Polish government were "satisfactory." But only one third of all LGBT-free zones revoked homophobic laws; sixty-seven local authorities still claim to be free from 'LGBT ideology.'

What that means in practice is that those who belong to or so much as express support for the queer community face hate speech and incessant harassment for which no one is held accountable. 

To help people stay clear from these areas, LGBTQ+ activists created Atlas Nienawiści (Atlas of Hate), an interactive map showing which parts of Poland claim to be LGBT-free zones. Unfortunately, there are very few activists operating on the ground directly in these regions. 

"Working in LGBT-free zones is risky for us because of the high chances of encountering ostracism, hate speech or other forms of violence directed towards us," Barbara Sip, a Warsaw-based activist regularly involved in organising and promoting queer rights campaigns, told FairPlanet. 

"Besides," she added, "our activist efforts are mainly focused around large urban centres, as this is where the centre of political life and public debate is concentrated.

"We feel that this positively affects our visibility and allows us to reach out to people relevant to our fight against exclusion and discrimination."

Krzysztof Jan Neldner, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and an active queer rights defender, believes that the European Commission approached the issue in a superficial way, "handing on a platter how to systematically exclude entire communities and not be held accountable."

Now, there is no real authority that is able to push the Polish government to undertake steps to protect vulnerable individuals from discrimination. "The failure to complete this matter is synonymous with condoning the creation of these zones and allowing nations to pursue a homophobic ideology," Neldner told FairPlanet.

He further stressed that even if LGBT-free zones were to remain in Poland for years to come, queer people will continue to "pursue their sexuality and gender identity in secret, despite social pressure and the spectre of danger," a fact he believes makes the work of activists essential. 

"I am not sure if our methods will change moving forward," Sip said. "It seems to me that if our methods of activism were to change somehow it would only be in the direction of becoming more radicalised."

She added, "Given the terrible situation for the LGBT community in Poland, we feel more than ever the need to speak out and fight for change. We are constantly thinking of new forms of protest and steps we can take to draw attention to the problem and to fight against the discriminatory measures taken by the authorities."

Mental harm

Although most queer people who used to live in what became LGBT-free zones migrated to larger cities that tend to be more liberal and tolerant, such policies have still taken a toll on their mental wellbeing. 

"I feel that ever since PiS [Law and Justice party] has been in power there is an increasing support for violent attitudes towards the LGBT community in the media and on the public forum in general," Nimaj Napierała, a resident of Poznań who identifies as homosexual, told FairPlanet. "This is very concerning, as I worry that if someone is violent towards me, they will not face any consequences." 

He added, "I personally haven’t been diagnosed with any mental health condition directly linked to this, but the decision of the EU has definitely amplified anxieties associated with the tensions between our community and the state."

Polls show that seventy percent of queer people in Poland feel isolated, and that seven in ten LGBTQ+ teens in the country have experienced some form of homophobic or transphobic violence.

Advocates now argue that the EU's decision to cease its legal proceedings against Polish authorities sends the message that the bloc is abandoning Poland’s queer community, and that, in turn, LGBTQ+ Poles might face even greater isolation, which could lead to depression. 

They further stress that while the LGBT-free zones themselves affect primarily those living in Poland, the EU’s decision can potentially harm the broader European LGBTQ+ community.

"I think this will add to the negative image of our country among foreigners and will have a detrimental effect on the LGBT community in general by spreading and perpetuating stigmatising and exclusionary attitudes," Sip observed. 

Spirit of solidarity

Despite these challenges, Neldner pointed out that queer people in Poland can enjoy the support of ​​a tight-knit LGBTQ+ community, and can turn to NGOs for assistance. These laws, he added, have triggered a wave of solidarity.

These sentiments were echoed by Napierała from Poznań, who attested that there is consistent support and expressions of solidarity by other activists and queer people. "We help each other despite the dangers." 

There is also considerable assistance coming from abroad. "Fortunately, there is a high level of solidarity in the LGBT community," Sip said. "Many international NGOs are working as advocates for our community monitor and publicise the occurrence of discriminatory policies introduced by the authorities in Poland.

"We remain in contact with activists from other countries and foreign branches of larger organisations."

Yet, it appears that for the time being Poland’s LGBT-free zones are here to stay.

"Polish organisations look at how foreign NGOs operate," Neldner said. "They see their successes, analyse the path they have gone through and try to adapt them to the Polish context."

He underlined the importance of international campaigns that call for an end to discrimination, and suggested that more psychological support should be offered to LGBTQ+ people in Poland.

"Not only is there no full legal protection for LGBT people, but also the government stigmatises this community," he said. "This fuels homophobic speech and behaviour among the public. Combine this with limping support for psychiatry, especially that of youths, and we have a recipe for denying assistance to those in particular need of help."

Image by Mercedes Mehling.

Article written by:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk
Embed from Getty Images
Only one third of all LGBT-free zones revoked homophobic laws. Sixty-seven local authorities still claim to be free from 'LGBT ideology.'
Embed from Getty Images
LGBT activists created Atlas Nienawiści (Atlas of Hate), an interactive map showing which parts of Poland claim to be LGBT-free zones.
Embed from Getty Images
Most queer people who used to live in what became LGBT free zones migrated to larger cities that tend to be more liberal and tolerant. But the trauma lingers.