On Saturday, July 20, Białystok witnessed a Pride parade like no other Pride event this year in Poland. This particular event clearly showed the country’s openly violent, homophobic face, which has been strongly supported by the current right-wing government and the Polish Catholic Church. In one of Poland’s major cities, eight hundred people who took part in Białystok’s first-ever Pride parade were insulted with slurs ranging from sexual to migratory. They were beaten and attacked with stones, eggs, and firecrackers by hooligans of all ages, while a huge crowd stood by cheering on the “defenders of the traditional family.” The march had to change its route in the middle of the event. Nonetheless, the participants saw the parade through.
Police officers, almost as many in number as the Pride crowd, used teargas to separate the parade from the anti-LGBT protesters. After Pride ended, some of the marchers were chased and beaten by the latter, mostly young men. The police say over three dozen violent offenders were detained. The reports, images, and videos sent by the Pride participants look horrifying, and, together with comments from Polish officials, offer a detailed take at how the language of violence is cultivated in the media.
In the recent years, Białystok has become known as a city where nationalist xenophobia walks hand in hand with the Catholic Church. Three years ago, the National Radical Camp (ONR), an openly fascist group founded in the 1930s, celebrated its eighty-second anniversary inside the city cathedral with the local Church’s approval. Now, a day after the Pride parade, the local parish issued a statement in which it thanked “all who in any way took part recently in defending Christian and human values, defending our city, particularly children and teenagers, against planned demoralization and depravation.”
Other Polish institutions followed suit. The Law and Justice (PiS) government, usually quick to comment, took a whole day to react. The Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration, Elżbieta Witek tweeted in neutral tone that the law must be respected, that acts of hooliganism will not be tolerated, and that the police had made several arrests. A Białystok Law and Justice councilmember happily announced on Twitter that the cathedral had been “defended by citizens of Białystok who care about traditional values,” while the deputy head of the commentary section of the state-owned news television channel, TVP Info (which currently airs government propaganda) claimed the incidents during the parade had been fixed. Before the Białystok Pride event, earlier that same week, the right-wing pro-government weekly Gazeta Polska announced it would add stickers with rainbow colors crossed out and an “LGBT-free zone” sign in one of the coming issues. Meanwhile, some local communities, notably in eastern Poland, a Law and Justice stronghold, declared themselves “free from LGBT ideology”, ignoring the fact that such discriminatory practices are against the law. In response, the Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, issued a statement, in which he argued they violate the principle of equality before the law that is guaranteed by the Polish Constitution.
Since the victory of Law and Justice in the 2015 elections, homophobia has become increasingly normalized and mainstream, using slogans of “LGBT ideology” (still waiting to be defined, although it certainly sounds catchy) and equating homosexuals with pedophilia (perhaps because the two words sound similar in Polish). At the same time, the Polish Catholic Church hierarchs still manage to fend off both accusations about their own ranks, despite “Tell No one”, a blockbuster documentary about pedophile priests in Poland, which has been watched over 22.5 million times since its premiere in March.
In stark contrast to the Białystok event, Pride parades in Poland’s other big cities have been surprisingly “ordinary” this year. Thousands of colorfully dressed people, mostly young but also families with small children, marched in support of LGBT rights accompanied by trucks sponsored by major corporations, with blasting dance music. It’s a scene that has become the norm in western European countries. In Warsaw, Pride was headed by newly elected city mayor Rafał Trzaskowski for the first time. But Białystok is in the north-east, a region known for being highly conservative, even if city mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski is a member of the main opposition party, Civic Platform, and has been in power since 2006. It was Truskolaski who gave permission (but not his patronage) for the first Pride parade in Białystok. Still, the Voivodeship Marshal and at the same time head of local Law and Justice, Artur Kosicki deliberately held his own demonstration on that same day, named Family Picnic. He also wrote that “ordinary citizens were ashamed of” the LGBT parade, and retweeted a post about the LGBT community promoting “anti-values”, published by Marcin Rola, a racist and xenophobe who recently received a suspended prison sentence for calling women who had taken part in pro-abortion Black Protests “feminazis”. Last but not least, also the day after the Pride parade, in an interview the Minister of Education Dariusz Piontkowski stated that since demonstrations organized by “circles which try to impose nonstandard behavior create resistance, perhaps they should not be organized in the future.”
Indeed, it was impossible to ignore the “resistance” of people who threw slurs and stones at Pride participants. But because of this, the rainbow-flag bearers suddenly turned into heroes on a battlefield they did not expect. The fact that the government took such a long time to react to the violence suggests that Law and Justice, too, was struck by the scale of aggression they themselves have sown by supporting xenophobia from both secular groups and the Catholic Church hierarchs. The ruling party has become hostage to its own hateful rhetoric exactly at the moment when it is trying to show its more “humane” face in light of the fall parliamentary election — a strategy that worked well during the 2015 election season.
Despite the violence, the Białystok Pride is a victory. First of all, because it happened. Secondly, because it managed to get to the finish line. And thirdly, because it showed that the aggressive counter-demonstrators represent neither Christian nor family values, but violence. Even for the Law and Justice party, it is not something to be openly associated with. At the same time the newly-minted coalition of major left-wing parties, SLD, Wiosna, and Razem, which will also fight for votes in the upcoming elections, took note, and is organizing a “March against violence” a week after Pride. We’ll see how that goes.
Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Management in Digital and Networked Societies, Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland and author of Reshaping Poland’s Community after Communism: Ordinary Celebrations. Twitter: @HChSz