This essay was originally published on September 6 2019.
I live in a country where one of the worst atrocities occurred, the Holocaust, where Jews, Poles, Soviets, Romani, and gay people were killed. Declaring zones “free” from any human being brings an immediate connotation with the Nazi persecution of the Jews before World War II, the ghettos during the war, and the numerous Pogroms after.
Still, “LGBT-free zones” are the new black in Poland. The rise of anti-LGBT narratives can be traced back to years of political negligence and officially-sponsored events (such as Independence Day marches) organized annually by the far-right. Until 2009, only a few hundred participated with little attention from politicians and media. At the same time, with the rise of far-right movements and nationalist sentiments in Europe, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform party seemed to have a strategy of waiting for the problem to solve itself and never really put sufficient efforts to counteract nationalistic, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority narratives.
However, under the wings of the right-wing PiS party, numbers have skyrocketed with the 250,000 people marching in 2018 chanting and carrying banners of the “great white Poland” and “death to the enemies of the fatherland (namely Jews, immigrants, leftists, feminists, and LGBTQ people),” and was especially legitimized by President Duda’s inauguration speech. At the moment, Poland is undergoing months of intense debates accompanied by the ruling right-wing party’s parliamentary campaign to “save families from gender and LGBT ideologies” and to “protect Polish kids from pedophiles.”
As the government’s narrative is increasingly focused around Christian values, threats and theoretical debates seem to be perfectly working to either stabilize the political scene or attract new voters to the conservative party, rather than putting pressure to solve problems such as access to healthcare, high school education, or growing costs of living.
Systematically, Poles are fed with narratives from authorities in the local educational system, such as Barbara Nowak – an administrator from the Małopolska region who talks about “protecting” schools from “LGBT ideology.” Often, these narratives refer to Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski’s LGBT rights declaration as a way to “smuggle LGBT ideology through sex education.” Moreover, the Church’s silence accompanies “educational” arguments, where xenophobia and homophobia are vocally expressed in sermons or displayed on banners during Easter time.
The ministry of education and its conservative collaborators are playing a significant role in this political show. The ministry is using its regional school administrators to help “raise awareness” and provide tools to “stop evil anti-family ideologies.” For example, there are numerous reminders on where special parental statements can be downloaded to guarantee that educators ask the parents’ permission to speak to their students about sexuality. But of course, promoting such statements is a populist measure, as parents always express such will at the turn of each academic year to enroll their children in such optional classes.
Several distinguished teachers opposed the Law, and the PiS wrote an official letter to the former minister of education Anna Zalewska protesting against Barbara Nowak’s suggestion that having sex education classes in schools – in accordance with WHO health guidance – is a crime. Meanwhile, PiS party members are implying that the majority of people who identify as LGBTQ are also pedophiles. The fear is amplified by tweets, posts, and state-owned or financially supported traditional media and is used to praise the creation of “LGBT ideology-free zones” in 30 towns, cities and regions – mainly in the more conservative eastern part of Poland.
In the meantime, two events caught the attention of Polish society. Milo Mazurkiewicz, a trans-woman activist, jumped off of a bridge in May as an act of desperation. A Facebook post she left before she died reads: “I’m fed up with being treated like shit.” When Milo’s friends tried to commemorate her death, they were physically and verbally attacked by two separate groups. TVN24, a popular TV station, decided to report the tragedy and the attacks, and they devoted a special program to Milo’s life and to cover the hostility LGBTQ community are facing in Poland.
During the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IKEA Poland posted an LGBTQ-supportive message on its internal website. One of its employees replied with a homophobic comment and posted decontextualized Bible verses that encourage violence against gay people. Ikea terminated his contract while bishops congratulated the employee for “his courage in defending his faith.” They call his act the lay apostolate. This incident triggered another narrative that LGBTQ minority and their allies now persecute and discriminate Catholic majority in their own country.
Milo’s tragic death and an incident involving a popular furniture company have triggered a chain of sharp reactions on both sides. The most populist (and perhaps most absurd) consequence was the PiS’ applaud of Zofia Klepacka, a popular and accomplished windsurfer who became a conservative celebrity after her homophobic comments about February’s Trzaskowski declaration. Society had witnessed the ridiculousness of this ideological war at its peak in June when Klepacka was awarded the Warsaw Uprising medal of honor by some members of the World Association of Home Army Soldiers in Poland. It turned out that the medal was awarded illegally.
However, the consistency with which the government realizes its crusade of “protection of families and children” is coming to a point where “LGBTQ-free zone” stickers are getting printed by the conservative weekly Gazeta Polska for its next issue, and it will probably be received seriously all over Poland by some business owners, principals, or priests. With the recent Constitutional Tribunal which ruled that a printer from Łódź could refuse to provide services to LGBTQ+ organizations due to his religious freedoms, the stickers distributed on a massive scale has a lot of potential for destructive segregation. While one side claims that the stickers promote their freedoms, others emphasize the weekly’s promotion of homophobia and discrimination. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher tweeted that she is “Disappointed and concerned that certain groups are using stickers to promote hate and intolerance.”
One example of such an “LGBT-free zone” has just shown its face. While PiS is using its anti-LGBTQ+ discourse as election slogans, at the same time, the same discourse becomes an excuse for liberal and center parties not to form a coalition. The first equality march ever was held in Białystok, where the first Polish equality march ever held took place, is not only a stronghold of Polish conservatism but an area known for numerous hate crimes and discriminatory incidents. The first march has just been held despite the four thousand aggressive counter-protesters, mostly pseudo soccer hooligans. Flares, glass bottles, and stones were thrown, and the men were loudly chanting a famous Polish slogan: “God, honor, and fatherland.” There were also loud prayers delivered from a nearby Catholic Cathedral to “exorcise” the city from “evil Sodomites and pedophiles.” While a thousand marchers were passing by the Church, the priests were urging on believers to “defend Christian values” in accordance with Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda’s homily read there a few days earlier. The most significant clash happened near the Cathedral, and so the march’s route was changed.
Among the testimonies and video footage taken before, during, and after the march, there were reports of teenagers getting kicked and beaten, and ongoing stadium-quality shouts demanding zones free from pedophiles and leftists. A young mother was holding a toddler and shouted to the marchers, “what a fucking example they are giving to children?” a dad who was holding his daughter’s hand demonstrated and boasted about how he was going to “rape the lesbians.” There were horrifying scenes of LGBTQ activists getting chased by groups of men who also stole their belongings and tore their bags, clothes, and flags. On social media, numerous participants compared the situation to the atmosphere during the Pogroms.
Police detained several people who were involved in the riots. Intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians expressed their disapproval. Szymon Hołownia, a popular journalist who openly declares his faith, has condemned the bishops’ lack of courage to speak up, or even worse, their open support for far-right movements. He questioned the Church’s logic in encouraging prayers to “Our Father in Heaven” while allowing shouts of “Fuck off fags and whores!” in the background. Mariusz Szczygieł, a journalist and writer, also raised his concern about the bishops’ silence and reminded him of the Church’s silence on antisemitism in the 1980s. Jacek Dehnel, a writer who openly identifies as gay attended the march. He compared the violent events to the Pogroms of 1946 in Kielce. Dehnel displayed a schedule of Bialystok mass a day after the equality march – the last section on the agenda was a blessing and gratitude towards “the warriors for Christian and human values, protectors of the city and children from deprivation.” Finally, Bogdan Białek, a journalist and a successful activist for Polish-Jewish reconciliation in Kielce – a region known from Pogroms – focused on an image of a woman cursing the marchers while holding her child. He called her “the true face of Białystok” and appealed to fight for people such as herself.
Among the comments made by government and church officials to condemn the violence, Poland’s Education Minister advised that with such escalation and violence, officials have to reconsider allowing such events at all, as they cause “enormous resistance.” Either way, the government’s narrative is such a marvel: the LGBTQ pride events should be canceled for participants’ safety.
Beata Zwierzyńska is a doctoral candidate at the University of Lower Silesia and Masaryk University; involved with European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. She can be found on Twitter@beatazwie.