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Analysis of ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland: How did it happen?

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Looking back on the past decade, Poland doesn’t have the best history with tolerance. Since the ruling party, Law & Justice (PiS), came to power in 2015 it only got worse.

The hatred towards LGBTQ+ community has always been present in the world. But when other European countries started moving forward, becoming more progressive and more tolerant, Poland visibly stayed behind.

One might wonder – why is that? Why wouldn’t a country want to protect its citizens against queerphobia?

PiS won the parliamentary election in 2015, then in 2019. The current president, Andrzej Duda, also won the election twice. He will stay in office until 2025, when his second and last term ends. Duda is politically affiliated with PiS.

Poland follows the traditional tripartite separation of powers, dividing the authority into legislature, executive and judiciary. PiS has the majority in parliament, making them the legislature. President Duda is the executive power. Which leaves the judiciary.

The problem arises with the ruling party having ‘seized control’ over the courts. The judges of the Constitutional Tribunal were dismissed in 2015 and 2016, despite their tenures not being over. The newly selected judges have been recognised by the people as sympathisers of PiS.

Moreover, in 2018 the Free Courts Initiative and protests against introducing new laws regarding the Polish Supreme Court started. Despite demonstrations on the streets, the bills were passed and many citizens now claim the ruling party ‘owns the judiciary’.

Therefore, it can be argued PiS now unofficially holds almost absolute power in the Republic of Poland. However, the party still needs support from the electorate. And they have it.

According to polls carried out by IBRiS – a non-governmental organisation specialising in social and market research – PiS still has 33.2 per cent support, as of January 9 2021. No other political party has higher backing from the voters.

Having the support they need, PiS has been using their power and influence to reshape the country. That includes the hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community they spread as part of their political agenda. Queer people are constantly called ‘LGBT ideology’ by Polish politicians and the public, government-funded, media.

Having the encouragement of the prejudiced media and the government, homophobes take matters into their own hands. During the 2019 pride parade in Białystok, a city in northeast Poland, a riot started as homophobic people yelled profanities and slurs as the parade passed by. They went as far as burning an LGBT pride flag to express their complete hatred and contempt.

Some participants of the parade were assaulted by aggressive queerphobes and had to be transported to a hospital. Allegedly, four people died of their injuries, three of them being teenagers and two of them underage.

Police in riot-gear incapacitating two aggressors during the 2019 pride parade in Białystok.
Credit: Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Gazeta

Police in riot gear escorting the pride parades has become a regular thing in Poland. At least in the cities where pride parades are even allowed.

Pride parade in Wrocław, Poland. Policemen in riot gear surrounding people. LGBT pride flag is visible in the background.
Credit: Maciej Kulczyński / PAP

In 2019, Gazeta Polska (lit.: “Polish Newspaper”), published an issue attaching special stickers saying “LGBT-free zone” with a crossed rainbow. Queerphobia continued as people kept buying issues of Gazeta Polska with the stickers attached. Many would adhere the stickers to their windows to show hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community.

Stickers attached to one of the issues of Gazeta Polska. The inscription reads “LGBT-free zone”.
Credit: Bartosz Staszewski

The homophobic nightmare continues as Polish head of state aids in spreading it. During his presidential campaign in 2020, Andrzej Duda declared ‘LGBT ideology’ was worse than communism. Duda said: “We are being told, ladies and gentlemen, that those [LGBT] are people, and this is simply an ideology.”

The president continued, describing a history of opposing the communist ideology: “My parents’ generation was not fighting for 40 years to throw the communist ideology out of schools, […] to be unable to brainwash adolescents and indoctrinate them, young people, children, soldiers in the army, in youth organisations; they were not fighting so that we would now agree for another ideology, one even more destructive for men, an ideology that conceals deep intolerance under cliches of respect and tolerance, exclusion of all those who do not wish to succumb to it.”

Duda proved himself ill-informed and ignorant by claiming LGBTQ+ community was an ‘ideology’. Not only did he offend queer people all around the world, he helped in spreading misinformation. LGBTQ+ is not a cult that excludes those refusing a certain way of life. It is a society of humans who already feel excluded, who wish they weren’t looked upon as anomalies, who wish they weren’t seen as deviants, who wish they weren’t hated for loving.

After his speech more Poles began believing LGBTQ+ community to be an ‘ideology’, rather than a group of people. He called them ‘destructive’, not realising how destructive and toxic his own words and opinions had been.

Andrzej Duda making his infamous speech comparing ‘LGBT ideology’ to communism in Brzeg, Poland during his 2020 presidential campaign. Credit: EPA via BBC

The Catholic Church in Poland does not accept the LGBTQ+ community. They perceive anything outside of cis-heteronormativity as ‘sinful’ and at variance with their religion. PiS is closely connected with the Catholic Church, the two relying on one another.

Father Tadeusz Rydzyk is a Catholic priest who founded the most popular religious media in the country – Radio Maryja and Telewizja Trwam. PiS has been funding Father Rydzyk for years, paying for his various projects with government money. In return the Catholic Church in Poland supports the ruling party. For example, during the election priests used masses to pray for the party’s and Duda’s victories.

Poles are generally very religious, most of them favouring catholicism. They listen to the priests giving sermons, during which they are often told to vote for PiS and fight with ‘deviants’ and ‘paedophiles’ as they refer to queer people.

Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski called the LGBTQ+ community a ‘rainbow plague’, which only proves how the Church, in which many trust to bring them love and acceptance, despises people and aids in persecution of those it was supposed to protect.

Świdnik – a town in Poland that approved anti-LGBT laws. Underneath the name of the town is a yellow sign saying ‘LGBT-free zone’.
Credit: Bartosz Staszewski

Which brings us to the grand finale, the reason why you started reading this article: the infamous ‘LGBT-free zones’.

Many boroughs or towns in Poland approved homophobic laws, declaring the area free of ‘LGBT ideology’. Some of those supported the aforementioned queerphobic Abp. Jędraszewski.

LGBT-activist Bartosz “Bart” Staszewski started travelling to those towns and putting ‘LGBT-free zone’ signs under the areas’ name plaques. He would then photograph the signs and post onto social media to spread the message of queerphobic laws accepted there.

LGBT-activist Bart Staszewski holding a sign saying “LGBT-free zone”. Credit: Przemysław Stefaniak

When foreign media started covering the story, Bart had been accused of lying and spreading disinformation by many politicians from the ruling party, including the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Morawiecki stated using the term ‘LGBT-free zones’ in terms of anti-LGBT areas in Poland was ‘fake news’, ‘deep fake’ and ‘deception’. Meanwhile the existence of queerphobic towns, boroughs and provinces is real, despite PiS denying the claim.

Map of Poland showing areas that enacted anti-LGBT laws (red), rejected anti-LGBT laws (green) or are carrying out lobbying activities (yellow) as of February 5 2021.
Credit: Atlas of Hate (atlasnienawisci.pl)

Moreover, Morawiecki used the term ‘deep fake’ which has a different meaning than he intended. Deep fake is a way of using an artificial intelligence to manipulate audio and video recordings. It is used to fabricate videos, for example the 2020 Alternative Christmas Message from Queen Elizabeth II broadcasted by Channel 4 was a deep fake. Therefore, using the term in regard to Staszewski’s project is wrong.

Staszewski continues to travel around Poland, taking photos of different areas, showing their lack of tolerance online.

In 2020 EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli declared six Polish boroughs which enacted anti-LGBT laws to be denied their request for EU funding.

“EU values and fundamental rights must be respected by Member States and state authorities.” She wrote on Twitter on July 28 2020.

“This is why 6 towns twinning applications [involving] Polish authorities that adopted ‘LGBTI free zones’ or ‘family rights’ resolutions were rejected.”

Polish Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro did not agree with the EU’s decision and compensated Tuchów, one of the rejected boroughs, with three times the amount they asked for. Tuchów did not receive EU money, but instead received three-times-as-large government funding.

Tuchów, Poland. Area marked with a yellow ‘LGBT-free zone’ sign. Credit: Bartosz Staszewski

Opinions on the LGBTQ+ community are divided. There are Catholic extremists who assault queer people right in front of the police, like in Białystok, but there are also those like Bart Staszewski – activists fighting for equality and tolerance.

The EU gives queer Poles hope when the government is trying to crush it. No state can move forward and become more progressive when it keeps enacting laws from the dark ages. Who would like to live in a country where you cannot reveal who you are out of fear? Who would like to be petrified every time they walk out of their home because of neighbours who don’t accept you? Who would want to live in a constant, endless state of anxiety you might get assaulted by homophobes who are not only projecting their own hatred on you, but the government’s as well?

When the government refuses to protect their own citizens, you have to act. Have hope that things will get better. Hope will help you keep fighting. The struggle is real, but so is your strength.

One thing is for certain. We are here, we are queer and we are not going away.

Featured image credit: Monika Bryk / strefywolneodlgbt.pl

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