President Duda, “LGBT-Free Zones” and the Growth of Nationalism in Poland

Homophobia and the claim that same-sex love poses a threat to so-called “traditional family values” drive injustices that take place against members of our community every day. Acts of violence, discrimination, and hate work to keep the LGBTIQ communities in the margins of society. 67 counties around the world continue to criminalize same-sex relations. So-called conversion therapy practices designed to change, suppress, or reorient non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity take place across the world. There isn't a single country in the world where LGBTIQ people are free from hate and violence. As we watch with hope as archaic criminalization laws fall - most recently in Botswana -, and ever more countries start to recognize same-sex partnership - most recently in Montenegro -, developments in other parts of the world continue to remind us that we cannot be complacent or take achievements for granted. 

Years of fighting for progress can be undone in a moment, and powerful hate speech from government officials and others can set the precedent for how LGBTIQ people are treated and valued, regardless of protections under the law. Recent news from Poland serves as a sobering reminder of both.

Some progress had been made in the recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people in Poland since it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. In 2001, Campaign against Homophobia, or KPH, was founded to promote legal and social equality for LGBTIQ people. In 2015, KPH organized Rainbow Friday, a day where schools would foster awareness and inclusion of LGBTIQ students by incorporating LGBTIQ history into the curriculum. This annual event came to fruition after a student took his own life because he was bullied for not being “straight enough.” Pride marches have also been visible around the country for many years. 

Poland held around 20 Pride marches in 2019, including the largest Pride march in Central and Eastern Europe which was even attended by Warsaw mayor and then presidential candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski. Hate speech, threats of violence, and efforts to ban the event did not deter the Warsaw march from having a record turnout, symbolizing a growing societal acceptance for LGBTIQ people.

Progress has not come without resistance. Strong opposition to LGBTIQ equality has been spearheaded by Poland’s right-wing party “Law and Justice” or “PiS,” which has controlled Poland’s Parliament since 2015. Prior to 2019, PiS ruled both houses of Parliament and the presidency, allowing legislation to be passed quickly, facing few internal obstacles. This raised controversy throughout Poland and the European Union (EU), as PiS policies are largely influenced by socially conservative, purportedly Catholic traditions and often undermine basic democratic values. For example, In 2018, PiS ally President Andrzej Duda signed into law jail time for any citizen who suggests that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, violating freedom of expression and information principles. 

Concern over the party’s power and Duda’s democratic regression grew leading up to Poland’s 2019 elections. In an effort to gain control of the houses, three opposition parties joined forces and narrowly, yet successfully, took control of the Senate, winning 51 votes out of 100. This left PiS in power of only the lower house of Parliament, the Sejm, and the presidency. However, the Senate holds little power comparatively, having the ability to delay bills proposed by the Sejm, but not stop them. With PiS entering their sixth consecutive year of ruling, pressure for opposition parties to come up with a presidential win this July was high. 

In a tight race, Duda was re-elected by a very narrow margin on July 13th, beating his more progressive contender Trzaskowski. Duda's campaign was built on messaging promoting “family values” and posing the LGBTIQ community as a threat to the nation, attacking sexual and reproductive rights, and spouting anti-immigrant hate. Among his campaign slogans was the proposition to write a ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption into the constitution. These bans already exist in other legislation, as such, the proposal constituted legal overkill and could only serve a political purpose, drumming up hate against the LGBTIQ community. 

Indeed, the campaign slogans have already resulted in action in the few weeks since his re-election. On July 25th, Poland’s justice minister announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty combating violence against women and domestic abuse. This withdrawal, based on fear over “gender ideology,” is a major setback for gender equality and LGBTIQ rights. Clampdown on opposition protests has also ensued. 

President Duda’s hateful rhetoric and divisive politics have been met with increased opposition. The growing animosity for both Duda and the Law and Justice party was made evident during the president’s swearing in last Thursday in Warsaw. Female MPs sported colorful suits and rainbow masks, making clear that his homophobic and sexist agenda would be met with resistance. Outside the event, protestors decorated three statues with Pride flags, protesting what they called a “homophobic government.” Police, encouraged by government officials, charged and arrested three activists involved on accounts of desecrating monuments and offending religious feelings, a crime that is punishable by up to two years in prison. Of those arrested was trans activist Margot Szutowic. Last Friday, in a show of solidarity for Margot, activists attempted to block a police car out for her arrest. Over 48 people were arrested and now face charges with sentences of up to three years in prison.

The police violence during recent protests and the legal measures being used against protestors are a direct result of the anti-LGBTIQ policies of this right-wing government. Under Duda’s rule, nearly 80 Polish municipalities declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” last year. These zones promote intolerance and create hostile and violent environments for LGBTIQ people, undermining basic human rights, and yet an ever-growing number of places around Poland continue to declare themselves as such, empowered by the PiS party’s growing anti-LGBTIQ hate speech. One of the resolutions, adopted in April of 2019 by the town of Ryki reads, “In relation to the aggressive homosexual propaganda, promoted and conducted as part of the ideological war by leftist-liberal political circles and ‘LGBT’ groups, which are threatening our fundamental norms and the values of our social and national life, our council adopts the declaration ‘Powiat Rycki free of gender ideology and LGBT.” Despite having little legal authority, these resolutions give the green light to discrimination and the exclusion of non-heteronormative people from public spaces.

The so-called “LGBT-free zones” pose a threat internationally too. Poland is a member of the EU and the EU typically backs measures supportive of LGBTIQ equality at an international level at the United Nations. Actions in Poland, and other countries across the EU where LGBTIQ-hatred is growing, can undermine the position of the EU on the international scale, thus affecting LGBTIQ equality globally. Moreover, governments are inspired and empowered by each other. When the notorious anti-gay propaganda laws were passed in Russia, copycat laws started appearing in countries ranging from Kyrgyzstan, to Lithuania, Belarus and elsewhere. So too can the Polish “LGBT-free zones.” Just recently Latvian parliamentarian Jānis Iesalnieks retweeted an article about “LGBT-ideology free” zones forming in Poland. Facing no consequences, months later he tweeted a picture of a similar signage in Latvia, promoting the idea of “LGBT-free zones.” 

In response to the “LGBT-free zones”, activists in Poland have hosted over 30 protest marches in various towns and cities, demonstrating disapproval of municipalities that adopted these hateful declarations. In addition, the hashtag #IamLGBT started trending on Twitter, showing an overwhelming opposition to the homophobia coming from the government. After LGBT-free zone stickers were distributed in issues of a Polish news magazine, activists successfully pushed Warsaw’s district court to halt distribution. Since then, activists have been gathering together with other groups and activists in opposition of PiS. 

Global solidarity with Poland’s LGBTIQ community is important at this time to protect the LGBTIQ community there, prevent a spread of similar ideas elsewhere, and defend the international human rights standards which protect every LGBTIQ person. These developments serve as a sobering reminder that we must stay vigilant in the fight for the human rights of LGBTIQ people, that we can't  take the hard fought wins for granted, and must not only fight for more progress, but also to maintain the progress achieved so far.