How Polish LGBT+ Activists Are Fighting the Polish Far Right

Is COVID-19 creating an environment where LGBT citizens can be scapegoats?

By: Mikhail Yakovlev

This time last year, Polish villages and towns started passing anti-LGBT+ resolutions that sent a strong message to LGBT+ locals – you don’t belong here. LGBT+ people in these areas started feeling increased hostility from neighbours. Quickly, conservative Polish media started congratulating these municipalities for creating ‘LGBT-free Zones‘ that protect traditional Polish values and morality. One year later, these LGBT-free zones take up more than one third of the country—an area larger than the whole of Hungary. ‘Atlas nienawiści’ (Atlas of Hate), a grassroots project by  LGBT+ activists, maps every municipality that adopted an anti-LGBT+ resolution.

There was an explosion of global media interest in these zones in the run-up to Poland’s parliamentary elections in October last year. More recently, there has been little international media coverage with the exception of a Channel 4 documentary in March this year.

But, the issue has not gone away. How are LGBT communities fighting back?

Since Poland is a member of the European Union, it is illegal for the authorities to ban LGBT+ organisations or censor positive portrayals of the LGBT+ community in the media. So, when these resolutions were passed, they circumvented EU law by pressuring local authorities to refuse funding and other support to LGBT+ and pro-LGBT+ civil society organisations, weakening their capacity. In an article for Balkan Insight, Claudia Ciobanu explains that these resolutions were intended as a symbolic gesture – an important part of propaganda by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June 2019 and Polish parliamentary elections following October.

“The non-binding resolutions, which municipalities started adopting in early 2019, coincide with a rise in rhetoric by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) denouncing ‘LGBT ideology’ as an allegedly foreign import threatening the Polish nation and its age-old Christian values,” she wrote, speaking to the increasingly hostile rhetoric that has been building for the past year.

“Defence of supposedly Christian principles is a key PiS promise to its electorate,” Ciobanu adds.

Tellingly, many of these zones are concentrated in Poland’s poorer, less-developed and more religious East – where hostile rhetoric about gay propaganda is sound political currency that has left some locals feeling alienated and threatened in their own villages and towns.

Campaigns coordinator at Amnesty International Polska, Mikołaj Czerwiński agreed with Ciobanu. In an interview with MDI, he emphasises that Law and Justice justified the LGBT+ zones by peddling the narrative that LGBT+ ideology breaks apart families, and is fundamentally un-Polish. A vote for PiS, was a vote for Poland – and, against the LGBT+ community.

Ironically, a 2018 Balkan Insight investigation revealed that these resolutions aimed at protecting supposedly home-grown Polish values stem from cooperation with international conservatives, including US evangelicals and Russian ultra-nationalists.

Despite this international cooperation, Polish LGBT activists decided to fight back.

“You have probably heard about Gazeta Polska giving out ‘LGBT-free Zone’ stickers to their readers,” Czerwiński continued, referring to a particularly vicious campaign orchestrated by Poland’s right-wing daily Gazeta Polska, which is privately owned but controlled by interests close to the Law and Justice Party.

What makes this round of state sponsored propaganda particularly worrying is the complicity of TVP, Poland’s public television broadcaster, politically neutral in principle. Taking a page from Gazeta Polska’s playbook, TVP pushed PiS’s  homophobic agenda. For Czerwiński, this became clear when they aired a documentary called LGBT Invasion three days before the parliamentary election.

“The government has the ability to appoint points the editorial board of the public media,” he continues. “In essence, the government oversees editorial output.”

Frankly, Poland today is a frightening environment for the LGBT+ community – one that a grassroots LGBT+ activist, who goes by the name Paweł, sees as the modern-day equivalent of segregation in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“It’s like the ‘Only for Germans’ signs from occupied Warsaw, or ‘whites only’ in other countries,” he says, elaborating on what it feels like to be LGBT+ in a country where ‘LGBT+ free’ zones are slowly trying to push you out.

“The level of propaganda now exceeds the Communist period.”

How do you fight a toxic, discriminatory and dangerous narrative when the government itself is complicit? Paweł found hope in Stop Funding Hate – a UK-based organisation that screenshots advertisements that appear in hateful publications, and then contacts the advertiser to let them know what kind of racist, and discriminatory news coverage their ads appear next to. Paweł started using the tactic against Gazeta Polska. And, according to Stop Funding Hate, who are also keeping an eye on the notoriously right-wing newspaper, there are concrete results.

Alicia Sienkiewicz – one of the young activists featured in the Channel 4 documentary – has adopted a similar, grassroots strategy. She puts pro-LGBT+ stickers over hateful propaganda that she sees in her neighbourhood. Another activist, Bart Staszewski created multi-lingual ‘LGBT-free Zones’ signs that he hangs on name signs of municipalities that passed homophobic resolutions. Bart photographs ordinary LGBT+ locals in front of them to raise awareness about their plight. Guerrilla tactics like this are the only way for the Polish LGBT+ community to counter toxic homophobia in Polish media.

But, grassroots LGBT+ activism is not without pushback. Alicia admits that her activism has made her more of a target within her own community. Polish Catholic organisation Ordo Iuris encourages local governments to sue the creators of the Hate Atlas and provides legal advice, adds Paweł.

To make matters worse, the Catholic Church frequently pushes its own propaganda that encourages violence against LGBT+ organising. Last year, the Archbishop of Krakow called LGBT+ people ‘the Rainbow Plague’ in reference to the Pride March in the Eastern Polish city of Białystoк. The statement went viral on social media and resulted in physical violence.

“The Polish Catholic Church has a tradition of making homophobic statements,” elaborates Czerwiński. “More recently, some clergy have even suggested that COVID-19 is punishment for LGBT+ movement.”

As Polish media give increased attention to COVID-19, anti-LGBT+ propaganda has receded from spotlight. But even the pandemic—and specifically, the lockdown—is likely to be leveraged for propaganda, ahead of the upcoming election.

Will the LGBT community be the scapegoat?

“Right now, we are waiting to see whether Law and Justice will try to shift media attention to ‘LGBT+ ideology’ or something else in the run-up to this May’s presidential elections,” Czerwiński explains.

The PiS has already been accused of exploiting the national lockdown, which stops Polish citizens from protesting, to ram through new draconian restrictions on abortion and sexual education in schools. Will the LGBT resistance to homophobic legislation be impacted as well?