Poland's LGBT problem
Agnieszka Graff expands on her talk about anti-feminism at the STK's International Women's Day event in 2020, and explains how Poland has become Europe's most homophobic country. But she also points out that although Poland is a homophobic state, society at large is not homophobic.
By Agnieszka Graff, Associate Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, Poland.
This text was first published in 2020.
Poland’s political homophobia has hit the headlines of international media once again: on June 13, the country’s president Andrzej Duda compared LGBT equality to communist doctrine, stating that LGBT are not “people”, but an “ideology”. To those of us living in Poland, this is hardly news. Put “Poland LGBT” in a search engine and you will get plenty of evidence for what is now a well-established fact: with a score of only 16 percent on ILGA-Europe’s index of LGBTI+ Poland is now Europe’s most homophobic country.
Duda’s remarks are fairly typical of his presidential campaign – the aim is to win the June 28th elections by linking his liberal opponent Rafał Trzaskowski with “sexual deviance”. The excuse was that in winter 2019 Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw, had signed the LGBTI+ Declaration, the first document of its kind in Central-Eastern Europe. In April 2019 – just before elections to the European Parliament, Jarosław Kaczyński went on record claiming that “LGBT movement and gender pose a threat to our identity, a threat to our nation. They threaten the Polish state”. Thus, for quite a while now, we’ve been in the midst of a politically inspired cycle of anti-LGBT hatred. If the strategy works, Poland will end up with Duda’s second term in office and a rise in homophobic attitudes and hate-crimes, but, given the growing public resistance and strong reactions from abroad, the tactic may also backfire.
“Gender ideology” is morphed into “LGBT ideology”
The Law and Justice party has used homophobia as a propaganda tool for over a decade now: a way to deepen social polarization, intensify nationalist sentiments, and turn political cleavages into moral ones. These are all staple techniques of right-wing populists. As early as 2008, gay rights were associated by this political formation with communism, pedophilia and Western meddling into Poland’s affairs. In 2012 Poland was hit by the campaign against what was then called “gender ideology”. Similar campaigns have been going all over Europe, bringing together religious groups, right-wing activists, nationalists under the banner of “traditional family” supposedly in danger from marriage equality laws. By 2019 the term “gender ideology” morphed into “LGBT ideology” – the term we now hear from Duda and others on a daily basis. For the populist right, homophobia is a way to express national pride and distrust of the West. The real aim here is mobilization of conservative voters – sexual minorities are just collateral damage.
Poland’s “LGBT-free zones” are perhaps the best-known example of the hateful rhetoric permeating the country’s public life. Over 100 municipalities have taken on this status in recent months, many of them also signing “Family Rights Charter” – a document drafted by Ordo Iuris, an ultra-conservative legal think tank also engaged in campaigning for a total abortion ban. This organization is typical of Europe’s growing coalition of ultraconservative groups: it is well funded, highly professional and has strong links to similar groups in Europe. Part of their strategy is to criminalize opposition to homophobia through strategic litigation, e.g. a lawsuit against activists who have put together the “Atlas of Hate” – the map informing the world about the “LGBT-free zones”. But Ordo Iuris is only an example here.
The anti-LGBT front brings together the catholic clergy, politicians of the populist right and the media supporting them, Poland’s neo-fascist groups, and transnationally connected ultra-conservatives. In recent months we had bishops and ordinary priests claiming that the Covid-19 pandemic is God’s punishment for LGBT and “gender”; we heard the radical anti-choice activist Kaja Godek announce that gays want to adopt children with the sole purpose of molesting them. And – yes – the memory of street violence during the July 2019 Białystok Equality March is still fresh. Participants were attacked by four times as many neo-nazis, mostly young men in sports gear. Smoke bombs, bottles and rotten eggs were thrown at demonstrators, several people were injured. The police barely managed to prevent bloodshed. I was there and I can tell you it was terrifying. It also made many people realize the seemingly obvious fact: hate speech leads to violence.
Homophobic state, but not a homophobic society
One important distinction must, however, be made. While homophobic hate-speech is essential to Catholic Church teachings and right-wing rhetoric in Poland, this does not translate directly into social attitudes. Studies show that your average Pole is significantly less homophobic today than he/she was a decade ago. About 30 percent of the population believe in a “gender conspiracy” and view sexual minorities as a threat to Polish culture and the Polish family – these are people who vote for Law and Justice and the radical right. The rest of the population has been gradually edging towards tolerance and even acceptance. Increasingly, people admit they know gays and lesbians personally and accept them as friends and family members, especially as children. If you visit Warsaw or any other Polish city, you will see occasional same-sex couples holding hands, and you will notice huge numbers of people carrying rainbow-colored bags as a sign of solidarity. As I write these words, parents of LGBT kids have been publishing family pictures with the hashtag YouAreMyChildNotAnIdeology (#JesteśMoimDzieckiemNieIdeologią) in response to Duda’s public remarks.
The anti-LGBT campaign has, in fact, triggered an explosion of LGBT activism: a record number of 24 Equality marches (Poland’s version of Pride) took place between March and October 2019 (compared to 18 the previous year) and Warsaw’s March on June 8 last year had tens of thousands participants (due to the Covid-19 pandemic there is no march this year).
Poland’s LGBT problem is serious but it must be seen as a political battle: hatred against sexual minorities is being mobilized by the populist right in coalition with ultra-conservative groups like Ordo Iuris. Of course, the anti-LGBT propaganda is doing real damage. LGBTI+ people, their family and friends are scared and outraged. People are increasingly using the word “fascism” to describe what is going on. But we are a homophobic state, not a homophobic society.