Polish Stonewall

25 March 2021

Monika Zbrozek, Senior Barista at Alfa Financial Software

Having lived in the UK since 2004, I have become accustomed to the tolerance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. Sure, the situation here is not perfect and homophobia is still present in our lives, but LGBTQ+ rights are largely respected and protected, and the appropriate regulations serve as their legal base. However, it is increasingly easy to forget about the level of struggle endured by the LGBTQ+ community every day in my native Poland. The events that took place there last summer served as a reminder that state-sanctioned homophobia in Poland is in full swing.

Let’s look at the situation of LGBTQ+ people in Poland at the moment and the recent history of social attitudes towards members of that community. ILGA-Europe’s 2020 report states that Poland’s protection of LGBTQ+ rights is the worst in Europe. According to Polish respondents to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2019 EU LGBTI survey II, 68% of Poles said that intolerance and prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community in Poland had risen in the last five years.

Homosexuality, legalised in 1932, is largely perceived as a deviant, threatening, ‘unnatural’ behaviour and there is very little protection against prejudice and intolerance faced by LGBTQ+ people. Same-sex marriage and civil partnership are illegal. Same-sex couples have no right to adopt children and lesbian couples have no access to IVF.

In 2015, the parliamentary election in Poland was won by ‘Law and Justice’ — the right-wing, conservative, populist party. The party’s ideology — national conservatism — is often (if not always) expressed by hostility towards anyone different than Polish, white, heterosexual and catholic. The 2015 election win was the starting point of homophobia being gradually normalised and encouraged by the ruling party. However, it was not until a few years later, in the run-up to the 2019 election, that ‘Law and Justice’ politicians started using more aggressively homophobic language.

The discourse of the ruling party was echoed and amplified by the right-wing media and the Catholic Church, which has a massive influence on Polish people and their attitudes. The LGBTQ+ movement was portrayed as a ‘foreign ideology’ threatening Polish values such as family, catholic faith and patriotism. According to the ‘Law and Justice’ politicians and right-wing media, LGTBTQ+ ‘propaganda’ was threatening ‘freedom’ in Poland and was a bad influence on Polish children.

Homosexuality was, and still is, pictured as deviant, almost criminal activity and often compared to paedophilia. By April 2020, 100 municipalities (including five voivodships) — about a third of Poland — informally declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” in response to the homophobic propaganda spread by the ‘Law and Justice’ party and its supporters. In his 2020 election campaign, Polish President Andrzej Duda described the LGBTQ+ movement as an ideology that served the purpose of removing the human aspect from that same community and, as a result, permitting more aggressive attacks.

In this homophobic climate, actively encouraged by the most senior politicians in the land, Polish LGBTQ+ activism started getting stronger and more vocal. This tension came to a head in summer 2020, when vans belonging to Fundacja Pro-prawo do życia (Pro-right to live Foundation), a neo-nationalist Catholic group, were driven through city centres across Poland broadcasting anti-LGBT messages over loudspeakers and displaying them on large banners. On many occasions, the public attempted to stop these vehicles, in protest of such an outrageously homophobic campaign. One such instance involved a non-binary, LBGTQ+ activist known as Margot. In consequence, Margot was arrested on the 7th of August for ‘damaging property and a brutal attack on the van driver’ and placed in custody for two months. According to Margot, there was minor damage to the vehicle and no attack took place.

Margot’s arrest resulted in massive LGBTQ+ protests as well as right-wing counter-demonstrations. A further 48 protesters were arrested and the demonstrations were dubbed ‘Polish Stonewall’. The open letter to Ursula von der Leyen — the President of the European Commission, was, amongst others, signed by Pedro Almodovar, Judith Butler, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Margaret Atwood, Olga Tokarczuk and Antonio Negri. The letter notes that ‘Margot’s arrest is part of a larger governmental and police operation to curtail and degrade the rights of sexual and gender minorities and to suppress all forms of critical antagonism.’

Margot was released on the 28th of August after a successful appeal. Their actions were met with mixed reactions in Poland, even in the progressive circles. Many public figures in Poland condemned the activist’s approach to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. I think the best response to this is Margot’s own words from a September 2020 BBC interview: “People who have not lived the lives of the LGBT community in this country shouldn’t judge us […] And nobody should be surprised if we are eventually forced to take things into our own hands.”

Let’s remember that the LGBTQ+ rights we enjoy today were fought for by many before us. Let’s support those who stand up to homophobia in the countries which still have anti-LGBTQ+ policies, laws and attitudes! Let’s lead by example by showing tolerance and inclusion towards LGBTQ+ people in our lives.

Photo by Margaux Bellott on Unsplash