Warsaw, Poland – President Andrzej Duda’s inflammatory remarks against LGBT+ people have provoked a renewed mobilisation of activists ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.
“I don’t feel like a pervert, I just love someone of the same sex,” says Bartek, a psychology student who came with his boyfriend and brother. “According to our leaders, this is a perversion, but we can see that it is not the case,” the young man calmly continues, pointing at the crowd of young people gathered under rainbow flags in the centre of Warsaw. There are more than a hundred of them in front of the offices of the Christian fundamentalist organisation Ordo Iurdis, known for its attacks on homosexuals and its fight in favour of a ban on abortion and sexual education.
The traditional Equality Parade, scheduled for 20 June, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, but this has not stopped LGBT+ people from coming together and mobilising to express their disagreement with the renewed attacks against them. Jędrzek, Bartek’s boyfriend, explains why he wanted to come: “I believe in fighting for your rights. We want to show that we are people, not some kind of gay ideology.” Many of the posters and slogans reacted in the same vein to the words of Andrzej Duda (PiS), who said at a recent election campaign rally in Silesia: “They are trying to convince us that they are people, but it is just an ideology”. poland lgbt
Alin, who identifies as a non-binary person, laments that people don’t even understand what the acronym L.G.B.T. stands for: “When you look at it carefully, it’s clearer: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, etc. Already, this makes us understand that we’re talking about people, not a way of thinking”. Alin came to the event with some friends to “draw attention to the fact that this is not an ideology, but rather people who want to live with dignity and be considered as human beings”. Behind us, the crowd shouts once again, as if in support of Alin’s words, “We are people, not an ideology!”
“It’s just one more stupid thing the president said,” Bartek comments, shrugging his shoulders. “But unfortunately, this kind of radical opinion is shared by a section of the population that is very much present and gets even more excited. He explains that this hostile atmosphere has a strong impact on the most vulnerable people, pushing some to commit suicide. A banner reminds us that two thirds of LGBT+ people in Poland have had suicidal thoughts due to social pressure. “It is inexcusable to exert this kind of influence on people,” he concludes. poland LGBT
Bartek and Jędrzek say they are “lucky” to have a supportive family and environment and say they have not experienced any homophobic incidents. “I know homophobia mostly because of what my friends told me, but even if I wasn’t directly affected, it affects me as a member of this group,” says Bartek. For him, it’s mainly the homophobic atmosphere that’s a burden. For example, when public television aired a pseudo-investigation entitled ‘Invasion’ on the LGBT+ movement in Poland on the eve of the legislative elections in October 2019, Bartek says he “felt like trash”. During the demonstration, the speakers spoke of more frightening experiences: insults, threats, attacks. A young activist from Częstochowa says he had to go into hiding for several days after his apartment was visited by threatening strangers.
Maciej Konieczny, a member of parliament from the Left (Lewica), castigated in the demonstration the “PiS – Ordo Iuris ideology” and recalled that a couple of counter-demonstrators armed with explosives had been arrested during the Lublin Equality March last summer. He ended on a more positive note, stressing that “for young people between 18 and 30 years old, today it is the PiS – Ordo Iuris ideology that is sick” and that “sooner or later there will be true equality in Poland”.
Who to vote for?
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS, nationalist-conservative) may portray its Christian Democratic rival, Rafal Trzaskowski (PO) as ultra-liberal, ready to undermine Poland’s moral order, but for the demonstrators, he’s not the ideal choice. Alin wants to vote for Robert Biedroń, the candidate of the left-wing coalition, who is the first openly gay politician in the country. He didn’t campaign very well, however, and the polls put him in fifth place. “For me, giving him my vote in the first round is a way of making a certain statement,” says Alin. But in the second round, Alin will support Trzaskowski against incumbent Andrzej Duda.
Same thing goes for Marta, a student who identifies as bisexual and finds it “sad” that Trzaskowski’s candidacy is the only real alternative for the LGBT+ community. “He’s not an ideal ally,” Marta opined, recalling that as mayor of Warsaw, he refused to recognize two mothers of a child as parents, as well as his rejection of same-sex marriages. Instead, Trzaskowski supports civil unions between people of the same sex, which excludes several rights, such as the right to adoption.
Dark horizons for LGBT people in Poland
There is a great deal of anxiety as a result of the rise in homophobia during the campaign. Alin notes that it is getting worse and worse: “People are starting to see us as sub-human; it is not yet very visible, but we’re moving towards something really frightening”. For Bartek, it will depend on the outcome of the campaign: “If Duda wins, it will become even worse”. He underlines that he isn’t only referring to LGBT+ people, but is also concerned about the economy in these times of crisis: “I am appalled by the state of the economy, money is disappearing before our eyes”.
Tola, a graphic designer identifying herself as a transgender woman, highlights the close links between the PiS government and Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary, pointing out that during the pandemic the Hungarian parliament passed a transphobic law removing the right to officially change one’s sex. “We really find ourselves at a crossroads, and we live with the hope that, maybe, we might be able to reverse the trend.” Trzaskowski may be the only one able to protect LGBT+ people from the “total dismantling of their rights”. But concluding with a dark prophecy, Tola predicts that in case of victory, PiS will continue its assaults, moving from LGBT+ to women, ethnic minorities and others.
Risky bet and counter-attacks
Despite the rise of homophobia in Poland, the strategy of the ruling party may well backfire. If this rhetoric is able to mobilize the party’s base, it could also cost them the victory by driving away many of the more moderate voters who do not support such divisive rhetoric. In the last few days, the PiS machine has toned down its rhetoric a little, while polls now show that President Duda is far from certain of winning the victory that he took for granted a few weeks ago. Despite the 40% or so expected in the first round, he will be neck and neck with Trzaskowski for the second, opinion polls predict.
On the LGBT+ Polish side, President Duda’s words have led to renewed activism in the last week, with demonstrations in several cities, including smaller ones. Several hundreds of people were undeterred by the rain and bad weather to dance in front of the Presidential Palace last Sunday in Warsaw in an “LGBT provocation” event designed to mock and ridicule homophobia and the propaganda of the ruling party. In addition to music and speeches, the programme also included the “destruction of Polish families” along with “public reading of sex education manuals”.
Soaked by the heavy rain that befell on the capital, but smiling and defiant, the community showed it couldn’t be defeated nor silenced.
By André Kapsas
A Prague-based correspondent, André is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw. This article was also published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.
Photos by Roman Koziel – Radical Fokus