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Foreign Ideology: Poland Populists Target LGBT Rights

Poland’s governing Law and Justice party used to get political mileage out of vilifying refugees. Now it has its sights on the LGBT community. From Reporting Democracy.

by Claudia Ciobanu 26 June 2019

Around 30 masked men threw eggs and yelled abuse as hundreds of people marched behind a police cordon in the southeastern Polish city of Rzeszow.


Undeterred, the marchers waved rainbow flags and held up placards demanding that LGBT couples be allowed to marry and adopt. Others led chants calling for an end to discrimination.


The 22 June event was the city’s second-ever Equality Parade celebrating LGBT rights — and organizers had expected counter-protests. But they said the real battle was to be allowed to stage the parade at all.


More than 20 cities and towns across Poland are holding Equality Parades this year, four of them for the first time, despite vilification of LGBT activists by the governing Law and Justice party (PiS).


Anti-LGBT rhetoric was a big PiS campaign theme in the run-up to European Parliament elections in May, with the partydisparaging LGBT rights as foreign ideas harmful to traditional values in Poland, a Catholic country.


Now rights groups say the nationalist-populist PiS is doubling down on anti-LGBT venom as parliamentary and presidential elections loom this year and next.


Activists say the back story to the Rzeszow parade was a tale of discrimination and intimidation that is being played out across the country.



When organizers first submitted a request to march in the city of 200,000 people, PiS city councilors wasted no time in proposing a resolution to outlaw the event along with what they called “the promotion of LGBT ideology.”


Before long, applications to hold counterdemonstrations flooded in — 29 in all — prompting Rzeszow Mayor Tadeusz Ferenc from the opposition Democratic Left Alliance to ban the event on the grounds of security.


Parade organizer Patrycja Pawlak-Kaminska said the ban was unjustified since the march had gone ahead last year despite a similar number of requests for counter-protests.


“But this year, we had a witch hunt against LGBT people in the [EU] electoral campaign, the same way they [PiS] previously went after refugees…. The ban was a political declaration.”


Organizers took the issue to court and a judge overturned the ban, ruling that the mayor should have taken action to prevent violence rather than prohibiting the parade.


But the verdict did not stop PiS city councilors pushing for their resolution against “LGBT ideology.”


“The city council remains critical of any attempts by LGBT circles to intrusively impose an ideology that undermines the fundamental importance of the values of family and culture in our society,” said the draft resolution proposed by PiS.


During a heated city council session, supporters of the resolution disrupted the meeting to hang a banner reading “Stop deviations.”


The resolution was eventually defeated by a margin of two votes.


Emerging Pattern 


Equality Parades have taken place in Poland’s biggest cities since the 2000s. Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski, twin brother of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, banned parades in 2004 and 2005 and his counterpart in Poznan did likewise in 2005. Since then, parades have spread to other cities without much opposition from officials.


That changed last autumn, however, when the mayor of Lublin prohibited a parade in the eastern city. This spring, the mayor of the central city of Gniezno took a similar step, followed by Ferenc in Rzeszow.


Meanwhile, public petitions have demanded that towns and cities across Poland stop the marches. City councilors, many from PiS, have often led the chorus of condemnation while far-right groups have organized counter-protests.


The result is increased pressure on mayors to outlaw parades, and several mayors are now considering bans.


In May, during the Tri-City Equality March in the Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot metropolitan area on the Baltic Sea, a feminist group organized a mock religious ceremony, holding a sign of a painted vagina with a crown, representing the holy sacrament that Catholic priests carry on Corpus Christi day.


The event sparked fury. The prosecutor’s office received complaints against the women and even liberal commentators criticized them for offending religious feelings. Proponents of further prohibitions on Equality Parades cite the incident as proof that LGBT marchers mean trouble.


In Lublin, Gniezno and Rzeszow, courts reversed the bans, invoking freedom of expression and association and the fact that authorities can rely on the police to prevent confrontations.


But LGBT activists say the environment is getting more toxic.


“The main reason for these bans is pressure from the central government and the campaign in the right-wing media,” Jakub Gawron, one of the organizers of the Rzeszow parade, told BIRN.


“Equality marches in Lublin and Gniezno were banned by mayors from the neo-liberal Civic Platform, for whom LGBT+ rights were never a priority. For their peace of mind, these people succumbed to the pressure and banned the marches, covering themselves with security concerns.”


He continued: “The mayors don’t follow a specific strategy, but the central government surely does. For PiS, we are simply the next fuel to burn before the elections, after the refugees, the Jews, judges or teachers.


“Government propaganda presents us as potential pedophiles who want to teach children to masturbate in schools and PiS as the defender of children, which allows them to collect votes. Unfortunately, this affects ordinary people.”


Gawron said that the rhetoric of PiS and right-wing media even had an impact on people close to him, with some becoming suddenly intolerant after years of accepting his sexual orientation.


“I recently got an email from someone very close to me, full of stereotypes, repeated without thinking from the state TV, and simply cold revulsion.”


‘Polish Values’


With local elections last October, European Parliament elections in May, national parliamentary polls this autumn and presidential elections in 2020, Polish politicians have been in campaigning mode for over a year.


Opposition candidates won mayoral seats in many of Poland’s biggest cities last autumn, including Rafal Trzaskowski from the centrist opposition Civic Platform (PO) in Warsaw.


A young politician and former member of the European Parliament, Trzaskowski was keen to signal his difference from his PO predecessor, whose reputation had been tarnished by an illegal property restitution scandal.


Soon after taking office, Trzaskowski signed an “LGBT+ Declaration,” prepared in cooperation with LGBT rights groups. It included commitments by the municipality to combat hatred and violence against LGBT people, provide sex education in schools, offer shelter to persecuted LGBT people and promote equality.


As part of these commitments, Trzaskowski acted as patron of the Warsaw Equality Parade in June, a first for a Warsaw mayor.


“Everyone should respect the rights of minorities,” he told BIRN. “I promised that I would fight for Warsaw to be a place for everyone, that I would stand by everyone who is excluded and marginalized: disabled people, homeless, gay, lesbian or those thinking differently.


“Sadly, Poland today is not a model of tolerance and equality. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”


A defense of “traditional Polish values” has always been a key part of PiS’ appeal among socially conservative voters. Back in 2015, the party came to power railing against the threat allegedly posed by refugees and Muslim migrants to Polish and Christian values.


During campaigning for May’s European parliamentary elections, PiS found itself neck-and-neck with a broad liberal coalition including Trzaskowski’s PO, agrarians, greens and others. Against this backdrop, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski seized on the LGBT+ Declaration.


The party started using a logo showing an umbrella labelled “PiS” protecting a family with two children from rainbow rain. (Used by ultraconservative groups in other countries, the logo was a perfect match for PiS, whose signature policy is direct money transfers to families with children.)


“We have a big problem: […] an attack on the family and one carried out in the worst possible way, because it is in fact an attack on children,” Kaczynski declared in a speech in March in Katowice.


Arguing that the LGBT+ Declaration had a hidden agenda to promote adoption by gay couples, he said: “Hands off our children!”


In a speech the following month, Kaczynski elaborated on the alleged “foreign” roots of the LGBT movement.


“This whole LGBT movement, all of this together … all of this movement questions all our affinities,” he said.


“Obviously, this is connected to a certain ideology, philosophy, which emerged earlier in the West. All of this is imported into Poland. These are not internal Polish mechanisms, but they really threaten today our identity. They threaten our nation, its continuation and the Polish state.”


‘Politics of Fear’


In May, police arrested feminist activist Elzbieta Podlesna in the central town of Plock for putting up posters depicting Black Madonna, a famous Polish icon of the Virgin Mary, with a rainbow halo. The charge was offending religious sentiment, a crime in Poland.


Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski, a PiS member, praised the arrest and criticized what he called “the desecration of the image of Our Lady, which has been considered sacred by Poles for centuries.”


The same month, an explosive documentary on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church was released online, just two weeks before the European parliamentary elections.


Many expected the documentary to hurt PiS, which has been closely associated with the conservative wing of the Catholic Church for years.


But Kaczynski parried the threat by drawing on his earlier rhetoric of a Polish nation — and Polish children in particular — under attack from deviant foreign ideas.


“We never tolerated such phenomena, such pathologies in any field – also in the sphere of the Church – and we will never tolerate them,” he said after the documentary was released, promising tougher penalties for serious crimes like pedophilia.


“Whoever wants to attack and destroy the Polish nation, they first attack the Catholic Church.”


Conservative voters duly rallied around the party.


“PiS were very smart,” Agnieszka Graff, a feminist scholar at the American Studies Center at Warsaw University, told BIRN. “The attack on LGBT was triggered by the Declaration, but that was just a welcome excuse.


“The attack was strategically aimed at one audience: the rural traditional electorate of the [agrarian] Peasant Party [PSL]. The point was to convince these people that only by voting for PiS can they be truly faithful to their values, because their old party is now marching under the rainbow flag. The entry of PSL into the anti-PiS coalition made them vulnerable to this attack. And it worked.”


Graff continued: “Last time, PiS won elections through hate-mongering about refugees. That topic is now dead, so they are onto another scapegoat. This is the politics of fear."

This analysis written by Claudia Ciobanu was initially published by Reporting Democracy, a project of Balkan Insight. Reprinted with permission.
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