By Carolyn Reid
Prior to the ascension of President Andrzej Duda and the right-wing, populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), Poland actually witnessed promising signs of increasing LGBTQ tolerance. Same-sex relations were becoming less taboo, and marriage equality seemed possible.
Over the past five years, Duda and the PiS have endeavored to reverse such progress by supporting anti-LGBTQ legislation, propaganda and rhetoric. Evidently, their efforts were successful, as the 2020 ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map ranked Poland as the most homophobic country in the European Union (EU) and the seventh most homophobic country in all of Europe. Debates over LGBTQ rights have dominated the Polish political discourse for years, but only recently has it developed into a “culture war.”
In Eastern Europe, the “LGBTQ ideology” is a popular anti-LGBTQ scaremongering tactic. Proponents of this so-called “ideology” portray the LGBTQ movement as an oppressive, Western dogma that threatens state sovereignty and individuality.
Like most radical right-wing populists, Duda and the PiS champion ardent nationalism and chauvinism. By inciting a moral panic about sexual minorities through such an erroneous narrative, Duda and the PiS are able to present themselves as fierce protectors of the Polish identity. Correspondingly, their opposition to LGBTQ rights rests on the notion that homosexuality is inherently incompatible with Polish culture, particularly Polish religious practices and traditional family values. Duda even denounced the LGBTQ community as representing a foreign ideology more dangerous to Polish society than communism. Now, the fictitious “LGBTQ ideology” has become a staple of homophobic rhetoric.
Since 2019, over 100 municipalities in Poland, covering approximately one-third of the territory, have adopted resolutions attacking LGBTQ rights. Though such resolutions are non-binding and largely symbolic, they have had alarming socio-cultural ramifications. In declaring their “freedom” from the “LGBTQ ideology,” these self-proclaimed “LGBTQ-free zones” have explicitly encouraged and intensified hostility toward anyone who does not identify as heterosexual or lead an overtly heteronormative lifestyle. Verbal and physical attacks against sexual minorities have sky rocketed over the past few years and are predicted to continue rising at an alarming rate. Many LGBTQ Poles have already fled the country in order to escape or avoid persecution.
The Polish government’s vendetta against the LGBTQ community has garnered extensive international criticism. Diplomats from 50 countries, including other EU member states, the U.S., Israel and India, signed an open letter condemning LGBTQ-free zones. This letter also called for an end to discrimination against sexual minorities in Poland and cited the government’s responsibility to protect the human rights of all individuals.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki publicly refuted the letter, insisting LGBTQ people were not being denied their basic human rights and that “tolerance is in Poles’ DNA.” However, the recent upsurge in callously homophobic government-sponsored propaganda contradicts Morawiecki’s rebuttal. It is clear the Polish government will make no effort to cultivate a more accepting environment for LGBTQ citizens. In fact, Polish authorities have established themselves as major proponents of intolerance by supporting LGBTQ-free zones.
Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union aims to ensure that all EU member states uphold and adhere to the common values of the EU. This includes tenets relating to the rule of law, human rights and egalitarianism. Along with Hungary, Poland is now formally cited under Article 7 for frequent value violations.
The EU recently announced it would deny funding to several “LGBTQ -free zones” on the grounds that they violate EU equality standards. European Commissions Head Ursula von der Leyen approved of the penalty, calling LGBTQ-free zones “humanity-free zones” that “have no place in our Union.” This punishment, while better than nothing, has multiple defects in terms of practicality and effectiveness.
First of all, the amount being withheld by the EU is so small and insignificant that the Polish government can compensate the losses with federal funds. Second of all, these rare financial sanctions are placed exclusively on LGBTQ-free zones. The reach of homophobia extends far beyond a select few municipalities. With Duda and the PiS in power, LGBTQ Poles are experiencing discrimination at the national level, not just at the local level.
To effectively combat value violations, the central government of Poland must be penalized. The EU should also institute a monitoring system to verify that European Commission funding is not being misused by the governments of aid-receiving states. Such a system will prevent countries like Poland, where EU principles are blatantly ignored, from utilizing EU funds to perform rights abuses.
Ever since the reelection of Duda in July 2020, clashing agendas over social policies have resulted in wide-spread discontent. #PolishStonewall started trending on Twitter (in reference to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 in New York City) following the arrest and pretrial detention of prominent LGBTQ rights activist Malgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz. In August 2020, Margot was detained and placed in solitary confinement for allegedly participating in a riot and draping pride flags over religious statues in Warsaw. Polish authorities have described the latter charge as offensive to “religious feelings” and “insulting to Warsaw monuments.” Margot’s activism methods were unorthodox, but they did not warrant imprisonment.
Under Article 169 of Poland’s penal code, offending “the religious feelings of others by publicly insulting a religious object or place of worship” is a criminal act subject to a two-year prison sentence. Simply put, this law means people can face jail time for blasphemy. Although the Polish government defends its targeting and mass imprisonment of LGBTQ rights activists with Article 169, it technically conflicts with international human rights laws. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, only “laws that protect against incitement to violence, discrimination, and hatred can justify criminal sanctions.” Likewise, freedom of speech and/or expression in acts of protest are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Blasphemy is not only a severely outdated offense, but laws condemning it as a criminal act actually violate freedom of speech.
Consider how sexual minorities are being vilified by government propaganda, ousted from their homes, ostracized by their communities, accosted in the streets and incarcerated for protesting against it all. In many ways, the persecution of LGBTQ people in contemporary Poland echoes the persecution of Jewish people in 1930s Europe. The likelihood of an LGBTQ genocide is minuscule, but with Poland’s culture war becoming increasingly violent, precautions should be taken – if only to ensure human rights standards are met.
It is also worth noting how, as a consequence of globalization, social regression in one country inevitably compromises the socio-political climate of others. The spread capacity of homophobic culture, along with its incitement of human rights violations, qualifies the current situation in Poland as a global security threat. For the welfare of LGBTQ Poles and international society, efforts to neutralize Polish homophobia must be immediately and extensively exercised.
Carolyn Reid is a senior majoring in political science at Towson University in Maryland. This article is reprinted with permission of the Towson University Journal of International Affairs. For more information about the journal, visit https://wp.towson.edu/iajournal. This article draws on reporting that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, the BBC and other news sources.