In the past weeks, Poland has seen an increased mobilization of homophobia. As the presidential elections took place this Sunday, these occurrences are clearly an escalation of pre-election tactics. Several politicians of the currently governing right-wing party ‘Law and Justice’ (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) have explicitly proclaimed that LGBTQ* people are ‘not humans’ but an ‘ideology’. President Andrzej Duda himself declared that the so-called ‘LGBT ideology’ is worse than communism. These statements dehumanize LGBTQ* persons and legitimize everyday violence against LGBTQ* communities yet they have not shocked many in, what the ILGA-Europe reports as, the most homophobic country in the European Union. In Poland, homophobia is deeply rooted in public institutions and everyday life. However, these statements, as we discuss in our recently published video interview, have further shifted the border of socially-condoned oppression and homophobic violence.
There is hardly any legislation protecting the rights of LGBTQ* people in Poland. Employment is the only realm of rights in which LGBTQ* people are protected under law. There is no constitutional protection against the discrimination of LGBTQ* people, nor are there laws protecting them in settings of health care or education. On the contrary, a judicial ruling from last year allows for discrimination in the provision of services for LGBTQ* communities under the so-called ‘clause of conscience’. Service providers can thereby deny their services to LGBTQ* communities based on their moral or religious views. Additionally, the legal norms regulating gender confirmation procedures in the country are discriminatory and degrading. In one of the first acts he made upon taking leadership of the country, President Duda rejected a more humane legislation. To date, there is no legislation allowing for marriage or civil partnerships for same sex couples.
This policy landscape, defined by a distinct lack of laws securing rights, has been in place for some time. However, the recent increase in homophobia and its wide social acceptance is entwined with a 2016 specifically, when the PiS party gained a majority of government positions, thereby taking power over national decision-making. Since then, we have observed the expanding weaponization of homophobia across the country, consisting of claims meant to stoke fear, stigma and social division, such as equating homosexuality with paedophilia or the “sexualization of children”, and proclaiming that it threatens the family and national security. Homophobic attacks have further increased since 2019 when Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw and the current presidential candidate of the leading oppositional party, the center-liberal Civic Platform, signed an LGBTQ* declaration in which he committed to introducing anti-discriminatory legislation in the city of Warsaw.
The signing of this measure, which was not done without reluctance, provoked politicians from towns and cities across the southern and eastern borders – amounting to one-third of the country – to introduce a variety of measures targeting LGBTQ* communities and the so-called ‘LGBT ideology’. They proclaim, for example, that the governed locality should be free of ‘LGBT ideology,’ a policy that was translated into their declaration of ‘LGBT-free zones’. The right-wing newspaper, Gazeta Polska, produced and distributed stickers with this slogan, which were to be applied to the exterior of businesses and other locations. In turn, this language was appropriated by LGBTQ* activists and their allies to denounce homophobia. Despite this as well as the largely symbolic nature of these measures, they also legitimize homophobia and transphobia, and themselves constitute a form of epistemic violence.
In December 2019, the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Justice, Sebastian Kaleta, published a report that has since become famous among communities engaged in the fight against HIV. In this report, Kaleta suggested that organizations in the fields of HIV and harm reduction promote the ‘LGBT ideology’, the use of drugs, and sex among men who have sex with men, and making Rafał Trzaskowski responsible for this by referring in particular to the organizations working in Warsaw. This homophobic discourse was further taken up by President Duda who signed the so-called ‘Family Charter’ in June. In it, he pledged to prevent same-sex couples from getting married or adopting as well as pledging to ban education on LGBT issues in public institutions, including in public schools.
The response to the corona epidemic also reflects this expanding politic and political wielding of homophobia. Epidemiologically speaking, men who have sex with men constitute the group most impacted by the spread of HIV in the country. This community has had severely limited access to HIV testing or prevention services as a result of temporary closures and stay-at-home orders in relation to corona. Simultaneously, at the beginning of the pandemic, the ruling PiS party introduced a so-called ‘anti-crisis shield’ that was meant to protect the population from the adverse effects of COVID-19. However, policy-makers used this initiative to alter the legislative norms on HIV criminalization with no preparatory consultation of civil society or experts on the subject. This piece of legislation not only involved the criminalization of coronavirus transmission, but also increased the legally sanctioned penalty for the conviction of possibly exposing a partner to HIV from three years, as it was set in the 1997 law, to up to eight years of imprisonment. This shift did not attract much attention, perhaps due to the lock-down and self-isolation. However, an organization in Kraków, Jeden Świat, issued a condemnatory statement, and another organization contacted UNAIDS to inform them of the shift and to request a response.
As in many other countries, it is currently difficult to protest in Poland due to the ongoing corona-related prevention measures, which have involved the active withdrawal of citizenship rights in terms of protesting, assembly, and movement. Nonetheless, protests in response to two proposed initiatives meant to further limit access to abortion did occur. Another protest took place in front of the Presidential Palace in response to Duda signing the homophobic Family Charter. Rather than dispersing this illegal protest, the police used the opportunity to pursue teenagers in particular, taking their personal data, imposing penalties, and threatening to inform their families that they had participated in the demonstration.
International support is needed. For those residing outside of the country, every gesture of solidarity and support is meaningful. This may include signing statements by organizations and institutions, including universities, or writing to demand a response from European-level institutions or global health governing bodies working in the field of HIV or LGBTQ* rights. For those with the means, you can also support the fundraising initiatives of local communities to cover penalties for participating in demonstrations, for legal services or for psychological support in the context of the mental health crises people face due in part to the rise in homophobic violence.
- Fundraiser for mental health support for LGBTQ+ communities organized by Lambda Warszawa
- Fundraiser to protect trans* rights in Poland set by TransFuzja
- Fundraiser set by Stop Bzdurom collective to cover costs related to organizing pro-LGBTQ* rights demonstrations (to cover penalties, sound equipment damaged by counter-protesters, etc.)
- Sars-COV-2 related Emergency Fund for sex workers in Poland set by Sex Work Polska
Dr. Agata Dziuban is a local LGBTQ* and sex worker activist, and sociologist from Jagiellonian University and the Disentangling European HIV/AIDS Policies: Activism Citizenship and Health (EUROPACH) Project (www.europach.eu), which was led by Prof. Beate Binder from the Zentrum für transdisziplinäre Geschlechterstudien and the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
This text was developed out of an interview with Apostolos Kalogiannis, the Communications Coordinator of the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG).