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How Poland's journey against human rights began

by Marek Szolc, marek.szolc@gmail.com
Councillor, Warsaw City Council

In just a few years, the situation of the LGBT+ community in Poland has deteriorated dramatically, as it has been used as a focus of hatred by the Law and Justice Party to drive electoral popularity. The story is barely understood outside Poland, so we've written this article to explain what's happened, how it's happened, and to ask for your help in stopping it by supporting initiatives like the twinning towns campaign #ProtectOurTwins.


Poland is an EU-member state with over 37 million inhabitants, out of which approximately 2 million identify as LGBT+. It is estimated that at least 50 000 children are being raised by same-sex couples.

Historically, progress regarding LGBT+ rights has been rather slow and erratic. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989 this issue was for a long time overshadowed by other challenges coming from the transition from dictatorship to democracy, and from a central planned economy to free-market economy. The political mainstream was largely unwilling to tackle LGBT+ rights due to overall low levels of support among regular voters, the conservatism of the political class, the exceptionally dominant position of the Catholic Church in social and political life, as well as limited external pressure to address the problem of discrimination of LGBT+ people.

The situation started deteriorating in 2015 when Poland started being run by openly homo- and transphobic political forces. In May, theconservative, right-wing candidate Andrzej Duda won the presidential election, and in October 2015 the right-wing, populist Law and Justice party (which Duda is tightly connected to) won parliamentary election. Later Duda was he re-elected for a second term in July 2020, and Law & Justice won a second term in October 2019. .

In February 2019, the Law and Justice party, backed by the party-steered public TV and radio, as well as a suite of radical right-wing media outlets financed (indirectly by purchasing ads) primarily by state-owned companies, decided to condemn the LGBT+ community in its political messaging. Smear campaigns followed by different kinds of political and legal actions aimed to use the issue of LGBT+ rights for electoral gains among conservative or radical voters. This had disastrous consequences for the Polish LGBT+ community in terms of its safety, rights, societal status and overall quality of life.

Key events since Feb 2019

The period since February 2019 was rich in impactful events, which often occurred abruptly and attracted varying media attention. The following table summarizes them in chronological order to provide all stakeholders with clearer insight:

Date

Description

February 2019

Mayor of Warsaw, the Polish capital city, Rafał Trzaskowski signs the first Declaration for the LGBT+ Community - a framework municipal policy aimed at preventing discrimination at the local government level

March 2019

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice Party, attacks the LGBT+ community during his party rally, warns against 'sexualization of children' and indirectly points at 'LGBT ideology' as 'a threat to Polish identity, to our nation'.

March 2019

Local councillors of the Law and Justice party enact the first 'LGBT-free' zone (through a discriminatory declaration attacking LGBT+ community)

March-

September 2019

More 'LGBT-free' zones are created, homophobic violence erupts druing several pride marches across the country, fight against the 'LGBT ideology' is constantly used as a campaigning vehicle during the European elections in 2019

December 2019

The European Parliament officially condemns Poland for accepting 'LGBT-free' zones

February-June 2020

Presidential election in Poland; Andrzej Duda, the incumbent right-wing president, wins his second term; anti-LGBT+ statements and political messaging are extensively used in his campaign

June 2020

The European Commission notifies the authorities of five Polish regions which declared themselves 'LGBT-free' that they are at risk of losing access to the EU funds if they discriminate against their inhabitants

July 2020

After the Polish Ombudsman's intervention, some 'LGBT-free' zones are derogated by courts on the grounds of their illegal and discriminatory character

August 2020

Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality, announced that six Polish cities' funding applications under the cities partnership programme had been rejected as the applicants adopted homophobic resolutions on the 'LGBT-free zone', which the Commission considers to be in breach of the fundamental values of the EU

September 2020

Norwegian government announced that municipalities which declared themselves 'LGBT-free' will lose access to the EEA and Norway Grants

December 2020

Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe publishes a memorandum in which she pointed out that 'LGBT-free' zones are an example of stigmatization of the LGBT+ persons in Poland

Current status of LGBT+ rights in Poland

Poland is very different from most of Europe. It guarantees very few rights to LGBT+ individuals or couples. Despite several attempts to put them on the same status as other Polish citizens, the Polish legal system is still severely lacking. It lags behind the vast majority of the EU member states, and the enforcement of the existing laws is both insufficient and not uniform.

Here's the current picturestatus of different LGBT+ rights in Poland can be summarized as follows:

Discrimination laws

Ban on discrimination in employment

Present since 2003 as a result of transposition of European law norms

Anti-discrimination laws in the provision of goods and services

There are none.

The politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal ruled in June 2019 that the regulation containing a general ban on refusing provision of goods and services (which did not explicitly mention any minority group) was unconstitutional and derogated it

Anti-discrimination laws in all other areas (incl. indirect discrimination)

The Constitution contains a general ban on discrimination for whatever reason. Sadly this theoretical ban does not translate into any meaningful action or applicable legal provisions.

Hate crime laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity

There are none.

The Polish Penal Code contains provisions on hate speech, but they do not encompass sexual orientation or gender identity. Several attempts to amend it have been unsuccessful. On several occasions hate speech cases were taken to court as civil law cases of defamation, but never succeeded due to narrow grounds of protection granted under civil law

Same-sex unions

Same-sex marriages

They are not recognized

Many stakeholders claim that the Constitution defines marriage as a union between a man and a women and bans same-sex marriage.

Civil partnerships

They are not recognized

Cohabitation

Limited recognition by courts within the framework provided by general laws addressing the rights of people in informal relationships eg. under criminal law.

Recognition of same-sex couples

They are not recognized

Adoption and parenting

Adoption by individuals

In practice, adoption centers strongly favour married couples

Stepchild adoption by same-sex couples

They are not recognized.

Joint adoption by same-sex couples

They are not recognized.

Commercial surrogacy for gay male couples

This is banned regardless of sexual orientation of partners.

Access to IVF for lesbians

This is available only for women in formalized heterosexual relationships.

Recognition of same-sex parents

They are not recognized.

Under Polish law a child can only have parents of different sexes, which prevents children of such couples born abroad to obtain Polish ID number and citizenship (unless parents agree that only one of them would be listed as a child's mother or father).

Other rights

Lesbians, gays and bisexuals allowed to serve openly in the military

The issue still largely remains a taboo.

Right to change legal gender

The process is long, costly and often humiliating, shaped by courts' practise rather than a dedicated piece of legislation. A law aiming to regulate this issue in a comprehensive way was the very first bill vetoed by president Andrzej Duda after he took office in 2015.

MSMs allowed to donate blood

Allowed since 2005

Conversion therapies

This is not banned.

It exists and is unregulated internally by the organizations of mental health specialists due to lack of regulation on the profession of psychologist and therapist.

Despite several attempts to regulate a number of these issues, the majority of MPs was either against draft laws submitted to the Parliament, or was never given the chance to deliberate on them, as the Law & Justice party used procedural techniques to prevent debate.

What's the social situation like today?

Poland is a two-tier society. People who are LGBT+ are second class citizens, suffering stigmatisation, homo- and transphobic discrimination.

A 2019 survey by the Polish public opinion research centre, the CBOS, found that although public acceptance of homosexuality had been growing slowly for a number of years before 2017, it had decreased since then.

Poland has now fallen to 42nd place in the 2020 annual 'Rainbow Index' of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), which measures the level of respect for LGBT+ people rights in 49 countries. Having ranked 33rd in the 2015 edition of the index, Poland now has the lowest standing of all the members of the European Union.

A 2019 survey by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency found that 68% of LGBT+ respondents from Poland - the highest ratio by a long way of all EU countries - believed that prejudice and intolerance against LGBTI people had increased in Poland over the previous five years. The same survey of LGBTI people found Poland to be the leading state (along with Romania) in terms of the percentage of respondents signalling hate-motivated physical or sexual attacks against LGBT+ people and in terms of the share of respondents who avoided certain places for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed (79%).

What types of attack do people receive?

There are multiple examples of active attacks aimed at the LGBT+ community which often met with little to non reaction from the authorities:

  1. Derogatory or discriminatory language and hate speech used by the Church officials

Many prominent figures in the position of authority incited hate against LGBT+ people through their public statements.

In July 2019, archbishop Tadeusz Wojda stated that a pride march in Białystok is 'alien to this land and people, who are rooted in God and concerned for the good of the society and the children' and that its aim is to 'blaspheme against the faith' and 'pervert children and the youth'.

In August 2019, archbishop Marek Jędraszewski warned that instead of the 'red plague' (communism), Poland is now threatened by the 'rainbow plague' (referring to the symbol of the LGBT+ community), which he described as 'born of the same spirit of neomarxism'.

Polish Bishops' Conference on the 28th of August 2020 have published an official statement on 'the LGBT+ issues', which includes claims like: 'Legalising same-sex relationships exceeds the limits of due respect [for LGBT+ people]. That is because the legal recognition of such unions will in the long term weaken the institution that marriage is. [...] Only a relationship between a man and a woman, where physical, fruitful love comes from sex complementarity is the right environment for children to be born and raised; it is therefore a base of a healthy society.'

  1. Propaganda campaigns and fundamentalistic activism run by radical organizations

Several radical organizations are active in Poland and attempt to build anti-LGBT sentiment.

One of them is Fundacja Pro Prawo do Życia involved in anti-abortion and anti-LGBT campaigns. Their actions consist mainly of hiring trucks covered with banners presenting statements linking homosexuality to pedophilia and broadcasting recordings with similar messaging through their loudspeakers. On several occasions the trucks were stopped or blocked by the citizens. There are several court decisions banning them from being driven (although they proved to be difficult to enforce) and a number of local governments undertook efforts to officially make such practise an infringement.

Another one, Instytut na Rzecz Kultury Prawnej Ordo Iuris, is a fiercely conservative organization of lawyers and academics with ties to Tradition, Family, and Property - a Brazilian, traditionalist Catholic organization often depicted as a religious sect. They take part in judicial proceedings regarding LGBT+ issues, represent local governments that declared themselves as 'LGBT-free' in lawsuits against activists who took actions against them, try to influence public authorities through formal and informal lobbying and infiltrate public institutions by placing their affiliates in the position of power.

Coalitions of right-wing organizations are also capable of launching more significant initiatives. In early 2019, the private foundation operating the anti-LGBT trucks and a group of citizens tabled a bill titled 'Stop Pedophilia' in the Polish Sejm. The bill, which was accompanied by a disturbing explanatory narrative stigmatising LGBTI people, called for the introduction of harsh penalties - including possible imprisonment - for anyone acting in the educational context or in school premises who 'propagates or approves of undertaking sexual intercourse or any other sexual act by a minor'. The Polish Parliament voted to continue examining the bill, which is still under review.

  1. Involvement of right-wing private media outlets

There are numerous right-wing newspapers and media outlets which regularly use homophobia and manipulated messaging to both: boost their sales and reinforce prejudice against LGBT+ people. Journals like 'Do Rzeczy', 'Gazeta Polska' or 'Sieci' frequently use cover pages where they portray the LGBT+ community as a threat - a sacrilegious, promiscuous, and barbaric force. Internet news portals and TV channels belonging to the same media groups contribute to it as well.

A particularly vile example of such conduct was the case of 'Gazeta Polska', which decided to attach a sticker which presented a crossed-out rainbow flag with an accompanying text 'This zone is free of LGBT' to each paper sold. However, a quick legal intervention of one of the NGOs led the court to order 'Gazeta Polska' to withdraw the stickers from distribution.

  1. Violent and numerous counter-demonstrations organized against pride marches

Displays of polarisation and hate speech are regular and prevalent in the context of pride marches. But a few examples of such events include the following:

During the first pride march in the city of Białystok on the 20th of July 2019, roughly 1,000 LGBT+ participants and their allies were met by about 4,000 counter-protestors, who attacked the march with bottles, rocks and smoke bombs. Dozens were injured.

On the 10th of August 2019, during the pride march in the city of Płock, the police had to protect the entire length of the march from several groups of counter-protestors. Those, consisting largely of football hooligans, attacked the police at the end of the march.

On the 28th of September 2019 the second ever pride march in the city of Lublin took place. It was met with a violent counter-protest organized by right-wing and nationalist organizations. Dozens of its participants were arrested and the police had to use water cannons and pepper spray against violent counter-protesters.

  1. Attempt of a terrorist attack against the Lublin Pride March

During the same pride march in Lublin in September 2019, a married couple brought homemade explosives to the march. The explosives were found before they were set off. The couple was not charged with terrorism but mere possession of explosives. Instead of the maximal 8-year sentence for possession, the couple was sentenced with one year in prison.

  1. Church-run conversion therapies

There are several formal and informal organizations which offer so-called 'conversion therapies' aimed at 'healing' from homosexuality. They are usually affiliated with Catholic organizations or directly with the Church. Conversion therapies were officially endorsed by the Polish Episcopate in one of their statements on LGBT+ people. The issue has been tackled on several occasions by the media, supported by testimonials from victims. In October 2020 Polish Ombudsman called for banning conversion therapies altogether.

How are LGBT+ people being used to rally conservative voters?

The attacks on the LGBT+ community are carefully planned as a way to drive electoral support for the Law and Justice party. By scapegoating one particular segment of society, building up a picture of lies around it, and selling this through their media channels, they've normalised hatred. And it's all for political gain.

Political discourse around the LGBT+ community deteriorated significantly after February 2019, when the ruling party's political marketing experts decided to portray sexual minorities as a threat. That was supposedly a way to mobilize and unite the conservative, right-wing voters in much the same way as the exploitation of the refugee crisis of 2015 was.

For their electoral propaganda, the Law and Justice party invented several communication terms and labels used regularly in their political messaging to shape the dialogue. Law and Justice widely propagated the use of the term 'LGBT ideology' (without describing in detail what it means) and took a strong stance against 'sexualization' of children (what they claimed is the real goal of sexual education classes proposed by many LGBT+ organizations). Their aim was to persuade voters that there were links between being non-heterosexual and being a paedophile, that non-heterosexual people threaten traditional family and religious values, and that being gay is something foreign, and 'not Polish'. It is shocking to reflect that many voters were effectively persuaded that LGBT+ people were preying on children to either abuse them or turn them gay.

The trigger for the Law and Justice campaign against the LGBT+ community was the inauguration of the Warsaw Municipal Policy for the LGBT+ community. On 18th February 2019, the mayor of Warsaw signed a document commonly referred to as the 'LGBT+ Declaration'. The document, which was drawn up in cooperation with civil society organisations representing the LGBT+ community, comprised a set of measures designed to make the city more inclusive and safer for LGBT+ people.

Since March 2019, largely in reaction to the Warsaw Mayor's LGBT+ Declaration and encouraged by the subsequent backlash by Law and Justice leadership, right-wing politicians and conservative opinion-makers, more than one hundred local government entities in Poland of various levels and sizes have adopted declarations that are openly hostile to LGBT+ people or variations on a document called the 'Local Government Charter of the Rights of the Family' (actively supported by the aforementioned Ordo Iuris). According to maps developed by Polish activists to bring attention to this phenomenon, these municipalities and regions, which the activists have referred to as 'LGBT-free zones', cover roughly one-third (31.3%) of Poland's territory and are inhabited by more than 12 million people (approximately 31.7% of the country's overall population). Most of these declarations follow a standard template, usually declaring the municipality concerned as being 'free from LGBT ideology', pledging to fight 'political correctness' and 'homo-propaganda' and to 'prevent […] the early sexualisation of Polish children'. Some of the texts adopted also condemn, among other things, the 'undermining by LGBT circles of the [traditional] family model', 'aggressive homosexual propaganda promoted and perpetuated as part of the ideological war by leftist-liberal circles and LGBT NGOs', or the holding of pride (equality) marches.

Poland has become a country where its leaders lead hate speech

There are ceaseless examples of verbal abuse and stigmatisation of LGBT+ people by mainstream politicians, creating a culture in which hate speech has been normalised. Right-wing politicians dehumanize the LGBT+ community and falsely accuse it of evil intentions.

Here are a few examples to give a sense of the rhetoric that's constantly in use:

  • in April 2019 during a meeting with voters Dominik Tarczyński, MEP, stated in the context of LGBT+ people that 'there is no room in Europe to teach children such deviations';
  • in May 2019, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party claimed that same-sex couples wish to 'experiment on children' and that 'children should be protected against sexualization from the cradle';
  • in June 2020 during his electoral rally president Andrzej Duda claimed that 'LGBT are not people, but an ideology'. He also declared that he supports the idea of banning 'promotion of LGBT ideology in public institutions' and described it as 'worse than communism'. In the same month Przemysław Czarnek, currently an MP and Minister of Education, then just an MP, stated that 'LGBT people are not equal to normal people' and Joachim Brudziński, MEP, tweeted that 'Poland is most beautiful without LGBT';
  • in August 2020 Barbara Nowak, the head of the Education Supervisory Authority in małopolskie voivodeship publicly claimed that 'The LGBT has one goal: destroy the world we live in and create a new, neo-barbarian one'. Her words were later supported by the deputy Speaker of the Polish Parliament, Ryszard Terlecki, who claimed that 'LGBT is a nihilist ideology' and that it 'dehumanizes the society'. In the same month Grzegorz Wierzchowski, the counterpart of Barbara Nowak in the Education Supervisory Authority in łódzkie voivodeship stated that 'there is a virus which is far more dangerous than the coronavirus - the LGBT virus, the virus of ideology';
  • in September 2020 Poland's Children's Rights Ombudsman Mikołaj Pawlak accused the LGBTI organisations that teach sex education at schools in the city of Poznań of providing children with 'gender-changing pills' without consulting it with medical professionals and parents. Later, during a meeting with MPs, when asked to elaborate on that, he said: 'It is the prosecutors who are now investigating this case and it is their duty to find out what has happened: if there were trans activists or educators involved, where that happened [...]'.

How the media amplifies hate speech

The smear campaign against LGBT+ people would not be possible without active involvement of the state-run television and radio.

Since Law and Justice took control over them in early 2016, they have ceased to be impartial commentators and turned into mere puppets of the party. They constantly function like an echo-chamber for the aforementioned political messaging and bolster it through manipulated materials. For example, shortly before the parliamentary election of October 2019, the public service broadcaster aired a 30-minute-long documentary titled 'Invasion', which propagated harmful stereotypes about LGBT+ people, smeared LGBT+ non-governmental organisations and presented Poland's pride (equality) marches as foreign-financed.

Political assault on the LGBT+ community was not limited to derogatory language by the highest officials and LGBT-free zones. The politically-controlled Public Prosecutor's Office and the Police, equally subordinate to the government's pressure, are often used in a repressive manner against LGBT+. The Ministry of Justice with its particularly homophobic head Zbigniew Ziobro plays a pivotal role in these actions. The most blatant examples of using these public authorities to undermine LGBT+ rights or cause 'freezing' effect by intimidating the LGBT+ community are so far:

  1. IKEA's employee case

In June 2019 an employee of IKEA, in response to the company's internal solidarity and inclusion campaign wrote on a company's discussion platform that homosexuality was a 'deviation' and used quotes from the Bible to back his statement. The employee was dismissed for having violated IKEA's standards. However, the Prosecutor's Office commenced an investigation and charged the manager who let the employee off with limiting employees labour rights on grounds related to religious beliefs. The process is still ongoing.

  1. Rainbow Virgin Mary case

In April 2019 three activists put stickers portraying an icon of Virgin Mary with rainbow aureole around the city of Płock. Their happening was a response to an installation placed in one of the city's churches during Easter the same year, where a list of sins was placed with 'LGBT' and 'Gender' listed along 'Deviation', 'Hate' and 'Theft'. They were charged with offending religious feelings, which is a criminal offense under Polish law with maximal sanction of up to 2 years in prison. Their process is still ongoing.

  1. Homophobic printer's case

The Minister of Justice, whose office was merged with the Prosecutor-General office after Law and Justice seized power, has taken action to support or to endorse actions by private persons that discriminate against LGBT+ people, presenting this as necessary to defend the public interest. In one example the Minister of Justice, in his capacity as Prosecutor-General, has been involved in litigation in support of a print shop operator from Łódź, convicted of a misdemeanour for unfairly refusing to print promotional materials for an LGBT+ organisation. Although the conviction was upheld on appeal, the Prosecutor-General successfully petitioned Poland's Constitutional Tribunal to declare the provision on which the conviction had been based unconstitutional and subsequently had the conviction quashed by a court.

  1. Margot riot case

In early August 2020, one of LGBT activists, Margot, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the vandalising of an anti-LGBT truck (belonging to the aforementioned Fundacja Pro - Prawo do Życia) and manhandling its driver. The prosecutor's request to place her in pre-trial detention resulted in the activist being taken into custody and placed in solitary confinement for two months. When this decision was announced, spontaneous protests broke out. During the demonstration in Warsaw dangerous coercive measures were used against some protesters and the police made disproportionate use of handcuffs. The event ended with the arrest of several dozen protesters. Some of the arrested faced degrading and inhuman treatment from the police officers: they were told to undress entirely for searches, in some cases more than once; a transgender woman has been searched by a male officer although she stated her gender; some were prevented from accessing their lawyers.

  1. Hampering gender recognition proceedings

In order to successfully complete the transition process, transgender people need to go thorough a judicial prioceedings. In absence of dedicated legislation, a court practise was established which uses general grounds for protection of personal interests - the proceedings involves filing a lawsuit against the person's parents for misstating their sex in birth registration documents. The proceedings is often time-consuming and generates conflicts within families. Now, there are more and more reported cases of transgernder people who claim that prosecutors get involved in the proceedings and that their participation often delays it or makes it more difficult to obtain a favourable ruling.

  1. Public funding of homophobia

The Ministry of Justice channelled money from its special 'Justice Fund' designed for supporting victims and witnesses of crime, crime prevention and after-prison support to finance overtly homophobic initiatives. In one instance, this money was allocated to a four-year project entitled 'Counteracting offences involving violations of freedom of conscience committed under the influence of LGBT ideology', run by a private foundation set up in 2016 by the editor of a magazine reputed for its pro-government editorial line. The project entails the organisation of public conferences on the theme as well as the publication of a series of inserts with homophobic content in the magazine in question.

Despite strong support from part of the media, multiple civil society organizations, left-wing and some liberal politicians and the Polish Ombudsman's office (which is the last major state institution not taken over by the Law and Justice party), the political situation remains dire. The government has a massive advantage over the LGBT+ community, both finance- and communication-wise.

What does this mean for Poland and human rights?

Poland is in a dark period of deep and institutionalised discrimination. Poland is governed by political forces which use homophobia and transphobia to achieve their political goals. This is no accident, but a carefully constructed attack to drive populist conservative support behind them. They use the tools of divisive language, fake news, hate speech and anti-scientific statements, deliberately. This leads to violence and discrimination, and will continue as long as it gives them electoral gains.

The ongoing LGBT+ rights crisis is closely related to the general rule of law crisis in Poland. Much of the anti-LGBT campaigning was made possible by ruthless takeover of the public media and institutions of the state by the Law and Justice Party. They were reduced to mere tools of party politics and no longer serve as impartial entities acting on the grounds and within the limits set out in applicable laws.

Notes

This article is primarily based on 'Memorandum on the stigmatisation of LGBTI people in Poland' by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 'ILGA Europe Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People in Europe and Central Asia' as well as 'Fact-finding Report on the Role of Local Authorities with Regard to the Situation and Rights of LGBTI People in Poland' by The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.