Polish LGBT-free zones and the rhetoric of hatred

By Julia Bąk.

I first saw an article about the Polish LGBT-free zones in The Guardian, of which the link was sent to me by a friend, followed by a very short and telling description – “wtf?”. What sounded like a bad anti-utopian joke turned out to be another outcome of the leading Polish right-wing party’s consistent policy of fear and hatred.

The establishment of so-called “LGBT-free” zones in the southern municipalities of Poland started, surprisingly, from an act intended as an expression of tolerance and solidarity with the non-heterosexual part of Polish society. In February 2019, the Warsaw mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, published the “LGBT+ Declaration”, in which he set multiple goals for spreading tolerance and making Warsaw an inclusive, open and inviting city. The section of this declaration which later served as a spark for media hatred was the introduction of sexual education compliant with World Health Organisation standards to Warsaw schools – a sexual education that follows the newest scientific research and openly explores the subject of different sexual orientations. What was intended to be the beginning of a new era of tolerance started the slow descent into mental dark ages.

In his fiery speech, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party, did not avoid terms such as “homosexual propaganda”, “homoterror” or “LGBT ideology”. His expression of outrage regarding Trzaskowski’s decision was followed by eager support from the right end of the political spectrum. By creating the enigmatic monster of “LGBT”, Kaczyński described the threat supposedly posed on innocent Polish children – a threat that Polish people needed to fight against. And as is always with hatred, words pierce like bullets not the imaginary monsters of political imagination, but real people of flesh and blood.

On the 20th of July 2019, the first equality march in the history of Białystok occurred, but it was met with violence from participants of counterdemonstrations. Although horrifying in itself, the hateful chanting and physical attacks towards the peaceful demonstrators were not the only outcome of the Law and Justice leader’s direct expression of hatred.

The “Family Rights Charter” was created by the “Ordo Iuris Institute” – a polish organization which puts at its core the preservation of Poland’s legal order and tradition. The Charter itself does not mention the “LGBT” abbreviation even once, although it is in its text that we can trace the origin of the infamous “LGBT-free” zones. Dotted with pictures of happy families smiling at the camera, this Charter aims at protecting ‘the Polish family’ from demoralisation and preserving its traditional model as described by Polish constitution. While the Charter eagerly describes its commitment to values such as tolerance and equality, its support of the ‘traditional family model’ hides an underlying opposition to initiatives for equality and inclusivity. When carefully watching the Polish political scene, we can easily decipher what words like “demoralisation” and “sexualisation” refer to. Although the Charter tries not to state it expressly, concealing its real intention behind malicious Aesopian language, it is a direct expression of intolerance and discrimination towards the LGBT+ community.

Photo source.

Of course, supporters of the Family Rights Charter tirelessly repeat the same statements as mantra: according to them, the Charter is not designed to discriminate against minorities, but instead has the protection of traditional family values at its heart. However, the very words in this document, enigmatic and vague unlike Law and Justice’s obnoxious language, have a clear political purpose. Adopted by three southern voivodeships (Polish provinces) and as many as 36 smaller territorial units, the Family Rights Charter sends a clear message both of affiliation with the far-right as well as of intolerance towards Poland’s LGBT+ community. According to the analysis conducted by the Polish Society of Antidiscrimination Law, the Charter breaches the provisions of both domestic and international law. Although the Charter itself states that its articles are not legally binding, they do carry a legislative power when enacted by the Polish administration. However, with its clearly discriminatory tone, the Charter is inconsistent with the Polish Constitution which is allegedly at its heart. Indeed, while expressing some of the constitution’s values such as the protection of the rights of families, the Charter seems to completely ignore the articles defending the rights to protection from discrimination and freedom of sexual orientation.

On top of these multiple breaches of law, the Charter also brings about more palpable consequences – these are the real threat to Poland’s LGBT+ community.

The establishment of LGBT-free zones, although in itself terrifying, highlights this broader spectrum of consequences following the policy of hatred cultured by Law and Justice throughout its time as leading political party in Poland. The use of highly emotional and pejorative language towards societal groups such as teachers, refugees and judiciary creates a readily available concept of a common enemy, highly valued within populistic ideologies.

By spreading this policy of hatred and fear, Law and Justice has only deepened the socio-economic divide between “Poland A” and “Poland B” – on one hand, the Polish liberal metropolitan society and, on the other, the traditionalist, mostly right-wing population of the rural outskirts. Law and Justice, much like their populistic siblings in the USA, France and Italy, are skilfully playing on all of these factors that have been dividing Polish society during the last couple of years – not trying to hide the numerous antagonisms, but instead letting them see the light of day. In the ages of Law and Justice, those on both sides of the political divide are not only no longer ashamed of hatred towards each other but are also learning that what was previously condemned is now valued.

Polish activist Bartek Staszewski, who photographed LGBT+ people in front of the self-made “LGBT-free zone” signs, tries to show that this rhetoric of hatred is posing an actual threat to Polish society as a whole. When asked about his project, he states that the thing he fears most is when LGBT-free zone signs will stop being a form of activism and artistic expression, and transform into reality. In the age of Law and Justice, and other populistic parties, the most important thing is to not let their toxic propaganda divide us. Instead of looking at our differences, we should take a closer look at our similarities, to once again bury the line dividing the opposite sides of the political spectrum.

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