Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences in facing anti-rights backlash and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about recently established ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland with Bart Staszewski, a young LGBTQI+ activist. Bart works as a freelance videographer for various civil society organisations and is a co-founder and board member of the Lublin Equality March Association (LEMA), an organisation that he defines as ‘an LGBTI NGO inside the LGBT-free zone’. For the past eight years, Bart has also taken part in the struggle for marriage equality led by the Love does not Exclude Association.
Photo by Przemyslaw Stefaniak
What challenges do the LGBTQI+ community and its organisations face in Poland?
I think the main problem is homophobia, which is growing due to the regressive government at all levels, from the national level to the very local. Governments at these different levels are using the same hate speech that we have already seen in Russia, in exactly the same wording, for example accusing LGBTQI+ organisations of disseminating ‘homo-propaganda’. We are also facing growing homophobia on public TV, which disseminates what are basically ‘fake news’ stories about us. They have even used our Facebook posts against us. For instance, during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019, some of us were not so positive about a candidate who happened to be the only gay candidate and wrote about it on Facebook. Quotes from our Facebook posts were then used in a campaign against this candidate, to show that even gay activists opposed him.
They also produced a documentary, ‘Invasion’, which stated that the Polish LGBTQI+ movement is sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who according to them is paying people to attend Pride events; this is why, according to them, so many people are attending our events. They filmed this thing by having people pose as volunteers with LGBTQI+ civil society organisations (CSOs) and bring a spy camera into Pride marches. According to Polish law, CSO volunteers have to get paid a small fee, somewhere between €5 and €8, when travelling outside the city. They used this to create a story that LGBTQI+ organisations are bribing people into attending Pride marches. They do this because while homophobia is on the rise, the LGBTQI+ movement is also growing, and our events are in fact getting the biggest turnout ever, so they are looking into new ways to defame us, including by saying that people are in it for the money.
But it is not just the government and the state media. The LGBTQI+ movement is not as afraid of the government as we are of anti-rights organisations like Ordo Iuris, a right-wing legal foundation that offers legal assistance to municipalities that are curtailing LGBTQI+ rights. They are a think tank for anti-LGBTQI+ rights and anti-women’s rights policies, supporting reinforcing marriage laws as pertaining to the union of a man and a woman, total abortion bans and divorce bans. This group is quite well connected to the government; for instance, one of its prominent members was Poland’s Secretary of State under the previous right-wing government. They are also connected to Agenda Europe, a pan-European, Christian fundamentalist network that seeks to restore ‘natural order’ and that offers an umbrella for many right-wing organisations across Europe. They say they receive no funding from the government, but they are very well funded.
They have people who teach in schools and universities and who are running a series of campaigns against us. All of their advocacy and campaigns have turned us into easy targets. Many activists, including myself, have received death threats for denouncing homophobia. Last year the police raided the home of a woman who had created rainbow marriage stickers, like it was such a big deal. I am getting used to the idea and getting ready for something like this to happen to me too. The government has unleashed this with its homophobic rhetoric but now does not take responsibility for its consequences.
What are the so-called LGBT-free zones, and how are they impacting on the LGBTQI+ community?
A third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which are essentially unwelcoming of LGBTQI+ people and practices – although the way they put it, it is as if being an LGBTQI+ person was some ‘foreign ideology’. As a result, these municipalities have become so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions in which they pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people. While they do not have material implications in practice, their symbolic effect is huge, as they stigmatise LGBTQI+ people in a way that legitimises further attacks against us.
In other words, ‘LGBT-free zones’ are the formalisation of homophobia, the institutionalisation of prejudice. They confirm homophobes in their beliefs and encourage them to turn them into action. The hooligans who throw stones at us during Pride marches every year will now feel empowered because the law now tells them that they are ‘protecting Christian values against homo-propaganda and ideology’. Families that don't accept their LGBTQI+ kids will now feel more confident about their hateful decisions. Teachers will feel uncomfortable when teaching content on LGBTQI+ issues in schools, now that they know that local politicians are against it – and they are the ones who make decisions on school funding. Some teachers have even asked us if they are allowed to teach anything at all related to LGBTQI+ issues after the new policies were put in place.
An increasing number of citizens are more confident than ever that homophobia is good and something to be proud of. The idea that is being disseminated is that there is something wrong with LGBTQI+ people and you’d better be careful around them. Homophobic billboards have gone up in major cities across Poland, accusing homosexuals of molesting kids, associating them with paedophilia.
Can you tell us about your campaign to challenge ‘LGBT-free zones’?
Last year, as local governments were declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ one after the other, I started thinking about how else to call attention to this given that the media was definitely not interested in homophobia as a problem. Our first campaign was in Lubin, where we created a billboard campaign called ‘Love is Love’. While it received some attention, in the end nothing changed and more ‘LGBT-free zones’ were introduced. I thought we needed to try something new. I wondered what I could do to highlight this problem. Along with my boyfriend we came up with the idea to order signs to place in ‘LGBT-free zones’, but then thought that the signs would not be enough: we needed human stories behind them, we needed to show the real people behind this struggle and inside these zones.
So I came up with another, very simple idea. I asked LGBTQI+ individuals that I knew in municipalities that had been declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ to participate in the project. It was key that the participants were from those areas, either still living there or – if we could not find any LGBTQI+ resident – that they had at least grown up there. I asked them if I could take a few photos of them with the signs, and honestly, I initially thought that this would be just an art project, something for an exhibition. I took the first photos of LGBTQI+ people standing behind the ‘LGBT-free zone’ signposts in December 2019. I asked photographers and art people to participate in the project, but nobody seemed to be interested; they told me that it was repetitive and ‘nothing new’. In December the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to condemn Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ and also the Polish Ombudsman made declarations about it. It was already January 2020 and I felt that nobody was interested in my project so I just uploaded some photos to Facebook page, and then created a webpage, in the hope of triggering some debate in Poland. I never imagined it would lead to a worldwide response.
Did you get any feedback from the people you photographed regarding the ways in which anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies are affecting their lives?
Initial reactions depended a lot on how much interest in politics people had. Some of them had not really thought about the amount of homophobia they had been coexisting with. One of my project’s participants, Kate, who was about 18 years old, first told me she did not feel anything had changed after her town had been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’. But then I asked her how she felt in the small city that she lived in: could she hold hands with her girlfriend, go to a dance with her and dance together as a couple? And she said she could definitely not; she could not even imagine herself going out onto the street with her girlfriend. She was so deeply submerged in homophobia that she didn’t even notice it was happening.
Homophobia can be invisible, but statistics do not lie. Many young people are committing suicide, and two-thirds of them are LGBTQI+ people. Many members of the LGBTQI+ community have suicidal thoughts and depression. Some people are being kicked out of their homes and families for being gay; their own parents view them as diseased. And all of this is happening in silence. The people behind the hate campaigns against us would never know about it.
Another person who joined my project later spoke to a foreign journalist that I put her in contact with, and just a week later she got death threats over Twitter and Facebook, because the name of the village she lives in appeared in the news report. Now people want to burn her house down. Such is the severity of hate.
As the ‘LGBT-free zone’ campaign took off, several politicians from right-wing parties, as well as Ordo Iuris, appear to have notified the Prosecutor’s Office that by running it I have committed a criminal offence, but I have not yet received any official notification. For the time being, it seems that they are focused on preparing lawsuits against the Atlas of Hate, a map of anti-LGBTQI+ government resolutions in Poland put together by other LGBTQI+ activists.
What kind of support from the international community and from civil society around the world do Polish LGBTQI+ activists need?
Of course financial support is something that we always need, because right-wing CSOs are quite well funded, and we are not. But besides funding, we also need to put pressure on our government and the European Union (EU). European countries that have already enshrined LGBTQI+ rights and equality should support us loudly rather than quietly. This is the only thing that is working with this government. They are scared of the EU and of what other countries will say. So we need diplomacy where ambassadors tell the Polish government that they will lose funding if Poland carries on in this way. They need to constantly ask the Polish government about this and put pressure on them.
We need a well-organised campaign. People can create petitions – I have seen quite a few, and it was a big surprise to me that many of them were launched by private individuals in France and Germany – but after one week, they are dead. In France, 10 CSOs sent a letter to President Macron to ask him to speak up loudly against ‘LGBT-free zones’ during his visit to Poland. But he didn’t say a word about ‘LGBT-free zones’ or the situation of LGBTQI+ people. Maybe he said something in private, but not in front of the media. We need big CSOs to do something about this.
Fortunately, we are already growing in solidarity. Last year we had the biggest turnout at a Pride march in Poland. My association conducted a survey that showed that even when homophobia is at its highest in Poland, people are more supportive than ever and are marching for equality and in support of same-sex civil unions. Our biggest problem is with the politicians and not the citizens. People have the internet, they have HBO and Netflix, they are more understanding and supportive than politicians. Things are slowly changing for the best, and we need to make sure they keep going that way. But we need international support to do so, or we will end up like Hungary or like Russia in the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Lublin Equality March Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @marszlublin and @BartStaszewski on Twitter.