CIVICUS speaks about 2023 Pride and Polish LGBTQI+ rights organisations’ response to the conservative backlash against LGBTQI+ rights with Annamaria Linczowska, advocacy and litigation officer at Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).
Founded 2001, KPH is a Polish LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) working to counter violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through political, social and legal advocacy.
What are the current most pressing concerns for LGBTQI+ people in Poland, and how are you working to address them?
LGBTQI+ people face a range of problems stemming from lack of legal protection, including discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics, which are not protected under the Criminal Code. Poland does not provide legal recognition or protection for same-sex relationships and rainbow families. The legal gender recognition process, which requires transgender individuals to sue their parents, is an international anomaly.
Based on our observations, the most pressing issue is state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia, particularly targeting young LGBTQI+ people, along with a rule of law crisis that is dismantling legal protections for LGBTQI+ people and human rights in general. One of the saddest examples of state-sponsored homophobia is existence of the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’, that is, municipalities that have declared themselves unwelcoming to LGBTQI+ rights in order to ban equality marches and other LGBTQI+ events. At one point there were around 100 of these, and there are still 35.
Discriminatory resolutions, anti-LGBTQI+ ideology and ‘family rights’ charters aren’t just declarations – they have implications for the everyday lives of LGBTQI+ people. They limit access to infrastructure and financial support from local authorities, creating an environment of intimidation, fear and systemic oppression. According to our latest report, the mental health of LGBTQI+ people living in ‘LGBT-free zones’ is worse than elsewhere.
Currently, many Polish LGBTQI+ organisations prioritise the provision of direct assistance to LGBTQI+ people. Only a few organisations, including KPH, engage in strategic advocacy activities. KPH addresses all the problems I’ve mentioned through political advocacy, primarily at the international level. One area of focus is monitoring European Union (EU) funding to ensure that it is spent in compliance with non-discrimination principles and the fundamental rights of LGBTQI+ people.
How were this year’s Pride celebrations organised?
LGBTQI+ and human rights organisations, including KPH, do not receive any funding from the government, so all Pride events are organised and funded through the efforts of CSOs, grassroots initiatives and activists. In 2023, over 20 Pride marches took place across Poland, in major cities including Warsaw and Krakow and in smaller towns such as Milicz and Sztum, with populations of around 10,000. The high number of Pride marches was only made possible by the active involvement of Polish civil society.
KPH was present at Warsaw Pride, creating our own platform and sharing materials in collaboration with partners during and after the march. We acted as a partner in some of the other Pride celebrations held in various towns in June. KPH also supported the LGBT Film Festival held in April and Queer Week, organised by Lambda Warszawa, featuring a variety of workshops and lectures. The biggest occasion as part of this was the week-long series of cultural and social events organised in Poznań by the Stonewall Group.
Have Pride events faced conservative backlash?
We have experienced conservative backlash ever since the Law and Justice party took power in 2015. The government doesn’t support any Pride events and prominent Law and Justice politicians are known for their homophobic and transphobic speeches. National television consistently refers to Pride marches as ‘LGBT parades’, and the Minister of Education has called them an ‘offence to morality’. The Catholic church, public TV and influential political figures unjustifiably link LGBTQI+ people to paedophilia, portraying us as a danger to children’s wellbeing and traditional Polish values. Some Law and Justice politicians have voted in favour of a ‘Stop LGBT’ bill aimed at banning Pride marches in Poland.
In recent years, mayors of numerous towns across Poland have opposed the organisation of Pride marches. KPH has supported local CSOs and individual activists who have taken the mayors’ decisions to court, resulting in decisions being overturned and consent being given to hold Pride marches.
There have also been instances of attacks on Pride marches. For example, in 2019, people involved in the Pride march in Białystok were subjected to violent physical attacks, resulting in injuries. This year in Olsztyn a person was shot in the head after leaving the Pride march. Although the victim was carrying a rainbow flag and other LGBTQI+ symbols, the police did not connect the attack to homophobia.
On the bright side, conservative backlash has resulted in increasing social support for equality and the protection of LGBTQI+ rights. The large number of Pride marches and other Pride events taking place in Poland is a visible reflection of this support. Polls indicate that the level of public support for civil partnerships and marriage equality is on the rise.
Were any LGBTQI+ issues raised during mass anti-government protests held in June?
Anti-government protests were primarily focused on broader democratic values and addressing the rule of law crisis. There were also protests organised by the Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet) movement in over 70 towns after the tragic death of Dorota Lalik due to lack of access to abortion. These demonstrations focused on reproductive rights, women’s health and the right to safe and accessible abortion.
But these protests did not cover the rights of LGBTQI+ people. The Civic Platform, being a centre-conservative party, does not include many LGBTQI+ rights in its programme and mostly avoids direct reference to LGBTQI+ people or rights. The only declaration concerning these was made by the party leader, Donald Tusk, in 2022, when he promised that civil unions would be legalised and transgender people’s rights would be reviewed if the party were to win the election.
What are your expectations regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections?
Parliamentary elections will take place in October or November. The official election campaign hasn’t yet started, and it is very difficult to predict what the main focus of the campaign will be. Now, the public debate discourse seems to be concentrated on migration and migrants. However, the focus might change at any time and LGBTQI+ people could once again become a scapegoat used to mobilise voters.
What international support are Polish LGBTQI+ organisations receiving, and what further support do you need?
Polish LGBTQI+ organisations, including KPH, receive financial and operational support from international allies. Financial support is obtained through grant applications to international and foreign organisations such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) Europe, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the National Democratic Institute, the EEA and Norway Grants programme funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, and other grants offered by embassies. Most of these grants are project specific.
Operational support primarily involves networking, cooperation and knowledge exchange between Polish and international organisations. For instance, KPH collaborates with ILGA-Europe, ILGA-World, and the Network of European LGBTIQ* Families Association to enhance the effectiveness of our advocacy activities through international pressure. Cooperation with EU institutions and foreign embassies is also important for advocacy work, as international ties help hold policymakers accountable and encourage action on cases of law and human rights violations in Poland.
As we cannot rely on public funding, external financial support is vital for the survival of Polish LGBTQI+ organisations. This support should include core funding as well as project-specific grants. We also need stronger cooperation around knowledge exchange and mutual support. For KPH, cooperation in the realm of political advocacy is particularly important. We need extensive networks and advocacy tools so we can react in an agile, appropriate and timely manner.
It is essential for international policy and decision-making institutions, particularly those within the European Union, to take more action to hold Poland’s government accountable. We need them to use all available tools to help improve the rule of law and human rights situation in Poland, to counter the conservative backlash and advance LGBTQI+ human rights in the long term.
Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.