Polish ruling party whips up LGBTQ hatred ahead of elections amid 'gay-free' zones and Pride march attacks
It recalls an era now almost forgotten in Western Europe, but when Jakub Gawron decided to join last month’s gay Pride march in the northeastern Polish city of Bialystok, it took physical courage to take his place in the line.
As the crowd of LGBTQ activists started to march, they were pelted with both rocks and rotten eggs; as they progressed some counter-demonstrators knelt at the pavement praying loudly while others hurled abuse: “F*** you, faggots!”. Police made more than 30 arrests.
“I was happy to be marching but also afraid,” 38-year-old Mr Gawron tells the Telegraph, a day after ‘coming out’ to his local edition of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “They were physically threatening us, throwing stones. I admit, I was scared.”
Being openly LGBTQ in Poland in 2019, particularly in rural areas and smaller towns, is now taking increasing physical and mental fortitude as both the Catholic Church and the Polish state actively work to create a hostile environment for the gay community.
The ugly scenes in Bialystok were not an isolated incident. Several Polish regional parliaments have declared their districts to be “LGBT-free zones” in recent months after the liberal mayor of Warsaw signed a declaration in February supporting LGBTQ rights.
His pledge to integrate LGBTQ issues into sex education taught in schools, in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, enraged and galvanised the powerful forces of conservatism in Polish politics and media.
That included Mr Gawron’s home town of Rzeszow in southeast Poland, where district authorities declared the region an “LGBT-free zone” and tried to ban their own small LGBTQ pride march in June, citing ‘health and safety concerns’.
The attempt to ban the march was overruled by the courts, but Jacek Kotula, a member of the regional parliament and pro-life activist who led the campaign for the LGBT-free zone declaration, is unapologetic – and says the move had symbolic rather than legal force.
“For us the whole LGBTQ thing is something abnormal, we feel it is a sick minority trying to impose itself on the healthy mainstream of society. We tolerate them but we do not accept them,” he tells the Telegraph.
“When people heard what happened in Warsaw they came together to demand action. The declaration is intended to say ‘don’t be scared, what happened in Warsaw won’t happen here’. Listen, we don’t want to let a fox in the chicken coup and LGBT is a fox.”
Mr Kotula is a fervent Catholic who believes he is fighting in a noble cause, saving his region – where he says 75 per cent of people are regular church-goers – from a rising tide of Western moral corruption and secularisation. He says he is acting “for the sake of my grandchildren”.
When Rzeszow Pride took place, Mr Kotula led teams of counter-protesters who lined the streets saying decades of the rosary, praying that God would have mercy on the city’s LGBTQ sinners.
He is clear during our conversation that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. He asserts as a matter of “scientific” fact that LGBTQ people are more likely to be paedophiles and that “homosexuals” can be cured of their “deviancy” if they want it badly enough.
For Mr Gawron and his fellow activist, 23-year-old Nikita Szafranski, a young IT professional who describes himself as ‘queer’, the result of so much righteous indignation is a life lived half in the shadows, even though both are ‘out’.
They and their fellow members of the LGBTQ community communicate ‘underground’ on invitation-only Facebook groups and Grindr where, Mr Gawron points out, fewer members are willing to post photographs than among similar LGBTQ groups in Iran.
Nikita says they were lucky to have accepting parents, and while the attitudes in small-town Rzeszow are much more open-minded than in the village, it still lags far behind bigger cities like Warsaw or Gdansk. Everyone has to be carefully vetted before they can join the group.
The result can be deep isolation for those unable to link to that world. “We have to be careful,” Nikita says softly, “If you have no LGBTQ friends from here, then it can be hard to get in to the group; hard to find other people with whom you feel comfortable.”
Nationally, both agree that the LGBTQ picture in Poland is deteriorating, thanks to some calculated stoking of anti-LGBTQ sentiment by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party and the political and media establishment that supports it.
In 2015 it was migrants that were singled out as the enemy of a strong, Christian family-centred Polish state with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, infamously calling them “parasites and protozoa”.
With elections looming in October, this time it seems that it is the LGBTQ community that is the new enemy within, with Mr Kaczynski saying the Warsaw mayor’s statement was “an attack on the family and children”, and describing the entire LGBTQ movement as an “imported” ideology.
Officially the government decries the violence seen in Bialystok, but at the same time hints that LGTBQ groups are out to provoke. The education minister Dariusz Piontowski has questioned whether such marches should be allowed since they “awaken resistance” in the wider public.
The government stance is also backed by a powerful conservative media that has loaded Poland’s newstands with brazenly anti-LGBTQ magazine covers. One publication, Sieci, warned of a “Massive attack on Poland coming”, while another, Do Rzeczy, showed a mocked up prime ministerial podium flanked with rainbow flags.
A third, the Gazeta Polska, went even further, printing a cover warning that the LGBTQ movement wanted to “destroy their civilisation” and giving readers a “LGBT-free zone” sticker showing a black cross over a rainbow flag.
The stickers were banned by the courts, but for Mr Gawron and Nikita they speak to a deepening climate of hostility that Polish Pride marchers – there were 16 Pride marches in the country’s 20 regions this year – need to overcome.
Still, the two activists say they will not give up – with the reaction against the Bialystok violence itself providing a platform to continue the battle against deeply ingrained prejudices and conservative Catholic traditions.
“When I saw the stickers and what happened in Bialystok I really broke down, I just felt we were going backwards,” says Nikita. “But after some time I calmed down, and I see it as a moment when people can start to speak out about what happened and then maybe we can move forward.”
Mr Gawron also believes that the current political campaign will not be as successful against the LGBTQ community as it was in whipping up fear of migrants.
“In 2015 refugees became less socially accepted because of what PiS [the ruling Law and Justice party] said about them, but most people never knew a refugee in Poland. But they do know someone who is LGBTQ, or many do, so I hope it will not have the same impact,” he says.
The visceral reaction of the establishment itself belies the fear among the Catholic church of increasing secularisation, declining church attendances and the drip-drip of the kind of paedophile scandals that has so sapped the church’s credibility in Ireland.
Asked whether he fears that Poland might follow Ireland – which now has a gay Taoiseach and has legalised both abortion and gay marriage – the conservative regional legislator, Mr Kotula, is adamant it will not.
“We don’t believe in historical determinism,” he says. “We pray together and we have faith in God and that he will have mercy on us.”
Still, surveys show attitudes are changing, even if towns like Rzeszow are slower to reflect the inexorable liberalisation of opinion.
Although 24 per cent of Poles told the state pollster CBOS in 2017 that being gay should “not be tolerated”, that is a significant drop from the 41 per cent who expressed that view in 2001. 55 per cent of Poles now say homosexuality should be tolerated.
Nikita is determined that that number should keep growing. “Pride isn’t about sex, or a manifestation of sex. If it was only about sex, then LGBT and Pride marches would not be necessary but this is not about the act, it is about who we are – and acceptance of that.”