Updated: Aug 26
The Fight of LGBTQ Activists in Poland against Post-Election Repressions
In her latest book This is War. Women, Fundamentalists and the New Middle-Ages, investigative journalist Klementyna Suchanow reveals the complex economic and institutional dependencies binding various right-wing and religious organizations. This book tracks their growing political influence from Brazil, through the U.S. and Russia, to Europe.
In Poland one of the major players affiliated with TFP is a legal think tank, “Ordo Iuris”. It is a part of the extremist-Catholic Agenda Europe advocacy network that seeks to “restore the natural order” by blocking or dismantling policy infrastructure on reproductive and sexual rights. Ordo Iuris is responsible for drafting the legislation to completely ban abortion (which was eventually withdrawn after mass protests); and the 'Convention of the Rights of the Family' - that is supposed to be an alternative to the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence. Apart from legislative campaigns and policy lobbying, they also represent individuals and groups such as 'Foundation PRO' during litigations. It provides legal support for religious extremists to safely test the limits of democratic freedoms.
One of their strategies is to appropriate the human rights discourse and cover homophobic and transphobic goals under the guise of pro-family policies. In this spirit, the “Charter of Family Rights” was presented to local governments in late 2019 as a less controversial template for declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”; after the wave of anti-LGBT resolutions initiated by the Law and Justice councilors in March the same year.
With the highest voter turnout since 1995 at 68,18%, the runoff elections left the country polarized. On the election night Duda made a clumsy attempt to cool down the destructive emotions he has mobilized during his campaign. He apologized to those who "felt offended" by his words during the past five years of his presidency and in the recent months. Later, when asked if he regrets his attacks on the LGBTQ community, he replied that he stands by his earlier statements.
Although this apparent cease-fire declaration has been read as a sign of a possible suspension of the anti-gender rhetoric in the aftermath of the victory, the campaign of hate continues. On July 25th the minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro announced that Poland is withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention because the document carries “elements of an ideological nature,” referring to its definition of gender as socially constructed.
At the same time, his ministry is financing a project by another fundamentalist Government-organized non-governmental organization (GONGO) - titled “Combating crimes against freedom of conscience under the influence of LGBT ideology.” Planned for years 2020-2023, it aims to eliminate “new leftist ideologies” from Polish public space by utilizing the existing legal provisions on offending religious feelings. This new project is a perfect example of how quickly the network of religious fundamentalist groups responds to artistic and activist actions and how well connected they are to the governmental structures.
It seems that the arrest of a young queer activist (Margot) was purposefully postponed until after the election results. Then after the intervention of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Margot was released after spending the night in detention with charges of hooliganism. On July 30th queer activists followed up with an action of mounting rainbow flags and pink face masks on several iconic statues across Warsaw as a call for greater mobilization against the rising tide of homophobia and transphobia. A few days later Margot (again) and two more activists were arrested in relation to this action.
From - repressions against queer activists, cities and counties declaring themselves free from “LGBT ideology,” repeated attacks on the headquarters of LGBTQ NGOs, to brutal attacks on pride marches (including a failed bombing attempt in Lublin last year) - this has never been a war only about symbols. When the infamous “homophobuses” announce from the loudspeakers that “homosexuals live twenty years shorter,” - not even another pseudo-scientific fact - but it is something that becomes a grim reality in a country where suicide rates among queer youth are rising.
Meanwhile, putting a symbol of love and tolerance on the statue of Jesus Christ on Krakowskie Przedmieście street in Warsaw was commented upon as a “barbarity” and “profanation” by the Prime Minister Matuesz Morawiecki. Or as an “unnecessary provocation” by the opposition presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski. While Polish liberals condemn the crudest forms of homophobia, they exercise its “light” version in the name of pluralism and balanced dialogue. They treat the massive attack on LGBTQ community merely as a red herring. In other words, homophobia and transphobia permeate both sides of this highly polarized political scene.
During the march commemorating the Warsaw Uprising organized by a coalition of fascist and nationalist groups, any trace of LGBTQ symbolism was quickly detected and destroyed. Among several incidents, the participants took down a rainbow flag with the emblem of the 'Polish Underground State' from the façade of one of the buildings and burnt it.
In Eastern Europe the rainbow flag has become an important tool for queer resistance, as a way of marking lives that are being constantly attacked and erased. There are subversive ways of using this symbol in public spaces, but also some “mainstreaming” strategies that flirt with the idea of assimilating to the majority.
The ongoing conflict around the rainbow flag exposes the deep flaws and paradoxes of reclaiming religious and national symbols for leftist politics. It is not about proving that Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo or a colorful national emblem should not be an offence. But rather it is about finding ways of doing queer politics without assimilating the nationalist-patriotic discourse. A “queered” national flag is still a strong symbol of national belonging. The fight is uneven, but new strategies and new forms of coalition building are urgently needed.
Recent news about the European Union withholding grants for six Polish cities due to their anti-LGBT declarations, might suggest that paying a price for discriminatory practices will change the hostile attitudes. At the same time, this punishment feeds into into the well-rehearsed discourse on “LGBT ideology” as a foreign threat, imposed by the “degenerate” West. It is unclear whether this will bring a sobering effect, or will consolidate the twisted anti-LGBT rhetoric.
The TFP satellites already portray European institutions as the source of “gender ideology” which is smuggled in treaties such as the Istanbul Convention. With the police repressions against activists intensifying, rapidly improving international solidarity with queer persons in Poland is extremely important. Much work needs to be done on the ground for building local solidarity networks with marginalized groups, including migrant workers and those who are most affected by austerity measures. If there is anything that these recent elections show very clearly, it is that queer and leftist activism has to find a way to reach beyond the metropolitan areas.
Marianna Szczygielska is a gender studies scholar and a queer-feminist activist. She has authored a chapter on feminist responses to backsliding gender policies in Poland for the book Gendering Democratic Backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe. A Comparative Agenda (CEU Press, 2019). Marianna’s research focus is on environmental humanities and feminist science and technology studies. Currently, she is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
This article first appeared on the LeftEast Website. Reproduced with permission