The European Parliament recently (18/12/2019) adopted a resolution condemning discrimination and hate speech against LGBTI people. More specifically, it targeted the ‘LGBT-free zones’ that many Polish authorities have proclaimed. Belgian cities such as Ghent, Leuven and Bruges had already protested against these practices to the Polish ambassador. 

I wanted to have a better understanding of why LGBTI’s are actively targeted in Poland since a few years now and contacted Eliza Rutynowska, a lawyer working for Polskie Towarzystwo Prawa Antydyskryminacyjnego, a Polish human rights NGO.

Bruno De Lille: What is happening in Poland? 

Eliza Rutynowska: Since the last few years, we have a very right-wing, populist government that is doing everything it can to stay in power. And the rules of the populist game are plain and simple. The importance of pride, national identity, traditions and values is constantly stressed, as if they were discriminated against under the previous governments. And then they present themselves as the only ones brave enough to fight political correctness and to protect the country and its values from ‘invading forces of foreign evil’. You can see that in Poland, but also in Hungary and Italy, for example.

B.D.L.: But why are the Polish LGBTI’s so targeted?

E.R.: Actually, it’s not about the LGBTI’s as such. To distract attention from what is going wrong and to keep the people on their side, our government has created an “enemy of the state”. This first happened in 2015, when the current governing party used the right-wing extremist story about migrants. They tried to paint a picture of how the country was the last European fortress to stand up for European, Christian values. But that didn’t really work out.

You should know that about 95% of the Polish population consider themselves to be of Polish origin and 87% declare themselves to be practising Catholics. In a society as homogenous as this – it is difficult to pin all the wrongs on a group that literally almost does not exist. So they were looking for a new enemy. And four years later we see that the LGBTI+ community has taken the place of the migrant.

B.D.L.: How are they doing that?

E.R.: They did this in a thought-out way. Our populist government has been moving pawn after pawn for years in order to silence every dissent. They have the public media under their control. They have set up their own NGOs (the so-called GONGO’s) and promote them as the “real” human rights watchdogs. The prosecution is in their hands. And finally, the hate speech begins. By the ruling parties themselves or at least under their approving eye.

Poland has about 2 million people who identify themselves as LGBTI+. And 50,000 children grow up with same-sex parents. The actions and words of the current government, officials, members of parliament and prosecutors put all these people at risk. The LGBTI+ community was deemed a dangerous ideology and those involved are treated as such. 

B.D.L.: How can LGBTI+ people be ‘dangerous’ to Poland?

E.R.: Not at all. I agree with you. Yet they are dismissed as ‘dangerous’. Dangerous for national sovereignty – because they benefit from international support and because international human rights organisations use the discriminatory treatment of the LGBTI+ community to criticise the Polish regime. Dangerous for the Poles themselves, because they “undermine” traditional values. And so the LGBTI+ community is now seen as an ‘enemy of the state’ by the conservatives and populists.

B.D.L.: Are there no supporters?

E.R.: Fortunately, there are. For example, on 18 February 2019 the LGBTI+ declaration of Warsaw was signed by the mayor of the city and a lot of local NGOs. This was a legally non-binding declaration intended to emphasize the hospitality and openness of the capital to all people – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender. The declaration was enthusiastically received by human rights activists, supporters and the LGBTI+ community. 

Unfortunately, this was followed by a setback. And so, at the end of July, the Gazeta Polska, a Polish conservative weekly, distributed stickers with a rainbow flag crossed in black and with the words “Strefa wolna od LGBT” or “LGBT-free zone”. As if that were not enough, more than 80 local Polish authorities – municipalities, provinces and regions – have then decided to declare themselves an “LGBT-free zone”. 

B.D.L.: Are LGBTI+persons really being driven out of those areas?

E.R.: Not in a systematic way. But the symbolism itself is of course already terrible: for the first time since the end of World War II there exist ideas on Polish ground which refer to ridding certain areas from a specific minority. Only now it is with the approval of the party in power and some Polish citizens.

And that is why we are seeing a considerable increase in homophobic hate crimes. It is very worrying that both the public prosecutors and the police constantly neglect this aggression: either by refusing to open an investigation or by repeatedly stopping the prosecution because it would apparently always be ‘impossible’ to trace the suspected perpetrators.

Of course, this creates an atmosphere that causes LGBTI+people to actually leave. Not because they want to, but because it becomes unlivable.

B.D.L.: How do you see the situation evolve?

E.R.: I’m very pessimistic. At the moment, a dangerous bill is being discussed in parliament. The bill is supposedly intended to protect children against paedophiles. But if you read the justification of the bill closely, you will see that mainly LGBTI+persons and -organisations are targeted. They try to link them to paedophilia and accuse them of using their influence to want to reach children and even abuse them. 

But if that link is in the law, who will dare to stand up for the LGBTI+community? Who wants to be put down as a ‘paedophile defender’? Our government is well aware that words like this matter and that in this way they can silence anyone who wants to protest. None of this is a coincidence.

And don’t forget the bigger picture: the Polish populists see in the LGBTI+ community the perfect scapegoat because through them they can also hurt the NGO’s that stand up for human rights. They have tried this before, but it failed: in 2016, after a smear campaign, it turned out that more than 60% of the population still supported the NGO’s. The government has not given up the fight and is therefore trying to make the NGO’s indefensible. And once that has happened, there will be no one left to resist. And I am very worried about that.

Photo: Participants debate on the opening of same-sex marriages at the FIDH congress in Taipei (October 2019). From left to right: Tzung-Han Tsou (moderator), Professor Emeritus Vitit Muntarbhorn, Joyce Teng, Hiroshi Ikeda, Eliza Rutynowska and Bruno De Lille.