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LGBT rights at heart of Poland presidential-election fight

People protest against Polish President Andrzej Duda's comments relating to the LGBT community during his election rally in Lublin, Poland on June 15, 2020.
People protest against Polish President Andrzej Duda's comments relating to the LGBT community during his election rally in Lublin, Poland on June 15, 2020. © Jakub Orzechowski, Agencja Gazeta via Reuters
Text by: Philippe THEISE
8 min

While campaigning for re-election ahead of Sunday’s final-round vote, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has used harmful rhetoric and called for policies that deny human rights to LGBT people. But longtime activists see Polish attitudes changing, and are pushing back.

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During his re-election campaign, Duda has compared what he calls “LGBT ideology” to Communism. He does not support the right of same-sex couples in Poland to marry or form civil unions, and believes that schools should not teach classes on gay rights. 

His anti-LGBT rhetoric echoes the comments of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, who in September 2019 said that “the family as we know it is under attack”. In the same month, Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow, linked totalitarian regimes and their “systems for destroying people” with “gender ideology and LGBT ideology”.   

Duda’s opponent in Sunday’s vote, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, signed a resolution in February 2019 declaring his city a welcoming place for LGBT people, and attended Warsaw’s Pride parade later that year. He supports same-sex civil unions and has also promised to prevent Law and Justice, which controls Poland’s parliament, from further restricting abortion rights. 

The stakes for LGBT people in Poland in the election are high. As of late June, approximately 100 Polish municipalities had adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”, a movement that began after Trzaskowski committed to support LGBT rights in Warsaw. At Pride marches in Poland in 2019, participants suffered verbal abuse and physical attacks, and two people were sentenced to a year in jail for bringing explosives to an event in Lublin.

There has also been plenty of evidence that Poles are rejecting discrimination and violence. After an Equality march in Bialystok last July that suffered violent attacks from anti-LGBT demonstrators, event organisers told FRANCE 24 that they received donations that allowed them to rent office space for the first time. When counter-protesters shouted a homophobic slur at a September parade in Katowice, a middle-aged woman who identified as a straight ally shared a message with FRANCE 24 at the scene: “I’d like to apologise to the whole of Europe for the fact that scenes like this are happening here.”

This past February, after Saint-Jean-de-Braye, a small town in the centre of France, cut its sister-city relationship with Tuchow, a Polish town that adopted an anti-LGBT resolution, AP reported that Tuchow’s mayor regretted the move and said that numerous locals didn’t feel that the town’s council spoke for them.  

Duda prevailed in the 2020 election’s first round with 43.5 percent of the vote, with Tzsaskowski finishing second with 30.46 percent, setting the two up for Sunday’s run-off. A recent poll released by Kantar and cited by Euronews shows the two candidates in almost a dead heat. 

As Poland votes, Europe is watching. In a June 29 interview with FRANCE 24, Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality – a new EU position – said that if Polish towns use EU funds in accordance with anti-LBGT policy, the allocations “will have to be revisited”. Dalli also said labour discrimination based on sexual or gender identity in so-called “LBGT-free zones” would be “unacceptable”.

While some Polish LBGT activists told FRANCE24 they aren’t happy with parts of Trzaskowski’s platform – for instance, his support for civil unions falls short of marriage equality – they support him nonetheless, and their work has brought them into the street and onto the campaign trail.

Fighting hate, and fatigue

On Thursday, LGBT activist Magdalena Dropek, 37, travelled from her home in Krakow to a rally for Duda in the nearby town of Olkusz. She and fellow protesters shouted “Enough!” and waved rainbow and EU flags as the president’s supporters held red-and-white “Duda 2020” signs.

Dropek, who has co-organised Krakow’s annual Equality March since 2012 and sits on the board of the Equality.org.pl Foundation, said she heard calls of “traitor” and "pervert” at the rally. But she also told FRANCE 24 that she was surprised that “so many young, diverse people came … to show their disagreement for Duda’s actions and words”.

Speaking the night before the event, Dropek said that LGBT activists in Poland have had to “constantly defend” themselves since early 2019, when Law and Justice, which holds a parliamentary majority, began casting them as a threat to traditional Polish values. It has made it difficult for activists to focus on developing their organisations, she said.

“We’re burned out,” Dropek said, although she planned to attend a protest of a recent beating that occurred outside an LGBT club in Krakow on Friday. 

She has seen three prominent activist organisations mount online efforts to discourage Polish voters from supporting Duda. One, the Stonewall Project, has exhorted visitors to its Facebook page to vote for Trzaskowski, whereas the Campaign Against Homophobia and Love Does Not Exclude have stated the need for “an open, tolerant Poland” rather than naming a preferred candidate, she said.

One of the victims of the beating in Krakow identifies as straight, Dropek said, which for her reflects a truth she thinks more Poles have come to understand: LGBT phobia and hate crimes affect all of society. She has noticed a shift in the five years since Law and Justice came to power. 

“[At] many protests and rallies, there were also LGBT people, the rainbow flags,” she said. “At the beginning, it was a problem. There were cities where this rainbow flag was not welcome. But … for many people, it’s obvious now, you can’t defend democracy without defending minority rights.”

‘This feeling of empathy’

Marek Szolc, 28, won election to the Warsaw city council in 2018 and is a member of a party in coalition with Trzaskowski’s centrist Civic Platform. He told FRANCE 24 that he planned to spend Friday passing out campaign leaflets in his city, which he described as relatively “friendly” territory for such an activity.

But he said that anti-LGBT violence is “visible on the streets” of Poland – even in Warsaw. Szolc said a child who recently put a rainbow flag in her window found vulgar graffiti on the outer wall of her building the next morning. 

“When I saw this, what I immediately associated it with was the graffiti that were drawn in Berlin in (the) 1930s just before the Kristallnacht … when Jewish flats were attacked this way,” Szolc said.

“This is the level of violence we (have) right now, this is the level of emotion,” he said. 

The openly gay councilman, who began helping to organise Warsaw’s Pride parade before entering local politics, said that much of the LGBT campaign-related activism he’s seen has been online, but he’s also noticed “active involvement” in help centres, clubs and bars. 

He also appreciates the work that activist groups have been doing to educate Poles on the danger that LGBT people face in the country.

“They’ve managed to create this feeling that is extremely important in this context: this feeling of empathy,” Szolc said. “I think it’s largely thanks to them that many people realised that using hate language … is simply unacceptable.”

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