State-sponsored homophobia in Poland: What are LGBT-free zones?

State-sponsored homophobia in Poland - what are the LGBT-free zones?

By Aleksandra Wasześcik.

“LGBT are not people – it’s an ideology.” today, more than ever, the words of the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, ring in the ears of many LGBT citizens in Poland. While other countries are happily celebrating LGBT History Month, they continue to face stigmatisation and segregation from their own government.

Poland, which lies in the heart of the European Union, currently contains about 100 “LGBT-free zones”. These municipalities have implemented anti-LGBT resolutions, declaring themselves free of the so-called “LGBT ideology”. As of February 2021, they constitute approximately one-third of Poland, and are met with full support from the far-right, populist PiS government.

Who hates the LGBT community?

The first emergence of LGBT-free zones took place after Rafal Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, signed a declaration of support towards the LGBT community and announced that he was planning on following the WHO guidelines of including LGBT issues in the sex education curriculum. Since then, the leading party has appeared to view LGBT rights as an attack on their own power, with PiS employing a populist strategy of stigmatising the LGBT community and regarding queerness as a harmful ideology and a threat.

The Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, described the LGBT community – or, in his words, the LGBT ideology – as “a rainbow plague”. The Catholic Church still plays a significant role in Polish politics, especially in regard to the ruling party. PiS is closely tied to the Church authorities, who often endorse the party from behind the altar, while politicians in power continue to pursue radically conservative policies. It is natural that, in such a state of affairs, the Church also has a lot to gain from preaching homophobia.

The cost of being LGBT-free

While the LGBT-free zones don’t actually prohibit LGBT people from physically entering any territory, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights confirms that the legislations which made the LGBT-free zones a reality still “directly impact the lives of LGBTI people in Poland.” What exactly does the implementation of those legislations mean for the Polish LGBT community in practice?

The outright aims of introducing the LGBT-free zones in Poland include the ban of pride parades and similar events made to show support for the LGBT community. However, the effects of the government’s decision exceed far beyond that. The blatant homophobia coming from Polish leaders and other influential figures leads to more social rejection towards LGBT citizens – 68% of LGBT respondents from Poland report a belief that prejudice and intolerance against them has increased over the past five years. In the LGBT-free zones, homophobes can feel as if it is righteous to exclude and refuse service to LGBT people; after all, the government and law enforcement are affirmative of those actions.

In a country where a staggering 63% of young LGBT people report struggling with suicidal thoughts, this homophobic attitude shown by the PiS government could have truly devastating results.

Reactions and concerns

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights was not the only one to voice concerns about the current situation in Poland. Joe Biden, now the President of the United States, stated on Twitter in September 2020 that “LGBTQ+ rights are human rights — and ‘LGBT-free zones’ have no place in the European Union or anywhere in the world”. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, expressed her worry in her September 2020 State of the European Union speech, stating that “LGBTQI-free zones are humanity free zones. And they have no place in our Union.”

Apart from expressing consternation in words, the European Union took action and announced that six of the cities which had declared themselves LGBT-free will no longer receive funds related to the EU twinning project. This decision did not result in the expected compliance. The Polish Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, decided to grant one of the towns a compensation of 250,000 zlotys – more than twice the amount of the withdrawn EU funding. The homophobia taking place in Poland became, quite literally, state sponsored.

The Polish LGBT community and their allies did not refrain from showing their deep dissatisfaction, anger and sadness caused by the LGBT-free zones. Many protesters took to the streets, while the left-wing and liberal minority parties continued to campaign against the government’s actions.

There is one project which received a lot of attention from the international community,  created by a Polish LGBT rights activist Bart Staszewski who was recently included in the 2021 TIME100 Next list by the Time magazine. He raised awareness of the existence of LGBT-free zones by visualising the problem – he travelled to multiple LGBT-free towns, placed a road sign saying “LGBT-free zone” there, and photographed local members of the LGBT community standing next to it.

The dangers of stigmatisation

Many critics can’t help but compare today’s Poland to 1930s Germany. Slava Melnyk, director of the Polish LGBT rights organisation Campaign Against Homophobia, recalls the year 1933, when “there were also free zones from a specific group of people”. Is history starting to repeat itself? Hopefully not, but Poland is certainly not headed in the right direction.

Unfortunately, many people, even in Poland, seem to have forgotten about the ongoing stigmatisation of the LGBT community. Today, they are faced with multiple other issues such as the recently introduced near-total abortion ban. However, LGBT-free zones remain a critical problem.

As we celebrate LGBT History Month, let’s not forget that for many LGBT people in Poland, as well as in many other places around the world, the struggles that come with non-heterosexuality are not yet history, but their current reality.