‘LGBT-free’ zones: How the rise in anti-LGBT rhetoric made Poland the worst place to be LGBT+ in Europe

In early 2019, several municipalities in Poland declared themselves ‘LGBT-free’ zones with the goal of reducing tolerance towards the community. Now, almost two years later, these regions make up around a third of Poland and span an area larger than Hungary.

Around 100 towns and regions made the pledge to oppose “LGBT ideology,” which they say undermines Poland’s ‘traditional’ Christian values. Inside the localities, the promotion of LGBT+ equality is banned and homophobia is becoming increasingly normalised, leaving members of the community feeling unsafe and scared for the future. 

Graphic made by Conor Clark

The non-binding resolutions coincided with a recent increase in anti-LGBT+ rhetoric, which has been driven in part by the openly homophobic attitude of Andrzej Duda, the current President of Poland. Duda has previously expressed a desire to rollback LGBT+ rights and referred to the campaign for LGBT+ equality as “a foreign ideology” that is similar to indoctrination in the Soviet Union

During his re-election campaign earlier this year, Duda signed a “Family Charter” which promised to “defend children from LGBT ideology” by banning the teaching of LGBT+ issues in schools and preventing gay couples from marrying or adopting children.

This anti-LGBT+ sentiment is echoed by Poland’s ruling political party, Law and Justice (PiS), who focused a large part of their 2019 election campaign on promising to defeat the alleged threat of Western “LGBT ideology,” which they claimed put the country’s Christian values in danger. The leader of the party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has previously stated that homosexuality is a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.”

As recently as this week, conservative activist Kaja Godek set out to file a list of over 200,000 signatures to the Sejm (the lower house of the bicameral parliament of Poland) calling for a bill which, if approved, would forbid Pride and equality marches as well as the promotion of equality or any sexual orientation besides heterosexuality during public gatherings.

Given the current political and social climate in Poland, it comes as no surprise that the country was ranked as the worst place to be LGBT+ in Europe by the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association this year.

For Jakub Kwiecinski and Dawid Mycek, activists, filmmakers and married couple living in Poland, the government’s stance on LGBT+ rights and the introduction of ‘LGBT-free’ zones has led to a noticeable shift in how the community is treated in the country.

“On paper it doesn’t say that if you are gay you’re not allowed to be there but it encourages people to discriminate and bully LGBT+ people in these areas,” the couple explained. “We’ve noticed many more cases of aggression against LGBT+ people in Poland this year compared to last year because people feel supported by our government.”

Graphic made by Conor Clark

According to a 2017 study by Poland’s Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS), roughly 55% of Polish citizens believe homosexuality is abnormal but should be tolerated and around 24% believe it should not be tolerated at all.

In July 2019, the tension between Poland’s LGBT+ community and those opposing them came to a head when the city of Białystok’s first ever Pride march was attacked by thousands of members of the country’s far-right groups. Hooligans set rainbow flags on fire, screamed homophobic insults and physically assaulted marchers, just weeks after London celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots during its own Pride parade.

Białystok is located in Podlaskie Voivodeship, which is commonly seen as the bible belt of Poland and is a stronghold for political party Law and Justice (PiS). The wider Białystok County that the city is situated in had been declared an ‘LGBT-free’ zone earlier in the year. 

“They say it’s not against people but against [an] ideology,” Kwiecinski and Mycek described. “That is not true. There is no such thing as ideology. We are all LGBT+ and it affects us all. For instance, in some places you are not allowed to promote ‘LGBT+ ideology’ in public areas. If we hold our hands on the streets does it mean we promote something or we [are] just showing our love to each other?”

Jakub and Dawid giving homemade Pride face masks out in Poland

Despite the heightened threat facing Poland’s LGBT+ community, Kwiecinski and Mycek made the brave decision to fight back. Not only did they hand out homemade Pride flag face masks in some of the ‘LGBT-free’ zones during the pandemic, in August of this year they travelled to the Vatican and held up a Pride flag with the word “HELP” written on it in front of Pope Francis.

Graphic made by Conor Clark

“If you live in Sweden you may think it’s not such a big deal but in Poland you cannot unfold the LGBT flag wherever you want,” the couple explained. “I remember that it was at a time when a woman in Poland got arrested for putting a rainbow flag on a Jesus Christ monument. So we also did it to show the Polish Catholic Church that a rainbow flag doesn’t offend anyone in the Vatican so they shouldn’t be offended in Poland.”

The pair’s decision to do this was significant given that the Catholic Church is deeply rooted within Polish culture and roughly 9 in 10 Polish citizens identify as Roman Catholic. Church leaders have often been complicit in the state-sanctioned homophobia engulfing Poland, as was seen when Marek Jędraszewski, the archbishop of Kraków, warned of a “rainbow plague” and implied that the LGBT+ community “undermine  the institution of marriage and the family”.

Kwiecinski and Mycek are “proud” of their trip to the Vatican and are hopeful that they made an impact on Pope Francis, as roughly one week after their plea for help the Pope tweeted to ask his followers to never use their religion as a justification for terrorising people.  

Poland’s recent treatment of the LGBT+ community has been met with widespread international criticism, though this does not seem to have made much of an impact on the situation so far. The European Union recently blocked funding to six of the municipalities that declared themselves ‘LGBT-free’ zones and although the amount of money denied was not significantly high, the move was symbolic given the rarity of this type of financial sanction against a member nation over issues surrounding equality amongst citizens.

In September of this year diplomats of 50 countries, including the UK and USA, signed an open letter pleading for the Polish government to protect and treat its LGBT+ citizens equally. “Human rights are universal and everyone, including LGBTI persons, are entitled to their full enjoyment,” the delegates wrote. “Respect for these fundamental rights… obliges governments to protect all citizens from violence and discrimination and to ensure they enjoy equal opportunities.”

The letter came days after the EU was handed a petition signed by over 340,000 people which demanded the condemnation of Poland’s treatment of the LGBT+ community, as well as asking the EU to urge the government to pass legislation protecting marginalised citizens. All Out, the global movement for love and equality who organised the petition, submitted it during a meeting in Brussels with Helena Dali, European Commissioner for Equality, which was followed by the projection of campaign messages onto the building of the EU Commission. 

“While the talks with EU representatives were positive, we’ll continue pressuring them so they turn their words into action,” Mathias Wasik, Director of Programs for All Out, explained. “The EU must use its leverage and urge the Polish government to respect the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination Poland committed to when it joined the European Union.”

To support the LGBT+ community in Poland, All Out urge people to continue signing and sharing their campaign which can be viewed at www.allout.org/poland. All Out formed the global campaign in partnership with Polish LGBT+ rights groups Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (KPH) (Campaign Against Homophobia) and Lambda Warszawa and The petition that was submitted to the EU is still live and available to sign at the same link.

For LGBT+ activists like Kwiecinski and Mycek living in Poland, the fight for equality is far from over. “Four years ago when we did our amateur Roxette video, we hoped that one day we would be able to get married in Poland,” said the pair. “Nowadays we [have] lost this hope. So many bad things [have] happened towards the LGBT community in Poland that we don’t have such dreams anymore.”

“During the last presidential campaign our president Duda said LGBT [people] are not human, they are ideology… We think about young LGBT kids who listen to this, about our enemies who feel encouraged to attack us because if we are not a human [then] it’s not a crime to attack us. Nowadays we just want to live a normal way, without being scared that someone can punch you for being gay.” 

For more information on the issues LGBT+ people are facing in Poland, as well as to sign their petition to the European Union, visit All Out’s campaign here.

You can find Jakub Kwiecinski and Dawid Mycek on YouTube here and on Instagram here.


‘LGBT-free’ zones: How the rise in anti-LGBT rhetoric made Poland the worst place to be LGBT+ in Europe by Conor Clark

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