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Inside Poland's 'LGBT-free zones': 'Homophobia has become a political instrument'

Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ are a grim reminder that, even in Europe, the fight for human rights is far from over. In a special series, we speak to three queer people living inside them.

2020-07-13

The full edition of this article appears in the Attitude Summer issue, out now to download and to order globally.

Words: Ruben Wissing

They have already been around for a year now, the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland. Some 90 municipalities, primarily in south-eastern Poland, have officially declared war on what they deem ‘gay propaganda’.

A far-right Polish news magazine has been distributing ‘LGBT-free zone’ stickers and thousands of hooligans have been attacking Pride demonstrators. Although the European Union condemns what is taking place within its territory, that doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect — the conservative government feels that Brussels should keep its nose firmly out of Poland’s business.

In February 2019, the municipality of Warsaw created a manifesto aimed at achieving equal rights for the queer community, and providing better information on gender and sexual orientation. But what they achieved was the absolute opposite: Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, labelled the manifesto both anti-Polish and a threat to Christian family values, stating that LGBTs* should keep their hands off children, with their “masturbation lessons”.

His statements were met with resounding support from the electorate. He had clearly found a scapegoat for his campaign for the European elections, which he overwhelmingly won. After that, the Archbishop of Kraków – a man with considerable power – took things up a notch by talking about a “rainbow plague” that would infest Poland. Then, the far-right news magazine Gazeta Polska started their ‘LGBT-free zone’ sticker campaign.

As a final, sour cherry on the cake, local authorities in Lublin created an antimanifesto, the first resolution to make a Polish municipality ‘LGBT-free’. At the time of writing, almost one-third of Poland has followed this example. We find out what it’s like to be LGBT and living in one of these zones.

BARTOSZ, 29

Bartosz is a prominent queer activist and documentary-maker from Warsaw. He created the photo project 'LGBT-Free Zones', featuring young queers who live in them.

You put up signs in municipalities that have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free’. What was your goal?

I took part in the Pride parade in Białystok last year. While we were there, we were attacked by thousands of hooligans and ultra-nationalists who threw stones at us. I was scared to death. This was so extreme that I just had to do something. People’s reaction to the violence was to organise solidarity marches throughout the whole country, but what I want to point out in particular is the creation of these ‘zones’ – precisely because it is an invisible homophobic act. I have created entrance signs, placed them in these zones and then asked local young queers to pose with the signs as a statement. They are living in an area where they are not welcome.

What do you think those young people are picking up on in that regard?

Although it’s basically gesture politics, we have a huge problem. Homophobia has become a political instrument. There is no political consensus such as “We don’t want you here” – we were already used to that – but it’s a license to utilise violence nevertheless. Of course, nothing has actually changed within the law, but the symbolism creates a paralysing effect. Teachers, for instance, ask me if they should still be talking about sexual diversity at school. Queers – in public jobs, in particular – now find themselves on thin ice.

Poland's 'LGBT-free zones' (Image: Atlas of Hate)

What have you noticed on a personal level?

I live in Warsaw, luckily, so I feel really privileged. There, I am able to speak up against homophobia, and therefore I consider it my duty to do so. I am originally from Lublin, though, which is now a ‘LGBT-free zone’, so I especially try to support young queers there. Although my family and I are receiving death threats, I’m still better off than the young LGBT [people] in the small villages. They’re the real heroes.

Many have said that the signs from your photo project are reminiscent of those used against Jews in the Second World War.

There’s a reason for that. Between 1937 and 1939, Polish nationalists also made signs featuring anti-Semitic slogans. In the vicinity of Lublin lies Majdanek – a German extermination camp from the Second World War. I remember the history lessons very well, as well as what the tragic result of hate can be in the end. Nearly all of the Jews taken there were murdered. After such a shocking occurrence, we should be setting a good example in Lublin with regard to respect and human dignity, but instead we are the birthplace of ‘LGBT-free zones’.

Are there misconceptions in Western Europe about the situation in Poland?

Although I support the comparison with the Second World War, you mustn’t think that we live in ghettos here. Gesture politics is affecting our lives, but it’s the Polish government that is seriously homophobic. Surveys have revealed that slowly, a growing number of Polish citizens support marriage rights for everyone.

How do you view the future if things continue in the way they are now?

Our extreme right-wing government detests us, and liberal and socialist parties are too small to be able to make a difference. Another possibility here is a ‘Polexit’: if that happens we’ll be heading towards Putin at an even greater rate. The only solution that might work is continuing to increase the pressure. Politicians in Europe in particular should be brave enough to underline that our rights are human rights. If the EU doesn’t make a rock-solid statement about our rights, I’m not too positive about what the future holds for us.

Is there no reason for hope or optimism then?

Oh, yes, there is, definitely, from the new generation. Because we are living in a time of social media, young people are not falling for the lies spun by the Church or TV any more, who say that we are paedophiles, or are creating a “rainbow plague”, as the powerful Archbishop of Krakow claimed. Young people no longer believe that’s true, and Polish queers have never been as united and organised as they are now. Our Pride marches are spreading across the whole country – not just in major cities. The year 2019 was a tough one for us, but at the same time, there were more Pride marches than ever before.

Read more about life inside Poland's 'LGBT-free' zones in the Attitude Summer issue, out now to download and to order globally.