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In Poland’s Upcoming Election, the Law and Justice Party Is Demonizing the LGBT Community to Win
The party is likely to win the vote, but it may eventually lose the broader cultural fight.
RZESZOW, Poland—There are many things that Mateusz and Wiktor, a gay couple who have been together for six years, dream about: building a happy home in the countryside, gaining acceptance from both their families, and, perhaps one day, even being able to walk hand-in-hand in public and stop pretending that they are just friends.
“But today, we would most like to be invisible,” Mateusz, a 28-year-old customer advisor for an IT company in Rzeszow who, along with Wiktor, has asked to go by his first name, told me in late September. Here, in the capital of Poland’s Podkarpackie region, he believes that the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has used him and other LGBT people as tools to divert attention from its own internal power struggles and corruption scandals and to mobilize conservative voters. PiS is set to win landslide victory in parliamentary elections this weekend, and it has made demonizing the LGBT community a cornerstone of its campaign.
In Poland, a staunchly Catholic country, the LGBT community has long struggled with acceptance, but it is only recently that people have become “bolder in showing their reluctance,” Wiktor, a 27-year-old merchant, said. “Some five to six years ago I didn’t feel such hatred. Now, it is cool and trendy to be anti-gay.”
That’s a fact that hits close to home for Mateusz and Wiktor. Their parents are fierce PiS supporters and often praise the party for changing the country. “We say how threatened we feel, but they keep talking about how great PiS is,” Mateusz said. “We haven’t seen Wiktor’s father for some half a year. You know what was the very first thing he told us? That he voted for PiS in the European Parliament election and urged every neighbor to do the same.”
Podkarpackie, one of Poland’s most conservative regions, sits along the country’s borders with Ukraine and Slovakia. It is one of many regions that have sought to make it harder to live in Poland as an gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. Ruling politicians and people close to PiS, including journalists from state-run media and some of the leaders of the influential Roman Catholic Church, have described the LGBT community as “pedophiles,” a “rainbow plague,” a “threat to the nation,” “sodomites,” practitioners of “bestiality,” “vampires,” and adherents of a “dangerous” ideology. Local councils, meanwhile, have pushed forward motions to reject what they call the spread of LGBT ideology. Such motions—which declare LGBT-free zones in homes, schools, and workplaces—have so far passed in some 50 communities and cities in the country.
Grazyna Szarama, a PiS councilwoman from the Rzeszow city council and headmaster of a local complex of private schools, backed one such declaration in her city as a “protest” against the “affirmation” of the LGBT minorities. Eventually, the motion failed. But she is undeterred. “It is such a delicate matter, and for me public demonstrations or pride parades are aggressive and intrusive. I simply don’t want to watch them. And why children are supposed to watch?” she said in her office this fall. Szarama was quick to try to assure me that she respects everyone and said that if any of her pupils came out as gay to her, “she would talk with him.” “But I haven’t got that kind of conversation yet,” she said.
Although LGBT people are often depicted as aggressors in Poland, it is in fact their legal status that is most under threat.
In Poland, same-sex unions are still illegal. Gay couples can’t take out loans, settle taxes together, or inherit. There are no LGBT nondiscrimination protections guarding against being fired from jobs or kicked out of housing. Anti-LGBT attacks are not considered a hate crime by law, and PiS rejected an effort to make them so in a 2016 parliamentary vote. Asked how many crimes against LGBT people were reported in the last five years, Wioletta Szubska from the police press service replied over email that the police “don’t have such data.”
But life for LGBT people feels increasingly dangerous. In July, violence against participants of a pride parade in Bialystok in eastern Poland shocked many in the country. A group of hooligans attacked the marchers, throwing flash bombs, rocks, glass bottles, and other objects, and leaving dozens severely injured. In the following months, the police stopped attempted bomb and knife attacks at parades in Lublin and Wroclaw, respectively.
Meanwhile, a 2017 report by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw found that since PiS entered government in 2015, the Polish population’s exposure to hate speech in the media, including against LGBT people, has increased. And almost 42 percent of young people surveyed in a 2016 study admitted they had used hate speech against gay people. In a recent poll by OKO.press, a liberal publication, men between 18 and 39 years old pointed to the LGBT community as the biggest threat to Poland, ahead of climate change, demographic crises, Russia, and the rise of nationalism.
“The only positive thing is that this situation has strengthened greatly our relationship,” Wiktor said. “We know we only have ourselves in this world. But I fear that if Mateusz died, I will be forbidden to come to his funeral.”
Nikita Szafranski, a 23-year-old IT specialist from Rzeszow who is nonbinary, said it is not easy to be LGBT person in such a conservative region. “I was lucky to be raised by liberal and open-minded parents, and people around me responded positively to my coming out. But I know I am an exception,” they said. According to Szafranski, the LGBT community’s main opponent is people’s ignorance, used cynically by politicians who “ignore the fact that it has a really destructive effect on the lives of many people.” What started with dehumanizing language, they warned, is gradually resulting in the rise of brutality and physical aggression.
And this is not the first time Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS’s heavy-handed leader and Poland’s de facto ruler, has mobilized supporters by inciting public hated of a common enemy. From the early days of the party, he spoke out against weak public institutions and cronyism of the liberal elites, gaining, among his supporters, the image of untrammeled moral rectitude and a tough stand on corruption.
At that time, one word was responsible for his distress: “uklad,” meaning “the system” or “the deal.” The term described the unofficial links between politicians and economic actors, invisible at first glance, but which according to Kaczynski had a tight grip on the whole country. It was not until 2015 that he added to his stalking horses immigrants and refugees. Kaczynski also spoke against leftists, even though for the last 14 years the country has been governed by conservative parties and since 2015 there has been no left-wing party in the Parliament.
What sparked the current anti-LGBT campaign was an “LGBT+ Declaration” signed in February by Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, that included commitments to combat hatred and violence against LGBT people and a promise to launch a school education program along World Health Organization guidelines. PiS saw it as a perfect “electoral fuel,” Jakub Gawron, an LGBT activist who co-organized the Pride in Rzeszow, told me. The campaign to demonize queer and transgender Poles was taken up further by PiS’s loyal media and some members of the Catholic Church. They all “showed up almost as defenders of failing civilization, spreading fear against something that neither they nor their voters know or understand,” Gawron said.
Yet according to Tomasz Kaminski, a member of the city council from the local Rzeszow Development party, the more Kaczynski spreads divisions, the more he embodies the uklad he once fought against. PiS has been accused of undermining judicial independence, rewarding loyalists with public assets, misusing the secret service, diminishing the quality of public services, and leading a coordinated hate campaign against opponents—charges it has denied.
“It’s in the PiS’s blood to have an enemy,” Kaminski said. Party politicians “believe anti-LGBT agenda will mask their own sins and resonate powerfully with conservative voters who see the party as an advocate of traditional family values and Poland’s Christian roots.”
PiS’s anti-LGBT campaign may help it win the election this month. But there are some signs that the party might not win the broader cultural fight. This summer, at least 20 cities across Poland held pride parades. The northern town of Slupsk was the first to have openly gay mayor, while, according to a poll published in September, a record-high 57 percent of Poles expressed support for same-sex unions.
But for Mateusz and Wiktor, it’s cold comfort. After many of their friends turned their backs on them, and their families refused to acknowledge their relationship, they said they are afraid to trust others. And so they’ve focused on building that dream house in the countryside: It “is in a square with fields and forests on both sides. There will never be any neighbors there,” Mateusz said. “We had to invest more money in order to run wires and make new way in such a lonely area. But at least we will able to separate ourselves from the rest of the world.”