Updated: Nov 1
Writing by Larisa Lesjak. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
It was the 27th of June 2020 when a car decorated with anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ slogans was vandalised. Two months later, a Polish LGBTQ activist Malgorzata Szutowicz (Margot) was arrested. However, the treatment she received was not proportionate to a mere vandalism charge; her lawyers were unable to contact her, she was not allowed to post bail, and she received pretrial detention despite it only being used as a last resort in Poland. Protesters took over the streets of Warsaw, claiming that her arrest was political – a way for the authorities to show that LGBTQ support will not be tolerated in Poland.
Considering the ruling governmental Law and Justice Party and the incumbent president Andrzej Duda are well-known for their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, the treatment she received should be of no surprise. Andrzej Duda, who has been the president of Poland since 2015, signed a "Family Charter" on the 10th of June this year. In the charter, he vows to re-define marriage as a relationship between a woman and a man, states that there should be "no consent for the adoption of children by homosexual couples," and focuses on banning the discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools.
Many Polish liberals hoped that this year's presidential elections would replace Duda with a more liberal candidate to provide the change that is needed to move away from the intolerance that has taken over the country. LGBTQ rights were at the heart of the presidential fight. On one side there was Duda, Law and Justice Party's ally, who claimed that the LGBTQ community pervades an "ideology even worse than communism". On the other side, there was a late-comer to the elections; the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski. Trzaskowski supports same-sex civil unions, has taken part in LGBTQ equality marches and advocated for lessons in schools about bullying against minorities. Although his stance is still very conservative -he opposes the adoption of children by same-sex couples and only supports same-sex civil unions, not marriages - Polish LGBTQ activists still supported him over Duda.
As a result of two opposing stances battling for the presidential seat, the election turnout was the highest in the country since 1989. In the end, Duda won in the second round of elections with only 51 per cent of the votes. Despite the hopes that Trzaskowski could have won and brought in a more LGBTQ-inclusive agenda, Duda's victory is not a surprise in a deeply conservative Poland where the church has a strong political influence.
What does Duda's victory bring to LGBTQ rights in Poland for the next five years? Looking at his first presidential term does not provide much hope. Since the Law and Justice Party and Duda have risen to power in 2015, exposure to hate speech against minorities, including the LGBTQ population, has increased by 25%. In 2016, the government rejected a bill that would consider anti-LGBTQ attacks a hate crime by law. Moreover, at the beginning of this year, a third of all local authorities in Poland have signed a resolution declaring themselves "LGBT-free zones". As a result, Poland is ranked as the worst country in the EU for LGBTQ people in 2020.
Is there anything that can be done to stop the human rights violations that have taken over the country? The role of the international community, especially the European Union, will hold great importance in how the events unravel. At the end of July this year, the EU has rejected grants for six Polish cities due to their treatment of the LGBTQ community. This sparked outrage in the country, as many Poles believe the EU should not be allowed to punish them for their beliefs. Some believed this might push Poland into following the common European values and giving up on the anti-LGBTQ propaganda.
However, the Polish Justice Minister later announced that all those six towns will receive special funding from the government. This goes to show that perhaps even more radical measures need to be taken from the international community in order to shift Poland towards a more socially liberal agenda. It shows that the country's authorities, with the incumbent president Duda leading the way, are willing to do whatever it takes to stick to their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
The situation has left many Polish LGBTQ individuals with seemingly no other choice but to move abroad to countries where they are free to live their lives feeling accepted. A Polish LGBTQ activist posted on Facebook asking whether anyone was considering leaving the country and received hundreds of replies – most from people who were contemplating leaving or have already left. They are leaving not to seek better jobs and economic stability, but because they feel like their country has failed them.
Some are staying in Poland to fight for their rights. Others just don't have the language skills or money to move abroad. Most are terrified of the intolerance they could encounter in their home country. As a result, some couples are pretending to be just flatmates in order to avoid discrimination.
Nevertheless, the community is not backing down. After Margot's arrest, thousands took over the streets, waving rainbow flags and protesting systemic homophobia. At Duda's swear-in ceremony, leftist MPs wore the colours of the rainbow flag to show their support to the LGBTQ community.
But the authorities are not backing down either. The Law and Justice Party and Duda have chosen LGBTQ rights as a scapegoat to score political points. Just a couple of days after Duda's swear-in ceremony, the Polish police detained 48 people in Warsaw as they had been protesting in solidarity with the LGBTQ activist Margot. Allegedly, police randomly picked people from the peaceful crowd marching down the street, and these individuals are now facing charges for taking part in a mob. Many more protesters were injured due to unexpected levels of police aggression.
Some hope is to be seen in the support the LGBTQ community has experienced after the arrests. Lawyers volunteered to defend the arrested, whereas left-wing politicians used their power and platform to raise awareness. But the future remains unknown. Margot is still waiting to hear from her lawyer. If she gets convicted, she is facing up to 5 years in prison. It seems like most of the world is moving forwards while Poland has been overtaken by a conservative, anti-LGBTQ tide. And it is hard to predict where it will take them.