Day 6

Why 'LGBT-free zones' are on the rise in Poland

Activists say anti-LGBT sentiment has been growing across Poland following a pro-LGBT declaration in Warsaw. Dozens of regions have declared themselves "LGBT-free zones," and advocates say religion and a fall election are to blame.

Nationalist ruling party calls 'LGBT ideology' a 'threat' amid growing number of Pride marches

On stickers distributed in weekly conservative magazine, Gazeta Polska, this week, the phrase 'LGBT-free zone' circles a rainbow with a cross through it. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Activists in Poland say so-called LGBT-free zones across the predominantly Catholic country point to efforts by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to stoke anti-LGBT sentiment ahead of a parliamentary election this fall.

Local media reports suggest that across Poland, more than two dozen cities and towns — some led by PiS members — have declared their regions LGBT-free zones in recent months. The majority are situated in the historically conservative southeastern part of the country.

While the declarations are not enforceable, activists say they signal a targeted effort to exclude LGBT residents.

"It's a statement saying that a specific kind of people is not welcome there," said Ola Kaczorek, co-president of the Warsaw-based Love Does Not Exclude Association.

The number of supposedly LGBT-free regions has grown since Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski signed a declaration in February supporting sexual and gender diverse communities in that city, Kaczorek said.

Ola Kaczorek, second from right, waves a flag during the pride parade in Warsaw, representing Love Does Not Exclude Association. (Love Does Not Exclude Association)

Officials of the nationalist PiS party, which won a majority in 2015 running on an anti-immigration platform, have been vocal in their opposition to LGBT rights. Activists say that with migration to Poland slowing significantly since 2015, the party is looking for a new group to target.

At a rally ahead of European Parliament elections in May, PiS president Jaroslaw Kacynski told a crowd that "LGBT ideology" was a "threat" to Polish society.

"They are not saying LGBT+ people are a threat, but they're saying that LGBT+ ideology is a threat," said Kaczorek. "Then people who are taking part [in pride marches] are not seen as humans, but as a part of some kind of ideology … [and] that is terrifying for some people."

Violence at pro-LGBT march

On July 20, advocates took to the streets of Białystok, a city in the Law and Justice party stronghold Podlasie Voivodeship, for the region's first-ever Pride march, and were met with violence from conservative and religious protesters. 

Białystok is considered an LGBT-free zone, according to a map plotted by LGBT advocacy group Lambda Warsaw.

Protesters chanted slogans, including 'God, honour, motherland', and burned a rainbow flag, at the first-ever Pride march in Białystok, Poland on July 20. (Agnieszka Sadowska/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters)

Video from the event shows firecrackers exploding throughout the crowd and homophobic chanting from a group of men burning a rainbow flag.

"I have never seen anything like that before," said Małgorzata Mróz, a 20-year-old University of Warsaw student who travelled to join the march.

"People shouted at me that I'm a bitch, that I should die," she said adding that counter-protesters threw rocks and bottles at LGBT advocates. 

It's been just this great grassroots movement that's been growing and expanding- Ola Kaczorek

Both Mróz and Kaczorek told Day 6 there wasn't enough of a police presence.

Police arrested 25 people following the attacks, according to a Reuters report.

While the Polish government did not respond to a question about accusations that they support anti-LGBT sentiment, they did address the violence in Białystok.

"In Poland, there is no acceptance of behaviours slighting the rights of other persons," said Elżbieta Witek, the minister of the interior and administration, in an emailed statement to Day 6.

Małgorzata Mróz, 20, covers her mouth after tear gas is dispersed during the first-ever Pride march in Białystok, Poland, on July 20. The protest became violent when conservative and religious counter-protesters intercepted the march. (Agata Kubis/Submitted by Malgorzata Mroz)

But while the country's Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski told private broadcaster TVN on Sunday that LGBT people shouldn't be excluded in Poland, he questioned the intent of pride marches.

"These kinds of marches, initiated by groups that are trying to force through their non-standard sexual behaviours, awaken resistance ... it's worth considering if such events should be organized in the future," he said. 

Mróz, who grew up in Częstochowa, organized a pride march in the small, southern city last year. There was no violence like that in Białystok, but the march was unwelcomed.

"Częstochowa is also my city," she said. "I will be there because it's my place and I have a right to be there."

Church and state

Ahead of last weekend's events in Białystok, Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda opposed the march, in a statement, calling it "foreign" to the region. Wojda also expressed "gratitude" for those who "defend Christian values."

According to 2016 numbers from Statistics Poland, more than 90 per cent of Poles identify as Roman Catholic.

"The church has a huge influence on people and it's a great outlet if someone wants to use it — and the ruling party is using it because lots and lots of people are regularly going to the church," Kaczorek said.

Though Kaczorek believes the Law and Justice party will win a second term in an election to be likely held in October, Kaczorek has hope the LGBT community's activism will pay off.

Participants attend the city's first Pride march in support of the LGBT community in Bialystok, Poland, on July 20. (Agnieszka Sadowska/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters)

When Gazeta Polska, a conservative weekly magazine, included stickers emblazoned with the words "LGBT-free zone" in Wednesday's issue, a Polish judge ordered a ban on distributing the stickers any further Thursday.

Kaczorek believes if the ruling party continues to oppose LGBT rights, it will encourage the community to fight back. 

This year, there were more than 20 pride marches across Poland's 16 voivodeships.

"It's been just this great grassroots movement that's been growing and expanding — and there are new young people in smaller towns that don't want to migrate to bigger cities," Kaczorek said.

"They want to show themselves in their local communities and do something to show that we are here; we are everywhere. We are normal everyday people."

Written by Jason Vermes. With files from Reuters.

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