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Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ pose an eerie threat to equality in Europe

A recent report of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has shed light on the living conditions of LGBTI people living in Europe and five countries in Central Asia. While some countries, such as Switzerland, have implemented legislation to criminalise anti-LGBTI discrimination, the situation doesn’t seem as rosy in other parts of Europe.

Being LGBTI in Europe isn’t as easy as you may think

According to the 10th edition of ILGA-Europe’s Annual Review, LGBTI hate speech is on the rise and carried out by public figures across Europe. This is common in countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, Turkey, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

The situation in Poland, a predominantly Catholic country, appears to be especially dramatic. Since last year, one-third of Polish towns — reportedly an area bigger than Hungary — have declared themselves ‘free from LGBTI ideology,’ with a rise in LGBTI people wanting to leave for nations with a relatively safer situation.

LGBTI rights in Poland

Poland confirmed the legality of same-sex sexual activity for both men and women back in 1932, introducing an equal age of consent, set at 15, for heterosexual and same-sex couples alike.

Despite some progressive aspects — such as bisexual and gay men being allowed to donate blood, something non-straight men in most countries still can’t do — Poland holds very conservative views towards LGBTI people. Particularly, as Article 18 of the Constitution describes marriage as the ‘union of a man and a woman,’ many interpret this as an implicit ban on equal marriage.

As for LGBTI inequality in all aspects of life, Polish law prohibits employment discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonetheless, there is no legislation in place protecting LGBTI people from hate crimes and/or speech.

What are the so-called Polish ‘LGBT-free zones’?

After Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski of the opposition, centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party, signed a declaration to support LGBTI people in February 2019, several towns reacted by declaring they were ‘LGBT-free zones’.

‘Although these anti-LGBTI resolutions adopted by nearly 100 municipalities in Poland have no legal value, they have great symbolic value. It’s a signal sent to LGBTI people to let them know that local authorities see no place for them in their own cities or towns,’ explained Cecylia Jakubczak of advocacy group Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).

According to the research conducted by KPH and the Center for Research on Prejudice, 70% of LGBTI people in Poland have experienced anti-LGBTI violence and 50% have shown symptoms of depression.

‘The situation of young people is extremely concerning. We fear that these resolutions will have terrible psychological consequences on LGBTI youth,’ Jakubczak warned.

‘LGBT-free zone’ stickers

In July last year, conservative newspaper Gazeta Polska launched a campaign distributing ‘LGBT-free zone’ stickers with its weekly edition. The design included a black X across a rainbow flag.

Several public figures condemned the campaign, while the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government stated they would not sanction the paper to protect freedom of speech. Gazeta Polska’s editor-in-chief Tomasz Sakiewicz explained they did it to prove anti-LGBTI views are censored.

‘We wanted to prove that censorship in this case exists and we have proved it,” Sakiewicz told Reuters. ‘What is happening is the best evidence that LGBT is a totalitarian ideology.’

Activist Bart Staszewski brought the case to the Warsaw District Court. The court placed an injunction on the stickers, but it is uncertain whether they will be banned permanently.

LGBT-free zones add to the country’s track record of preventing peaceful LGBTI gatherings from going ahead. 24 Pride marches took place between March and October — ten more than 2018 — but some of these were violently attacked.

A group of extremists disrupted the first Equality March in Białystok in July 2019. Attackers burned flags, threw smoke bombs, bottles and rotten eggs at the 1,000 Pridegoers, and injured and beat up several people. Moreover, police blocked a bombing attempt during Lublin Pride March in September 2019.

Challenging anti-LGBTI attitudes

Attitudes are hard to challenge in everyday life, but LGBTI public figures are trying to start a conversation about equality.

In December 2018, Polish same-sex couple Dawid and Jakub proposed to each other in public, asking passers-by for help. The two YouTubers recorded people’s reactions on camera for their channel. Their social experiment sparked a debate on marriage equality and was met with positive reactions.

However, they, too, are fearful of the new resolutions adopted by local governments.

‘LGBT-free zones don’t represent the majority of Polish people as those supporting civil unions are more than 50% for the first time now. The problem is that the government encourage radical conservatives instead of punishing them. They feel they can do whatever they want to us,’ they said.

‘A few days ago, we travelled to an LGBT-free zone and our cameraman was attacked, people swore at us. We’re left on our won. As long as no one is stabbed or killed, people don’t seem to care.’

The European Parliament urged Poland to revoke anti-LGBTI resolutions

In December 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on discrimination and hate speech against LGBTI people, including LGBTI-free zones. On 4 February 2020, ILGA presented their annual review at the European Parliament, alongside activists and the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli.

‘We cannot allow the distribution of LGBTI free zone stickers, or the adoption of anti-LGBTI resolutions and not feel responsible for the next phase where physical attacks take place, even if they are carried out by other people,’ Dalli said in her speech.

‘In this context, let me reiterate that the Commission condemns any form of violence, hatred or discrimination against LGBTI people and that it will not hesitate to take any necessary action within the limits conferred to it by the Treaties.’

ILGA Advocacy Director Katrin Hugendubel discussed the next steps in fighting LGBTI-phobia in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

‘EU institutions need to continue to speak out about the Human Rights violations the LGBTI-free zones are, and the European Commission needs to include the violations of fundamental rights in its planned rule of law review mechanisms. EC should also monitor very closely how EU funds are used and should emphasise that EU fundings should not be used for discriminatory purposes.’

‘But we need more allies in this fight against LGBTI-phobia spreading. Some cities have cancelled their twinning arrangements with Polish cities that declared themselves free zones, which is also a way to condemn these human rights violations.’

She finally added: ‘The developments in Poland do not stand alone. In Europe and around the world, we have seen a rise in divisive and hateful rhetoric in election campaigns and public discourse, with minorities being scapegoated. And this is translating into real hate in the streets, not only homophobic and transphobic hate, but on all grounds. One minority is targeted and it leads to another community being targeted, and then another one, and so on down a slippery slope of eroding fundamental rights.’

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