LGBTQ Activists Who Put a Rainbow Halo on the Virgin Mary Narrowly Avoid Jail

The defendants in Poland were facing up to two years in prison.
March 2, 2021, 2:18pm
A participant holds a frame depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo during the first gay pride organised in Plock, central Poland in August 2019
A participant holds a frame depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo during the first gay pride organised in Plock, central Poland in August 2019. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Three LGBTQ activists in Poland who faced up to two years in jail for displaying posters of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo have been acquitted, sparking jubilation among the country’s embattled LGBTQ community.

The defendants – Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, Anna Prus and Elzbieta Podlesna – were found not guilty of offending religious sentiment, because their actions had lacked the intent to offend, the regional court in the central city of Plock ruled today.

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“The goal of the activists was to show support to LGBT individuals, to fight for their equal rights,” said judge Agnieszka Warchol.

The trio had been charged in July 2020 over a protest the previous year, in which they had put up posters in Plock showing the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered icon in the predominantly Catholic country, with her halo rendered in the colours of a rainbow – a symbol of gay pride.

The women said their actions, which provoked outrage from conservative Catholics, were a direct response to a homophobic Easter display at a church in the city, which had portrayed same-sex relationships as a sin.

“What I see is hatred, contempt, aggression,” Prus said of the church’s display during the trial, as she explained the rationale for her protest. “This is what I wanted to protest against, because I didn’t want to lose another friend or colleague. I don’t want them or people I don’t know, who are vulnerable, to feel like they aren’t human.”

The court heard a statement from Tadeusz Łebkowski, a Catholic priest who had filed a complaint about the posters, in which he said he found the overlaying of the rainbow over the image of the Virgin Mary to be insulting, “because those colours are associated with disgusting, reprehensible messages.”

But the court found that the rainbow symbol was not offensive, and the women’s actions were acceptable.

The “Rainbow Madonna” case became a flashpoint in a fierce culture war that has played out over LGBTQ rights in Poland in recent years, in which the government, supported by the church and state-run media, stands accused of waging a persecution campaign against LGBTQ people to shore up support from its base.

Ola Kaczorek, co-leader of the Love Does Not Exclude Association, an NGO which campaigns for marriage equality in Poland, called the ruling “a triumph for the LGBT+ resistance movement in the most homophobic country of the European Union.”

Hailing the bravery of the defendants, Catrinel Motoc, a senior campaigner in Amnesty International’s Europe office, said that the charges should never have been brought in the first place.

“The acquittal of these brave human rights activists shows that the prosecution attempt was nothing more than an intimidation tactic from by Polish authorities,” she said. “Distributing posters of the Virgin Mary wearing a rainbow halo should never be criminalised. Targeting these activists with such absurd and unfounded charges is emblematic of, and unfortunately consistent with, a much wider pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights activists all across Poland.”

More than 160,000 people had joined an Amnesty campaign calling on the Polish Prosecutor General to drop the case against the activists.

Love Does Not Exclude’s co-president Hubert Sobecki said that although the legal doctrine of precedence didn’t apply in Poland – meaning that there was no guarantee that courts would acquit in similar cases – the ruling provided hope “that LGBT+ people can defend themselves against Catholic fundamentalists” in future.

Despite the court victory, Sobecki said, the broader climate remained “very dire” for Poland’s LGBTQ community. The country offers no legal protection against homophobic hate crime, same-sex unions are not recognised and local authorities nationwide have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.”

“In recent years, studies have found that around 70 percent of LGBT+ youth have suicidal thoughts,” Sobecki said. “Even though Poland has been an EU member for nearly 20 years, it’s far behind other member states.”