Young Queer People Are Being Put on Trial For Fighting Hate

Activists in Poland are worried about the future of their country after a string of arrests and the invention of ‘LGBTQ-Free zones'. They tell VICE World News about their struggle.
margot poland lgbtq
Margot, front and centre, is facing  5 years in jail. PHOTO: Małgorzata Szutowicz/Stop Bzdurom

WARSAW – A Polish activist who faces up to five years in jail for allegedly attacking a van covered with anti-LGBTQ phrases says the case has left them “deeply traumatised” and without hope for the future of their country. 

When Małgorzata Szutowic, 28, known as Margot, was first detained over the incident in August 2020, thousands turned out in Warsaw to protest their arrest amid the government’s ongoing attack on LGBTQ rights. Dozens of demonstrators were themselves arrested in the capital in what was later dubbed the “Polish Stonewall” by media.


Margot being arrested in 2020. PHOTO: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The van was one of many funded by an ultra-Catholic group that would drive through Polish cities, displaying posters comparing LGBTQ people to paedophiles and blasting slogans over speakers warning about the risk of HIV from gay men. The activist denies charges of damaging the vehicle and attacking its driver. Margot faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

Poland has been ranked as the worst country in the European Union for gay rights, and is notorious for introducing “LGBT-free zones” – areas that have declared themselves hostile to “LGBT ideology”, and where pride marches and other events are banned. Same-sex couples are unable to marry or adopt, and a number of other activists have been arrested.

In an interview with VICE World News in central Warsaw, Margot said they had no hope of a fair trial in a country where judicial independence has been severely eroded by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. 

A final hearing scheduled for last month was at the last moment postponed until the summer, dragging out the case for almost three years.

“It’s never a fair trial here, in this political climate,” they said. 

“Even if I am found not guilty, I will have lost so much, so much health and time for this. Nothing will compensate for my time in jails, my arrests and so on. The damage is already done.” They suffer with their mental health and have ongoing problems with their immune system.


Despite the maximum sentence of five years in jail, Margot believes they are more likely to be ordered to carry out community service. 

The activist suggested any verdict would be politically directed: aimed at pleasing right-wingers without sparking protest from the left as Poland prepares to hold parliamentary elections this year. 

Margot is on trial along with their friend Zuzanna Madej, known as Łania. Margot is a former member of “Stop Bullshit” - an anarchist, anti-homophobic group that was engaged in direct action protests. They have been detained for their actions, including draping rainbow flags over Warsaw monuments such as a statue of Jesus. 

Margot, who was held in pre-trial detention for two months in 2020, said they had been subjected to police beatings at the time of their arrest, and had been attacked by members of the public on the street. Others detained during the “Polish Stonewall” protest reported violence and humiliation from police while in custody.

Stop Bullshit halted their work shortly after the 2020 arrests, and donated remaining funds worth more than $50,000 (£44,000) to grassroots organisations working on trans rights. Margot now works as an activist promoting access to abortion, which has been all but banned in Poland.

Margot said they had been “burned out” not only by the attacks from authorities, but also their treatment at the hands of Poland’s liberal media and other more mainstream LGBTQ rights organisations.


“We got media attention for a very short period. The liberal media want to talk to trans people, queer people? Very cool. 

“But after that, the same media started to publish TERF articles. They start to make this whole idea that trans people are crazy, you cannot allow trans people in public, it’s dangerous. If your child sees a trans person in public they will want to become trans too.”

And they scoffed at the idea that Poland might now be seen as a Western ally because of its help for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, after so many years as the ‘problem child’ of Europe.

“In a sense, we are already part of Russia, not only in gender but in terms of human rights and values.”

Recently, the Polish education minister blamed the rise in attempted suicides among teenagers on “LGBT ideologies” that “wreak havoc on the minds of children”. Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS, said that self-recognition of gender “destroys the family and destroys common sense”. 

But some activists still take an optimistic view, pointing out that social surveys show growing support for queer people, even after years of PiS rule and in a country where the Catholic Church holds considerable influence.

Slava Melnyk, executive director of the Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), said that the community was increasingly standing up for itself, despite continuing attacks. The country is consistently rated as the worst in the EU for LGBT people.


Gay people were, so far, not being presented as public enemy number one during this election cycle.

“There are silver linings in the clouds,” Melnyk said during an interview at the KPH’s Warsaw offices. 

“I think the more there is hostility from the politicians, from the establishment, from the decision makers, the more the movement is resilient and robust in some places.”

Larger cities in Poland do have queer scenes and in Warsaw, at least, rainbow flags are visibly draped from some windows and on restaurant doors. There are plans to open a queer museum in the capital.

Meanwhile the head of Fundacja Pro, the group behind the vans at the centre of Margot’s case, was also found guilty in a district court last week of defaming the LGBTQ community with the vehicles. The rights organisation which brought the case said it set an important precedent, but a representative of the government called it “scandalous”.

Melnyk said that organisations such as his were working with the EU to make sure Brussels did not reduce pressure on Warsaw over LGBTQ rights because of its role during the invasion of Ukraine. “These are not mutually exclusive ideas – to support refugees from Ukraine, and to protect the rights of LGBT people on the national level.”

After the next election, the organisation would focus on legal cases to promote the rights of “same-sex couples, especially those with children, as well as the issues that are important to the transgender community”.

Margot, however, has little hope for change even if PiS loses power in the unpredictable vote late this year. 

“If the opposition wins it will be bad too. As we have learned many times, if they have a good moment, we are not important. If you say, ‘Where is our gay marriage, where is our adoption?’ they will say, ‘This is not the most important thing right now, we will not talk about it’.” 

On their hopes for the future, they said: “I don’t care about hope. I know what I need to do now, and that’s enough. Maybe it will be better, maybe it will not, but every fucking day, we are doing something good.”