There were drag queens and rainbow flags, dancing and chants of “Love everyone.” But the first ever Pride March in the Polish city of Bialystok last month wound up being more of a pogrom than a party.
The thousands of onlookers who thronged along the parade route on July 20 weren’t LGBTQ allies, but rather a hostile mob of hooligans, ultra-nationalists and Catholic hard-liners who had gathered to show the marchers they weren’t welcome.
Outnumbering the 1,000-odd Pride marchers four-to-one, they assaulted and terrorized them, shouted death threats, and pelted them with firecrackers, cobblestones, and bottles, some filled with urine. A mob of men was captured on video beating and kicking a teenage boy with dyed green hair, shouting “Get the fuck out, you pedophile.”
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” said Jakub Przybysz, a 26-year-old medical intern who was struck in the elbow by a cobblestone, leaving him with a bleeding wound and a hematoma. “I’ve never experienced homophobic hatred on such a scale before.”
The violence Przybysz and his fellow marchers experienced that day was the result of an unprecedented wave of homophobia that has swept Poland this year, whipped up by the country’s nationalist government and backed by hard-line factions of the Catholic Church.
“I saw terrified eyes, tearful faces, fear, helplessness,” Przybysz said. “It took me several weeks to deal with this trauma. I'm still working on it, as are many of my friends.”
Advocacy groups, opposition politicians, and the country’s independent human rights commissioner say Law and Justice — the right-wing populist party that has governed Poland since 2015 — has made attacking the LGBTQ community a central part of its platform ahead of upcoming national parliamentary elections in October, painting gay rights as a dangerous, alien ideology that threatens the traditional, Catholic Polish family.
“There’s a big political campaign going on, and we’ve been chosen as the scapegoat to focus on by the ruling party,” said Ola Kaczorek, co-president of Love Does Not Exclude, a group that campaigns for marriage equality.
The cynical bid to drum up conservative votes has had a real-world impact far beyond the halls of government, activists say, with the hateful rhetoric emboldening bigots to threaten, harass and attack with a sense of impunity. Homophobic violence is not counted as a hate crime in Poland, meaning police have no data tracking anti-LGBTQ assaults. But advocacy groups say they are observing a sharp uptick in anecdotal reports of violence and intimidation, fueling feelings of insecurity for Poland’s sexual minorities.
“People who look stereotypically queer or gay are being attacked on the street for this, almost every day,” said Kaczorek. “There are places like Bialystok, or Lublin, where people really don’t feel safe.”
“It’s brought out the hatred that was already there,” she said.
A “rainbow plague”
Gay rights have traditionally been a peripheral issue in conservative, Catholic Poland. But with the ruling Law and Justice party continually campaigning against the supposed threat posed by LGBTQ “ideology,” they’ve become the subject of fierce public debate.
“Law and Justice is depicting LGBT activists as a threat to traditional Polish values,” Robert Biedron, Poland’s first openly gay parliamentarian, who now sits in the European Parliament, told VICE News.
The comments have come from all levels of Law and Justice, which has been blamed for fueling a dangerous wave of nationalism in recent years.
(The party did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment for this story.)
Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski first seized on the topic at a convention in Warsaw in February, describing calls for greater LGBTQ rights as a “great danger” and “an attack conducted in the worst possible way, because it’s essentially an attack on children.”
Since then, Kaczynski and his colleagues have launched one attack after another. In April, he said that “LGBT and gender movements threaten our identity, threaten our nation, threaten the Polish state”; earlier this month he condemned LGBTQ pride marches as a “travelling theater” designed to provoke and cause harm.
The party’s also had support from a powerful ally: the Catholic Church. Earlier this month, Marek Jędraszewski, the Archbishop of Krakow, said in a homily that the country was under threat from a “rainbow plague.”
Right-leaning local government administrations have also willingly joined in Law and Justice’s culture war, with more than 30 right-leaning local governments declaring their districts “LGBTQ-free.”
The government has used state-controlled broadcasters to push its homophobic agenda over the airwaves, making it an inescapable part of the national conversation.
“It’s a really uneven battle right now, because we as the LGBT+ community have to face not only the ruling party but also the Catholic church, and the power of public television,” Mateusz Sulwiński, spokesman for Stonewall Poland, told VICE News. “Almost every day there are stories about us being ill, depraved, wanting to corrupt children.”
One pro-government publication, the conservative magazine Gazeta Polska, even distributed “LGBT-free zone” stickers in one of its issues last month, prompting the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, to warn that the stickers promoted hatred and intolerance.
“Almost every day there are stories about us being ill, depraved, wanting to corrupt children”
The attempts to stoke a culture war over LGBTQ rights appears to be a naked play to rally support from conservative voters ahead of a parliamentary election on Oct. 13.
“It’s mostly connected with upcoming elections,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s human rights commissioner.
For the government, the LGBTQ community represents an easy target in a country where attitudes toward same-sex relationships lag well behind those in more liberal countries to the west.
Activists say that while the status of Poland’s LGBTQ community has steadily improved in the past 10-15 years, particularly in more cosmopolitan areas, homophobic attitudes still prevail in many parts of the country. Same-sex marriage remains illegal and same-sex partnerships aren’t legally recognized. These realities have earned Poland the second-worst ranking of 28 European Union states when it comes to equality and non-discrimination, according to gay rights organization Rainbow Europe.
In this environment, Bodnar said, the government’s agitation on LGBTQ issues was calculated to drum up support from the party’s conservative base. Stirring up a culture war over LGBTQ rights also distracted from more challenging issues for the ruling party — such as access to health care or education — and created a trap for opposition politicians who support gay rights but don’t want to get defined solely by that issue.
Old tactic, new target
Bodnar and others say that while the level of homophobic rhetoric is unprecedented in Polish politics, Law and Justice's scapegoating of a marginalized minority comes right out of its political playbook.
“It’s the same tactic that was used against refugees, just a different scapegoat”
In 2015, at the height of the European migration crisis, Law and Justice stormed its way into government on the back of a stridently anti-immigration platform, positioning itself as the staunchest defender of Poland from a wave of Muslim immigration — one that it blamed on liberal politicians in Western Europe.
The party’s demonizing rhetoric — Kaczynski warned that Middle Eastern refugees could bring “parasites” and diseases — was blamed for unleashing a wave of xenophobic nationalism, predominantly impacting the country’s tiny Muslim population, estimated to number only 40,000 in a country of 38 million people.
But it was a roaring success for Law and Justice, sending the then-opposition party into government with an outright majority, the first time since the fall of Communism that a Polish party had done so.
“It’s the same tactic that was used against refugees, just a different scapegoat,” said Love Does Not Exclude’s Kaczorek. The difference this time around, she said, was that while there were barely any refugees in Poland — Law and Justice pointedly refused to take any of its refugee quota assigned under an EU agreement — LGBTQ people were a visible minority in every town in the country.
What’s concerning, observers say, is that the strategy seems to be working. Law and Justice looks set to return to power, with a mandate to further consolidate its project of remolding Polish society in its nationalist, illiberal image. Many activists fear that once the campaign is over, the genie of homophobic hate can’t simply be put back in the bottle.
“We won’t give up on fighting for our rights just because some people say we don’t have a right to live in this country”
But while the unprecedented assault on the LGBTQ community has emboldened Poland’s bigots, it’s also bringing out allies, prompting liberal Poles to demonstrate their solidarity. The community is vowing not to bow to the intimidation; while Pride marches were once a rarity outside big cities like Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań, this year will see a record number of about 30 Pride parades held around the country.
“I don’t think Law and Justice will lose these elections, but we’re continuing with our plans anyway,” said Kaczorek.
“We are trying to do our best to show people who we are, and that we’re not a threat. We won’t give up on fighting for our rights just because some people say we don’t have a right to live in this country.”
Cover: People gather to show support for the LGBT community and to show solidarity with the LGBT rights march that was attacked by far-right extremists in the city of Bialystok, in front of the Palace of Culture and Science, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Similar rallies of solidarity were held in other Polish cities. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)