Last month, members of a LGBTQ sports club were exercising when they were attacked by a group of 30 men wearing balaclavas. Two members of the Homokomando club had to be taken to hospital for treatment. The trainer who hosted the event had one of his teeth broken and suffered a spinal injury.
All this took place in a public park in the city of Gdansk, Poland, a country where anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has been consistently pushed by authorities. In a speech last year, President Andrzej Duda called the promotion of LGBTQ rights “worse than Communism.”
Five weeks after the incident in Gdansk, there have been no arrests, and seemingly no developments in the case. “It shouldn’t be that hard to find a group of 30 masked hooligans kicking about a city like Gdansk,” Homokomando founder Linus Lewandowski told VICE World News over Zoom. “Police are definitely capable of getting this sorted, and if they don’t, we’ll make sure people hear about this.”
Homokomando is a free-to-join sports collective, providing LGBTQ people in Poland with a chance to exercise in groups and establish new friendships. The distinctive name takes direct inspiration from far-right attacks and biased domestic media headlines, which often compare LGBTQ activists to violent agitators.
The group came to prominence after an incident that took place last summer that was later dubbed “the Polish Stonewall.”
On the 7th of August 2020, Lewandowski was among those who gathered outside the Warsaw office of the Campaign Against Homophobia organisation. He was there to express his support for Malgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz, a prominent non-binary activist. Margot was awaiting arrest after allegedly slashing the tires of a pro-life van displaying homophobic propaganda, such as comparing homosexuals to paedophiles. Polish police ended up arresting more than 50 activists that day.
At the time of the protest, Homokomando was just a group of friends willing to take on steeplechase together. After the events of last year, the group started expanding and turned into an openly gay sports collective where everyone was welcome to join and participate in sports activities. Margot’s arrest, during which Lewandowski jumped on top of a police car in protest against police misconduct, was a key moment for the development of the group.
“At the moment, our group has around 50 members, in a few locations,” Linus told VICE World News. “Our main division is in Warsaw. We also have one in Gdansk and a few smaller groups in other cities that we collaborate closely with. We are working on establishing a strong presence in Krakow at the moment. Very often our sessions are attended by people who aren’t necessarily permanent members, but they like to join from time to time. Our paintball sessions are often like that.”
With bars and clubs closed due to the ongoing pandemic, it’s hard for LGBTQ people in Poland to socialise with other members of the community. Homokomando provides space for non-heteronormative individuals to integrate, meet new people, practise a healthy lifestyle and have fun. Participants can participate in activities such as running, callisthenics, cycling, kayaking or paintball.
Homokomando isn’t necessarily a word or phrase that people would associate with a sports group. That’s entirely deliberate, Lewandowski said.
“The name has a bit of comedy and some controversy to it,” he said. “That’s because all of a sudden we are a materialisation of their worst nightmares – they use terms like Homobojówki [Gay hit squads] to describe us, so finally, there is a group out there which responds to that particular terminology. The name itself is quite logical. Homo is for ‘human’ because we stand for human rights, Komando is a reference to commando individuals. That’s because they aren’t scared to intervene in some of the most dangerous situations, they’re physically fit and in some way – are an inspiration to us. Our slogan is – We play sports, defend human rights.”
According to many LGBTQ activists, including Lewandowski, Poland’s public service broadcaster, TVP, plays a significant role in spreading homophobic propaganda in Poland. After winning the 2015 election, the hard-right, pro-Catholic party PiS (Law and Justice) passed a law allowing it to appoint the head of TVP. Since then, the station has displayed bias towards the ruling party. Its approach quickly became subject to many memes comparing it to North Korea.
“TVP leads a big campaign of hate towards LGBTQ individuals, inspired by the words of President Andrzej Duda, who himself said that we are not people but an ideology. They made us the enemy. The level of hate is quite scary,” Lewandsowski said. “Previously, the refugee crisis was their main focus. The public got bored of that eventually, so now we’re the target.”
Lewandowski wants to see Homokomando divisions open in as many cities as possible. He is also planning to organise “equality marathons,” which would be part of each city’s Pride celebrations.
“There will be one in Krakow, for sure, and maybe one in Poznan. Hopefully, every Polish city with its own pride parade will have an accompanying equality marathon in the morning. We also want to actively fight for human rights and the ability to live a normal life here in Poland. We will continue to support other oppressed groups, such as women and pregnant people. We want to be participants in the sports scene of this country. We’d love to be able to send a delegation for EuroGames, LGBTQ-inclusive championships which will take place in Copenhagen this year. We want to inspire LGBTQ kids – to be themselves, to not be afraid, to be active, exercise and enjoy sports!”