Alicja Sienkiewicz was holding up a banner reading "Homophobia kills" when the abuse began.
"You idiot," came the yells from a mob of government supporters at Polish President Andrzej Duda’s re-election campaign stop in Sienkiewicz's hometown of Lublin last week. "Your mother must be ashamed of you." One man elbowed her sharply in the face, twice, as he attempted to shove her out of view of TV cameras.
"The president's supporters were very physically aggressive towards me and my friends with rainbow flags," said Sienkiewicz, recounting the incident to VICE News. "They feel they can be violent because of what politicians are saying."
For Sienkiewicz and her fellow members of Poland's LGBTQ community, the aggressive response was nothing new. Over the course of two consecutive election campaigns last year — European parliament elections in May, and Poland’s national parliamentary elections in October — Poland’s right-wing populist ruling party has unabashedly scapegoated the country’s LGBTQ community, painting it as a malign external threat in a bid to drum up support from conservatives and right-wingers.
Now, Polish voters are set to return to the polls for the country’s presidential elections Sunday, and the ruling Law and Justice party has been at it again. Law and Justice politicians, from the incumbent president on down, have made a stream of anti-LGBTQ statements in recent weeks, emboldening bigots and unleashing a fresh wave of public hostility that’s left the embattled community once again under siege.
"It's gotten worse," activist Ola Kaczorek told VICE News of the impacts of the latest wave of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. "People are starting to see a big increase in hostility towards them, often from their closest relatives."
Kaczorek is the co-president of Love Does Not Exclude, an organization that campaigns for marriage equality. Although it is an advocacy group and doesn’t provide counselling or psychological support, it’s received a stream of emails from distraught LGBTQ Poles expressing their despair at their continued demonization by the government, some expressing suicidal thoughts. Kaczorek says the situation is taking its toll on her and other activists.
"I feel really, really bad recently. I’ve upped my [antidepressant] meds," she said.
"What's making it harder is the fact that, as a community, we are all really tired. It’s been so long, this extended electoral campaign… a long streak of elections during which we’ve been used as a weapon.
"This has taken its toll on us. We are really running out of steam."
"A suitable enemy"
Gay rights have traditionally been a fringe issue in Poland, a conservative Catholic country that's one of six European Union states with no legal recognition for same-sex couples.
But advocacy groups, opposition politicians, and the country’s independent human rights commissioner say Law and Justice — which has sought to remake Poland in line with its illiberal, nationalist vision — has made same-sex relationships a hot-button political issue by cynically stoking a culture war over the LGBTQ community.
Critics say that, in a bid to drum up support from conservative voters, the party has painted the LGBTQ "movement" as a dangerous and alien ideology that threatens the traditional, Catholic Polish family unit.
"This whole thing about LGBT is a purely strategic decision to use this rhetoric in the campaign. It’s a purely political instrumentalization of homophobic rhetoric," Adam Bodnar, Poland’s human rights commissioner, told VICE News.
He said that Duda, the Law and Justice-backed incumbent, was facing a rising challenge from his main competitor, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, who last year pledged his support for LGBTQ rights. Rather than fight the campaign on more workaday political issues where the government is vulnerable — judicial reform, infrastructure, the COVID-19 response — Law and Justice has sought to turn the debate into "something like a moral dispute about the future of Poland", said Bodnar.
"For them, it is much more comfortable to create this ideological war, and present their opponent as an anti-traditional, anti-religious guy who’s going to destroy the moral and Christian character of the nation," he said. The hardline stance on LGBTQ issues would also likely help Duda scoop up voters who supported far-right candidate Krzysztof Bosak, if the race went to a likely second round run-off.
Bodnar said the cynical ploy was a repetition of a winning strategy from 2015, when Law and Justice surged into power on the back of a xenophobic campaign demonizing refugees and migrants as an existential threat. “Now the migrants are gone, and LBGT people have become this 'suitable enemy'," he said.
"Poland is most beautiful without LGBT"
The party’s attacks on LGBTQ people this campaign began when Duda, currently campaigning to secure a second five-year term as president, signed a "Family Charter" earlier this month. The document states that Polish families should live “without fearing the threat of destructive ideologies” and specifically asserts the need to “protect children from LGBT ideology” and “ban LGBT ideology propaganda in public institutions”.
Several days later, Duda railed against the threat of LGBTQ “ideology” at a rally in the town of Brzeg, saying it was “more destructive” than communism.
“My parents’ generation for 40 years fought to eliminate communist ideology from schools, so it couldn’t be forced on children,” Duda said. “They didn’t fight for this so that a new ideology would appear that is even more destructive for people.”
Other Law and Justice politicians and their allies have joined the chorus of attacks. Joachim Brudziński, the party’s vice president and a member of the European Parliament, tweeted that “Poland is most beautiful without LGBT.”
Jacek Żalek, a parliamentary ally of Law and Justice, told Polish station TVN24 that LGBTQ people were “not people, they are an ideology”. Przemysław Czarnek, a Law and Justice MP and member of Duda’s campaign team, delivered a homophobic diatribe during a debate on Polish TV. “We need to defend ourselves from the LGBT ideology, and stop listening to these idiocies like these human rights or this equality,” he said. “Those people are not equal to normal people.”
Another Law and Justice MP, Tomasz Rzymkowski, tweeted a cartoon comparing same-sex marriage to a man marrying a goat.
Duda and Law and Justice did not respond to VICE News requests for comment. But in their statements responding to the backlash caused by the remarks, Law and Justice politicians claimed that they were misconstrued and that they believed in tolerance, while continuing to insist that so-called LGBTQ ideology was a pernicious threat to the country.
“I truly believe in diversity and equality,” Duda tweeted. “At the same time beliefs of any minority cannot be imposed on a majority under the false pretense of tolerance.”
Czarnek took a similar line, saying that while everyone was equal under the law, “it doesn't change the fact that there can't be the slightest consent and acceptance for demoralizing behavior”.
"They’re saying to our faces: we don’t want you in our country"
While Polish conservatives have tried to claim they’re opposed to LGBTQ “ideology”, but not against gay, lesbian or trans individuals, advocates say that’s a meaningless distinction. Their hateful rhetoric, they say, has had an undeniably harmful impact on the LGBTQ community, greenlighting a wave of bigotry from the public.
Since Law and Justice launched its anti-LGBTQ rhetoric last year, more than 100 local municipalities across Poland — in an area covering more than a third of the country — have adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”.
“They’re saying to our faces: we don’t want you in our country,” said Sienkiewicz, adding that local authorities in her hometown laughed in her face when she lobbied them not to adopt the resolution.
Last year, Pride marches in cities across Poland found themselves under attack by mobs of hooligans, ultra-nationalists and Catholic hard-liners whipped up by the government’s incessant stream of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
Sienkiewicz was at the first ever Pride march in the conservative eastern city of Bialystok last July when it came under attack by a mob that outnumbered the 1,000-odd marchers four-to-one. In a wheelchair with a broken leg at the time, she was singled out and surrounded by hooligans, who threw about ten fireworks at her.
"This was the hardest moment in my life, when I was really afraid,” she said.
The following month, a pair of would-be far-right terrorists were stopped by police on their way to the Pride march in Sienkiewicz’s hometown, Lublin, where marchers eventually came under attack from the mob. Sienkiewicz, who was a member of the march’s organizing committee, said the organizers had earlier received an anonymous death threat from someone vowing they would carry out a vehicle ramming attack at the march.
Bodnar, who has issued a statement strongly condemning Law and Justice’s “speech of exclusion and contempt” during the campaign, said he believed the party had realized it had pushed things too far this time, alienating some voters with its dehumanizing, polarizing comments. Faced with domestic and international criticism over the remarks, it had largely dropped its homophobic rhetoric for the final stretch of the campaign.
But for Polish LGBTQ people, that does nothing to undo the damage unleashed by the government’s reckless and cynical politicking, which has once again placed their marginalized community in the crosshairs.
“When I talk to foreign friends about what’s going on here, they’re surprised and shocked, but I tell them: ‘This is normal in Poland now,’” said Sienkiewicz. “We’ve gotten used to it in some way. That’s what’s scary, it’s terrifying.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.