Culture War in Poland: PiS fights for “LGBT+-Free Zones”

In Poland, the Church and the State are working together to create a hostile environment for the LGBT+ community.


Anyone who openly defines as gay, lesbian, bi- or transsexual, or rejects sexual or gender norms for other reasons (LGBT+) in 2019 Poland, needs some serious mental and sometimes even physical strength. Both the Catholic Church and the Polish state are working together to create a hostile environment for the community. The political campaign against the LGBT+ community is not only reminiscent of propaganda against migrants, but could also inspire right-wing radical forces in other European countries. 

In recent years, the national-conservative governing party PiS has focused its election campaigns primarily on presenting Poland as a victim. In this portrayal, Brussels bureaucrats, migrants or the liberal US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros are the perpetrators (the idea for the latter campaign was later adopted by the Hungarian governing party Fidesz). For PiS, messages that emphasize supposed differences between “us” and “them” have proven to be the most effective way to bring party supporters to the ballot box.


The fact that the rights of LGBT+ people are on the political agenda in Poland is partly due to the founding of the new left-wing progressive party Wiosna (Spring) and the shift of the largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO) towards the political centre. PiS addressed the issue and launched a campaign of targeted, explosive messages against the community. In order to strengthen its own conservative base, PiS presents itself as a bulwark against LGBT+ groups, which it portrays as a threat to Catholic family values.


The Catholic Church also sees homosexuals as a threat. The Archbishop of Krakow described the LGBT+ movement as “rainbow plague” – only a few days after hooligans and ultra-right-wing supporters had persecuted, beaten and thrown stones and bottles at the participants of the first LGBT+ parade in the city of Bialystok in eastern Poland.


Escalating Rhetoric 

Right-wing politicians and the media had fuelled the mood against LGBT+ people for weeks. The Catholic Church also initiated outdoor prayers and the Archbishop of Bialystok, Tadeusz Wojda, called on parishioners to “defend Christian values”. He called the LGBT+ parade  “an initiative that is alien to Polish society and discriminatory against Catholics.”


Besides the outbreak of violence in Białystok, this escalating rhetoric has deeply unsettled many people in the Polish LGBT+ community. The chair of the ruling PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, publicly criticised the LGBT+ community as a “threat to Polish identity”. The fight against the so-called Western “LGBT+ ideology” has meanwhile replaced the campaign against migrants.


For some time now, regional PiS officials have been pressing for cities and even entire provinces in the conservative southeast of the country to be declared “LGBT+-free”. LGBT+ activists have counted about thirty such declarations so far. In addition, the conservative magazine Gazeta Polska attached a sticker with the inscription “LGBT+-free zone” to its issue.


Many liberal commentators have drawn parallels between the sticker and the Third Reich’s discrimination propaganda. The deputy mayor of Warsaw, Paweł Rabiej of the liberal party Nowoczesna, said: “We can see that these old thought patterns are now being adopted by many supporters in Poland,” he said, adding that this is being done “under the protective umbrella” of the ruling party and bishops.


Encouraging Hooligans

The political atmosphere in the country increasingly divided, and hooligans feel encouraged by government inaction. One week after the Białystok march, a university lecturer was beaten up in Wrocław, for publicly opposing right-wing extremist graffiti. A few days later, a woman was beaten by a bouncer for wearing a rainbow sweater.


Across the country, LGBT+ organisations, NGOs and opposition parties have demonstrated against the growing hatred against homosexuals. “Hate Free Zone” stickers were distributed, and hashtag #JestemLGBT (“I am LGBT”) became an online trend when thousands of Poles told their family members, neighbours and staff on Facebook and Twitter that LGBT+ people were welcome everywhere.


Society in Poland, where more than 80 percent defines as Catholic, has long been conservative about LGBT+ issues. However, a recent opinion poll indicates that the LGBT+ community is becoming more and more accepted. For example, currently about 41 percent of respondents support same-sex marriage, whereas nine years ago it was only 20 percent.


Recently, the Polish government has increasingly focused its election campaigns on the so-called “LGBT+ ideology” and presented it as an insidious threat to the nation. Other parties are observing how effective this electoral strategy is.


Hungarian Government Testing its Voters

In Hungary, a Coca-Cola poster campaign that aimed at promoting greater acceptance of homosexuals, led to a boycott call by the extreme right-wing Hungarian movement Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) and MP István Boldog from the ranks of the conservative ruling party Fidesz. In addition, the current speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly, László Kövér, provoked outrage when he compared same-sex couples who wanted to adopt children to paedophiles.


In contrast to the Polish government, the Hungarian government is aware of the growing acceptance of homosexuals in society and is rather testing the mood of its voters.  Even the election campaigns of the ruling Fidesz party have always been based on enemy images. After the EU, migrants, non-governmental organisations and the homeless, they are now considering LGBT+ people. The political campaigns in Hungary and Poland have remarkable similarities with government propaganda against migrants.


Best Practice from Poland

At the time of the riots in Białystok, a group of Polish liberals and representatives of civil society, supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, undertook an information trip to Latvia and Estonia to examine the latest developments in the field of protection of minorities and LGBT+ rights.


Miłosz Hodun from the Polish think tank Project: Polska has summarised the results of the fact-finding mission as follows: “In Estonia, Latvia and Poland, acceptance of LGBT+ persons and support for same-sex partnerships is growing. Unfortunately, all three countries are struggling with right-wing populism, which uses hatred against minorities as one of its main instruments. After our study trip, I am convinced that this step backwards is only temporary, as there are significant progressive forces and lively movements in civil society that are not afraid to fight for equality. The political landscape and populist challenges of these three countries are very similar, wherefore it is crucial that liberals stay in touch and learn from each other”.


More information about the project can be found here.



Toni Skorić
Project Manager FNF Prague