WARSAW, Poland — On Sunday, Polish voters went to the polls in the culmination of a heated and close presidential election runoff. Throughout, the “threat” of “LGBT ideology” has been a recurring theme of the incumbent Andrzej Duda’s campaign. As of Monday, it appears Duda has prevailed. Given the election's results, this feels like a good moment to ask why Duda’s anti-LGBT rhetoric has been politically so productive, and related, how Poland became the European Union’s most homophobic country.
To be fair, Poland has never been an easy place to live for LGBT people. This is due to at least two factors.
To be fair, Poland has never been an easy place to live for LGBT people. This is due to at least two factors. First, decades of Communist rule left behind a conservative and homogenic society. Second, the Roman Catholic Church, which took credit for supporting and nurturing the nation’s democratic opposition before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has created an environment in which it is close to impossible to pursue an LGBT-friendly agenda.
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As Polish democracy matured, positive changes slowly but gradually started to become visible in the first decade of this century. But all of them came to an abrupt halt in 2015 after a huge electoral victory for Polish conservatives. First Duda, a member of the nationalist-conservative party Law and Justice (PiS), won the presidential election. Then, later that year, Duda’s party took the majority in the Polish Parliament. Since then, the story of the LGBT community in Poland is one of a state apparatus whose aim is to both symbolically and literally erase queer Poles from social and political life.
The ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, an annual review of LGBT acceptance in European countries, has become a grim reminder of this decay. In 2015, Poland was ranked 33rd among 49 countries; this year it fell to 42nd place, thus becoming the least friendly country for LGBT people in the entire E.U.
This downfall was instigated by a series of attacks on LGBT people by public institutions, representatives of the Polish Catholic Church and ultra-conservative nongovernmental organizations.
For example, in 2017, the politically controlled Public Prosecutor General’s Office instructed prosecutors to start joining court proceedings where same-sex couples were trying to achieve at least some recognition of their rights under Polish law. Neither same-sex marriages nor civil partnerships are available in Poland. Still, some couples were trying to register foreign marriage or partnership certificates in the Polish civil status records. The decision of the General Prosecutor’s Office was seen as an attempt to intimidate LGBT couples and discourage them from making any attempt to secure legal rights.
Another example comes from 2018, when the Constitutional Tribunal — a court tasked specifically with resolving constitutional questions — overruled the conviction of a homophobic print shop employee who refused to provide services to an LGBT organization. This ruling, while certainly frustrating for LGBT advocates, was not surprising given that the tribunal had been filled with conservative judges nominated by Duda’s Law and Justice party.
The media is part of the problem, with state television and radio using openly anti-LGBT rhetoric, linking homosexuality with pedophilia and sending their journalists — as fake volunteers — to infiltrate the LGBT activist community and report what amount to smear campaigns.
In August 2018, the Krakow Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski claimed that Poland was infected by the “rainbow plague,” a move that was interpreted as a signal for other priests to increase anti-LGBT prejudice among Catholics.
Much of this happened without global attention. But that changed in 2019, when infamous “LGBT free zones” — cities, provinces and counties that adopted resolutions declaring themselves free of the LGBT ideology — made international headlines. This campaign was at least in part orchestrated by ultra-conservative Polish NGOs from the movement Agenda Europe, which seeks to overturn existing laws on basic human rights related to sexuality and reproduction.
The consequences of these activities are clear. From 2016 to 2017, the headquarters of Campaign Against Homophobia — the biggest Polish LGBT rights NGO and my employer — was attacked several times. In 2019, two people were arrested for bringing explosives to the LGBT Equality March in Lublin. Since 2015, independent media and human rights NGOs have repeatedly reported on a suicide crisis among LGBT youths. At the start of June — Pride Month — a 30-year-old man named Michal reportedly died by suicide. His mother blamed homophobia.
LGBT issues are very effective in distracting public opinion and redirecting attention from other more important problems.
Fast forwarding to this weekend’s election, there are several reasons why the Law and Justice party keeps using the Polish LGBT community as its political scapegoat. For one thing, LGBT issues are particularly effective in distracting public opinion and redirecting attention from other more important problems.
A recent example of this strategy occurred in April, when in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, Law and Justice unexpectedly introduced a bill in Parliament called the “Stop Pedophilia Act,” which proposed penalizing members of the “LGBT lobby” for providing reliable sex education. The bill caused quite a media stir, diverting public attention from COVID-related problems. It eventually became buried in parliamentary committees, its propaganda mission complete.
But perhaps the biggest reason Duda pushes homophobia is because it is a tremendous motivator for the conservative electorate. His rival for a second term was Rafał Trzaskowski, a popular mayor of Warsaw. In 2019, Trzaskowski signed the “LGBT+ Declaration,” a document providing guidance for local authorities on topics such as security, education, culture, sport and administration. Duda’s use of the anti-LGBT card was a ploy to appeal to a specific demographic.
And now it seems that this strategy has worked again.
Duda's win means that we can expect a continuation of Law and Justice’s harsh approach toward the LGBT community. However, we can also expect an immediate temporary suspension of anti-LGBT rhetoric as it will not be as politically necessary in the aftermath of such a victory. We can already observe the first signs of this shift in the public language being used. In his first speech after the exit poll results, Duda declared that anyone "offended" by his actions or words over the past five years should accept his apologies. It was an indirect but clear reference to his recent attacks on the LGBT community.
Even so, in the long run, allowing this party continued power will not only signify a constant threat to the Polish LGBT community — it will drastically increase it. An escalation is all the more probable, given that Law and Justice can now refer to the popular vote won by Duda as strong evidence of the support for the party’s homophobic agenda.