WARSAW, Poland – Bart Staszewski felt angry and desperate when local governments in Poland began passing resolutions last year declaring himself free from “LGBT ideology”.
The activist and filmmaker took issue with how Conservative officials use the word “ideology” to describe what he sees as a natural desire for people who love each other to be together. At least 100 municipalities or regions, mostly in conservative south-eastern Poland, have adopted statements promising not to enter “LGBT ideology” or adopted “family charters” that support heterosexual unions.
“I’m just a normal Pole who just wants a good life with my partner and be able to marry him someday,” said the 30-year-old. “Where is the ideology?”
In response, he organized a protest around communities that are now widely referred to as “LGBT-free zones,” a move that angered the conservative and nationalist Polish government as his posts went viral.
As Poland is increasingly criticized by the international community for its treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Staszewski of carrying out a “hoax” which has led some to believe that the Poland has a human rights problem.
Staszewski travels to the affected areas, where he briefly attaches a yellow sign reading “ZONE LGBT-FREE” next to the city sign. He posts the photos on social media, sometimes including a lesbian or gay man in town.
The signs, in four languages, look like military warnings. Staszewski calls it “performance art” aimed at “making it possible to visualize the literalness and meaning of harmful documents”.
Almost 32 percent of the 38 million Poles live in these areas, according to “Atlas of Hate,” an LGBTQ group that tracks the problem.
Morawiecki slammed the activist after 50 ambassadors in Poland and foreign officials published an open letter of solidarity with LGBTQ people in Poland.
“He completely falsified reality,” Morawiecki said. “Calling it fake news wouldn’t do it justice. It was a deep fake.
The term “LGBT-free” is sensitive because it contains an association of language used by Nazi Germany to describe areas free of Jews – Judenrein or Judenfrei – after being hunted or killed during the Holocaust.
The term, however, was already in use before Staszewski began posting. A pro-government newspaper, Gazeta Polska, printed stickers last summer saying “LGBT-Free Zone” with a crossed out rainbow flag. The European Parliament used it in a December resolution denouncing Polish municipalities.
Representatives of Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party, which sponsored the resolutions, say they try to protect families and their Christian traditions, and say they are not discriminatory because they do not forbid anyone to live in the regions.
“To the dear ambassadors, I can only say that tolerance belongs to Polish DNA,” said Morawiecki.
But Staszewski and other activists say the resolutions stigmatize a minority that already suffers from bullying, depression and homophobic violence, including attacks at pride parades. He recites the names of Polish teenagers who died by suicide after facing homophobia.
He fears Poland will follow Russia, where regional resolutions banning “gay propaganda” preceded a 2013 national law that Human Rights Watch calls “a tool of discrimination and harassment.”
Culture shock in Poland simmered for years, but intensified as LGBTQ activists became more visible, holding more parades for equality and demanding same-sex unions and marriage.
A declaration of tolerance signed by Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in 2019 – itself mostly symbolic – was a key trigger for the reaction. Another was his gay MP, Pawel Rabiej, saying that same-sex civil unions should be introduced to pave the way for marriage and adoption.
President Andrzej Duda made protecting traditional families a key campaign theme during his successful re-election this summer against Trzaskowski, promising a constitutional ban on same-sex adoptions. He called the LGBT rights movement a “neo-Bolshevism” group pushing for “aggressive sexualization” in schools.
Two cities are currently suing Staszewski, while a right-wing magazine denounced him as a “professional liar”. In Warsaw where he lives, he was faced with angry slurs from strangers in public and deadly goodies online, but also many expressions of support.
Staszewski accused Morawiecki of hypocrisy for blaming him for Poland’s image problem.
“He’s using his power to spread fake news,” Staszewski said. “The problem is not the activists. These are the homophobic acts introduced by local governments. “
Two days after Morawiecki attacked Staszewski, he appointed a new Minister of Education and Science, Przemyslaw Czarnek, who said that LGBT people “are not equal to normal people”.
Czarnek was also sued by Staszewski for accusing the 2018 Equality Parade in Lublin, which Staszewski co-hosted, of promoting depravity. Czarnek lost and was forced to apologize – then reiterated his request.
Protests took place in Warsaw and Wroclaw on Sunday, expressing outrage that a man with his views had been asked to oversee schools and universities across the country.
In recent weeks, international pressure on Poland has intensified. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that “LGBT-free areas” are “areas without humanity” that have no place in the 27-member bloc.
Polish cities have started to lose funding from the EU and Norway, a non-EU country which contributes millions of euros in development aid to access the Union’s common market. Two cities reversed their resolutions.
As US President Donald Trump sees an ideological friend in the Polish government on issues like migration, his ambassador issued a strong rebuke on this issue.
“Human rights are not an ideology,” tweeted Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher, posting the letter calling for tolerance that she signed with dozens of other ambassadors. She later said the Polish government was on the “wrong side of history” when it comes to LGBT rights.
Mosbacher says Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden were united on this issue and that US business and Congress would examine Poland’s treatment of sexual minorities when making investment and military decisions. It was a strong warning to the ally on NATO’s eastern flank, which relies heavily on the United States for its protection.
Mosbacher was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Thursday, where a deputy minister told him that Poland has never persecuted sexual minorities and that it “has always been on the right side of history”.
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