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Life under the Law & Justice Party

Life for gay Poles

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The climate for LGBT Poles has deteriorated under the Law and Justice Party, which came to power in 2015. Attacks on LGBT individuals and organizations are on the rise; legal protections against discrimination remain limited; and curricula reforms privilege nationalist themes over messages of tolerance. In an email interview, A. Chaber, executive director of the Campaign Against Homophobia, explains how LGBT activists are trying to adapt.

WPR: What is the current state of LGBT rights in Poland, and how has it evolved in recent years?

A. Chaber: Poland is a member of the European Union, but it is something of an outlier on LGBT issues. According to ILGA-Europe, it scores second to last within the EU when it comes to recognizing the human rights of LGBT people. Even Ukraine, a country whose homophobia has become increasingly well known in recent years, scores better than Poland. The only protection from discrimination granted to lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in Poland is contained in the Labor Code. This ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced as a requirement for EU accession. There is no similar measure covering gender identity.

There are still no legal avenues allowing same-sex couples to register their relationships with the state. Children born to LGB Polish parents abroad are denied Polish citizenship. Due to a presidential veto of the Legal Gender Recognition Act in 2015, transgender people are still forced to sue their parents in a civil court case to change their gender marker. This act, which was approved by lawmakers earlier in 2015, would have introduced administrative measures allowing for adult trans people to transition medically and legally on the basis of medical opinions, instead of having to resort to a civil court case.

LGBT people still have no protections against hate crimes in Poland. This last legal issue is the most worrying. Since 2015, attacks on LGBT individuals, clubs and organizations have become more frequent. Over this period, one in three LGBT people in Poland has faced physical violence, and half have experienced verbal assault, according to the Campaign Against Homophobia and the University of Warsaw Center for Research on Prejudice. The government of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, which came to power in 2015, is openly xenophobic, and is using divisive rhetoric that is radicalizing the far right. The government has also limited freedom of assembly, attacked the independence of the judiciary, changed school curricula and increased funding for right-wing and Catholic organizations. The Campaign Against Homophobia is working with media organizations as well as civil society groups to improve the situation, but many things are simply impossible without a human rights-based legal framework.

WPR: How do the politics of the Law and Justice Party and rising Euroskepticism interact with anti-LGBT sentiment in Poland?

Chaber: The Law and Justice Party is stoking a fear of everything that is foreign, and portraying the EU as an unwanted and harmful influence on Poland. The party is taking advantage of the refugee crisis to show, in their words, that the “EU is forcing Poland to harbor terrorists,” just as they say it has “forced” Poland to adopt the so-called gay agenda. By portraying concern for LGBT rights as a product of foreign influence, the party is contributing to the isolation of Poland’s LGBT community.

Luckily, in spite of these efforts, polls show that anti-LGBT attitudes are not, generally speaking, on the rise in Poland. This is thanks to many years of powerful awareness-raising campaigns conducted by civil society organizations here. Nonetheless, even if the number of anti-LGBT Poles is not growing, the intensity of hate is. In Poland today, loyal followers of the ruling party, as well as a number of radical nationalist groups, are growing in power and resources. They are increasingly dominating public discourse and public spaces, and in so doing they are making it much more difficult for LGBT people and their allies to live openly. These factions are building a climate of indifference toward human rights violations in Poland.

The Law and Justice Party has only been in power for two years, which is not long enough to dramatically change social attitudes. But given the alterations of school curricula, which removed elements emphasizing nondiscrimination while embracing more nationalist messaging, and the entrenchment of other policies, we might soon live in a society where any individual who is not white, straight, cisgender and Catholic is unwanted.

WPR: What are the main priorities for Poland’s LGBT rights movement currently, and how are its tactics similar to and different from LGBT movements in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe?

Chaber: Passing legal protections for LGBT people will be close to impossible in Poland for a number of years. Additionally, we see a number of growing threats on the horizon. The government may try, for example, to limit the operations of our organization by introducing restrictions on receiving funding from foreign foundations, banning activities concerning youth, or simply freezing assets by stating the organization is working against Polish interests. It could also provide more resources to anti-LGBT organizations. Therefore, our current priority is to work with Poles—including professionals such as the police, teachers, psychologists, prosecutors, doctors and nurses—who have the most influence over the daily lives of LGBT people. Through going back to the grassroots and influencing the hearts and minds of people in small towns, schools, stores and offices, we hope to create a movement that will oppose violence and discrimination.

The tactics used in Poland differ from other countries on many levels. In many Western European countries and in the U.S., the distance between decision-makers and citizens is quite small, and people are able to contact their representatives to convey their worries. By contrast, this kind of mobilization of the public to pressure the government is more difficult in Poland. Decision-makers remain detached. The private sector isn’t as engaged either. Lastly, LGBT and human rights issues have not become a major electoral issue so far, with voters focusing more on economic issues.