Multiple cities in Poland have been accused of creating “LGBT-free” zones. In response, many right-wing online media and politicians have asserted this claim was fake news. “Some MEPs, instead of solving real problems, prefer to debate the issue of Poland again, believing fake news about ‘LGBT-free zones’” insisted former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
The EU is facing numerous issues regarding the pandemic & the related economic crisis. However, instead of dealing with these real problems, some MEPs insist on further debate on Poland, believing the #fakenews about “LGBT-free zones”. Let’s stop this nonsense!
— Beata Szydło (@BeataSzydlo) September 14, 2020
This kind of political skirmish is the latest in a series of clashes between Poland and the European Union. Poland has often been at odds with the EU, despite its relatively recent accession to membership in 2004 and the numerous financial benefits it enjoys in the union.
This is especially true since 2015, when the far-right and Eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS, Prawo i Sprawediewosc) won the national election. Since then, the European Commission launched two formal rule-of-law assessments on Polish constitutional issues. The first one, dating from 2015, was launched after reforms to the constitutional court and state media in Poland. The second one, in 2017, was launched after various quarrels, notably regarding Poland’s refugee policy and uncooperativeness with the European relocation program. These could in theory lead to the stripping of Poland’s EU voting rights. Moreover, Poland is part of the Visegrad group with Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, a political alliance of Eurosceptic central european countries.
This most recent controversy began in 2019. In February, the Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, signed a charter on LGBT rights and announced he would include LGBT-related issues in school curriculums, in accordance with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. This decision was denounced by PiS, calling LGBT rights an “import” to Polish culture. Many Catholic figures also stated their opposition. In response, multiple municipalities, counties or provinces voted “LGBT-free motions” to state their attachment to conservative values, especially in schools.
What are “LGBT free zones” ? And are they fake news ?
The term “LGBT free zones » was first introduced by activist Bart Staszewski. He posed next to some cities’ signs with his own “LGBT free” zones’ sign. Staszewski, with other LGBT+ activists, drew an “Atlas of Hate », a map that locates all those LGBT free zones.
There are about a hundred of these “zones”. They are municipalities or regions, whose local governments have been, since 2018, establishing “Charters of the rights of the family”. They vowed to keep out “LGBT ideology” and protect family values. All those cities are in the South-Eastern part of the country, which is traditionally seen as more conservative.
These charters have been written with the help of the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a conservative legal group, as a response to Warsaw’s LGBT+ declaration. Municipalities claimed that they felt their values were threatened by such declarations.
The municipalities’ charters emphasize the protection of traditional families, namely heterosexual families. Even if the word “heterosexual” is never clearly stated, it is quite explicit. The coordinator of the Charter project for Ordo Iuris, Pawel Kwasniak even called it a “response to threats from far-left ideology, social movements, the LGBT ideology and gender ideology, which are spreading ever more across the world and in Poland”.
Officially, there is no discrimination, just a “reinforcement of the Polish constitution” regarding families’ rights. Therefore, those charters remain legal. But the adoption of such charters creates an insecure atmosphere for non-heterosexual people. Many have testified about moving out from those areas where they did not feel welcomed anymore, and even sensed animosity towards them.
Moreover, Ordo Iuris or local politicians advocate for these charters in order to stop what they refer to as “LGBT ideology”. However, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender is a sexual orientation. It cannot be assimilated to an ideology, which is by definition : “a set of beliefs, on which a political or economic system is based”. Furthermore, talking about the “spread” of “LGBT ideology” refers to the same figure of speech used to talk about fascism or terrorism. It attributes to LGBT people a political vision and some conversion purpose.
On the other hand, the term “LGBT-free” used by activists and even by the European Union when cutting those cities funds, is equally quite sensitive. It alludes to the “Jew-free” zones – Judenrein or Judenfrei – during the Holocaust. It should not be used lightly, as still there is no will to exterminate LGBT people.
Can we consider these places as LGBT free or not ?
The places which have adopted this charter may not technically be “LGBT-free”. Entry or settlement is not forbidden for LGBT people and the charter operates within Polish law. However, according to testimonies from LGBT people, it definitely seems like discrimination.
It is no surprise this is a new source of tensions between Poland and the European union. There is legal basis on LGBT+ discrimination in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 21 explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union allows for taking action to combat this type of discrimination.
Moreover, this disagreement has definitely fuelled controversy around LGBT issues in Poland. A large part of the country is still very religious, and the Catholic church holds a surprising amount of political and cultural power. The situation has led to the harassment of many activists during the last two years.
But this whole situation could also be seen as a political ploy by PiS before the 2020 elections. According to feminist scholar Agnieszka Graff, « the attack on LGBT was triggered by the [Warsaw] Declaration, but that was just a welcome excuse ». The party used this opportunity to rile up the rural-traditional demographic. It could even be said that LGBT people are used as scapegoats, just like migrants during the precedent election.
There is, however, a hope spot in all this for LGBT+ people in Poland. According to a 2017 CBOS poll in Poland, 16 percent of respondent said that being gay was normal compared to 5 percent in 2001.
In conclusion, the statement that LGBT-free zones in Poland are fake news is mostly false. While it is clear that the charters signed by these municipalities do not formally exclude LGBT+ people, they are certainly intended as – and experienced as – an attack on this community, and in contravention of fundamental EU values and principles.