Between Repression and Hope: Being Queer in Poland

Participants march during the LGBT Equality Parade parade in Warsaw

Participants march during the LGBT Equality Parade parade in Warsaw

© picture alliance / Matrix Images | Tatyana Zenkovich

Poland is currently experiencing challenges regarding the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Poland's history is marked by both periods of relative tolerance, but also periods of intense persecution. The current political situation is deeply divided. The country used to be and still is strongly shaped by the influence of the Church and the very conservative views followed by the practiced catholicism, but slowly there is change to be seen in this.

A chequered history

Poland's history of LGBTQ+ rights has both moments of progress and periods of regression. In the early 20th century, the situation for LGBTQ+ individuals in Poland was quite good, at least compared to other European countries of the time. In general, Poland was a country where persecuted groups like Protestants, Jews and the Queer Community could lead a somewhat normal life.

The early decriminalization of homosexuality in 1932 was short-lived only. After the invasion by the Germans in 1939, the situation for LGBTQ+ individuals dramatically changed. LGBTQ+ individuals were subject to brutal crackdowns, arrests, and imprisonment. Many were sent to concentration camps, where they faced extreme cruelty, torture, and inhumane conditions.

After World War 2, when the communist regime under strong influence of the Soviet Union established itself in Poland, there was no complete improvement for the LGBTQ+ community. The Soviet government considered homosexuality to be a bourgeois and decadent Western influence. Arrestment, imprisonment, and forced psychiatric treatments aimed at "correcting" sexual orientation or gender identity were part of the reality. On the other hand, underground clubs, gay bars and from 1986 on even a gay newspaper established themselves.

It was not until the fall of communism in 1989 that LGBTQ+ rights activism began to gain real momentum. In 2001 the first Pride Parade took place in Warsaw. However, these events also sparked strong opposition from conservative and nationalist groups. This includes counter protests to Pride Parades, where discriminating slogans are chanted and that always bring the danger of sparking violence.

Current Developments

The strongly conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015, has since then pursued policies that undermine principles of Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary. This process, a classic example of democratic backsliding, weakens democratic institutions. Besides all other terrible influences this has, it also means that the protection of LGBTQ+ people is weakened. Not only this side effect brings danger to the community, also limiting LGBTQ+ rights in Poland is a separate agenda point of PiS Party. .

LGBTQ+ topics do not fit in the conservative worldview of the governing party. They believe in traditional families and are closely related to the catholic church in Poland. The rhetoric is escalating more and more and the state owned media, controlled by the governing Party, is fuelling this development. The protection of children is used as a justification. The high relevance of the church in the strongly Catholic country also is a key player in this development. Many priests and bishops support the anti-LGBTQ narrative and condemn progressive movements.

One of the key developments in recent years has been the introduction of "LGBT-free zones''. This means, they ban equality marches, pride parades and other events related to the LGBTQ+ community. Several regions and municipalities have passed resolutions proclaiming themselves free of "LGBT ideology", wanting to promote so-called traditional values. These declarations, although lacking any legal basis, symbolically stigmatize and discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. The European Parliament has passed a resolution condemning the "LGBT-free zones'', because they break basic human rights, and calling for the protection of LGBTQ+ rights. The EU has also stopped funding municipalities with these laws in place through their Structural and Cohesion Funds. This led to some zones being disestablished, however, it was about money, not about substantive change..

In 2019, the city of Białystok, located in northeastern Poland, became a focal point for the alarming violence against the LGBTQ+ community. During the first-ever Equality March held in Białystok, participants faced intense hostility and physical attacks from far-right extremists and hooligans. These violent incidents shocked both the Polish society and the international community, drawing attention to the increasing polarization and intolerance faced by the LGBTQ+ community in the country.

In 2020, a presidential campaign focused on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric further polarized the society. The incumbent President Andrzej Duda made inflammatory statements, portraying LGBTQ+ rights as a foreign ideology threatening Polish values. These remarks fuelled discrimination and homophobia, contributing to an increasingly hostile environment for the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2019, PiS introduced a bill to ban sex education and discussions on LGBTQ+ issues in schools. Teachers who still discuss these topics can be fired. Extracurricular activities conducted by nongovernmental groups need approval by the ministry. A list of LGBT-friendly ranked schools was published in 2023, leading to a statement by the children´s rights commissioner, where he associated homosexuality with pedophiles and announced inspections of these schools. In the current PiS campaign for the upcoming elections in autumn, traditional family values again take an important role. They portrait gay marriage and adoption through gay couples is a danger to the society.

Hope for the future

Despite all these challenges, there is a strong and resilient LGBTQ+ rights movement in Poland. LGBTQ+ activists, organizations, and allies continue to advocate for equality, visibility, and acceptance. They organize Pride events, engage in public awareness campaigns, and provide support and resources for LGBTQ+ individuals. In 2023 54 % of Polish society believes in marriage equality. This number is rising steadily, as it has only been at 46% in 2020.  In this year's Warsaw Parade- approximately 80,000 people took part. Once again Rafał Trzaskowski, mayor of the city and member of the Civic Platform Party, was a patron of the event. Despite the polarized society and a strongly conservative government, the Pride in Warsaw is the largest in Central Europe.

The upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn 2023 will have a decisive impact on the future situation of the LGBTQ+ community in the country. A united opposition to the PiS party could lead to significant political changes. The largest opposition party, Civic Platform, has also evolved on this issue, shifting from the right to the centre of the political spectrum in recent years and is described by experts as liberal-conservative. The party's leader, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, describes himself as Christian, but in recent years in particular has begun to publicly advocate LGBT rights, such as the introduction of same-sex marriage. The liberal Nowoczena Party has had the greatest benefit and positive influence on the opposition coalition on these issues.