Populism in Poland: Implications of the Anti-LGBTQ Campaign

Anthony Cardinale, Editor

In 2015, the far-right populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) won a majority in the Parliament of Poland under the lead of President Andrzej Duda. The rhetoric of Duda, along with many parliamentary candidates, relied heavily on common populist tropes of anti-immigrant sentiment. [1] The political campaign was largely successful due to racially-based fear of incoming Syrian immigrants. However, Poland’s lack of participation in several EU refugee programs has resulted in a political landscape in which immigration does not capture public fears as it once did in the 2015 elections. In its place, PiS politicians have begun a hateful scapegoat campaign against the Polish LGBTQ community to rally emotions and muster political support from its base. [2]

A general tactic of PiS in its anti-LGBTQ campaign is reducing the identity to an ideology and invalidating Polish LGBTQ people in the process. [3] This “ideology” is then attacked on moral grounds, typically using the rhetoric of preserving family values by wildly mischaracterizing queer identity. In a speech, Jarosław Kaczyński, political leader of PiS, said that Poland needs to fight the “sexualization of children,” and affirmed that LGBTQ identity is a threat “not just for Poland but for the entire Europe, for the entire civilization that is based on Christianity.” [4] Another common strategy utilized by PiS politics is equating the “LGBT ideology” to Nazism, seemingly only because they share a dislike for both. [5] Regardless of its logical absurdity, the strategy has proven potent due to Polish trauma of fascism in Europe. Additionally, the political and social influence of the Catholic Church is far greater in Poland than in its neighbors, and vitriolic statements made by many influential members of the church in Poland have done nothing but exacerbate the discrimination experienced by queer Poles. [6]

Comments made by PiS politicians on the campaign trail in 2019 have materialized in insidious ways in the following years. Many Polish municipalities have declared themselves “anti LGBTQ-ideology zones,” barring public displays and celebrations of queer identity. [7] On the federal level, a bill was debated in the Autumn of 2021 to ban gay pride parades throughout the country. [8] These anti-LGBTQ policies and popular rhetoric of political and religious figures have emboldened perpetrators of hate crimes across the country. In 2019 at the Białystok Pride Parade, soccer fans threw paving stones at the participants. [9] Stories such as this are becoming common across the country as the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ people in Poland rises. 

The European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) took great concern over the recent developments in Poland and wrote a letter to European Union Ministers in February of 2022. They write that the increase in physical and verbal assaults has “resulted in nearly half of LGBTI people experiencing symptoms of depression and a growing number of them (12%) planning to leave the country due to homophobic and transphobic attacks by the authorities.” [10] As anti-LGBTQ policies gain popularity with right-wing populists across Europe, there is increasing concern in the international community about LGBTQ migration. Presently, many Poles who identify as LGBTQ are choosing to migrate to more liberal EU countries, with the most common destination being Germany. [11] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) held a roundtable in June of 2021 on the growing trend of forced displacement of LBGTQ people. Their findings make several recommendations, including sponsorship of civil service programs, implementation of safe space protocols, and advocacy for funding support. [12] However, most of these recommendations target host countries and act primarily as short-term solutions. 

The unprecedented freedom of movement granted by the European Union and Schengen Area has concerning implications when viewed in the context of LGBTQ migration. On an individual basis, ease of movement across borders has led many queer victims of verbal and physical attacks to find safety in more tolerant, neighboring countries. However, on a macro level, the mass emigration of LGBTQ people and other like-minded tolerant young people from Poland is incredibly concerning for the political and social advancement of queer people who remain in the country. While it is certainly not the cause, ease of emigration has exacerbated the issue by facilitating an unprecedented brain drain of young, intelligent queer Poles and strengthening the political position of populists.

Safety for victimized queer people should be a priority for the European Union, but it must be addressed at the root of the issue. Sufficient condemnation of discriminatory policies backed by the withholding of funds would help to disincentivize the continuation on the part of PiS in pursuing an anti-LGBTQ political platform. In the absence of significant EU action, similar anti-LBGTQ rhetoric and policy are  being adopted by the administration of right-wing populist Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Péter Krekó, a renowned Hungarian political scientist and economist, said that “the  anti-gay campaign in Hungary came out of almost nowhere this summer; it’s as if they cut and pasted the issue from the Polish government.” [13] If left unaddressed, the human rights violations in Poland have disastrous implications for the future of the European project.

Bibliography

[1] Santora, Marc. 2019. “Poland’s Populists Pick a New Top Enemy: Gay People.” The New York Times, April 7, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/07/world/europe/poland-gay-rights.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ostrovsky, Simon. 2021. “’Anti-LGBT ideology zones’ are being enacted in Polish towns.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/anti-lgbt-ideology-zones-are-being-enacted-in-polish-towns.

[4] Santora, Marc. 2019. “Poland’s Populists Pick a New Top Enemy: Gay People.” The New York Times, April 7, 2019. 

[5] Faiola, Anthony. 2021. “Europe’s deepening divide on gay rights.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/03/europe-pink-divide-analysis/.

[6] Pronczuk, Monika. 2021. “In Poland, an L.G.B.T.Q. Migration As Homophobia Deepens.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/world/europe/poland-lgbtq-gay-migration.html.

[7] Ostrovsky, Simon. 2021. “’Anti-LGBT ideology zones’ are being enacted in Polish towns.” PBS. 

[8] “Poland: Parliament debates bill banning LGBTQ pride parades.” 2021. Deutsche Welle. https://www.dw.com/en/poland-parliament-debates-bill-banning-lgbtq-pride-parades/a-59655348.

[9] Ostrovsky, Simon. 2021. “’Anti-LGBT ideology zones’ are being enacted in Polish towns.” PBS. 

[10] ILGA-Europe. 2022. “NGO letter to EU Ministers on rule of law and human rights situation in Poland.” https://ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/NGO%20Letter%20to%20EU%20MS%20on%20Poland%20for%2022%20Feb%20GAC_updated%202102.pdf.

[11] Pronczuk, Monika. 2021. “In Poland, an L.G.B.T.Q. Migration As Homophobia Deepens.” The New York Times.

[12] UNHCR. 2021. “2021 Global Roundtable On Protection and Solutions For LGBTIQ+ People In Forced Displacement.” https://www.unhcr.org/611e48144.

[13] Faiola, Anthony. 2021. “Europe’s deepening divide on gay rights.” The Washington Post.

[Image Credit: Gregor Zukowski CC BY-NC 2.0]