On the 12th of October 2020, Cork County Council severed the twinning between Fermoy, and the Polish town Nowa Dęba, which had pledged to “defend against aggressive, deceptive and harmful LGBT ideology”. Haritha Olaganathan speaks to activists working to make progressive change on the ground in Poland.
In a move to mark solidarity with all LGBTQ+ people facing repression in Poland, Cork County Council cancelled twin town status with Nowa Dęba, but beneath that decision also lies a stinging rejection of the blatant anti-queer attitudes that have plagued Ireland’s history and Poland’s present.
11,000 people live in the town of Nowa Dęba in Poland’s south-eastern region known as Małopolska, or Lesser Poland, wherein the majority of districts have declared themselves ‘free of LGBT ideology’.
This wave of statements in Polish districts was sparked by an announcement that would finally begin integrating LGBTQ+ issues into relationships and sex education curricula in February of 2019. This decision provoked the ultra-conservative ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), or Law and Justice Party, to claim that the necessary, inclusive and age-appropriate classes would ‘sexualise’ children.
They cited LGBTQ+ liberation as “an import” placing the country under threat, their blind attempts to degrade queer people means that the ‘LGBT-Free Zones’ have little legal weight, and rather than erasing queer communities, illustrates how threatened the establishment feel by movements for progressive change.
Activists Tiphaine and Róż, members of ROSA International Socialist Feminists are working to help build such movements on the ground in Kraków, the Małopolska’s capital.
Róż remarks that those most vulnerable under the LGBT-Free Zones have been people already part of other marginalised groups or living in smaller cities where the police are likely to have greater influence: “They (PiS) might have felt some kind of empowerment in those hateful views and they started to feel this power knowing that no one will hold them accountable if they use hate speech or target specific people for being LGBTQ+.
“We see this in real life - my friend who is an LGBTQ+ activist was engaged in helping a person from a small town who was being targeted for being gay, and some local people used physical violence [against him].”
Just like Ireland, Poland lacks distinct hate crime legislation, and clear data on homophobic attacks. An EU survey last year found that only 16 percent of LGBTQ+
Poles reported the latest homophobic attack they had endured to the police - which comes as little surprise, given that the lack of empathy from the law is only exacerbated by the pervasion of prejudiced and power-hungry attitudes amongst police ranks.
Suffering regular abuse and discrimination in silence can destroy a queer person’s mental health. Róż summarises that “psychological effects are probably what the declarations brought for the community, in places where it has already been a bad situation.”
There is nowhere in Poland that can be regarded as a complete haven for LGBTQ+ people. Same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are illegal, and soon, single people found to be in queer relationships will be banned from adoption. Life in the smaller towns where PiS thrives can be the most alienating. With next to no gay scene, or safe spaces, homophobia and transphobia exert their strongest grip. A 2017 central poll revealed that two thirds of Polish adults don’t support same-sex marriage and 84 percent don’t support gay adoption.
These hateful ideas don’t come out of nowhere, they are carefully manipulated by the state. One of the central tenets of President Andzrej Duda’s 2019 re-election campaign was the upholding of ‘traditional values’. In other words, the patriarchal family structures that establish a culture of obedience and respect for his government’s status quo. Duda conscientiously paints any divergence from these expectations as foreign, and frequently uses hate speech towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Tiphaine references “lots of debate last year about sexual education where they’d compare being an LGBTQ+ person with being a child abuser … things that would seem absurd, very insane in fact, but this propaganda from the state gives a free card for the homophobes to continue with vicious attacks and tells the population that it’s okay to be homophobic.”
I asked her where these ties between Church and state originated:
“To understand that we have to talk a bit about the history of capitalism in Poland. It is a system that was brought back after the fall of Stalinism in the early ‘90s, and restoring capitalism meant totally crushing workers’ rights, workers’ living standards and so on. To make this accepted by the working class and Polish people in general, [the ruling class] had to rely on [the backing of] influential forces such as the Catholic Church, - they had to make a lot of concessions towards the Church, including the ban on abortions, religious education in schools and financial advantages for the Church.
“The Polish state, due to its alliance with the most conservative force, feels threatened by the progressive movements such as the LGBTQ+ movement because it threatens the alliance they have and on which they rely to maintain their power.”
PiS tapped into the latent hompohobic, and to a small extent, far-right mood in society to gain electoral support amongst this layer. But their hate-fuelled slogans also act to divide working class people along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, disability and so on - making it less likely that all Poles who face oppression and exploitation at work, at home, or on the streets, will come together and challenge PiS’ power. This ‘divide and rule’ tactic is one adopted by many figures on the right who are at risk of becoming unpopular amongst their voter base. óż cites a recent survey revealing that only three percent of PiS voters voted for the ruling party because of their pro- Church and patriarchal positions. He says that most people view the role of the Church in their lives as a “tradeoff”. “On the one hand, it helps marginalised groups, for example elderly people and people in towns and villages, it helps them cope with their reality. But on the other hand, they don’t want the Church to tell them what to think in every part of their life.” In fact, PiS victories represent the attempt of working class Polish people to end poverty with the meagre social welfare and pension benefits the party promised upon election.
Róż tells me about the swathes of child sexual abuse scandals against the Church that have surfaced over the past few years, spread through viral documentaries such as Tell No One, produced by brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski to account for the ignorant responses of the Church and state to its abuses. It broke records as being one of the most watched videos on Polish YouTube when it was uploaded in 2019, and it now has over 24 million views. Tiphaine says that “the Catholic Church are losing a bit of their authority”, especially amongst youth, as a result.
In Ireland, the Church’s history of brutality towards and repression of women, LGBTQ+ people and children left unforgivable stains on their record, slowly breaking the fort they had created for themselves. Similar to Poland, the Irish government relied on Church support to run the country, as responsibility of schools, hospitals and land was forked out to parishes. Yet any oppressive ideas or prejudices allowed within their walls are unmatched with the general forward consciousness of the majority in Ireland today - illustrated by the outrage following the sealing of Mother and Baby Homes records; or simply the growing lack of tolerance of misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia amongst young people.
This friction between the generally understanding and accepting nature of the Polish masses, and the conservatism of its Church and state has thrust them into action. Sparked by the announcement of an almostcomplete ban on abortions, Polish women led Poland’s largest protests in 30 years, vibrant and militant despite state repression. Tiphaine explained that the demands of the protesters stretched beyond bodily autonomy, but generally showed how disenfranchised Poles feel after years of PiS rule.
The Women’s Strikes were preceded by what was dubbed ‘Polish Stonewall’ protests late last summer, sparked by the arrest of prominent queer activist Margot, that led to local police arresting 47 other protestors and onlookers.
Solidarity protests were set up across Poland alongside smaller actions scattered across Europe.
Tiphaine speaks to the most recent protest for LGBTQ+ liberation she attended: “The last one I remember was last September because there was a lot of tensions last summer around LGBTQI rights. I felt a very strong feeling of combativity within the demonstration; it was also surrounded by horrific right-wing organisations who were counter-protesting, and the Church who were brandishing crosses at us, as if we were vampires.”
The abuse thrust upon them by the state and some locals adds to the blaze of isolation felt by the Polish LGBTQ+ community, weakening their ability to fight alongside other oppressed groups for a better shared future. The fact that the Women’s Strikes, in their hundreds of thousands, still couldn’t defeat the abortion restrictions proves how strong struggles must be to win. As an activist on a range of issues of oppression and exploitation, Róż tells me that emphasising the building of solidarity will help centre the most vulnerable queer people in Poland.
“Listen to the voices of people with diverse experiences, especially those who face financial issues because of their sexual orientation or gender, or housing issues, and integrate with other marginalised groups. For example, housing issues could be resolved in solidarity with non-LGBTQ+ people and tenants.”
He elaborates on the need to break away from any prejudices that exist within the queer community too: “I’ve seen trends making fun of mothers, and people who benefit from government social programs. That’s what, in my opinion, breaks that solidarity and doesn’t help build a broader movement in order to help people realise that they are being played by their government, and that many things that they promise are never realised.”
Tiphaine suggests that beyond building maximum solidarity between all of the oppressed and exploited to break free of simmering discriminatory prejudices in various communities, solidarity can exist beyond borders too.
Similar to town twinships, “a twinship of LGBTQI struggle and start a partnership between local organisations” could have a larger impact.
Three months after Fermoy’s decision to break away with Nowa Dęba, the Polish town became the first to retract it’s ‘LGBT-Free Zone’ label. The lack of tolerance for anti-queer legislation from towns such as Saint-Jean-de-Braye in France, Nieuwegein in the Netherlands and our own Fermoy shows how much attitudes can change. In Ireland, this is demonstrated best through the massive impact of struggles for marriage equality and Repeal.
After the victory of the former in 2015, Panti Bliss made the sharp statement that “It’s not that Ireland has changed today, but that Ireland has confirmed the change that we already knew had happened.”
Struggle and solidarity can change and challenge attitudes, it’s only the conservatism of the ruling class that holds our community back.