The new Poland

Holding hands as a threat

Why “LGBT ideology” is part of the government's fighting talk - and how people are resisting it.

A young man with a full beard and glasses is standing on the street. He is holding a street sign up to the camera. The sign reads STREFA WOLNA, OD LGBT, LGBT - FREE ZONE.

Activist Bartosz Staszewski traveled to communities proclaimed “LGBT-free” and took photos of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people living there in front of the street sign

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people (LGBT) are not protected from discrimination by law in Poland. Homophobic hate speech is also not punishable. The most abhorrent accusations can be freely voiced without fear of legal consequences - such as the insinuation that homosexuals want to adopt children to rape them.

For LGBT people like me, 2019 was the worst year since the beginning of Polish democracy in 1989. The right-wing conservative PiS government decided on a targeted political campaign, in the context of which the term “LGBT ideology” popped up for the first time. It was used to incite fear of LGBT people. There is a simple philosophy behind all this: the rainbow represents sin, and the “display of sin” expresses the corresponding “ideology”. For example, even holding hands with same-sex couples is considered reprehensible. The right continued its hate campaign until 2020, when the incumbent Andrzej Duda also joined in the defence of Poland against “LGBT ideology” during the presidential election campaign. In his campaign speeches, he compared “LGBT ideology” to Soviet indoctrination.

“Of course there is homophobia in Poland. But I'm much more afraid of the indifference.”

How do young LGBT people feel when, in addition to the familiar everyday homophobia, they now have to hear that their identity is part of an ideology and is even a threat to society? Such messages spur on a retreat into the closet of silence. After all, coming out has become so much more difficult.

To date, around a hundred resolutions have been passed that refer directly to “LGBT ideology”. They name numerous “dangers” that allegedly emanate from this ideology: It threatens the local Polish culture of Christianity through “homo-propaganda” and the sexualisation of youth. With such resolutions, communities and regions can declare themselves zones free of “LGBT ideology”. The media then began to label all the municipalities that passed these resolutions as “LGBT-free zones”. I then had the idea to reveal the true meaning of the homophobic resolutions with a photo project and a street sign. I travelled around Poland to the places proclaimed “LGBT-free” and took photos of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people living there, always in front of the street sign. I never thought that my project “Zones” would be so well received internationally, but apparently it hits a nerve. My photos unmask the misanthropy of right-wing politicians who propagate it under the pretext of “defence” against “LGBT ideology”. When I travelled through Poland to take photos for the project, I saw how conservative the Polish province is - before the last elections, all the fences and balconies were plastered with posters of PiS candidates. But that doesn't mean that all PiS voters approve of the government's LGBT policy. I think people outside the metropolises tend to shrug off the politicians' statements.

Of course there is homophobia in Poland. But much more than that, I fear the indifference of those who profit from the government's social programmes and therefore accept misanthropy in schools, on the streets and in politics.

Translated by Bernhard Hartmann and Jess Smee