WARSAW, Poland – Bart Staszewski was furious and hopeless when local governments in Poland passed resolutions last year declaring themselves free of “LGBT ideology”.
The activist and filmmaker disliked the way conservative officials used the word “ideology” to describe what he believes is a natural desire for people who love one another to be together. At least 100 municipalities or regions, mainly in the conservative south-east of Poland, have issued statements promising to keep out “LGBT ideology” or “family deeds” in support of heterosexual unions.
“I’m just a normal Pole who just wants to have a good life with my partner and one day can marry him,” said the 30-year-old. “Where’s the ideology?”
In response, he decided to protest against the communities that are now commonly referred to as “LGBT-free zones”. This move enraged Poland’s conservative, nationalist government as its posts went viral.
In the face of increasing international criticism from Poland of the treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Staszewski of “joking” that has led some to believe that Poland has a human rights problem.
Staszewski travels to the affected areas, where he briefly puts up a yellow sign with the words “LGBT-FREE ZONE” next to the city sign. He publishes the photos on social media, sometimes with a lesbian or gay man from the city.
The characters in four languages look like military warnings. Staszewski calls it “performance art” which aims to “visualize the literal and meaning of the harmful documents”.
According to the Atlas of Hate, an LGBTQ group tracking the problem, almost 32 percent of the 38 million Poles live in such areas.
Morawiecki selected the activist for reprimand 50 ambassadors in Poland and foreign representatives published an open letter of solidarity with LGBTQ people in Poland.
“He completely falsified reality,” said Morawiecki. “Calling it false news would not do it justice. It was a deep fake. “
The term “LGBT-free” is sensitive because it contains a language association with which Nazi Germany describes areas without Jews – Jew-pure or Jew-free – after they were expelled or killed during the Holocaust.
However, the term was used even before Staszewski began publishing it. A pro-government newspaper, Gazeta Polska, printed stickers reading “LGBT Free Zone” and a crossed rainbow flag last summer. The European Parliament used it in a December resolution denouncing the Polish municipalities.
Representatives of the conservative ruling party of Poland, Law and Justice, which sponsored the resolutions, argue that they are trying to protect families and their Christian traditions, saying that they are non-discriminatory because they do not prohibit anyone from living in the areas.
“I can only say to the dear ambassadors that tolerance is part of the Polish DNA,” said Morawiecki.
But Staszewski and other activists say the resolutions are stigmatizing a minority already suffering of bullying, depression and homophobic violence, including attacks on pride parades. He recites the names of Polish teenagers who died of suicide following homophobia.
He fears Poland might follow Russia, where regional resolutions banning “gay propaganda” preceded a 2013 national law that Human Rights Watch called “an instrument for discrimination and harassment”.
Poland’s Kulturkampf has been simmering for years, but is intensifying as LGBTQ activists become more visible, hold more equality parades, and demand same-sex unions and marriages.
A declaration of tolerance signed by Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in 2019 – mostly symbolic itself – was a major trigger for the backlash. Another was his gay deputy, Pawel Rabiej, who said that same-sex civil unions should be introduced to pave the way for marriage rights and adoption.
President Andrzej Duda made the protection of traditional families a central campaign topic during his successful re-election this summer against Trzaskowski, in which a constitutional ban on same-sex adoptions was praised. He called the LGBT rights movement a “neo-Bolshevism” group that promotes “aggressive sexualization” in schools.
Two cities are now suing Staszewski, while a right-wing magazine has denounced him as a “professional liar”. In Warsaw, where he lives, he was furiously insulted by strangers in public, and Death treats him online, but also many expressions of support.
Staszewski accused Morawiecki of the hypocrisy of making him responsible for Poland’s image problem.
“He uses his power to spread false news,” said Staszewski. “The problem is not the activists. It is the homophobic acts that have been introduced by the local governments. “
Two days after Morawiecki attacked Staszewski, he appointed a new Minister of Education and Science, Przemyslaw Czarnek, who said that LGBT people “are not just normal people”.
Czarnek was also sued by Staszewski for accusing Staszewski co-organized 2018 Equality Parade in Lublin of promoting depravity. Czarnek lost and had to apologize – then he repeated his claim.
Protests took place in Warsaw and Wroclaw on Sunday, expressing outrage that a man’s views had been tapped to monitor schools and universities in the country.
International pressure on Poland has increased in recent weeks. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, explained that “LGBT-free zones” are “humanity-free zones” that have no place in the 27-person block.
Polish cities have started losing funds from the EU and Norway, a non-EU member who is contributing millions of euros in development aid to access the bloc’s common market. Two cities have reversed their resolutions.
While US President Donald Trump sees the Polish government as an ideological friend on issues such as migration, his ambassador has issued a strong reprimand on this subject.
“Human rights are not an ideology,” tweeted Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher and published the letter in which she called for tolerance, which she signed with dozens of other ambassadors. She later said the Polish government was on the “wrong side of history” on LGBT rights.
Mosbacher said Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden agreed on the matter, and that US corporations and Congress would consider Poland’s treatment of sexual minorities in investment and military decisions. This was a strong warning to NATO’s eastern flank ally who relies heavily on the US for protection.
Mosbacher was called to the Foreign Ministry on Thursday, where a deputy minister told her Poland had never persecuted sexual minorities and was “always on the right side of history”.