Zoning out Fundamental Rights and Local Democracy: The LGBT-free zones in Poland

17 April 2020
Zoning out Fundamental Rights and Local Democracy: The LGBT-free zones in Poland

Electoral campaigns, depending on their political vector, can bring the best but also the worst out of electorates, sometimes vehemently condemning any form of discrimination, other times brandishing people’s underlying prejudices. 

How it all started

In the run-up to the last Polish parliamentary elections, held in October 2019, the ruling right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) had to find a new “enemy” to replace migration, its previous campaign’s scapegoat, which was no longer relevant given the significant decline in the number of immigrants. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who, back in 2015, had argued that migrants were carrying “parasites and protozoa”, found himself a worthy new cause, fighting a supposedly Western “LGBT ideology”. Such “ideology” refers primarily to the LGBTI community and those defending LGBTI rights.

The real campaign started in February 2019, when Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafał Trzaskowski signed a declaration supporting LGBTI rights and announced his intention to integrate LGBTI issues into the Warsaw school sex education curricula, following World Health Organisation guidelines. This caused an uproar amongst PiS politicians, with Kaczyński calling LGBTI rights “an import” that threatened Poland and “an attack on the family and children”.  The witch hunt rhetoric was shared by the Polish Catholic Church, calling “LGBT ideology” a “rainbow plague”, and key government ministers, some of whom applauded the statement while others condoned homophobic behaviour.

The trickle-down effect

As a reaction to the Warsaw declaration, conservative local and regional authorities (municipalities, counties and provinces) round the country began declaring the regions under their control as free of “LGBT ideology”. 

The first town to pass in March 2019 a resolution rejecting “LGBT ideology” was Świdnik in eastern Poland.

In July 2019, the conservative newspaper Gazeta Polska started distributing “LGBT-free zone” stickers for shops, businesses or even entire neighbourhoods to display, a chilling reminder of the Judenfrei areas (“free of Jews”) during The Holocaust. Although the Warsaw District Court ordered the newspaper to cease the distribution of such stickers, the damage was already done since it emboldened homophobic forces, which continued to rise in a very significant way.

By August 2019, around 30 different LGBT ideology-free zones had been declared in Poland, including the four provinces which form the “historically conservative” part of the country, situated in south-east Poland: Lesser Poland, Podkarpackie, Świętokrzyskie, and Lublin. 

As of February 2020, one third of local governments officially declared themselves as LGBT-free zones. The so-called “Atlas of Hate” map, compiled by LGBTI activists, illustrates the some 100 municipalities having adopted resolutions that create hostile spaces for members of the LGBTI community. 

Concerning sex education, it has come back with the vengeance: the Polish parliament is about to endorse a socially regressive bill, which will criminalise the provision of comprehensive sexuality education to minors and will impose backwards views on reproductive health, under the pretext of preventing paedophilia. 

What impact?

Although legally speaking LGBT ideology-free zones are unenforceable, they have a strong both symbolic and practical effect, influencing already regressive mindsets through attempts to socially exclude the LGBTI community. They encourage prejudice and active discrimination, condoning hate speech and victimisation of LGBTI people. What is worse, initiatives taken at the level closest to the citizens, that is, the local level, are likely to have a major negative impact on LGBTI people’s everyday lives, seriously undermining their sense of belonging in a local community.

Beyond a conveniently restrictive interpretation of the subsidiarity principle, initiatives such as the LGBT ideology-free zones seriously endanger local democracy, and this should not be tolerated. Progressive measures on the ground are crucial, as explained by Robert Biedroń, Polish Member of the European Parliament (S&D), current presidential candidate for the left coalition (Lewica) and former mayor of Słupsk: “Poland is listed as one of the most homophobic and transphobic countries in Europe, and of course my city was no exception. However, I was elected as the first openly gay mayor in Poland and in Central Europe. This was a turning point: the media attention, our debates on tolerance, openness and diversity challenged people to act differently. In Słupsk, we introduced a ‘Diversity Charter’, the first city in Poland to do so. We introduced policies. We forced not just the city hall, but all city institutions to adopt equality schemes as part of the city's daily life. We also asked our schools and university to debate what diversity means in our daily lives”. 

In terms of reactions from elsewhere in the EU, the suspension or termination of twinning arrangements with Polish towns having declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” can also be a strong signal of condemnation of such practices. This measure has already been applied by a number of Irish and French towns.

Progressive local responses to LGBTI discriminatory measures are critical in the fight against LGBTI discrimination. However, practices such as the LGBT ideology-free zones run counter to the goals and values of the EU. It goes without saying that there should be zero tolerance to such violations.

Urgent need for progressive European responses

In a resolution adopted on 18 December 2019, the European Parliament strongly condemned the LGBT ideology-free zones introduced in Poland and also challenged the adoption of so-called “Regional Charters of Family Rights”, which in fact are discriminatory, in particular against single-parent and LGBTI families. The EP also raised particular concerns over the discrimination against LGBTI people and their fundamental rights by public authorities, including hate speech by politicians and elected officials, in the context of elections. The resolution therefore calls upon the European Commission to assess whether the creation of LGBT-free zones amounts to a violation of the fundamental freedoms of movement and residence in the EU by Poland, infringing key articles of the EU Treaties. Finally, it invites the European Committee of the Regions to consider taking action in response to the development of such zones in Poland.

So far, there has been no follow-up by the Commission nor by our Committee.

Yet, the PES Group has repeatedly called for a proper LGBTI Equality Strategy, which the new socialist Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli has committed to delivering by the end of 2020. The current List of actions to advance LGBTI equality is a non-binding document with very little effectiveness.

While sexual orientation is now recognised in EU law as grounds of discrimination, this does not cover social protection, healthcare, education and access to goods and services. Moreover, EU competence does not extend to recognition of marital or family status. As a result, divergent national legal statuses have serious implications for LGBTI families. We expect the upcoming strategy to properly acknowledge such implications and propose measures to address them at least within the limits of EU competencies. 

With this in mind, we join the call of PES Women for the recognition of the legal family status of LGBTI families to guarantee their freedom of movement for family reunification, parental rights and access to health care and social services. This is all the more relevant in the current COVID-19 crisis.

Lifting barriers for LGBTI people and combating discrimination is our legal and moral obligation in a European Union united in diversity.


Header and map photo credits: Bart Staszewski.

Bart is an LGBT activist from Poland. He is the director of documentary "Article 18"  and the author of project #LGBTfreezones in Poland.

Read more about his project here.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram