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It has never been easy for people who don’t conform to heterosexual norms in Poland. The country recognizes few of the rights that the rest of the EU does, like same-sex marriage or civil unions, adoption rights, and protections from hate speech.
But these are particularly tough times, as Poland’s spiritual leaders and ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have turned sexuality into an issue ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 13. And the Polish LGBTQ community is struggling to find ways to respond to the increased pressures that the campaign is stirring up.
Most members of the community worry about the implications of another PiS victory – the most likely outcome according to recent polls. The most alarming scenario would be a PiS supermajority in parliament that allows them to change the constitution.
“We are afraid that not only will there be consent to aggression and violence against us,” says Misza Czerniak of the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which advocates for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in both churches and society, “but also there will be no legal framework for monitoring such crimes.”
Marcin Nikrant, the mayor of this village just a few miles inland from Poland’s northern coast, is angry.
Not at the people of Leśniewo, to whom he has devoted nearly nine years. Mr. Nikrant is openly gay, something uncommon in conservative, Catholic Poland. But he has proven popular, leaving his mark with neat road signs and decorative bus stops.
But now, after winning over his village of 1,700, he sees his efforts at bridge-building being undermined by negative rhetoric coming from the highest levels of Polish leadership. In August, the archbishop of Kraków warned the country was confronting a “rainbow plague.” Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński – widely viewed as the nation’s de facto leader – said Poland was “dealing with a direct attack on the family and children.” He called the entire “LGBT movement” an “import” that threatens Polish identity and national survival.
It has never been easy for people who don’t conform to heterosexual norms in Poland. The country recognizes few of the rights that the rest of the European Union does, like same-sex marriage or civil unions, adoption rights, and protections from hate speech. But these are particularly tough times, as Poland’s spiritual leaders and ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have turned sexuality into an issue ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 13. And the Polish LGBTQ community is struggling to find ways to respond to the increased pressures that the campaign is stirring up.
“I am really angry,” Mr. Nikrant says. “I don’t know what words I should use to talk to people, to tell them [the LGBTQ community] is not your enemy. ... The most annoying is that the Catholic Church takes part in this propaganda.”
Targeting the LGBTQ community
Many feel as if the clock has been dialed back two decades. The first LGBTQ Pride parade was held in Warsaw in 2001 – a landmark moment in the staunchly Catholic, former Communist bloc nation. Mr. Nikrant says it helped get important conversations going among families and the wider nation. Since then, the event has been observed annually in the Polish capital and spread to other towns.
But this election, PiS has opted to use the debate over sexuality as a way to get its supporters to the polls. And the party “has a history of scapegoating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people ... under the rubric of ‘gender ideology,’” notes Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Kaczyński, the leader of PiS since 2003, “tells everyone that it is wrong to hold [Pride] parades,” says Mr. Nikrant. “He gives people [an incentive] to attack. People think, ‘OK, if he can say these things, why can’t we?’”
The mayor sees that himself on Facebook. “It’s behind my back, but I can read it,” he says, listing off the kind of insults he comes across. “There are people who do not have a problem writing these kind of things under their name. Even here in Leśniewo. And when we see each other in the village street, it’s like this conversation did not take place.”
For now, such people are the exception rather than the rule in the village. While some of his voters were upset when they learned that he was gay, he easily won another two terms. When he goes to the senior ball, he does not hesitate to dress up like Elvis or dance with his long-term partner, Jarek. And he is quick to fundraise for a local boy's medical operation – even if the local priests won't allow him to do so on church grounds. Besides being gay, Mr. Nikrant is also an atheist.
“The attitude has changed because he works a lot in the community and the village,” says Anna Lanc, one of several churchgoers backing the mayor. “He did a lot of things all on his own. They used to look at him in a very bad way because he is gay. Now they accept him.”
The power of conversation and direct contact
Anna Ekielska, a board member of Gdańsk-based association Tolerado which provides workshops and counseling for members of the LGBTQ community, considers herself a hard-wired optimist. But she says that the growing flurry of emails from young people who are struggling with rising homophobia as they try to understand their sexual identity gives her cause for concern.
Indeed, the far-right, ultranationalist All-Polish Youth group has unleashed homophobic rhetoric at counter-Pride rallies at several towns across the country. Sporting plastic overalls and blue gloves, they “disinfected” the streets after the first Pride march held in Katowice this year – part of a broader “LGBT-free zone” concept being pushed by right-wing organizations and publications.
While such views are far from a majority, Poland still lags behind the rest of Europe in terms of acceptance of its gay community. About half of Poles (49%) believe that homosexual or bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexuals, compared to three-quarters (76%) of Europeans, according to Eurobarometer.
“Our mission is for the LGBT society to be considered part of the broader society,” says Ms. Ekielska. “That should be the default set-up. LGBT has existed, still exists, and will exist. Maybe this is a step. Before the LGBT issue was not visible, that had a good side and it its bad side. Now it is visible. Maybe it will turn out all right.”
Most members of the community worry about the implications of another PiS victory – the most likely outcome according to recent polls. The most alarming scenario for those defending LGBTQ rights would be a PiS supermajority in parliament which allows them to change the constitution.
“We are afraid that not only will there be consent to aggression and violence against us, but also there will be no legal framework for monitoring such crimes,” says Misza Czerniak, a board member of the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which advocates for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in both churches and society. Mr. Czerniak is a Russian native, but found love in Poland and founded an LGBTQ church choir in Warsaw.
Urszula, a Polish lesbian who declined to give her last name, prefers to keep a lower profile, but says she is determined to keep up the fight for LGBTQ rights even if things turn sour. She helps young people prepare for the confirmation sacrament in her parish. Her family does not know she is a lesbian, but some people in her church do. “I’m not ashamed of it, but I am afraid that it may be misunderstood and that people might disown me,” she says.
One of the priests she directly works with accepts her identity, but another, who is responsible for the broader church community, asked her to keep it quiet – or at least not to flaunt it – if she wishes to remain a member. So far it hasn’t been a major issue, not even at confessions, in large part because she has never been in a same-sex relationship. That could change.
“I told the priests because I believe in the power of conversation and direct contact with another person,” she says. “My personal experience shows that when someone gets to know us better, they often change their minds about our community. People start to be positive about us.”
Editors note: The story has been updated to correct when Mr. Kaczyński assumed leadership of PiS.