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The stifling life of gays in Poland

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With associations falling victim to homophobic violence, an unopposed government in parliament and deeply-rooted Catholic values, it is hard to love freely in Poland.

Like every Wednesday, Juan Manuel, an Erasmus student living in the Polish city of Katowice, waits in line to enter his favourite night club: Klub Pomaranzca. After passing through security checks to make sure that everything is in order, he quickly goes to quench his thirst with a Warka, a Polish beer that costs 75 euro cents. The bar is starting to fill up quickly, so the young man marks his territory like a lion in the Savanna by placing his elbows on the counter. It's at that very moment, when he's struggling with the boozy horde to catch the bartender's attention, that the student from Granada* has time to make eye contact with another person in the club. All it takes is a little dancing and a few beers for that initial contact to turn into a kiss. That demonstration of passion takes place in the middle of the club for everyone to see, including the club's employees. In other situations, none of this would be something to write home about; it's just a typical night out. But the doormen see a problem because Juan Manuel isn't kissing a Polish girl. Instead, he has locked lips with a tall, bearded Italian man.

Everything that ensued "happened very fast" the young man explains, explicitly clear that the attitude of the doorman who was watching them was extremely violent. "He came up to us at full speed and pushed us apart. He kept yelling at us in Polish, implying that what we were doing was forbidden. We confronted him and shortly after, he kicked us out. Words can't describe the frustration you feel in a moment like that."

Like Juan Manuel, thousands of people in Poland fall victim to harassment for their sexual orientation. According to the latest report from Rainbow Europe, an association funded by the European Union, Poland is the third worst country in the EU to be gay, surpassed only by Latvia and Lithuania. What's more, another report from the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland (KPH) claims that almost a third of the LGBT+ community has faced a form of physical or psychological harassment in the last five years.

Slava Melnyk, head of the equality division at KPH, thinks that there are growing tensions in the atmosphere. "Our head offices in Warsaw have been attacked twice: the first time, three men tried barging into our offices while they hurled insults at the employees; the second time, a stranger broke our windows," he explains over the phone. But the KPH isn't the only association that has experienced homophobic attacks. Melnyk mentions the incident his colleagues at Lambda Warzawa, an organisation that has worked with KPH on several occasions, went through when a series of bricks were thrown at their windows.

Both organisations are located in the country's capital, where people are assumed to be more tolerant. However, Melnyk believes that homophobia is a "problem that affects big cities just as much as small towns," although metropolises like Warsaw or Krakow face a "considerable" amount of gay emigration from very small villages.

The Teletubby controversy

Another problem that Polish LGBT+ associations have to contend with is the lack of a budget, especially for smaller organisations. This is the case for Stowarzyszenie Tęczówka, an association in Katowice. Its office, located in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city centre in a hidden alleyway, looks more like a military bunker than a cheery meeting place. Tomasz Kołodziejczyk, a member of the association, says it's a pity they don't have more resources than those given to them by the city council: "We are lucky enough to have a good relationship with the city council, and that they rent the building out to us at a cheap rate. Still, our office is in this state because we lack proper funding. We want to change many things, but we can't do that without a sponsor," deplores Kołodziejczyk.

Entrance to Stowarzyszenie Tęczówka
Entrance to Stowarzyszenie Tęczówka, in Katowice. © Dámaso Mondéjar

Between all the violence and lack of funds, there is another – much larger – barrier to reaching equality in Poland: the country's current government. Ever since the Law and Justice party (PiS) were elected in 2015, concerns about the safety of the LGBT+ community have only grown. In fact, the ultraconservative group headed by Jarosław Kaczyński has a record of homophobic tendencies. In 2007, when PiS was previously in power, they proposed a ban on Teletubbies, arguing that the purple Teletubby Tinky Winky encouraged homosexuality.

Many fear that the progress made in recent years will be in vain with PiS in power. Important achievements like in 2011, when the Palikot Movement (RP) – an anticlerical party led by Janusz Palikot which advocates for the legalisation of gay marriage – won 40 of the 460 seats in Congress, or when Robert Biedrón came out as the first openly gay politician, or when Anna Grodzka became the third transsexual MP in Europe, were all sources of hope for the community. But the outlook seems to have changed significantly since the historic 2011 elections. The number of representatives of the Palikot Movement, which changed its name to Twój Ruch Your Movement (TR) in 2013, fell dramatically in the following elections, despite creating a coalition with four other progressive parties. The group wasn't able to reach the 8% of votes necessary to obtain seats.

"Many Polish voters need to be guided by someone who can appease their anxieties."

The failure can be explained by the massive support PiS receive from the Catholic Church, which is the party's faithful partner. In a country where 97% of the population is Catholic, citizens and politicians alike follow the opinions of the religious authority very closely. Last year, KPH organised a campaign with the slogan "let's trade the peace sign". The head of the association's equality division explains that this initiative was put in place to "reconcile the Church with the gays as much as possible", and to show that homosexuality and religion are not "antinomic". While the initiative was well-received by a minority of Catholic Church members and media, it was wholly rejected by the religious elite. The Polish Assembly of Catholic Bishops even issued an open letter urging other members of the Church not to adhere to this proposal. "We have in no way sought to provoke the Church, quite the opposite," assures Melnyk, who is saddened to see that the main actors of the Church were in opposition.

The report is clear: Poland has become the third least welcoming country for the LGBT+ community in Europe. According to associations, it is largely the fault of a homophobic government, which the Catholic Church is backing with zlotys and political support. Further south, in Katowice, some organisations are trying to prepare their response as best they can.

According to Agnieszka Turska-Kawa, who is currently doing her PhD at the University of Silesia in Katowice and who is a specialist in political psychology and voter behaviour, PiS voters have one common characteristic: a lack of self-confidence. "Some studies confirm that PiS voters need to be guided by a strong personality," she says, "Someone who can appease their anxieties. And it seems that the leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, is exactly what they're looking for."

Trans people, an "attack on families"

Gays are not the only group to suffer from harassment. Trans people (transgender and transsexuals) are also forced to face an inhospitable environment. The obstacles this group has to face in their day-to-day lives are varied, from problems changing legal documents to non-admission in the army for "illness or deformity". What's more, like gays and lesbians, trans people do not have allies in the current government. This is where Jarosław Kaczyński deserves another special mention. Throughout the last PiS election campaign, he defined sex changes as "the latest trend, and an attack on families", and assured that if his party came to power, Polish society would not change.

In spite of everything, employees at KPH seem optimistic: "We have no doubt that the situation will change. Even if it's baby steps, society has to evolve, and we will get to where we want to be," Melnyk says. A message that Juan Manuel agrees with. "For me, what happened isn't going to stop me!" he exclaims, "I've already started speaking out and I think I'll keep going out and having as much fun as before. All of the support I've received from associations and lawyers helps me remember that, luckily, there are a lot of tolerant people here as well."

Cover photo: courtesy of Rainbow Europe.

Translated from Polonia, "medalla de bronce" en homofobia