Signs like the one in Puławy have popped up in other places across Poland. They are part of a larger project by activist Bart Staszewski. The problem Staszewski tries to draw attention to is very real. In recent months authorities at various levels of local government — including the city council of Puławy — have been declaring their jurisdictions “LGBT-free zones”.
Currently, about thirty percent of the Polish population lives in these “LGBT-free zones.” The zones are mostly — but not exclusively — concentrated in the south-east of the country, a part of the nation known for its conservatism, traditional religiosity, and underdevelopment. However, to present this wave of homophobic resolutions as motivated by local sentiments is only half of the story. “LGBT-free zone” declarations cannot be legitimately called a grassroots phenomenon.
There are two types of the declaration.
The first one is an explicitly homophobic document. There is no uniform template for the first type of such declarations but many of them express concern with “the introduction of the LGBT ideology to local government communities”. Proponents of the declarations in local authorities insist that their target are not people who identify as LGBT+ but “ideology” that undermines traditional and Catholic values, gender roles and, implicitly, the social order.
Additionally, the declarations frequently refer to sexual education as one of the main avenues though which children are indoctrinated with “LGBT ideology”. They also state that declarations are introduced in response to the actions of politicians at the national level that threaten Poland's "traditional values".
The second type of declaration is the “Local Government Family Rights Charter.” Unlike its explicitly homophobic cousin, this one does not refer to “LGBT ideology” or non-heteronormative persons. Instead, it smuggles conservative values under the guise of protection of the family as an entity protected by the Polish Constitution. What these declarations share with their homophobic counterparts is the ideal of the family: a patriarchal one, implicitly excluding all other models, whether they are non-heteronormative or simply single-parent households. The charter is implicitly aimed at NGOs fighting against domestic violence, too — all in the name of the sanctity of family unity.
Additionally, charters mention in which the parents have extensive rights of forming the education of their children, in particular their right to review organizations involved in school activities — all this under the pretense of protecting the good of the children and families. However, the context in which such declarations popped up makes their intent clear: it is about sexual education and pro-tolerance and diversity NGOs that the extreme religious right in Poland perceives as the source of demoralization.
The family rights charters have been drafted by Ordo Iuris, an organization with financial and ideological ties to a Brazilian religious cult “Tradition, Family, Property.” Ordo Iuris also inspired the more openly homophobic versions.
The Brazilian cult has been excommunicated by the Brazilian Catholic church. In Poland, its proxies have also been criticized by the Catholic hierarchy but Ordo Iuris seems to have been an exception. One of the reasons is that both Ordo Iuris and Polish Catholic church share the extremist stance on abortion.
The language of the declarations and charters is a peculiar amalgamation of inspirations from both East and West.
The “LGBT ideology” (or, in earlier iteration, “gender ideology”) bears a striking resemblance to the notion of the “homosexual propaganda” from the infamous 2013 Russian statute. Both notions refer to activities that are supposed to promote tolerance for the LGBT+ community and in particular help LGBT+ youth come to terms with their sexual activity. Also, “ideology” and “propaganda” are deliberate misnomers because they effectively target individuals from LGBT+ community: an expression of “LGBT ideology” or “gay propaganda” can even be public display of affection by a nonheteronormative couple.
The declarations and charters have drawn inspiration from the West, too. Specifically, emulating the rhetoric of the US religious right, they use the language of freedom as well as parents’ and children’s rights. They present the adoption of the charter or the declaration as an act of self-defense of a community against the external imposition of lifestyle and values locals do not approve of.
In this presentation as acts of local defiance against external demoralization, Polish charters and declarations bear resemblance to the developments in Russia and the US, too. In Russia, between 2006 and 2013 there were nine different instances of regional and local “gay propaganda” bans introduced before the national statute was adopted. Similarly, in the US local and state level is a well-known testing ground for legislation.
However, Polish local declarations and charters are hardly a grassroot phenomenon. Rather, they are inspired from above for the expedience of the ruling party Law and Justice.
The Law and Justice party’s mobilization tactics have been based on targeting specific groups as enemies. After the xenophobic campaign of fear against refugees during the refugee crisis in 2015, the ruling party has targeted LGBT community as the source of internal threat. It found a likely ally in the Catholic church whose representatives compared non-heteronormativity to totalitarian ideologies and spoke of “rainbow plague.”
Polish right wants to portrait the current political conflict as the one between the true Poles, who revere tradition and respect traditional values, mostly concentrated in medium and small towns, and big city dwellers infected with foreign ideas. There is an implied class dimension to it, too: big city dwellers are a corrupt elite that despises the sensibilities of the common, hardworking folk.
The chairman of the ruling party Law and Justice Jarosław Kaczyński called non-heteronormativity and “imported thing.” It is important to remember this national context while one considers local declarations of “LGBT-free zones” and family rights charters. Rather than being expressions of local sentiment, they are utilized by local Law and Justice party members as tool for political mobilization and to demonstrate to the party leaders their active engagement.
The atmosphere in places and regions declared “LGBT-free”, as Tomasz Kitlinski, an LGBT+ activists and a professor at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin has phrased it, becomes stuffy. The entire Lublin voivodship declared itself an “LGBT-free zone”. “For the first time in my life,” Kitlinski said in one of the interviews, “young (LGBT+) people ask me what to do, whether they should stay in Lublin or leave the region or even Poland”.
Kitlinski himself stayed and spoke out against the declaration of the voivodship authorities. He is not the only local activist who has done that. Staszewski’s project, too, is designed to demonstrate opposition at the local level: locals are invited to take pictures next to the “LGBT-free zone” signs in their towns. Signs declaring the city of Ponzań LGBT+ friendly appeared recently on the local authorities’ buildings. They were put up by Stonewall Group, a Poznań-based LGBT+ rights organization. The mayor of a little town of Włodawa in Lublin voivodship spoke up when French partner towns cut ties with their Polish counterparts after the latter adopted declarations of charters.
The declarations and charters, although a part of the broader international phenomenon of reactionary backlash, receive a particular Polish flavoring. Much of that has to do with the history of the country, in particular that of Holocaust and antisemitism. They do not need to be written in German blackletter to elucidate associations with the Nazis declaring certain places and spaces Judenfrei.
This is not to say that the proponents of the declarations and charters are Nazis or anti-Semites — although frankly speaking the latter cannot be ruled out. This is rather to point out that while there is nothing legally binding in the declarations and charters, they are not inconsequential. They are a formal means of exerting informal pressure on public institutions, like schools. And this is why the effective opposition has to come from the bottom if it is to contain the most pernicious effects of the declarations and charters.
Law and Justice would like us to believe in the cleavage between corrupt big city elites and pure, traditional common folk. This is a mirror image of the elitist and classist notion about the backward plebs unacquainted with culture and diversity. In fact, neither of these is true. What is true is that opposition against fear mongering takes place both at the central and local level. And in order to contain the most pernicious effects of the declarations and charters, the latter is the most important.