Polish LGBTI+ in the Frontline of the Fight Between Liberalism and Illiberalism

Main Image Credit Equality march in Poland. Courtesy of Klarqa / Wikimedia Commons.

The recent Polish presidential elections were fuelled with anti-LGBTI+ bigotry. The battle resembled the broader current European fight between liberalism and illiberalism.

Throughout Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, the struggle for LGBTI+ equality has created a new political faultline for Europe. For the last five years, regional conservative leaders have spread bigotry concerning the rights and equal treatment of sexual and gender minorities. 

Politicians linked to Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party (PiS) have a track record of scapegoating minorities during election campaigns. In 2014, it was the ‘threat’ of Muslim migrants disrupting Poland’s homogeneous Catholic society which was portrayed as a big danger. And, since no Muslims migrated to Poland, PiS had to scapegoat another minority. With the LGBTI+ movement gaining visibility across the world, including Poland, those who identify as LGBTI+ could easily be portrayed as the biggest threat to the country. 

From an electoral strategic point of view, attacking the movement made sense for Polish President Adrzej Duda, who has been in power since 2015, and has just narrowly won another five-year term in office. For, after Romania, Poland is still the most religious country in Europe; it has a big and conservative countryside pool of voters who evince little empathy for the LGBTI+ community.

The fight against those who identify as LGBTI+ was again highlighted by Duda as a main theme of the recent election campaign. In early June, he launched a family charter pleading for a stop to ‘LGBTI ideology’, a concept which many human rights defenders in Poland and beyond rightly pointed out depicted the LGBTI+ community as an abstract concept, rather than real people.

As if the family charter was not enough, Duda also boosted his ultra-conservative discourse during his campaign meetings. Before he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, for instance, he claimed that ‘LGBT ideology’ was ‘more harmful than communism’.

And, as the campaign for the second round of Poland’s presidential elections took off, Duda broadened his scapegoating. He accused foreign news outlets of interfering in the elections, with a German journalist being singled out by the president. Meanwhile, ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski mixed an older hatred with a newer one by claiming during a TV interview that a win for the opposition would open the way for ‘Jewish restitution claims’ and an ‘LGBT offensive’.

A week before the final electoral round, Duda stated that he wants to constitutionally anchor that children cannot be adopted by same-sex couples. In doing so, he acknowledges the ultra-conservative and fake discourse of Russian-backed organisations, such as Ordo Iuris, that gay people are pedophiles.

While the anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric during the recent election campaign made headlines internationally, the campaign against sexual and gender minorities by political elites in Poland has been going on for several years now. A third of the country’s counties have declared themselves ‘LGBTI-free zones’, a move which was criticised by the European Commission and the European Parliament

A ‘Culture War’ Between West and East

The declaration of a culture war against the LGBTI+ community is not limited to Poland. There are plenty of other conservative leaders benefiting from well-funded international organisations as diverse as the American evangelical church or Russian intelligence organisations. And the fight against LGBTI+ rights has been framed by these conservative elites in the broader fight against liberal democracy and the EU. 

Annually, conservative leaders come together in the World Congress of Families (WCF); an international conference where they gather to set out their objectives and strategies. Polish policymakers and NGOs close to the government have participated several times. The same goes for Hungarian government officials. The Hungarian state-secretary for family and international affairs and vice-president of ruling party Fidesz, Katalin Novak, has taken up a global leadership role within the anti-LGBTI+ and anti-gender movement. And Hungary followed a similar trajectory to Poland concerning social and democratic issues, such as attacks on press freedom, judiciary and civil society. Hungary recently banned legal gender changes, which takes away any legal recognition for transgender and intersex people. 

But initiatives like the WCF don’t just serve a religious and ideological purpose. They also play an important geopolitical role. It is through these organisations that Russia has developed connections with many European political elites. 

Russian oligarchs linked to foreign intelligence operations have directly and indirectly participated in the WCF. While there is no hard evidence of any direct involvement with the WCF, Konstantin Malofeev is a Russian billionaire who promotes Orthodox Christian narratives, and his personal assistant, Alexey Komov, is the conference’s Russian representative. Furthermore, former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin has reportedly financially contributed to the organisation, and his wife, Natalia Yakunina, is said to participate in the conference annually.

It is through Komov that the former Italian deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was connected to the Kremlin. Komov also played a vital role in the connection between Russia and France’s far-right movements. Komov invited Front National MEP Aymeric Chauprade to the same anti-LGBTI+ conference in Moscow that Novak attended.  

It is obvious that the participation of European policymakers in these international organisations is not only a threat to the LGBTI+ community, but also to European democracy and national security. The sole reason for Russia to invest in organisations like WCF is to undermine European values. The Kremlin wages an international war against democracy, and the cultural and soft power perspective is an important frontline for them.

Reason for Hope? 

The Polish presidential elections also showed that the appeal of liberal democracy is not gone in the region. 

In distinction from Duda, the opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski was portrayed as liberal and progressive. As mayor of Warsaw, Traskowski introduced an ‘LGBT equality declaration’. The charter was intended to ensure that all agencies, from schools to the environmental service, had to ensure equality for LGBTI+ people. As mayor, he also participated in the equality parade in 2019 (‘Parada Rownosci’, the Polish name for Pride).

But despite his image, Trzaskowski remained remarkably silent on LGBTI+ rights during the election campaign. It is likely that he did so to appeal to the widest possible audience. If he wanted to win in the second round, he had to address the voters of the far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, as well.

Still, his personal message is not always echoed by his party, the Civic Platform (PO), which has a moderate but complex discourse concerning social issues like LGBTI+ rights. The previous governments led by PO made no progress on such rights. And in Lublin, one of Poland’s largest cities, the mayor is himself a member of PO and has tried to ban the equality parade.

Nonetheless, barely a few months ago nobody would have imagined that the second round of the Polish presidential elections would be so close. The candidacy of Trzaskowski reaffirms the fact that the opposition and civil society in Poland is not dead. It also shows that the opposition is getting closer to defeating the PiS. 

Poland might be one of the most religious countries in Europe. Yet, it has also been one of its most pro-European and socially engaged countries. Nobody is born with bigotry. And human rights defenders in Poland won’t give up until everybody is equal. 

Rémy Bonny (@RemyBonny) is a Belgian political scientist who lived in Poland and Hungary, and is currently setting up the European Coalition for LGBTI Security and Equality, a Brussels-based watchdog that will structurally monitor the anti-LGBTI+ movement in the EU and its links to foreign governments. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution. A minor amendment was made on 23 July 2020.

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