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LGBTQ+ Poles push for swift action to combat rise of homophobia

Demonstrators take part in the Equality March in support of the LGBT community, in Lodz, Poland June 26, 2021. Marcin Stepien/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS

Demonstrators take part in the Equality March in support of the LGBT community, in Lodz, Poland June 26, 2021. Marcin Stepien/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS

What’s the context?

LGBTQ+ activists and lawyers want Poland's pro-European government to act swiftly on planned anti-hate law to curb homophobia

  • Government vows to crack down on LGBTQ+ hate speech
  • Proposals anger right-wing politicians, religious groups
  • Changes not enough to keep community safe, activists say

WARSAW - Mateusz Czyczerski always feared he would be attacked for being gay in Poland and after his worst fears were realised six years ago, the 35-year-old decided to relocate to Germany.

Two men and a woman cornered him in an underground passageway, shouted slurs and then punched him repeatedly in the stomach, before taking his wallet and phone.

"Just my appearance or tone of voice could be enough for people to start harassing me," the professional dancer said, explaining how he used to take taxis home after work in the western city of Wroclaw for fear of experiencing homophobic taunts or threats on public transport.

Czyczerski, who moved to Germany in 2021, now lives in Cologne where he runs a support group for LGBTQ+ Poles who have also left the country.

He is hopeful that a change of government in Poland will rein in the homophobia that played a large part in his decision to leave, but like many others in his community he is waiting for promised reforms to become reality.

Poland is the lowest-ranked country for LGBTQ+ rights in the European Union, according to advocacy group ILGA-Europe.

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At the time of the attack on Czyczerski, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party was in power and was accused by critics of fomenting homophobia.

In December last year, a pro-European government led by former European Council President Donald Tusk took over, and it has promised to bolster protections for LGBTQ+ people.

The new government has pledged to make violence, threats or insults against people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, gender, age or disability into aggravated offences that carry heavier penalties.

Currently only crimes motivated by national, ethnic, racial, political or religious affiliation are classed as aggravated offences.

The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code could be voted on in parliament as early as this month. Tusk's government also promised to legalise same-sex civil partnerships in its first 100 days in office but it failed to meet that deadline, drawing calls from activists for swifter action.

In late May, Equality Minister Katarzyna Kotula said the coalition government would decide on a joint approach only after European Parliament elections, which took place last weekend.

People attend the 'Equality Parade' rally in support of the LGBT community, in Warsaw, Poland June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

People attend the "Equality Parade" rally in support of the LGBT community, in Warsaw, Poland June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

People attend the "Equality Parade" rally in support of the LGBT community, in Warsaw, Poland June 19, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Cautious optimism

The new government's proposals have led to cautious optimism among rights activists but incensed the political right and some Roman Catholic groups.

LGBTQ+ Poles currently have limited legal options to challenge harassment or attacks. In Czyczerski's case, two of his three attackers were convicted of assault and robbery, but the court ignored the homophobia he says was responsible for the incident.

"The proposed legislation would make an enormous difference," said Mateusz Wrotny, an LGBTQ+ rights and privacy activist from southwestern Poland.

"It would clearly signal that attacks on LGBTQ+ people are not random, that these people are targeted on the basis of specific characteristics."

Both Wrotny and Jacek Jasionek, a lawyer who works with Polish LGBTQ+ rights group Tolerado, said the proposals marked a huge shift in Poland, where top officials in the PiS government publicly decried "LGBT ideology" as a danger to families, and mocked gay and trans people.

A wave of anti-LGBTQ+ resolutions by local councils swept the country in 2019 and 2020, although most were subsequently repealed, often after the EU threatened to withhold funding.

Karolina Gierdal, a Warsaw-based lawyer who regularly represents LGBTQ+ Poles in court, said the proposed laws might help temper public debate.

"[People] hope that, fearing criminal liability, people who have been using hateful rhetoric in public debate will modify it, will at least tone down their remarks," she said.       

Amending the Criminal Code would also mean that victims of homophobia would not have to bring or argue private cases, Jasionek said, a costly process that can take years.

Jasionek helped secure a landmark defamation conviction last year against the head of ultra-conservative group Pro-Right to Life Foundation after it broadcast graphic anti-LGBTQ+ messages in cities using dozens of vans.

Jasionek said it had taken five years to get the courts to sanction the foundation's chairman, Mariusz Dzierżawski.

A court in the northern city of Gdańsk found the messages broadcast by the vans were untrue, aimed to divide society, and that individual members of the group targeted had the right to seek legal protection. The ruling was upheld on appeal in January.

Before that, however, Jasionek and his fellow plaintiffs found themselves responding to long courtroom speeches by the defendant that depicted LGBTQ+ people as depraved and dangerous.

"We had to be in the courtroom, listen to and rebut these comments ... It's a major burden that you have to reckon with while bringing a private case," Jasionek said. "If the new proposals pass, this burden will fall to state prosecutors."   

Polish nationalists gather for demonstration 'Gdansk against rainbow aggression' to protest against LGBT+ 'ideology' in Gdansk, Poland, September 12, 2020. Agencja Gazeta/Bartosz Banka via REUTERS

Polish nationalists gather for demonstration "Gdansk against rainbow aggression" to protest against LGBT+ "ideology" in Gdansk, Poland, September 12, 2020. Agencja Gazeta/Bartosz Banka via REUTERS

Polish nationalists gather for demonstration "Gdansk against rainbow aggression" to protest against LGBT+ "ideology" in Gdansk, Poland, September 12, 2020. Agencja Gazeta/Bartosz Banka via REUTERS

Anti-LGBTQ+ backlash

While LGBTQ+ activists welcome the proposed legal changes, many fear they will not do enough to guarantee security.

The training of police officers, prosecutors and judges will be crucial, Jasionek and Wrotny said.

"Obliging judges and prosecutors to apply these rules without giving them training and support would be very controversial. It would put them at risk of making mistakes, of harming people," Jasionek said.

Activists also fear parliamentary debate on the proposals, due to begin in the near future, will prompt a new wave of homophobic rhetoric from hard-right MPs and ultraconservative groups.

Konrad Berkowicz, an MP from the far-right Konfederacja alliance, has decried the proposed amendments as "dystopian". Berkowicz told reporters in November the draft bill would limit freedom of speech and lead to ideologically motivated prosecutions.

Berkowicz did not respond to a request for further comment.

Krzysztof Śmiszek, Poland's deputy justice minister who has championed the proposals, said they would not criminalise critical speech, but only target "the most drastic" expressions of hate and discrimination.

Although Poland's ruling coalition has a clear majority in parliament, many fear that President Andrzej Duda - whose term runs out next year - will refuse to sign the proposals into law, as he has previously opposed furthering LGBTQ+ rights.

This uncertainty unnerves people like Czyczerski, who said many things would need to change for him to consider returning to Poland. But he believes that robust anti-discrimination laws and corresponding police training could make all the difference.

"In Cologne, there are special police units trained to work with migrants and queer people, the police cooperate with organisations such as ours," Czyczerski said.

"Aligning Polish laws with European standards would be a pretty strong first step."

(Reporting by Joanna Kozlowska; Editing by Lucy Middleton and Jon Hemming and Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

This article was updated on Wednesday 12th, June 2024 at 13:10 GMT to switch the word "town" in, "the western town of Wrocław," to "city." 


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