Interview with Magdalena Świder, Programme coordinator for Campaign against Homophobia.
What is the current state of LGBTQI+ people’s rights in Poland?
Right now we are dealing with “LGBT free zones” and resolutions taken by local governments. We try to lobby and send letters to these local governments. We use the resolution from the European Parliament to force them to reverse the situation. It is not going very well. We barely get any response. We also try to support people living in those “LGBT free zones”.
Generally, we also tried to work with politicians to draft bills and to work on legal changes. The first draft of the Civil Partnerships Bill came to the Parliament in 2002. It has been 18 years now and there has been no change in the law.
We were very close to getting an act which would facilitate legal gender recognition, but the current president Duda vetoed it. The current process is very humiliating for trans people: they have to sue their parents for wrongly assigning their gender. It takes ages, you have to go through doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and spending long hours with your parents at the court where you are allowed by law to change your name and reassign gender.
Another reality here are the “conversion therapies”, which are quite popular. We want to ban them completely. The problem comes from the fact that anybody in Poland can call themselves a “therapist”. There is no regulatory law. So there are so-called therapists, which offer to convert homosexual individuals to heterosexuality. The “therapies” are violent, and people can end up being sexually abused, they ask men to lie down with others and verify if they get aroused.
Hate crimes are another problem. Currently, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression are not covered as protected characteristics. Imagine a lesbian person is beaten up in the street. She would have to go with a private prosecution, which means that she would have to know the name of the perpetrator and collect all the evidence by herself. It’s not the same when it comes to race or religion. So we are fighting to include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity into the criminal code.
Recently, an anti-gender movement launched a smear campaign, assimilating LGBT people to paedophiles. There are no legal tools to fight this.
What does this anti-gender campaign consist of?
You have billboards all around the country, where you can read “STOP PAEDOPHILIA” and claims that the “LGBT lobby” wants to teach 4-year-olds to masturbate, 6-year-olds to consent to sex and 9-year-olds to sexual experience and orgasms. They have been collecting signatures in every city in Poland for a couple of months.
Lately, they drafted a bill to ban sex education which implied that one would be in trouble if talking about sex to a person under 18. Which is ridiculous because you are already allowed to have sex in Poland when you are 15. What that actually does is a freezing effect for all the teachers, sex educators and activists who really want to talk about sexual diversity and, more generally, sexual rights.
This draft bill is also a catastrophe for women’s rights. Actually, everybody was surprised when that bill came out because the rhetoric was based on anti-LGBT slogans mainly. Suddenly, we found out that the bill is actually about banning sexual education completely. And they got all these signatures to support it.
Who are “they”?
It is the Pro-Prawo do życia Foundation. They work closely with Ordo Iuris, a group of legal advocates self-defined as an “independent legal organization incorporated as a foundation in Poland”.
We are nowhere near the funding they get. Their annual budget represents four million złotis (approximately 1 million euros). During the campaign, we had people calling us at the office. Not only LGBT people but also mothers of young children because they were shouting slurs on speakers. We cannot do anything about it because there is no hate speech legislation in place. The only thing we could do is to report it because it was too loud.
When would you situate the beginning of the backlash against “LGBT ideology”?
It started with the anti-abortion movements. In 2016, many ultra-Catholic and fundamentalist groups got reactivated with the draft law proposing to completely ban abortion. It is important to notice that the draft law was proposed by Ordo Iuris.
Recently, the mayor of Warsaw signed a declaration supporting LGBT people. The idea was to have “sex education” as an additional class for secondary school students. Students and their parents could sign an agreement for them to participate. Since the participation process is open, some organisations do it according to the World Health Organization’s standards, but others do it according to Catholic ones. The standards of the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the natural sexual development of children is that around the age of 4 years old, they start exploring their bodies. They call it “masturbation”, but it is nowhere comparable to the adult practice. The WHO should have been more careful with the wording because it is these terms that the anti-gender movement is now using to oppose sexual education. Ultra Catholics and fundamentalists went on all the media channels to tell people that the “gender ideology” will lead to teaching kids how to masturbate and that they have to stop paedophilia etc… This is how it all started.
Did you get to be invited to media channels as well?
We have liberal media on our side. But conservative people do not read it. Poland is really divided right now and no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to fight against billboards up all over the country. They have means that we simply do not have. No matter what experts, sexual educators or whoever will appear, they will just go on.
The National Public Television is under government’s control, so they are basically promoting the discourse of the anti-gender campaigns which is “let’s combat “LGBT ideology”.
To a certain extent, it seems like facts do not matter?
Nobody cares about facts. It is about emotion. I guess they collected all the signatures because, of course, everybody wants to punish paedophilia.
It was a huge manipulation. You know, Ordo Iuris and the other ones are so full of hate and aggression. We have to be full of love and show that we are good people, spreading positive messages. Nothing else works.
How did these LGBT free zones come into law? Did the local municipalities use any other neutral terms or was it straightforwardly directed against “LGBT” people?
It started with clear statements “anti-LGBT” just before the European elections. And it’s been a year since we started living in this kind of anti-LGBT madness.
Some are against “LGBT subculture”, others against LGBT people. Ordo Iuris, which is very involved in what is happening, is lobbying for implementing local charters for “family rights”. These would promote heterosexual families as the only valid family model. It is also a good way to scare people from carrying any anti-discrimination local initiatives. They are also threatening to sue anybody for calling them homophobic. So this is just legal violence. Now that it received international coverage, they are getting wiser, avoiding questionable words and using this pro-family narrative.
Did the European Parliament resolution help? Was it taken seriously?
For sure! It was absolutely necessary for LGBT people in Poland. It was empowering to see that the European Union is absolutely against all these acts. But does it help with lobbying or does it stop adverse lobbying? Absolutely not, because it is used as an argument which exemplifies the “imposition from the outside”, the “foreign influence”, “they will not dictate how we should live” etc.
Similar arguments you can hear around the world these days.
And how do you do financially?
After the PiS party (Law and Justice party) came into power, they cut fundings for a lot of feminist organisations. We never wanted to take money from the government because we thought that since we are doing advocacy, we ought to be independent from them. And it turned out to be a really good strategy because a lot of organisations have been in big trouble and had to fire people from one day to another because they lost their funding.
The issue of funding is actually used by the PiS, Ordo Iuris and Pro-Prawo do życia Foundation. A few months back they asked us to uncover where we get our funding from. It takes a lot of resources to provide all of this information. For us it was okay, but for smaller organisations, who did not have the human resources, they had to freeze all the work they were doing to collect the information. It is a very classic method of intimidation. The thing is that we would not be able to ask them where they got their money from. They always say that it is private money. So they do not have to reveal the names of the donors. It is important to note that Ordo Iuris does not only have connections with the government, but with transnational organisations, such as Agenda Europe. The links between these movements go as far as the Kremlin. It is truly a transnational movement, and what is happening in Poland right now is only a symptom of it.
From the part of the government, would you say it is pure hatred and ideology, or is it a strategy?
It is a strategy. The LGBT community is instrumentalised in election period by the ruling party to mobilise their voters. During the parliamentary election campaign last autumn, the prime minister, vice-prime minister, minister of justice, targeted LGBT people for threatening traditional Polish values and threatening the nation. Before election day, they showed a documentary on Public National TV which described LGBT organisations as “invading the country”.
Everything is strategic because they know that most of their voters are from rural areas. On top of that, you have the Church, which is closely connected to the government. They have a clear anti-LGBT line which says that cases of paedophilia within the Church are caused by gays infiltrating it. PiS can count on them to fuel that fire. It does translate into votes.