Polish municipalities across an area greater than the size of Hungary have adopted resolutions that critics say discriminate against LGBT people and make intolerance official.
Local municipalities across a third of Poland have adopted resolutions “against LGBT propaganda” or “pro-family”, creating what rights groups describe as hostile spaces for anyone who is not heterosexual or committed to the so-called “natural family”.
According to an “Atlas of Hate” map created by activists, an area greater than the size of Hungary has effectively become an “LGBT-free zone” in the heart of Central Europe. Campaigners and international bodies including the European Parliament have condemned the resolutions, saying they are discriminatory and undermine LGBT rights.
The almost 100 municipalities that have adopted the resolutions include five voivodships (the largest administrative unit in Poland) in the southeast of the country, as well as dozens of counties and other smaller units, data from official sources collected by an informal collective of human rights activists shows.
A sixth voivodship was due to vote on a resolution on Monday, but the vote was postponed to allow for more debate in committees.
The non-binding resolutions, which municipalities started adopting in early 2019, coincide with a rise in rhetoric by the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) denouncing “LGBT ideology” as an allegedly foreign import threatening the Polish nation and its age-old Christian values.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has famously warned, “Hands off our children!” — implying that “LGBT ideology” threatens the morality and health of young Poles. Meanwhile, defence of supposedly Christian principles is a key PiS promise to its electorate.
Ironically, analysis shows that resolutions aimed at protecting supposedly home-grown Polish values stem at least in part from cooperation with international conservative groups, whose increasing levels of coordination were revealed in a 2018 BIRN investigation.
Anti-LGBT rhetoric went into overdrive in February 2019, when newly elected Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski from the largest opposition force, Civic Coalition, adopted an “LGBT Charter” promising support for vulnerable lesbian, gay and transexual people and combating discrimination.
Municipalities started passing the first resolutions against “LGBT propaganda” in March 2019, just as PiS ramped up its anti-LGBT messaging.
Activists noted peaks in the number of resolutions in May-June last year and again in September-October — when politicians were campaigning for European elections (in the spring) and parliamentary elections (in the autumn).
Data from across the country shows that the overwhelming majority of local councillors supporting the resolutions are PiS members, followed by unaffiliated local politicians. In the last year, 869 PiS councillors out of 1,481 — or almost 60 per cent — supported “anti-LGBT” or “pro-family” resolutions.
For the past two years, conservative local politicians have also sought to ban pride parades across Poland on the grounds that they pose a threat to public security. The courts have usually overturned the bans.
Equality parades in Poland are routinely attacked by far-right activists. Unprecedented levels of violence took place last summer at a march in the northeastern city of Bialystok.
‘Anti-LGBT’ or ‘pro-family’?
“In relation to the aggressive homosexual propaganda, promoted and conducted as part of the ideological war by leftist-liberal political circles and ‘LGBT’ groups, which are threatening our fundamental norms and the values of our social and national life, our council adopts the declaration ‘Powiat Rycki free of gender ideology and LGBT,’” reads one of the resolutions, passed in April 2019 by the local council in Ryki, a town 100 kilometres southeast of Warsaw.
The resolution says its purpose is to “defend children, youth, families and Polish schools from sexual depravity and indoctrination, which lead to many pathologies already existing in Western countries, such as accepting pornography, abortion, sexual criminality, the crisis of the family and many others”.
The declaration decries the “promotion of homosexuality” and sexual education in schools, the “early sexualisation of children” promoted by the World Health Organisation, the “pressure exercised by homopropaganda” and the “imposition by LGBT activists of […] programmes and an ideology leading to the depravation of children”.
[The resolution aims to] defend children, youth, families and Polish schools from sexual depravity and indoctrination, which lead to many pathologies already existing in Western countries, such as accepting pornography, abortion, sexual criminality, the crisis of the family and many others.
– Ryki local council resolution
While many local councils such as the one in Ryki came up with their own resolutions opposing “LGBT ideology” or “LGBT propaganda”, 34 municipalities have adopted a more mildly formulated “Municipal Charter of Family Rights”, proposed by Ordo Iuris, a prominent legal conservative group based in Warsaw. In the past months, activists have noted local councils increasingly rely on the Ordo Iuris version.
The “pro-family” charter steers clear of any reference to “LGBT ideology” or even LGBT people, proposing instead that municipalities streamline the protection of the traditional family — namely, heterosexual parents and their children — in all policies including in school activities and distribution of public funds, which fall under the remit of local municipalities.
“This charter could be called a ‘soft’ measure undertaken with the purpose of creating in Poland a ‘pro-family’ culture, or even we could say to put the family in fashion,” Pawel Kwasniak, coordinator of the family charter project for Ordo Iuris, told BIRN. “Each action undertaken by the municipality should be assessed from the point of view of how it impacts the family.”
Another goal is to “defend children from demoralisation and depravity”, said Kwasniak, who conceded that the charter is a response to what Ordo Iuris considers “the threat posed by LGBT ideology”.
Unlike the other resolutions, the Ordo Iuris charter suggests concrete measures that local councils can implement, such as giving parents control over extra-curricular activities conducted by non-governmental organisations in schools, assessing NGO projects financed by the municipality on the basis of their impact on families, or appointing a “family ombudsman” to ensure “family rights” are respected.
“The Municipal Charter of Family Rights looks like it has neutral language and is geared more towards supporting the family than discriminating against LGBTQ people,” Jakub Gawron, a human rights activist involved in monitoring the resolutions, told BIRN. “But in fact, it is a more dangerous tool than resolutions ‘against LGBT ideology’, which are not translatable into the language of local law.
“When issuing opinions on new legal acts, the local ombudsman for families will exclude organisations that ‘harm the value of family and marriage’ from all local government projects. The excluded organisations will not be able to consult or carry out public tasks in the field of education. They will lose the opportunity to use public property and apply for grants and other forms of financial support.”
The purpose of the resolutions, according to Gawron, is “to cease all anti-discrimination and pro-equality measures”.
“Such resolutions, combined with conformism, fear and lack of legal knowledge, can be an effective way of symbolically excluding non-heteronormative people from public space,” he said. “For starters, from areas directly under state supervision such as educational institutions.”
Kwasniak from Ordo Iuris refuted criticism that the charter could be discriminatory against LGBT people.
“If read with good will, it is clear that the charter is not meant to exclude from society people with a different sexual orientation, but to press authorities to support families,” he said.
Kwasniak added that the charter defends Poland’s “legal and axiological order, the axiological order of the Christian world”. He said the Polish constitution mandates protection of the family.
But 38-year old Gawron, who lives in Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, has a different view.
“You are accompanied by a constant fear of physical violence, compounded by a stuffy atmosphere and verbal aggression,” he said. “And you are aware that in case violence happens, you are dependent only on yourself and associations operating in other cities. You know that the police will consider violence for homophobic reasons as unimportant.
“So you adapt to the reality of Rzeszow. There is always anxiety in the back of your head. You maintain superficial social contacts with most people because you assume in advance that they are homophobic. You wonder […] who will laugh at you and who will give you a passive-aggressive lecture. And what these people would be capable of in an extreme historical moment.”
Which ‘ideology’ is foreign?
According to both PiS and advocates of the resolutions such as Ordo Iuris, “LGBT ideology” is a foreign (Western) imposition on Polish Christian culture and morality.
“The charter is a response to threats from far-left ideology, social movements, the LGBT ideology, gender ideology, which are spreading ever more across the world and in Poland,” Kwasniak from Ordo Iuris said.
“In our opinion, this gender, LGBT ideology is hurting the Christian values on which our culture and civilisation are based. It undermines the family based on marriage between man and woman and aimed at raising children.”
In our opinion, this gender, LGBT ideology is hurting the Christian values on which our culture and civilisation are based. It undermines the family based on marriage between man and woman and aimed at raising children.
– Pawel Kwasniak, Ordo Iuris
Paradoxically, Ordo Iuris’s own work on the Municipal Charter of Family Rights could hardly be described as an entirely home-grown Polish initiative.
Among the list of organisations supporting the charter, whose logos are included at the bottom of a PDF with the text posted on the Ordo Iuris website, is CitizenGO, an international ultraconservative advocacy group founded in 2013 by Ignacio Arsuaga, a prominent Spanish “pro-life” and “pro-family” activist.
“These are organisations that got engaged at the stage of preparing the text of the charter,” Kwasniak told BIRN when asked about the CitizenGO logo. “They reviewed the text and supported us from a substantive point of view.”
Ordo Iuris, which in recent years has also advocated for a near-total ban on abortion in Poland, is part of an international network of “pro-family” groups and activists spanning numerous countries from the United States to Russia, which are coordinating to promote legislation that criminalises abortion and undermines LGBT rights, among other things, according to BIRN’s 2018 investigation.
According to documents seen by BIRN, representatives of Ordo Iuris have in the past been invited to take part in annual summits of Agenda Europe, a coordination forum for “pro-family” and “pro-life” activists from European countries that was set up with support from US evangelical “pro-life” groups and has ties with Russian ultra-conservatives.
Activists say conservatives in Agenda Europe are behind the creation of a 100-page “manifesto” titled Restoring the Natural Order. An Agenda for Europe that spells out concrete policy goals for the “natural family” movement, including the repeal of all laws allowing for divorce, civil partnership or gay adoption; the introduction of “anti-sodomy laws”; and defunding of “the LGBT lobby”.
“It is thus, for example, perfectly legitimate to strive for legislation that criminalises abortion, euthanasia or sodomy, or that rules out the legal recognition of ‘same-sex marriages’, even if there be some citizens who believe abortion, euthanasia or sodomy to be morally acceptable,” says the manifesto, seen by BIRN.
Agenda Europe has no official spokespeople or officers but the agendaeurope.org website — registered to a prominent member of the international branch of US conservative Christian group the Alliance Defending Freedom — contains a statement disowning the manifesto.
At an Agenda Europe summit in Munich in 2014, Alexey Komov, a Russian “pro-life” activist who sits on the board of CitizenGO, was invited to share lessons with European groups of the “success” of the Russian “Protection of Children law”, a 2013 act banning “gay propaganda”.
In 2016, Ordo Iuris itself was one of the organisers of an Agenda Europe meeting in Warsaw, according to an agenda of the meeting seen by BIRN.
As part of the agenda, the organisers offered a dinner with representatives of the Polish government, including PiS politician Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s minister for EU affairs then and now. Aleksander Stepkowski, at the time an undersecretary of state at the foreign ministry in the PiS government and a founder of Ordo Iuris, was set to be one of the speakers.
In a statement sent to BIRN, a spokesperson for the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs denied that Szymanski attended the meeting. Stepkowski did not respond to requests for comment.
The invited participants in 2016 could take part in a workshop dedicated to “family mainstreaming”.
Today, “family mainstreaming” is a concept that features prominently in Ordo Iuris’s Municipal Charter of Family Rights.
“The preparation of every local legal act should be preceded by a determination of whether it has an impact on the situation of families and the scope of their rights, including the rights of parents and children — according to the principle of family mainstreaming (in English in the original),” says the Ordo Iuris charter.