Last Saturday, people identifying as LGBTQ+ and their allies marched at the very first Pride in the Polish city of Bialystok. What was meant to be a beautiful tribute to love and acceptance ended up in violence and fear.
Soccer hooligans and conservative campaigners organised a brutal counter-protest, with some people reporting as having bricks thrown at them. It is still unclear how many were hurt during the homophobic attacks, but the impact was considerable.
According to France 24, over 800 LGBTQ+ supporters marched through the city, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Warsaw. Regrettably, others wearing ultra-nationalist t-shirts were throwing hazardous object towards the marchers, including firecrackers and bottles. Police officers who were trying to protect the LGBTQ+ community also got attacked.
France 24 states that Catholic and nationalist organisations staged around 40 different counter-demonstrations in Bialystok, including a family picnic organised by a local MP. Moreover, hundreds of religious people prayed in front of a Cathedral as the march made its way through the city.
Bialystok is not the only city in Poland who has played host to some extremely negative reactions towards the LGBTQ+ Pride. As reported by the Washington Post, the Polish city of Kielce also organised its Pride march last July 13th, and was received by boos and insults from bystanders. People holding up banners comparing gay men to paedophiles and threatening the marchers were present among Catholic counterprotesters.
With a Polish campaign group declaring around 30 communities to be a “free of LGBT ideology” zone over the last couple of months, and parliamentary elections due this autumn, with some politicians throwing themselves behind campaign dismissing the LGBTQ+ community, people have become terror-stricken in their own country.
A researcher at the University of Warsaw who tracks the prevalence of prejudice against minorities in public discourse has told the Washington Post that the ruling party’s new focus on the counter in what its officials call Western “LGBT ideology” has strongly replaced its previous battle against migrants.
The latest news reveals that Polish conservative newspaper, Gazeta Polska, has been distributing anti-LGBTQ+ stickers with their newest issue, in order to promote “LGBT-free zone”.
Maciek Przygoda, manager of the community relations team at BlablaCar and organizer of the Warsaw Equality Parade agreed to talk about his own experience:
“Warsaw is different when it comes to LGBTQ safety, because it’s the capital city, which gives anonymity,” Maciek says. “So it brings many LGBTQ people not only from Poland but also other countries, especially from the eastern countries like Ukraine.”
Warsaw, being a multicultural city due to many international corporations’ headquarters established there, improves people’s tolerance and contributes to opening people’s minds to other cultures and lifestyles. “Though I have the perspective from my local “bubble”, I’m surrounded by open, tolerant people, I don’t meet homophobia in my everyday life and I feel really free,” Maciek says.
As stated by the Warsaw Equality Parade organiser, the recent homophobic attacks are not solely based on religious views. According to recent research, Polish youth are less religious every year. Maciek shares that in 2008, 81% of high school students declared being very religious. By 2018 this number had dropped to 63%. As reported by Maciek, this trend will continue to decrease. “I don’t know many religious people in my immediate surroundings, especially anyone who participates actively in the religious life,” Maciek says. “Being a believer for many people is still a cultural thing which they brought from home.”
Maciek thinks that the current situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland has severely worsened recently because of the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish Government. Both have been encouraging Polish society to actively take a stand against the LGBTQ+ community.
“There’s no protection from the Polish government for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland,” Maciek says. “On the contrary, the ruling party (PiS) is using LGBTQ+ people as the main enemy of the society now. A few years ago they used refugees from the Middle East.” Maciek explains that Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the party, has claimed to be the only political group to effectively protect the Polish population’s values.
Although Maciek was fortunate to have enjoyed a peaceful Pride in Warsaw last June, which attracted over 70,000 people, not everyone was as lucky. “Some of my friends went to Białystok. They were not harmed but it was the most aggressive and difficult pride for them so far. They were terrified because they could’ve got killed just by the bricks being thrown at them,” Maciek says.
“This is the first time me and Jacob are really terrified,” Dawid says. Dawid is Polish influencer and runs a popular Instagram account with his husband, Jakub. “After all the years we’ve been fitghting for gay marriage in Poland or at least civil unions, now we have to fight for our life on the streets, it’s like we moved back 20 years and I’m afraid,” Dawid says. Dawid feels that the Polish government and the Catholic “They try to scare people saying that we are paedophiles, that we want to convert kids in the schools, and that they are the only ones who can protect our country from the LGBTQ+ community”.
Andrzej marched at Białystok Pride, recalling: “We were surrounded by a police cordon, and all the nationalists and Nazis were throwing firecrackers, glass bottles and rotten eggs at us. I saw wounded people bleeding and we had to move very fast a few times due to the firecrackers thrown in our direction.”
As a member of the Warsaw Equality Parade, Andrzej also feels that he can live freely. For him, Warsaw is the most LGBTQ+ friendly place in Poland. “Here I can walk on a street with my rainbow bag and hold my boyfriend’s hand and no one is especially surprised,” Andrzej says.
“I was a participant at Białystok Pride,” Monika says. “I was hit several times by firecracker.” Monika Pacyfka Tichy is an activist, feminist and president of Lambda Szczecin, a LGBTQ+ organisation in city of Szczecin.
Monika agreed to give us her detailed testimony of the events that occurred at the Białystok Pride.
“I saw people getting hit by stones and bottles. I saw a disabled girl in a wheelchair being deliberately targeted. Me and my friends were attacked before and after the event. When we were trying to reach the main meeting spot, we entered an area where hundreds of neo-nazis were praying to God and shouting hateful slogans. They spotted and surrounded us, insulted us, were cursing and spitting in our faces. They ripped the jewellery off the neck of one girl. At some point, they stopped hitting us because a TV station started to record the attacks. Later on, the police came to shield us and helped us to get to our meeting spot.
“I am 155cm (5′ 1”) tall and 45kg (7 st.), our attackers were big, muscled guys. AfterPride we had to take a taxi to get to our car, because the city was full of nazis hunting down what they called the “faggots”. Some of them managed to follow us by car and then attacked us when we got out of the taxi. They were three tall guys, one of them was holding a baseball bat. The man carrying the bat raised it to hit Krzysztof, my friend. I stepped forward with my arms spread towards him and attempted to calm the situation down by asking if he wanted a hug. This gesture shocked the man so much that he lowered his weapon. But he continued to spit and curse in our faces. Another man also raised a baseball bat at us but stopped himself when his saw a random police car appear from behind the corner. They fled.
“I was in a situation of direct threat to my life.”
At the same time a lot of pride participants, mostly young, were attacked and beaten in the streets of Białystok. The police were trying to protect people whenever they could see attacks, but they were badly outnumbered.”
In a country which was devastated by the Second World War, and suffered tremendously under the Nazi occupation, it is quite horrifying to hear of Polish neo-nazi groups attacking minorities in 2019.
According to Monika, the LGBTQ+ community is especially targeted. Living openly is dangerous for LGBTQ+ people. “I value liberty more than safety, so I take risks. And I am hated by my parents,” Monika says.
Julia, the chair of volunteers for the Equality Foundation and one of the organisers of Equality Parade in Poland, was also in Białystok. “For the first time in my life, me and my friends really thought that we might not come back alive from Pride. For the first time, I felt that the counterprotesters did not just come to shout at us or throw stones but to kill,” Julia says.
As reported by Julia, safety always depends on the city. Big cities such as Warsaw, Poznań, and Kraków hosts great and safe LGBTQ+ events with very few counterdemonstrations which are generally peaceful. Unfortunately, for smaller cities, violence and homophobic attacks are a big problem.
“I had a broken finger after the Bialystok Pride, many of my male friends were severely beaten. Just yesterday the boyfriend of my friend got beaten so bad that he had a smashed-in face and skull.” Julia says. She continues: “During the Pride where I got my finger broken, our photographer (not even an LGBTQ+ person but an ally) had several injuries.” Julia states that such hate crime happens every day.
“I’m just straight trans guy that passes every single time and gets bothered by absolutely no one, even fascists, nazis and all the other scumbags in the world,” Bartek says. Bartek is a member of the Equality Factory, the Fabryka Rownosci in Polish, an LGBTQ+ organisation from the city of Lodz. Bartek wishes he could meet me in person to talk about the history of his city and its four cultures living in acceptance, but settles for the long distance interview instead. “People from Lodz aren’t really affected by the horrible act of mental and physical violence from homophobia”, Bartek says.
Although Bartek has not directly been the victim of attacks, he cannot deny the fact that celebrating Pride in Poland is dangerous. Polish people are increasingly joining far right parties, and neo-nazi groups are becoming more prevalent on the streets. Fortunately for Bartek, his experiences celebrating Pride were rather positive. “I felt love in every single step I took, contrary to the most days living in Poland,” he says.
Being a transgender straight man has tremendously helped Bartek’ celebrate Pride in safety. “I have the white male privilege to speak up for my oppressed friends, because me, as a person, I don’t feel oppressed and endangered. I love my life and my girlfriend, but I have no contact with my mother and father, since they still love their daughter, which I took away from them,” Bartek says.
Like many others, Bartek feels that the upcoming Polish elections have been the main cause of the growing hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. But Bartek remains hopeful and proud: “Let me quote a classic – ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we won’t disappear’: politicians might not know it yet, but it was a huge mistake to proceed with that kind of public blackmail of the LGBTQ+ community. We can unite like no other community.”