By Roman Broszkowski
On election night, as exit poll results came in, Adam was with his family. His relatives wanted to be together through what they were sure would be a historic night for Polish democracy.
“It really felt like it [was] going to be a decisive blow either way,” he says. “There was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty because we really didn’t know where it [was] going to go.”
Adam, who does not want his surname published, was, like many members of Poland’s LGBT community, hopeful that the 15 October parliamentary elections would end the rule of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
During its eight years in power, it had repeatedly demonised what it calls “LGBT ideology” and made the country an increasingly difficult place for LGBT people.
Poland remains the EU’s worst country for LGBT people, according to the annual Rainbow Europe ranking https://t.co/j83yAOtrcT
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 11, 2023
“During these difficult eight years, we were humiliated, discriminated against, used in a political game, and indicated as a public enemy,” says Grzegorz Garboliński, an LGBT activist affiliated with the New Left (Nowa Lewica) party that is part of the broader Left (Lewica) alliance that stood in the elections.
Those elections were seen as an opportunity to end the state-sponsored anti-LGBT campaign. When it became clear that PiS had lost its parliamentary majority, the LGBT community’s pre-election anxieties were replaced by joyful relief.
“We were so happy [and] excited. But also we [felt a] released tension,” says Anna Wrzeszczyńska, the head of communications for the LGBT advocacy group Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).
“[These] last [few] years, we were in a permanent state of tension, getting bad news from different parts of Poland,” she adds. “So we were really excited and happy after [the election] because we felt that, finally, something is possible, that change is possible.”
The rise in attempted suicides by children in Poland is caused by “LGBT, neoliberal and neomarxist ideologies”, says the education minister
His solution is to protect traditional values and the church to help young people distinguish between good and evil https://t.co/rnnZOe91YD
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) March 9, 2023
However, that joy was tempered by the relative results of the three opposition groups that now look set to form a new coalition government.
The Left, which has the most ambitious programme for LGBT rights, did worse than expected, winning only 8.6% of the vote and 26 seats in parliament. By contrast, the centre-right Third Way, which is moderately conservative on social issues, exceeded expectations, with 14.4% and 65 seats.
The dominant group in the new government will be the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), with 30.7% and 157 seats. It has pledged to improve LGBT rights – including introducing same-sex civil partnerships and a simpler gender-recognition process – but its disappointing record in office between 2007 and 2015 makes activists sceptical.
The coalition agreement signed between the three groups after the elections includes only one pledge on LGBT rights: making hate speech based on sexual orientation or gender identity a crime.
The opposition groups likely to form the next government have signed a coalition agreement
They pledged to:
– restore rule of law
– annul the near-total abortion ban
– depoliticise public media
– prosecute anti-LGBT hate speech
– separate church and state https://t.co/lwQvGGok8s
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 10, 2023
This has left LGBT Poles with mixed feelings: pleased that the ousting of PiS will end state-backed homophobia but concerned that there may be little further progress under the new government.
“Of course, I was [happy that] the opposition got better results than Law and Justice…but it was a bitter victory,” Garboliński says. “Conservatives and liberals being the majority doesn’t give much chance for big changes in Polish politics.”
He is not alone in that belief.
“It’s a massive disappointment,” says Marek Szolc, a Warsaw city councillor and co-chair of the New Left in Warsaw.
“So far, what we’ve heard [from the probable incoming government] is that what we can count on is a change to criminal law that would finally make hate speech against LGBTQ people a crime…which, well, is something but if that’s all then it’s very underwhelming.”
A local authority that was the first of many in Poland to adopt a resolution declaring itself “free from LGBT ideology” has now voted to withdraw the measure.
It did so under the threat of losing millions in EU funding over the issue https://t.co/kNP4jaSlhm
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 2, 2023
While before the elections KO promised to introduce same-sex civil partnerships and The Left pledged full marriage equality, their coalition agreement with Third Way makes no mention of these aims.
While that does not mean that the issue is politically dead, it has left LGBT organisers like Szolc worried they will have to keep waiting for legal equality.
“We can’t wait indefinitely. I know people that have been working and campaigning for LGBTQ rights in Poland for 20-25 years,” Szolc says.
“I’ve been doing this for many years. And I’m absolutely uninterested in the waiting game. I’m not going to wait until my 40s or 50s [for] when the politicians become ready to make me an equal citizen.”
Opposition leader @donaldtusk has pledged to simplify the gender-recognition process for trans people and introduce same-sex civil partnerships if he wins next month’s elections.
LGBT people are a „victimised minority” in Poland, he says https://t.co/CwQqkVC4rY
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 22, 2023
While civil partnerships remain a sticking point between coalition members, the policy is popular among voters. Polling from 2022 places support for extending at least civil partnership to LGBT people at 64%.
Magda Dropek, an LGBT activist in Kraków who stood as an election candidate for The Left, says that, among “all this evil which Law and Justice did to us, the one [good] thing was [it served as] a wake-up call for civil society”.
“We see in research and polls that support for civil partnerships, equal marriage or [other] LGBTQI issues are all on the rise, and…that Polish society [has become] far more [accepting] than politicians.”
Garboliński agrees. “I think that this political attack on our community made LGBT people more visible,” he says.
“In my opinion, after this huge public debate about LGBT people, hate speech, minority rights, and human respect, lots of Polish citizens saw that LGBT people are not aliens, outsiders, or inventions of bored young people, but they are their friends, schoolmates, family members and neighbours.”
A growing majority of Poles favour the legalisation of same-sex civil unions or marriage, with almost two thirds now in favour, a new poll has found https://t.co/ivS7MswKWi
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 10, 2022
It is that disparity between public support for LGBT issues and the lack of support from politicians that has somewhat soured the opposition’s victory.
“We’ve already changed the hardest thing to change: we changed people’s hearts and minds,” says Wrzeszczyńska. “And now the politicians are somewhere else. And they’re not really representing the voice of people. And why? Because it needs courage. It takes courage to do this.”
Many in the LGBT community remain sceptical that the incoming government will find that political courage.
“I wouldn’t be surprised [if they do not pass civil partnerships],” says Adam. “We live in this kind of reality where things are just being dangled in front of you for a long time. I don’t want to be waiting for them to do something to improve my life; I want to be in charge of my own life.”
But others remain cautiously optimistic.
“I remember those times when Donald Tusk [leader of KO and former prime minister] was promising civil partnership before the 2011 [elections],” Dropek says. “I’m still sceptical when it comes to what will happen, but I believe, on the other hand, that there [has been] a change in the society and a bit in the political scene.”
The couple hope that, if their party comes to power at next month’s elections, same-sex marriage can be legalised in Poland https://t.co/ZO37utaV5N
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 30, 2023
Regardless of what they expect the incoming government to propose, LGBT activists remain energised and determined to hold politicians to their election promises.
“If this government does not deliver on the promises they made – and there are many parties in this government that promised to improve the situation of the LGBT community – I believe the community will have every right to protest against this government,” says Szolc.
“If they don’t give us what we want, well, then it will be time to mobilise public support and make sure that this government pays a political price.”
The detention of an LGBT activist and resultant protests have highlighted a new, more radical – and often illegal – form of activism that has arisen in response to a government-led anti-LGBT campaign in Poland https://t.co/Do4TWRwYsQ
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 12, 2020
For young people, ensuring that the pledges come to fruition is symbolic of a unique transformation Polish society has experienced within their lifetimes.
“In Poland, we, young LGBT people, are the first generation who has the chance to be ourselves, without shame and fear. It is not easy, even now, because of the many homophobic politicians and the society that we live in,” Garboliński says.
“I dream that in the next few years…changes will also come to politics and the law, and we will have the chance not only to be proud of who we are but also of the beautiful relationships and marriages that we can build in our own state.”
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Main image credit: Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl
Roman Broszkowski is an American freelance journalist. He has written about Poland and Polish politics for English-speaking audiences in outlets such as Political Critique.