One Polish artist was charged under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code for "offending religious feelings" with her LGBTQ-centric art works that challenged the belief system of the Catholic church (Photo: Federico Moroni)
As far-right parties continue to gain political traction in Europe, the European Commission’s move to withhold EU funds from member states Hungary and Poland is a reminder of how democratic freedoms are under threat in the ever-changing landscape of EU politics.
In particular, ongoing political tensions between the EU and Poland over LGBTQ+ rights demonstrate the limitations of the commission’s ability to protect democratic standards and promote EU values on the ground.
For instance, while the commission’s 2021 threat to withhold Covid-19 recovery funds from Poland pending the roll back of anti-LGBTQ+ measures forced Poland’s compliance with minimum EU standards on democratic hiring practices, the severity of Poland’s actions and its very public resistance to such pressures have had a debilitating impact on Polish civil society.
Despite the EU’s effort to hold PiS to account for failing to protect LGBTQ+ rights, homophobic hate crimes and other acts of violence are on the rise in Poland.
The spike in violence against the LGBTQ+ community directly reflects the proliferation of hateful, ultra-nationalist rhetoric, often perpetrated by PiS party leaders.
One of PiS president Andrzej Duda’s main campaign platforms in 2015 was to “protect Poland’s children from harmful LGBTQ+ ideology” which he deemed to be “more destructive than communism.”
In 2020, Przemysław Czarnek, a PiS MP closely linked to Duda, said of the LGBTQ+ community in a televised event, “let’s stop listening to these idiocies about human rights. These people are not equal with normal people.”
Such rhetoric has spurred a spate of hateful actions in recent years — in 2019 alone, close to 100 Polish regions passed anti-gay resolutions to encourage discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, more than 4,000 far-right protestors violently assaulted participants in the city of Bialystok’s pride parade with glass bottles, rocks, and flash bombs, and the number of reported hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals nearly doubled according to a report sent to the Council of Europe.
The deteriorating situation for the LGBTQ+ rights has severely negatively affected the mental health of the community. According to a 2021 report by the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia, nearly one in two LGBTQ+ individuals reported major depressive symptoms while more than half reported suicidal ideation — both figures represented major increases from those recorded in the previous survey taken in 2017.
Censorship, and crowding out
In addition to hateful rhetoric, PiS has also fostered the rapid growth of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment through a relentless campaign to censor LGBTQ+ artists.
PiS has stacked the leadership of Poland’s major arts and cultural institutions with party loyalists committed to furthering a nationalist Catholic ideology and crowding out LGBTQ+ voices.
This has led to the prosecution of artists who rebuke the party’s ideology, as seen in the 2019 arrest of activist Elżbieta Podleśna, who was charged under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code for “offending religious feelings” with her LGBTQ-centric art works that challenged the belief system of the Catholic church.
Despite her ultimate acquittal, the case against her was sensationalised by Poland’s rightwing media.
Unfortunately, Podleśna’s case represents one of many efforts made by PiS to abuse the Polish justice system to intimidate artists and activists and censor expression that contradicts the Catholic church.
A group of activists — Jakub Gawron, Kamil Mczuga, Paulina Pajak and Pawel Preneta — have faced defamation lawsuits after creating a digital representation of Poland’s “Atlas of Hate”, referring to the charter resolutions passed in 94 regions that declared themselves to be free from “LGBT ideology.”
The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights found the resolutions had a “chilling effect […] on residents and institutions, who are increasingly reluctant to be associated with any activity related to the human rights of LGBTI people for fear of reprisals or loss of funds.”
The popularity of these resolutions, backed by the fervent support of PiS politicians, send a clear message to LGBTQ+ Poles that the government is unwilling to protect their basic rights.
As a human rights researcher who has worked directly with LGBTQ+ Polish artists and cultural workers, I have heard first-hand how PiS’s actions have caused many LGBTQ+ Poles to live in fear.
A recently-published report from the Artistic Freedom Initiative details the risks inherent to living in Poland as an LGBTQ+ artist and culture worker today, including potential job loss if their sexual orientation were made public, social stigmatisation and isolation, rampant online harassment, threats of harm, and the growing fear of suffering physical violence.
As the situation in Poland for LGBTQ+ rights continues to deteriorate under PiS, many contemplate emigrating elsewhere in Europe to live and work in a safe environment where they can create freely. The mass emigration of LGBTQ+ Polish artists would represent both a devastating loss for Polish culture and a major step backwards for democracy — not only in Poland, but across the EU.
PiS’s continued abuse of over-broad blasphemy and defamation suits as an excuse to denigrate LGBTQ+ art and artists in the public eye is unacceptable.
Though the EU’s financial interventions are a necessary and appropriate step, Poland’s flagrant disregard for upholding shared EU values of equality and respect for the human rights of LGBTQ+ Poles underscores the limited effectiveness of such interventions. More importantly, PiS’s unwillingness to protect and respect their own citizens in the absence of financial penalties has a lasting, negative impact on the development of Poland’s LGBTQ+ community.
Fearing legal repercussions, LGBTQ+ Poles are currently unable to fully enjoy their right to free expression. As such, it is critical for the EU to consider effective mechanisms to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights as the politics of its member states radically change under far-right leaders.