Poland's right-wing populist leader Andrzej Duda came to power last year on a platform decrying an "LGBT-ideology he alleged was spreading throughout his country at the expense of traditional family values. Now, dozens of Polish municipalities have enacted "LGBT ideology free zones," making members of the gay community in this European Union member state fear for their safety. Simon Ostrovsky reports from Poland with support from the Pulitzer Center.
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Hari Sreenivasan: Poland's right-wing populist leader came to power last year decrying what he called "LGBT ideology." He said it was spreading throughout his country at the expense of traditional family values. Poland is a member of the European Union and dozens of its municipalities have enacted "LGBT ideology free zones," making members of the gay community fear for their safety and their lives. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports, with support from the Pulitzer Center, for our ongoing series, "Exploring Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and Extremism."
Simon Ostrovsky: Welcome to Pulawy. This working-class Polish town about 85 miles south of Warsaw is among some 50 municipalities in the country that have officially declared their opposition to LGBTs. We're meeting David Socha, a 20-year-old activist who lives here to find out what it's like to be gay in a city whose leadership has publicly come out against his community.
David Socha: They enacted a statement about stopping the ideology pushed forward by the LGBT subculture. So they are basically calling LGBT people a subculture and that this subculture has an ideology.
Simon Ostrovsky: The declaration is part of a broader push by the ruling right-wing populist law and justice party to pull Poles toward so-called traditional values … And erode democratic norms in the process. The hallmark of the campaign has been the assertion that LGBT people don't actually exist. According to law and justice, it's simply an ideology. In practical terms, for Socha this has meant avoiding certain parts of town where he's afraid of getting jumped by skinheads and soccer fans that he believes have been emboldened by the city's – and increasingly the country's – stance on the LGBT community.
David Socha: They can say that they are against discrimination, that they don't discriminate against people. But the reality is they opened the gate for, uh, all the kind of hate. so it made me much more cautious when I walk around the city because there have been incidents where, uh, my, uh, home was targeted.
Simon Ostrovsky: Socha's street was plastered with anti-LGBT flyers and stickers and he's even been chased. He fears it's only a matter of time before the attacks turn violent. In other parts of Poland, they already have. Like this Pride parade in the city of Bialystok in 2019. Bart Staszewski filmed the moment soccer hooligans pelted attendees with large paving stones on his GoPro camera. He's also an activist fighting for LGBT equality in Poland.
Bart Staszewski: If we look on the map of Poland, it's one-third of Poland which created discriminatory acts against the people.
Simon Ostrovsky: When multiple communities across the country started enacting the anti-LGBT declarations in 2019 he hit on a creative way to draw attention to the phenomenon.
Bart Staszewski: I came into the idea to create this photo project to came to each of those places, make a photo of it and invite LGBT people who are actual living there to join me and to pose to the photo and to share their story.
Simon Ostrovsky: Staszewski created a realistic-looking road sign that he hung up at the city limits to mock the towns as LGBT-free zones. It was an instant viral internet hit in Poland—and soon drew the ire of the country's ruling party.
Bart Staszewski: Suddenly became the national enemy by the prime minister, who was accusing me of lies, anti-Polish lies.
Simon Ostrovsky: Poland's slide towards authoritarianism hasn't been without pushback. Other countries in the European Union have noticed the changing attitudes about women's rights, the independence of the courts and the protection of the LGBT community's rights. Here in Pulawy, for example, where an anti-LGBT resolution was passed, two cities in Europe, which were twinned with Pulawy, ended their partnership with the municipality in protest. Six other European cities canceled twinning applications with Polish municipalities that have enacted the declarations. And it's not just symbolic, some EU funding was also suspended. Although they do not carry the force of law, these texts aren't for the faint of heart. Pulawy's declaration is titled "On Halting the Ideology Pushed by the LGBT Subculture." It effectively equates homosexuality with pedophilia declaring that the city administration is committed to "Doing everything to stop perverts who are interested in the early sexualization of Polish children and adolescents." This divisive style of politics has pitted Poles against one another in a way not seen since the collapse of communism in this country. According to Poland's outgoing human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar, it's all part of a broader effort by the government to erode the country's hard-won democratic norms. The ruling party has done everything to weaken the parliament and the courts while at the same time raising the profile of divisive political issues that rally its base.
Adam Bodnar: So I remember well that in 2016, like that hot topic was the question of refugees and the migration crisis in Europe. And at that time the Polish government was presenting this as a huge threat to Polish identity, Christianity, conservative values. Later on, it appeared that the useful political coin is the protection of LGBT rights. So sometimes we see that the government is trying to make something like a culture war in the society just by raising the profile of the issue and by presenting some arguments against LGBT persons.
Simon Ostrovsky: This tactic regularly sparks outcry among supporters of the LGBT community, who most recently protested outside the education ministry after Poland's education minister criticized one of Poland's many Pride parades that took place this summer – as a fetish.
Przemyslaw Czarnek: Every Pole can see exactly what is happening in these streets and know what equality is, what tolerance is, but what happened there has nothing to do with equality or tolerance. This is a fetish and a distortion of equality and tolerance.
Simon Ostrovsky: Aleksandra Iwanowska is an 18-year old high school student who participated in the protest outside the minister's office.
Aleksandra Iwanowska: He basically follows the line introduced in the 2020 presidential elections, that the LGBT+ community is not a community. It's an ideology. And I've had actually my friends being called out, even physically abused on the streets because they wore something rainbow. I'm just angry at the fact that it takes guts in Poland to hold your girlfriend or your boyfriend by a hand in public.
Simon Ostrovsky: Poland's deputy foreign minister, Paweł Jabłoński, defended his government's stance in an interview with NewsHour Weekend.
Simon Ostrovsky: The law and Justice Party leadership have repeatedly declared that members of the LGBT community aren't people and that LGBT is simply an ideology, suggesting that there's no such a thing as gay people.
Paweł Jabłoński: Nobody said such a thing, that members of the LGBT community or any other community are not people. They were saying that LGBT ideology is something entirely different from particular people because there is a political movement behind it. LGBT movement intends to change the definition of marriage, for example. This is a political agenda. One can agree with that or one can disagree with that. And I don't see any problem with declaring that this is simply an ideology that we do not agree with because it's inconsistent.
Simon Ostrovsky: Why don't you declare that heterosexuality is an ideology?
Paweł Jabłoński: Because this ideology is inconsistent with our Constitution, we very often hear how important is the rule of law, how important to observe the rights that are prescribed in our Constitution. And our Constitution is very clear about this, that marriage is a union of women and men.
Simon Ostrovsky: Yet Jabłoński's claim that law and justice never say LGBTs are not people is easily disproved. Here's Polish president, Andrzej Duda, speaking at a rally of supporters during his latest election campaign last year, in which he accused the LGBT rights movement of promoting a viewpoint more harmful than communism.
Andrzej Duda: They are trying to tell us that they are people, but this is just an ideology.
Simon Ostrovsky: Poland's human rights ombudsman argues that the government's stance on LGBTs threatens not just democracy in Poland but the unity of the EU as a whole. If Poland doesn't have to protect its minority groups, why should other member states have to uphold democratic norms?
Adam Bodnar: And at the end of the day, you do not have a Europe of values based on rule of law, on LGBT rights, on protection of different minorities, on democratic values. But you have a loose confederation of states that are not following the same values on which the European Union is built. So that is why I claim that it is an existential threat for the European Union.
Simon Ostrovsky: Back in Pulawy, the fate of the EU might be the last thing on people's minds. Here the values of the Catholic Church hold more sway. On a notice board outside the local cathedral, a poster warns the faithful of dangerous symbols to avoid. The peace sign, a satanic emblem, apparently, and the unicorn, representing lesbian love and group sex, according to the clergy.
David Socha: The hooligans wanted to target us and to you know, harm us. They pointed at me and said 'oh, it's this f--!' yeah, they basically tried to beat me up. They mentioned my surname and said 'we remember Socha' so they know who I am, basically.
Simon Ostrovsky: Until attitudes like this change in Poland, people like Socha will continue to feel like they have a target on their back.