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Attacking LGBT life helped the right-wing Polish president win reelection — barely

The Polish LGBT movement and its allies are responding with innovative tactics

Protesters in protective masks demonstrate against discrimination of the LGBT community two days before the presidential elections runoff at the UNESCO listed Main Square on July 10 in Krakow, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Poland narrowly reelected right-wing incumbent Andrzej Duda on July 13. In a presidential election with unusually high stakes, the margin was extremely slight: Duda brought in just over 51 percent of the vote. Poland has a mixed presidential and parliamentary system, giving it both a president and a prime minister, and the president holds important veto powers. Over the last five years, Duda has been criticized within and outside Poland for his loyalty to the Law and Justice (PiS) party-led parliament, signing into law bills many see as breaching the Polish constitution and European liberal democratic norms. For example, as political scientists Laurent Pech and R. Daniel Keleman explained here at TMC in January, PiS has been working to undermine the independence of the Supreme Court.

Much as President Trump has campaigned in the United States by encouraging racial division, Duda ran in no small part on opposing LGBT life, saying “LGBT are not people — they are an ideology” that is “even more destructive than communism.” His challenger, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party, offered a starkly different vision for the country, pledging to rehabilitate Poland’s strained relationship with the European Union and pushing back against Duda’s populist and inflammatory rhetoric. Trzaskowski’s defeat brought grieved commentary from Poles of the center and left, much as, in the United States, Hillary Clinton supporters reacted to Trump’s electoral college victory. Younger Poles were particularly grieved, having voted for Trzaskowski by large majorities.

Where does the demonization of LGBTQ life come from? How are Polish activists responding? Here’s you need to know.

Demonizing LGBTQ identity as ‘foreign’

One of Duda’s early acts in office was to veto a gender recognition bill passed by parliament, which could have allowed the legal recognition of transgender identities. During the campaign, in declaring LGBT-identifying individuals are “not people,” Duda legitimized the more than 90 Polish townships in the nation’s southeast that declared themselves LGBT-free zones in 2019. Like communism, Duda proclaimed, LGBT people and their rights were a foreign import; he promised to protect the Polish nation and family from their incursions.

While the idea of an LGBT “ideology” may be somewhat new, the narrative portraying LGBT rights as a foreign threat is not. In the mid-2000s, a loose conglomeration of religious, political and nationalist actors mobilized fervent opposition to LGBT rights, including violent attacks on activists who ventured out for demonstrations. The LGBT movement had great hopes for Poland’s entry into the E.U. in May 2004 but the Polish right viewed it skeptically — seeing it both as a potential threat to Polish sovereignty and as an opportunity for Poland to reintroduce “Christian values” to the E.U., an East-to-West evangelism that Pope John Paul II advocated. The right then targeted the Polish LGBT movement as the central symbol of “Europe” that needed to be rejected and fixed.

Such groups as PiS, the League of Polish Families Party, and the All-Polish Youth then organized to restrict the LGBT movement, arguing the nation was “under attack” by external forces. This effort manifested in various ways, including banning LGBT demonstrations and calling for LGBT teachers to be removed from public schools. During that period, radical right politician Krzysztof Bosak, who received 6.8 percent of the vote in the 2020 election’s first round, headed the All Polish Youth, helping organize many counterdemonstrations targeting LGBT movements. In 2015 the Polish right shifted to targeting migrants using xenophobic racialized and Islamophobic language. But in spring 2020, as Duda’s poll numbers dipped, he returned to the tested strategy of anti-LGBT rhetoric.

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How activists have responded

Sociologist Agnés Chetaille and I have researched how activists shifted tactics in response.

To challenge the accusations of foreignness, activists began emphasizing their Polishness using national symbols like displaying the Polish flag in marches and arguing for equality using phrases steeped in Catholic beliefs, like “love thy neighbor.” Further, they’ve worked to uncover indigenous queer histories, finding historical national figures and local terms for queer identities. The movement added these new themes to their earlier universal slogans and arguments, like positive references to human rights models and E.U. democratic values.

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Poland is deeply divided

While the opposition lost this presidential election, 49 percent of the population voted against Duda. Polish mobilizations around LGBT and feminist causes have mobilized thousands to push back against right-wing xenophobia during the last Duda presidency. The Polish LGBT movement’s tactical innovations have been presented as models for other European organizations at international activist summits on how to respond to global advocacy for “traditional values” by Russia, the World Congress of Families, and others. Poland reveals applying the same rights model everywhere has costs, much as has been true in such countries as Uganda and India. Any activism must be rooted locally.

Poland ranks low on the LGBTQ rights index maintained by ILGA Europe, a European advocacy organization. At the same time, the LGBT movement is far more engaged and active than it was two decades ago. Openly gay and trans parliamentarians have served in the federal government. A majority of Poles support same-sex partnership recognition. Indeed, Poles under 50 voted overwhelmingly for a candidate who included some pro-LGBT planks in his platform, which might not have happened a decade ago.

In response to Duda’s election, LGBTQ activist Magdalena Swider of the Polish group Campaign Against Homophobia (Kampania Przeciw Homofobii, or KPH) said, “Unfortunately we have to stay strong for the next 5 years. … But we need to remember that almost half of Polish voters said firmly NO to the hatred campaign waged by Duda, and in favor of a democratic, modern and open Poland.”

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Phillip M. Ayoub (@Phillip_Ayoub) is associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and author of “When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).