“For the last 10 years, we’ve been thinking that attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people were becoming more positive. We were wrong.”
These are the words of Agata Kalinoswka, whose tender portraits of Poland’s queer community offer solace in what has been a turbulent few years.
Government-sanctioned homophobia escalated last year, when right-wing party Law & Justice ramped up its fight against “Western LGBTQ+ ideology” ahead of elections. Gradually, r esty – depicted in this ‘Atlas of Hate’ created by activists – self-define in this way. Pride parades were targeted by homophobic protestors, which then led police to intervene with water cannons, and now vital organisations like Krakow’s Equality Centre are struggling to secure the funding needed to stay open. In other words, Poland needs your help.
International NGO All Out has been leading fundraising campaigns to support queer activists, but others have gained viral fame through creativity. Bartosz Staszewski last year photographed activists with fake ‘LGBT-free zone’ signs in the background, yielding a viral project which drew comment from politicians across Europe. “I’m just that kind of guy,” he says via email. “You don’t watch when your house is burning, you do everything you can to save it.”
As a freelance filmmaker living in Warsaw, he acknowledges his privilege and instead points to high rates of mental illness amongst LGBTQ+ youth. In terms of violent disregard for queer lives, Bart saw it first-hand last year when he attended a series of Pride marches across the country. “It was disgusting,” he recalls. “Hooligans were throwing stones at us, but city mayors were just watching and doing nothing. We feel like second-class citizens.”
Photographer Lukasz Rusznica echoes these sentiments: “We’re not important to the government and politicians aren’t interested in us, because we don’t generate enough votes.” He says that even in the past, progressive politics have been about point-scoring. “We’re just pawns in a dirty, political game.”
This is precisely why initiatives like the Krakow Equality Centre are so vital: they’re community-led, and often run workshops, film nights and social events aimed at queer youth looking for like-minded allies. Artists are also particularly important, as they have the power to erase and redraw perceptions of the queer community – and at the moment, this is the biggest challenge.
“LGBTQ people are blamed for promiscuity, sexually-transmitted diseases, paedophilia, metrosexual beauty standards and insulting family life,” explains Agata, who theorises that government leaders have scapegoated the community to suppress coverage of child sexual abuse in Catholic churches. “The truth is that most of us just want to have families of our own.”
Pro-life groups in particular have favoured this logic, launching hateful, small-scale smear campaigns across the country and making blatantly homophobic remarks. “Volunteers were driving cars around big cities and dragging billboards saying that homosexuality leads to paedophilia, and they played a recording blaming LGBTQ people for spreading diseases,” recalls Agata. “It’s disgusting, hateful and ignorant. If you even look gay, it’s wise to carry tear gas with you. You never know what’s going to happen – and you have to remember that, even if something bad does happen, the Polish government will work in favour of homophobia.”
This rise of hatred shows no signs of slowing, and activists are still busy fighting Pride crackdowns and government proposals to mirror Russia’s infamous ‘gay propaganda’ laws. Meanwhile, vital NGOs are being shuttered due to lack of funding, despite support from the likes of All Out.
“It’s a really important moment in our struggle for equality,” says Bartosz, who points to the importance of international media coverage and small gestures of solidarity. “My hope is that, in those countries where fights for human rights have been won, people will wake up and stand by us.”
In his eyes, financial support and political pressure are the most effective tools to actively make change, as are endorsements from international companies showing support for LGBTQ rights. After all, Polish activists are working within a country toying with the idea of legally erasing them – in this context, international support is more than ever. “Focus on our struggles,” pleas Bartosz. “We’re all counting on you right now. We need you.”
Join the fight by signing up to All Out’s fundraising campaign.
Follow Jake Hall on Twitter.