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Interview with Piotr Jankowski from Tolerado

Interview with Piotr from Association for LGBT-people Tolerado regarding LGBTQ+ rights in Poland

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Hi Piotr,

Thank you for agreeing to speak to us about the work you do with Tolerado. It is a great opportunity for us to learn more about the state of LGBTQ+ rights in Poland, to hear how the community is being affected, and to find out how organisations like Tolerado are taking action to improve the situation.

Q1: Can you start by telling me about Tolerado and why your organisation came about? Piotr: The Association for LGBT-people Tolerado came into being nearly eight years ago. We started out with a small group of people, but little by little we have grown so that now we have more than a hundred members. We operate mostly in Gdańsk – a popular tourist city in northern Poland and the sixth biggest city in the country. From the very beginning, our organization focused on actions to create stable relations with local authorities and to support our LGBT community. Since 2018, mostly thanks to our members and allies, Gdańsk has become the first city in Poland to have an official document called "Model for Equal Treatment". It is a huge city policy that imposes equal treatment rules for almost every local regulation. One of the six main premises of the Model is the LGBTQ+ equal treatment premise. Implementation of the Model in Gdańsk is still in progress, but it’s slow and complicated to implement this kind of progressive law in conservative Polish society.

Q2: What does the situation in Poland look like now? Piotr: To be honest, there is no simple answer to that question. The best word to describe it I think is "dramatic". And the situation is getting worse day by day. After five years of rules of the far-right party "Law and Justice", Poland is now the most homophobic member of the European Union (according to the ILGA-Europe report). In July 2020 more than ten million Polish citizens voted for the homophobic president Andrzej Duda, who openly said in his campaign, that LGBT are not people – just a post-soviet ideology. There is a lot of hatred in our society mostly directed at our LGTBQ+ community. Showing rainbow elements of clothes in the public area (especially in the smaller cities or villages) is an act of courage. We are being attacked verbally and physically on a daily basis.

Q3: What is the main problem that LGBTQ+ people in Poland face? Piotr: It’s hard to define what the main problem is – there are so many! I should start by telling you that the LGBTQ+ community in Poland are confronted with hatred, a lack of understanding, ignorance, and misinformation. Anti-LGBT propaganda in the public media is controlled by the regime and there’s also anti-LGBT propaganda in the Roman-Catholic Church in Poland. We lack laws to protect us from homophobic hate speech and homophobic assaults. Politicians of the ruling party "Law and Justice" treat us like a typical whipping boy or scapegoat. There are trucks with banners and sound systems – which they have nicknamed “homophobuses” – driving through Polish cities spreading misinformation, saying things like "LGBT people are more often making paedophilia crimes and want to teach 4-year-old kids how to masturbate", and other nonsense. Tolerado is currently bringing a court case against the foundation responsible for these trucks. LGBT-free zones have also been designated in Poland – really there are so many problems for our LGBT community right now that I could go on forever.

Q4: You mentioned ‘LGTB-free zones’ in your previous answer. Some media report the existence of ‘LGBTQ+-free’ zones in Poland, but others deny it. Do these zones exist, and can you tell me what they are? Piotr: Yes, "LGBT-free zones'' exist and it’s not just the media that have reported their existence. "LGBT-free zones" or "anti-LGBT declarations" are an important topic in the "Memorandum on the stigmatisation of LGBTI people in Poland" of the European Council Commissioner for Human Rights. But first, you need to understand why they exist. According to the Roman Catholic church, the ruling party, far-right organizations, and of course the 40-50% of society in Poland that support them, LGBT people are not people. We are an ideology. It’s sinister, aggressive and post-Soviet. They believe that we represent the ideology of paedophiles; that we’re enemies of the state and are anti-family; that we’re dangerous to "normal" Polish people and their kids. It's insane, but you need to understand this in order to understand the rationale for "LGBT-free zones". From the point of view of Polish conservatives, every action against the "sinister ideology of LGBT" is necessary to protect and defend the Polish nation and traditional family values. If I remember correctly, the phrase "LGBT-free zone" was first used by one of the far-right magazines. They produced stickers with that phrase featuring a crossed-out rainbow and distributed them with one of their editions. At the same time, a lot of Polish local government units started to carry out actions in support of the commonly named "anti-LGBT declarations". These units became commonly known as "LGBT-free zones". Currently, a third of Polish territory is classed as being in an "LGBT-free zone". You can check which local government units actively supported the declarations on the website atlasnienawisci.pl (Atlas of Hate) – this website was created by a group of LGBT activists, most of whom live in designated "anti-LGBT" areas. You might have heard about road signs saying “LGBT-free zone” being installed on the approach to some municipalities. These signs were created by one of our most well-known LGBT activists Bart Staszewski to highlight that local government support for the "anti-LGBT declarations" is a real problem that affects real LGBT people. The specific content of each declaration depends on the local government unit, however, a lot of them are the same – just a copy of a document previously prepared and lobbied by the far-right and conservative Ordo Iuris Institute. The main idea behind every declaration is that the heterosexual family is the only true and acceptable family model, and the local government unit should take care and responsibility solely for heterosexual families. This means public funds and properties should be accessible only for non-government organizations and groups which support or promote the Roman Catholic definition of the "natural" heterosexual family. The phrase "LGBT" isn't overtly used in many declarations, but the general idea of them is understood by everyone – you are only welcome in the local unit if you are a member of a heterosexual family. If you are LGBT, the implication is that you must keep quiet about it and stay under the radar to go on living in the area. The Polish Ombudsman is appealing these declarations in court to get them overturned. In some of the cases that have already been heard, the court has chosen to set aside the declaration, pointing out that these "anti-LGBT declarations" have no legal force but that, in enacting these kind of resolutions, the local government units are discriminating against the LGBT community.

Q5: How is the LGBTQ+ community affected by the situation in Poland? Piotr: We are trying to stick together. There are more and more LGBT organizations and collectives. A few years ago, there were just seven Equality Marches. In 2019, we had thirty. We are trying to support each other too, but we can't reach every single LGBTQ+ person affected by such an oppressive system and network of lies, misinformation, and hatred. There are a lot of examples of assaults; speech of hate; acts of hate. Some of the LGBTQ+ community cannot put up with it. If they have the opportunity, they emigrate. It’s hard to even describe what happens to those who stay: every single story is different and some of them end with suicide... We know at least six LGBT young people and adults who committed suicide because of the homophobic environment here. Kacper, Dominik, and Wiktor were 14 years old when each of them took their own life. Zuzia was even younger, just 12 years old. Transgender activist Milo was 25 years old. Michał, a professional model, was 30 years old. We commemorate their names at almost every demonstration. A few weeks ago, LGBT activists spray-painted their names on the front of the Ministry of Education building. How has this environment affected us? We are getting angrier and angrier... No, actually angry is not the right word. We are pissed off as hell. On the 7th of August 2020, we had our "Polish Stonewall riot". The LGBTQ+ community in Poland have started to openly fight for our rights, basic human rights. On that particular day – the 7th of August – the office of the homophobic ministry of justice prosecutor decided to arrest and hold one of the LGBT activists for two months. The activist’s name was Margot (non-binary person, she/her) from the queer-collective Stop Bzdurom (Stop Bullshit). It wasn't the first arrest for an LGBT activist from this collective, but it was the longest one. Demonstrations against Margot’s arrest were brutally crushed by the police and 48 activists were arrested. What did Margot do? She spray-painted one of the homophobuses (the trucks used to spread homophobic messages). There is an independent film called "7th of August" from the Watch Docs Film Festival which includes interviews with some of the activists arrested that day. In the film they describe the police brutality they faced – you can find out more about this film: https://watchdocs.pl/en/watch-docs/2020/filmy/7-sierpnia,7798. Other movements are taking action too – you may have heard that a Womens’ Strike started in October. The LGBTQ+ community stands with our sisters.

Q6: Why is it important to talk about these problems? Piotr: Because we are dying out here. Literally in some cases as you can see from my previous answer. Because our government doesn’t think twice about openly lying about homophobia in Poland. Because our situation isn't much better than the situation in Russia. In 2021 parliament will probably introduce a law that prohibits Equality Marches and Pride Parades. This law will also prohibit the act of talking about LGBT in public or teaching that homosexuality is a normal orientation. It will prohibit the act of promoting any family model other than the heterosexual norm. For now, parliament rejected this act - but only due to the formal deficiencies. The Foundation responsible for the project decided to fill the gaps and started gathering signatures under this project once again. You might think they won't put this law into practice, but we thought the same about abortion prohibition and, as of the 22nd October, abortion became illegal in Poland.

Q7: What can people do to help? Piotr: Spread the news and information about our situation. Put pressure on your government. If you meet an LGBT-immigrant from Poland – please help him or her to settle in your country. Ask your local LGBT-organization if they can cooperate with LGBT-organizations in Poland. Support us in every possible way you can.

Find out how you can support LGBTQ+ communities by joining our campaign Supporting LGBTQ+ rights around the world.

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