There’s a saying in Hungary: Pole and Hungarian – two good friends. And for a long time now we have been partners in some pretty bad times. State homophobia is also rampant in Poland, just like in Hungary, though perhaps at an even higher level: registered partnerships are not allowed, LGBT-free zones have been set up – though these are slowly but surely being withdrawn – and now a ‘Stop LGBT’ bill is being introduced to protect the traditional family model. Sounds familiar to Hungarians. We interviewed Bart Staszewski, one of the most important faces of Polish LGBT activism, about the homophobic Polish government, the fight against LGBT-free zones, the supportive society, the European Union, the toxic relationship between the Hungarian and Polish heads of state, and how the LGBT communities in the two countries can help each other.
For years, we have been receiving terrible news from Poland. What is the situation in your country now?
From the point of view of an activist, I can see that this is not the same as in 2020 or 2019, when the whole government started to use LGBT people as scapegoats. Back then we were constantly under attack. Now it’s a bit calmer. But we have two years until the election, the subject has plenty of time tocome up again.
It doesn’t mean that there is nothing happening, just think about the ‘Stop LGBT’ bill being intorduced. Time to time we hear horrible statements by different politicians that remind us that we are still under the power of this government that hates us. And of course, we see those LGBT-free zones that are now slowly, very slowly getting cancelled. This also gives me some hope that a change is really coming.
What about this ‘Stop LGBT’ ruling? They say that it has a small chance that it will be introduced to the Parliament.
They collected about 100,000 signatures from different parishes with the help of the Catholic church to have this bill being introduced in the Parliament. So far, we know about 400 parishes, because they were giving updates about their progress on their websites. My friends collected that information.
The Polish ruling party, Law and Justice voted yes to have this bill going further in the commission. Nobody really knows when it will come back to the Parliament, because after the commission’s approval, it needs to get back before the end of the cadency for this parliament. The process can be faster, if the government really wants it. So of course, it’s dangerous. It’s mainly targeting Pride events and parades, because as they mentioned it in the bill, it promotes the ideology that is harmful for families. The ruling also contains that any and every promotion of non-traditional family models should be prohibited.
It’s very stupid and we see it as very unconstitutional. We’ve seen many times that the Polish government did things we deemed impossible. And yet they happened. The parliament didn’t vote against the ‘Stop LGBTQ’ law at the very beginning. This make us feel even worse because it’s another proof that we are second-category citizens. It’s a gun in our faces for two years, because we don’t know when it will shoot.
In Hungary, they shot this gun two times this year. How are media outlets, books or magazines are affected in Poland?
The law bans all propagation of civil unions, same sex marriage and adoption rights, but they don’t say anything about books or TV outlets. So far, we have nothing that stops the media from saying what they want.
We have TVN from America, the largest private network in Europe which is quite influential now in Poland, and they have done quite a good job during the voting on this chaotic bill. They had live broadcasts from the Parliament, reportages about trans people, invited activists to the station. This means a lot, because they are quite a big organization, and many people watch them.
On the other hand, we have the public TV, which is always in the hands of the ruling government. They will not push a thing which is pro-LGBT, and they constantly sell the propaganda, that LGBT people are paedophiles and we are the enemies of the country.
How do LGBT organizations work in Poland? How free are they to work and to help people?
I think that we are quite free. Especially in big cities. We work quite independently. We know that we need to be on board, we need to help the people, because the situation is very bad. Of course, we don’t have any financial help from the state, it’s impossible. But we are doing our best.
The situation is a bit worse in the small places around Poland, the politicians are more influential over there. You could imagine: if a place declared itself as an LGBT-free zone, they would make the situation for the activists there the worst. They can do that, with all the legal terms. They can ban the pride parade, ban LGBT people from legal gatherings or having a rainbow day. They cause trouble for the local LGBTQ community where they can. The Ombudsman office have been quite important in many years, and they are supporting LGBT rights. They are our only friends in terms of state institutions.
But we can also see that violence is growing. 70% of the LGBT people are having suicidal thoughts. We know by the reports that this anti-LGBT rhetoric is really influencing people’s minds. People are afraid. You are more likely to sense this situation in smaller towns.
On the other hand, we have the highest number of the marchers in the Poland Pride, and it’s also growing. Because people are furious. They don’t want to go back to the closet. They want to fight for their rights. And we are on the boiling point. People want to fight for their rights, they don’t want to sit silence. We have many protests last year. The most prominent one was the Margot protest, which was at the end of the 2020 – we call it the Polish Stonewall. Many people were arrested, but it was another proof that we will fight for friends, for other activities and we are not alone.
The same happened in Hungary. People really got into the revolutionary spirit. I have never seen the whole LGBT community in Hungary so proud. And it was also beautiful that the whole society started to show their support. Is Polish society more likely on your side?
Yes, we have seen it during the Pride and the campaign against us. In 2019, many people needed to decide, if they are on the side of those who are supporting LGBT people or those who are not. I’d say that it was a big change, a chance for the people to actually choose a side.
Law and Justice is just doing what they are usually doing: make people choose. Usually, Polish people or good people. And they choose the good side. And therefore, the good side of the bad situation is what makes this process of accepting LGBT people even faster. We have seen LGBT flags during many protests and occasions that are not strictly connected to LGBT issues. We are everywhere, and therefore we should be everywhere.
It’s a change. It’s a process. Since 2015, when Law and Justice came into power, we’ve seen that the LGBT flag became a part of the process. It became visible around the people. In the very beginning, it was hard to explain why we are over there with our Pride flag, because they were telling us that it’s not a Pride event and we shouldn’t make a statement about our topic right now. But we explained why it is important. And now it’s part of every occasion. Now even some straight people are asking, where the LGBT flags are. There are many movies in the cinemas about LGBT issues because people really want to know these stories.
I don’t want to say that the situation is very good. Because it’s not. But we see more and more allies who want to be included to do something and it’s visible.
How is society affected by the whole fake new system that works in the public media? I have talked with one of my co-workers at Humen, János, and he told me that if you search for LGBT in the News section of Google, most of the articles are from the Polish central media. And they are not positive.
The government is demonizing people on the daily basis, and they are selling this cheap propaganda against us. A few days ago, the Polish President, Andrzej Duda was interviewed by the Latvian TV and the journalist asked him about the LGBT-free zones. He told to the reporter that no such thing like that exists. He said it’s a fake story, created by the most radical and aggressive activist. By that he meant me. Of course, it’s a horrible lie. But Duda knows that if a lie is repeated a thousand times, it becomes truth. And this is what they are doing. And we have the public TV, which is creating documentaries, like Invasion, which stated that there is an LGBT invasion in Poland and people are being paid to go to the Pride. So, people can think that there are no ordinary people at these events, only the ones who were paid for it.
There were journalists who came to the biggest LGBT NGO with hidden cameras, and from the footage they have made an edit that make people think that something mysterious and horrible is happening there. They are comparing LGBT people to paedophiles. They are creating fake news like in the Netherlands gays are buying the kids on the market. They are doing this daily, whatever the European Union commission is doing to Poland. Showing my face, of other activists and pictures of Berlin Pride, saying that the European Union is harming Poland because we are against the traditional family rights. And they state that these horrible LGBT activists are paid for what they are doing. So yes, it’s brainwashing the people. It’s worse than the situation in the communist era, because then it was easier to understand that what is a lie or fake news.
Duda had an aggressive homophobic campaign. But he still won. He didn’t win big, but he still won.
Duda just won with two, maybe three percent of the votes. Many people don’t vote in Poland, 30% of the citizens who are able to vote stay at home. It’s actually 60% of the people who are deciding the future of the country. I just want to see the Poland where more of people are going to the election. There are young people who are protesting already, they are 16-17 years old. In two years, they will have a right to vote. They are this underestimated group which I hope will change the country.
The other similarity between Hungary and Poland is how the government demonizes people, how they create a common enemy for the society.
They use this very well-known tool against the people. And, in Poland, it’s working. Just like in Hungary. But it’s motivating people to choose a side. This propaganda is very cheap, and it’s not working for young people, because they have this access to other points of view, and to HBO, to Netflix, even in small places. They are not dependent on public TV news, because they have internet access.
But there’s still the older generation who are voting for the Law and Justice party. It’s time for a generation to come and bring change. Slowly, it’s happening. I follow different hashtags connected to protests, and I can see that they are happening in places, where I could have never imaged that someone can organize anything. There was a media release that said that these protests in these places were the first ones since the communism. Something is going on, something is changing.
But Law and Justice can be re-elected. It would be bad for the burn-out activists, who don’t have power for the next years. But we are ready for this situation.
What is the situation in those anti-LGBT zones? How are LGBT people affected there?
Those zones are declared to fight against the LGBT ideology and to protect the family and Christianity from all harm. This is simply a declaration of war on LGBT rights. But it’s not a law. It means that they are creating a chilling effort on the people, who are living there.
I have a very simple example. If you want to do an LGBT workshop, you can’t do that in any public institutions paid by the city, because the people who are working there are afraid that they will lose their jobs. A few days ago, I was attending a conference about the anti-LGBT zones, held by European Parliamentarists, who came to Poland to be inside the LGBT free zones and to talk about LGBT rights. They rented a conference room in a hotel in Puava. The wanted to rent rooms in a different city, but they were told by the staff that although they really like their initiative, if they rent a room there, the director will lose his job. It was the first time for these people to see how it’s really working. If you are against the agenda, you can lose your job.
When we listen to interviews with the politicians, who are declaring this horrible act, they say that for them, the LGBT ideology is a man holding a man’s hand in public, or somebody wearing a rainbow bag. They are creating an atmosphere over there that such things are bad.
These anti LGBT zones were all over in the media, in the whole world. Does it have any effect on the country, on the politics of Poland?
Many places cancelled their resolutions. The Norwegian Funds were straight away helping delete those zones. The foreign affair minister said that they will not sponsor the homophobic zones. And it was the end of the funds for those places. Then the European Commission did the same. It was very easy to see that the Polish government on one hand have this ant LGBT agenda and they are doing what they are doing in the name of that, but on the other hand they are very afraid of losing the funds. So many places cancelled their status as LGBT free zones, but it doesn’t mean that they are not homophobic anymore.
It’s our big victory. We need to be proud of that situation because we made it happen. Without the resistance of the civil society, without our work on the field, it would have never been possible. Or without the work of my friends from the Atlas of Hate Group – they created a virtual map of Poland and they collected all LGBT-free zones. They paid the consequences for it, because they got seven lawsuits. It would not have been possible without our meetings with the politicians making a pressure on the European Commission. It was one year of work and now we see the outcome.
But it’s sad that we needed to wait for these things to happen, because Polish politicians maybe don’t understand the polite talk of discussion.
In Hungary, sometimes we feel that the European Union can be loud about the problems, but at the end of the day they don’t really do anything. Are you really satisfied with the European Union?
I’m not always a fan of the symbolic actions and statements, because they don’t give us anything. They are just words. Whenever we hear the European Commission or Union is deeply concerned, it means that nothing will change. But we have the LGBT equality strategy from 2020 to 2025. The European Union will give concrete actions and money on promotions of LGBT rights and strategy. It also means money for the NGOs that will be fighting for the LGBT rights. They are in the introduction process of it. They will have actions following their statements. For me, this is the only hope I have. And of course, we have seen the European Commission fighting for the LGBT rights. They said they’ll do that and that they are going to protect rainbow families across the union. But I don’t know how they want to do that. It’s easy to say and harder to do.
But at least I feel that they came to this table where the authoritarian governments are playing the game. Since 2020 I have been inviting the European Union to be at the table, because if you are not there, they are playing their game and you are just watching. The European Union must make politics, not just policies.
These authoritarian governments, led by Orbán and Kaczyński are playing this game in a strange way. They do the same politics, but when the European Union started to criticize the Hungarian homophobic law, Orbán was left alone, not even Kaczyński supported him. Although he is also doing the same homophobic politics.
This is a very cynical relationship, a really toxic one. They are using each other when it’s needed, but they don’t give anything back. Of course, they are giving some PR things. They like to show off the relationship of Hungary and Poland. I could imagine that they could do much more for each other, to really show that we are the brotherhood. Some economic changes for Hungarian and Polish companies or whatever. They could build this story much bigger than they are doing right now.
We have heard many times about those countries in the eastern part of Europe, which are building some common relationship to be in the alternate for the European Union. But despite those big declarations and Orbán or Kaczyński showing their muscles, nothing happened, because they really know that there is no alternative. Because those countries don’t have the money the Western countries have. We are slowly reaching the momentum, when we won’t get a big amount of financial support anymore, because we’ve been too long in the European Union. So later that time we can imagine that Kaczyński will seriously think about leaving the European Union. But so far, we get the money flow. It’s worth to say that we stay there, but of course we play that we don’t need them. It’s a political game.
In two years, there will be a voting in Poland. How strong are the liberal parties?
They are trying to find the language to the people. Donald Tusk came back to Poland and he became the top figure for the opposition again. Some people like him, some people don’t. Some dislike him for his lack of support for the LGBT rights. He doesn’t want to touch this topic. We are very disappointed, but it’s nothing new – the liberals were always like that in Poland.
But we are getting stronger. We have LGBT NGOs in most of the big cities, and they are really devoted to fight for the future. I hope that a liberal government will win, and I think it’s possible. But there are also different factors in the background. The COVID situation or the financial situation of Poland, during the pandemic. It will always be very easy to play the card that if you will give another government the right to be the ruling government, it will be even worse. “So let’s vote for us again. We’re going to make the situation better.” And they have the public TV in their hands so they can constantly brainwash the people.
It’s been ten years. And it’s been horrible. It’s a lost generation of the people who are just constantly living under the hands of the right-wing people. But I still somehow believe that it’s possible to change the government, those young people just need to go vote to the polling stations. And then the change will be possible. Because it will be much easier to demand the change from the liberals and from the right wing.
What do you think, how can the communities of our countries support each other?
We should pay more attention to each other because we are facing the same problems and the same authoritarian governments. Maybe we need to set for different solutions. We should have more conferences where we exchange our ideas. I’ve been in Hungary a few times. I had very open-minded meetings with people about how are you fighting, how are you voting, how are you changing things. And I could exchange my views, my ideas that and everything that what worked or not worked in Poland. For example, patriotism is working quite well in Poland. To tell that we are part of this country, and we are fighting for it.
I think we are going quite well in our bottle. We are quite good places in the European Union. We have those old connections around. We know each other at least. We know when to ask each other for the help. For me, it would be important just to strengthen the union between the LGBT people.
The last time you were in Hungary, you got into a bit of trouble by showing the LGBT free zone table in front of the Parliament.
I wanted to make some statement. I was speaking to few activists if it’s okay to make it because I don’t want to make anything against you. It’s your country and your capital city. I’m just a guest here. There was a green light. I was just before they passed the homophobic law. I just used the power of the civil disobedience. And the power of me being privileged. Because the officers there started to search me on the web and they showed around the phone to each other, smiling. And they called the embassy, and they made me not given any penalty, because they were too afraid that the situation will get bigger afterwards.
This says a lot about being privileged and using the privileged on the positive side. So, I always invite celebrities to be involved in the civil disobedience, in the protests, to be faces of different campaigns and specially to come out. We need more people from the celebrity world to be openly gay. And we’ve seen it many times since last year. It’s especially important for young people who are looking on those celebrities as some kind of authorities. Lot of the Olympic games player became openly gay and it was very new thing in Poland. Now, when they were telling that I am lesbian, and I’m swimming and I want silver for Poland, it became a huge thing for our country. Sports is quite important for us. I think that is another thing that could be copy pasted: to invite sportspeople to come out.
How are you holding up with such a big attention? What gives you energy?
It’s my boyfriend who’s giving me the energy, who’s supporting me and planning everything with me. I don’t think that I would survive these horrible campaigns against me which are happening in TV without me. You always need somebody to be at your back. For me, it’s my boyfriend. Therefore, it’s also important to determine people that we need to support each other in this harsh time. Because people get depressed, people get burned out. And we need each other for a long time. It’s not a short run. It’s a marathon. We need to be prepared and to create this change, we need to be on board. It’s so important to really support each other. Ask how we are feeling. Ask what we can do for each other. Not just focusing on fight, fight, fight, because this fight is set for a long time.
Adam Andras Kanicsar