A vibrant, colossal rainbow made of artificial flowers adorns Plac Zbawiciela, a central square in Warsaw. Since its erection in 2012, the art installation has been set on fire at least six times, most recently this past December. The artist’s insistence that the rainbow is not a symbol of gay rights has not prevented it from being the target of homophobic backlash from right wing nationalists, devout Catholics, and politicians who group sexual minorities with perverts and paedophiles.
Poland is one of the most homophobic countries in Europe. Gay Poles are regularly subject to psychological violence – including verbal harassment, insults, threats, blackmail, and vandalism – or physical harassment. Hate speech and anti-gay discrimination are so prevalent among politicians, religious officials, the media, and even everyday individuals that one Polish MP has judged that “it is impossible for gays to be themselves in Poland.”
Homophobia is in part rooted in a wider Polish problem of confronting differences and letting go of traditional outlooks. Poland is a country where 96% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, and ethnic and racial minorities consist of 2% of the population. Polish homogeneity, largely an artificial product of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, now operates as a foundation of the Polish national identity. Additionally, the Catholic Church has become an extremely strong political and social force since 1989, especially given the role it played in resisting the former Communist regime.
The result is a socially regressive mentality. It is manifest in the fact that the majority of Poles refuse to accept same-sex marriage or adoption of children by homosexual couples; in random acts of violence against ethnic minorities; in protests against the building of mosques in Warsaw; and in the underrepresentation of women in the work force. The influence of the Church in particular has meant that sexual education is non-existent, access to contraception methods is very limited, and abortion is criminalized in most circumstances.
Poland is suspended in a contradictory transitional stage. Politicians interchangeably denounce open acceptance of homosexuality as an export from the West and argue that homosexuality is a threat to European and Western values. The country has adopted the institutions of a liberal democracy yet refuses to adopt a corresponding modern political and social mind-set. It has so far cherry-picked what it wants to assume from the West, transforming it into a destructive parody of thing it is trying to emulate.
As a gay Canadian with parents who emigrated from Poland, I find the social climate in Poland heartbreaking. It means that I cannot live openly and safely, let alone have a family, in the country where all my relatives live and which houses the history and heritage that have contributed to making me the person that I am. And I am not alone in holding this view. Discrimination of homosexuals is a major reason for Polish immigration to the UK and Canada. It not only compromises basic human rights, but also encourages a sizeable intellectual emigration that can only function towards Poland’s detriment.
The situation of homosexuals in Poland is improving and acceptance of LGBT communities has been on the rise over the last few years, although these changes have been slow and minimal. If there is any hope that the rainbow in Plac Zbawiciela will stop being set on fire, it should not be placed in time for Poland to outgrow the consequences of its tragic history. Hope lies with those who actively promote a wider understanding and acceptance of LGBT issues in Poland, including Polish and foreign media. This is why I believe homophobia in present-day Poland is a subject worth writing about.
Get Real. previously published an article about the rainbow in September 2014 by Jakub Nagrodzki