Equality Marches in Wrocław8 min read

 In Central Europe, Civil Society, Opinion

The origins of the Polish LGBT rights movement can be traced back to the 1980s, when activists met informally to produce and distribute self-published newsletters written in Polish, and to organise covert activities. Organisers were able to move out of the shadows only after 1989, after the fall of the Communist regime. The first recognised LGBT organisation was created in 1990 in Warsaw, and was called Stowarzyszenie Grup Lambda (The Association of Lambda Groups). During the 1990s, however, Lambda did not support any forms of public activism because the organizers were afraid of the consequences.

The situation seemed to change for the better in 2001, when Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (The Alliance of the Democratic Left) won federal elections and took power in Poland. During the electoral campaign, the party had promised to introduce a same-sex partnership bill and antidiscrimination protection for sexual minorities. It was in the wake of these promises that Warsaw saw its first Parada Równości, a “Parade of Equality” in 2001 and again in 2002 and 2003, each time with more and more participants.

However, the situation for Polish LGBT citizens worsened rapidly beginning in 2004, when right-wing parties took power and nationalist sentiments started to spread throughout the country in response to Poland’s accession to the European Union. From 2004 onwards, LGBT marches and demonstrations were attacked by protesters and even cancelled by authorities. Lech Kaczynski, then-mayor of Warsaw, banned the Parada Równości in 2004 and 2005. From 2005 to 2007, Poland was  led by its most nationalistic, populist government since the fall of communism, which made the so-called “LGBT lobby” their target.

Despite the unfavourable political environment, the organizers of the Parades of Equality continued to plan the annual event, and decided to fight back against the governmental bans. The three major LGBT rights associations (ILGCN-Poland, Lambda Warszawa, and KPH) grouped together to establish Fundacja Równości (the Equality Foundation) and mounted legal challenges against the parade bans. The suits were successful, and the Equality Marches in Poznań and Warsaw could take place from 2006 onwards. Since 2007, the number of LGBT rights activists has increased and the Polish movement is nowadays one of the best-organised and -developed in the post-communist region.

In 2010, Warsaw hosted EuroPride, the first EuroPride to be held in a post-communist country. The event was extremely successful and saw the participation of international supporters as well as of some Polish representatives. Moreover, Gazeta Wyborcza, an important Polish newspaper, supported the event by writing about the Parade and relevant LGBT issues, and by publishing a four-page insert in Polish and English which was distributed for free on the day of the Parade.

However, institutionalised homophobia has increased since 2015, when Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (the Law and Justice Party) became the majority party in government. Government propaganda shifted considerably from anti-immigration stances, prior to 2015, to anti-LGBT declarations. One of the possible reasons for such a shift is that immigration is not perceived as a huge threat by the Polish people. However, anti-LGBT declarations are uttered constantly by Polish politicians, heavily supported by members of the Polish Catholic Church, and they have a huge impact on the population. Moreover, in 2016, parliament rejected a bill that would have included gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and age as potential grounds for hate crime protections.

2019 was a critical year for Polish LGBT citizens. In February, Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, signed a declaration supporting LGBT rights. The declaration, which follows the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), identifies five pillars: safety, education, culture and sports, workplace, and administration, and sets out practical steps such as establishing a community centre, launching a crisis hotline, and introducing anti-discrimination classes in all Warsaw schools. 

However, PiS, Poland’s governing party at the federal level, condemned the act. Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS party leader, declared that “These [LGBT rights] ideologies , philosophies, all of this is imported, these are not internal Polish mechanisms” in a conference organised by Catholic Action in April 2019. “They are a threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state”. Moreover, Kaczyński urged Poles to vote for his party by saying that PiS is the only political party that guarantees the protection of Polish traditional values.

After Trzaskowski’s declaration in February 2019, several Polish towns and cities reacted by declaring themselves strefa wolna od LGBT (LGBT-free zones), starting with Swidnik, a town in Eastern Poland. The LGBT-free zone designation is not legally binding, and the practice has been condemned by the European Council. However, the zones have been supported by many people: the city of Lublin, for example, presented awards to local officials who opposed the “LGBT ideology”; and the first Equality March in Białystok, with around 1,000 participants, was violently attacked by groups of extremists who burned flags, threw smoke bombs, bottles, and rotten eggs at the participants; and injured and assaulted several people. 

In August 2019, 30 LGBT-free zones were declared in Poland, in four voivodeships (provinces) – Małopolskie (including Krakow), Podkarpackie, Świętokrzyskie, and Lubelskie. As of now, LGBT-free zones have increased to around 90 areas, representing one-third of the whole country:

Moreover, Gazeta Polska, a Polish news magazine that openly supports PiS, published anti-LGBT stickers showing a big, black cross over a rainbow flag together with the slogan strefa wolna od LGBT. The decision of the magazine was heavily criticised and Paweł Rabiej, deputy mayor of Warsaw, filed a complaint about the stickers to the prosecutor’s office. 

“German fascists created Jew-free zones”, he tweeted.

Despite several difficulties, an increasing number of parades have been organised over the years, making Poland more and more colourful:

Marsz Równości means “Equality March”. I think that there is something delicate about a title that stresses equality over pride. Wrocław has been the fourth city to organise a Marsz Równości, after Warsaw, Kraków, and Poznań, and in 2019 the March was organised for the 11th time.

As every year, we invite you to Wrocław for the rainbow celebration of the LGBTI community and its allies! We meet at Plac Wolności (Freedom Square) to express our solidarity with the postulates of equality and respect for all. The space of the Equality March is friendly, safe, and open to all people. We dream of a Polish society that is open, accepting, civil, and appreciative of diversity. But this will not be achieved by itself: we have to stand against the violence of the powerful, against the growing hatred and aggression, as our opposition is extremely meaningful and leads to concrete, tangible results. Let there be more of us, because there are more people of good will!” With these inclusive words, the members of NGO Kultura Rowności (Culture of Equality) officially invited everyone to the Equality March in Wrocław.

With the support of Wrocław’s mayor, Jacek Sutryk, the Marsz Równości took place in the afternoon of 5 October 2019. The first thing I noticed when I gathered in Plac Wolności was the amount of police surrounding the whole square. It felt intimidating to walk through a human barrier dressed in black just to step onto Freedom Square. The police were there to ensure the safety of the participants, a fact which some of the organizers of Marsz Równości underlined several times before the March began.

The police were dressed in black, the sky was grey, and rain dribbled down, but  the character of the March was joyous. Rainbow flags, rainbow umbrellas, and colourful jackets could be seen everywhere, and we could easily breathe the joyful atmosphere in the air.

The route of the March was designed to walk through the most central streets of Wrocław to be as visible as possible. People taking part in the March were smiling, enjoying the inclusive atmosphere and feeling free to be able to march openly to ask for their rights. If the marches are any indication, a sizeable segment of the Polish population want their country to be open and inclusive: around 10,000 of us marched in Wrocław, and almost 50,000 people took part in Parada Równości in 2019 in Warsaw – a great achievement considering that the first Parades included only a few hundred people. Furthermore, 2019 welcomed 24 Equality Marches between March and October, an significant improvement compared to the 14 Equality Marches held in 2018.

While walking along one of the biggest streets of Wrocław, we could see rainbow flags glued to the windows of some buildings. Some of the participants had made and brought provocative signs such as the following rhyme:  geje są wszędzie, P. Prezydęcie (“Gays are everywhere, Mr President”). The sign showed two priests holding hands.

Some people waved very different signs, however.

The sign on the left reads What does the LGBT lobby want to teach children?, while the one in the centre reads Stop pedophilia, homosexuals repeatedly molest children. We ignored these banners and kept walking along Świdnicka Street with joy, holding our colours high and proud.

We marched through Rynek, Wrocław’s main square, and then headed back towards Freedom Square, where our march came to an end. The organizers of Marsz Równości concluded the event with several speeches and they underlined several times the importance of going back home accompanied by someone, even in groups. Going back home alone could be dangerous. I went back with a friend, wishing with all of my heart that there would be no need to feel unsafe and unsure after taking part in an inclusive march that celebrates love and equality for everybody.

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