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UK campaign targets Poland's 'LGBT-free zones'

April 21, 2021

In recent years, Polish towns have drawn international condemnation for passing charters denouncing LGBT+ ideology. Now, a UK campaign is pushing back.

A group of people carrying a banner and holding Polish and rainbow flags march along a street in London's Leicester Square
Polish flags fly in London's Leicester Square during Pride 2018Image: PolishRainbowUK

Angry, young and desperate to express himself. This was how Jarek Kubiak felt when he left his Polish hometown of Lodz in 2006 to begin a new life as a gay man in the UK.

Living in London, Kubiak avoided Polish people because he wanted to forget his closeted life back home.

"I didn’t want to keep that Polishness in me," the 37-year-old told DW.

In 2006, being gay in Poland was dangerous. Moving to the UK was Kubiak’s solution. He could now walk down the street without looking over his shoulder and stroll through parks with his boyfriend. He could kiss a man in public.

"When I left, I thought that the situation for gay, queer and LGBT+ people in Poland would only get better," Kubiak said.

Jarek Kubiak, in blue shorts, celebrates with friends at London Pride, 2019. The group is holding a banner with the name of the organization, along with Polish and rainbow flags
Jarek Kubiak, in blue shorts, celebrates with friends at London Pride, 2019Image: PolishRainbowUK

That has, sadly, not been the case.

LGBT+ rights in Poland remain largely unrecognized by the state and the community has no protection from hate crimes or discrimination.

That means, even when Kubiak suffered physical homophobic abuse in the UK, which saw him hospitalized for two days, the police protected him and sought justice under the law. Kubiak believes this would not happen in Poland.

"In the UK, I feel like I am seen and in Poland I feel like I need to hide," he said.

Polish Rainbow UK at London Pride, 2018
Polish Rainbow UK at London Pride, 2018Image: PolishRainbowUK

'Protect Our Twins' campaign

Kubiak is the co-founder of Polish Rainbow UK, the country’s longest running Polish LGBT+ support group.

He is also a consultant on a new campaign to pressure UK councils to champion LGBT+ rights and confront their twin towns in Poland who have established themselves as 'LGBT-free zones.'

Called 'Protect Our Twins,' the campaign was started by the Liberal Democrat party in March 2021.

There are roughly 100 municipalities in Poland that have signed charters and passed declarations against LGBT+ ideologies, promoting traditional heterosexual relationships and warning against the immorality of LGBT+ ideology. The areas that have passed such edicts are widely termed 'LGBT-free zones.'

Giant rainbow flags are seen during a Pride march in Nowy Sacz, Poland
LGBT+ people in Poland remain largely unprotected under the lawImage: Omar Marques/Getty Images

UK towns with Polish twins include Lincoln and Radomsko, Amersham and Krynica-Zdroj, Blackburn and Tarnow, along with dozens more. 'Protect Our Twins' wants these UK towns to speak up for LGBT+ people in Poland and pressure their partner towns to reconsider their policies.

Gareth Lewis Shelton, chair of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, is clear the campaign is not a threat from UK towns but a sign of solidarity.

"Geography shouldn't be a barrier to justice and it shouldn't be a barrier to your rights," he told DW. "It’s about recognizing the innate dignity and worth that everybody has."

Via a digital map produced by Atlas Nienawisci, a campaign group based in Poland that has been tracking the establishment of these resolutions since December 2019, it’s possible to see the location of each zone.

Speaking from Krakow, Atlas Nienawisci’s founder Kamil Maczuga says the anti-LGBT+ declarations cover 12.2 million Poles, which is around a third of the population.

"For us, international pressure is important to know we are not fighting alone." Maczuga told DW.

LGBT+ activists hold banners and rainbow flags during a protest
Roughly 100 municipalities in Poland have passed resolutions widely described as 'LGBT-free zones'Image: Omar Marques/Getty Images

Ordo Iuris Institute is a conservative legal organization responsible for creating some of these zones by passing declarations they call 'The Charter of the Rights of Family.' They deny that 'LGBT-free zones' exist as the charter never mentions the acronym. Instead, they say the charter defends the Polish constitution, promoting "family, marriage, parenthood and motherhood," and the "protection of children against demoralization."

Asked to clarify the meaning of 'demoralization,' the vice president of the Ordo Iuris Institute, Tymoteusz Zych, told DW: "There are many controversial programs of sexual education that are criticsed by scholars and scientists for interfering in the sexuality of children in the wrong way."

"Kids should learn about sexuality and the body," he said. "But it is the way it is being done that must be sensitive."

Adamantly denying that there are any 'LGBT-free zones' in Poland, Zych said international campaigns are part of a fake news conspiracy.

"I want to make it clear, I think no worse harm can be done to Polish LGBT+ communities than to spread fake news from abroad," he said.

"Their activities are about slandering their own country. They think people from the Polish countryside will remain idle but they are not going to remain idle when they are slandered," Zych said.

A woman holds a rainbow flag
Conservative organizations in Poland say their charters are simply defending family valuesImage: Omar Marques/Getty Images

International solidarity

The UK campaign is not happening in isolation and using twins towns to raise awareness about LGBT+ rights in Poland has been used before.

In February 2020, French councilors from Saint-Jean-de-Braye voted to end their partnership with the Polish town of Tuchow over anti-LGBT+ resolutions. In August 2020, the mayor of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, urged his counterpart in Krakow to confirm opposition to homophobia.

The European Parliament has also confronted 'LGBT-free zones,' passing a resolution declaring itself an 'LGBTIQ Freedom Zone.' That followed the bloc’s decision to withhold funds from six towns that declared themselves 'LGBT-free zones.' After this decision, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, "I will continue to push for a union of equality."

Alongside the UK campaign, the global LGBT+ charity All Out has gathered over 75,000 signatures for a petition promoting twin towns as a potential pressure point to Polish municipalities ignoring LGBT+ rights.

UK’s unique influence

Politically, the UK has a close relationship with Poland on various issues, including support for NATO and a belief in trans-Atlanticism. But most significantly, the UK has become a second home to a large Polish migrant community with more than 77,500 Poles currently living there, the second-largest migrant group living in the UK behind Indians.

So, although the two countries differ greatly on LGBT+ rights, the UK and Poland do have lots in common.  

Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics and contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex, says that because bilateral relations with the UK are so important to Poland there’s potential for Britain to influence Polish LGBT+ policy in the future.

"I think that the Polish government are very keen to create close relations with the UK and I think that there is scope for soft power leverage on these kinds of issues," he told DW.

Back in London, Jarek Kubiak is convinced that, in the end, Polish LGBT+ people will benefit from campaigns that display international solidarity like 'Protect Our Twins.' When he last visited Poland in 2019, he said the LGBT+ activists he met were exhausted and ready to give up.

"They were like: 'We're done. We're tired,'" Kubiak said. "So whenever we do something outside of Poland they say it gives us energy to go on."

Although Kubiak still loves Poland, after living in the UK for almost 15 years, he has also become weary with his country’s inability to accept LGBT+ people.

"Poland is like a mother that you will love no matter what," he said. "But I really wish Poland would just get over itself and get on with the program."