In late February, the mayor of Warsaw issued a declaration combating discrimination against LGBT people by providing better sex education in schools and creating a city shelter for LGBT individuals kicked out by their families.
This brought a furious backlash from Poland’s governing populist Law and Justice party and other social conservatives ranging from soccer fans to Church representatives. For now, the backlash has taken the form of toxic public rhetoric, notably by politicians mobilizing for upcoming elections. But in a country where a mayor known for supporting gay rights and other liberal causes was recently stabbed at a televised charity event, such rhetoric can be explosive.
This may seem to be another instance of populists mobilizing supporters by treating minority groups as symbols of how European integration threatens national identity. These minorities may be Muslim refugees taking advantage of the E.U.’s open internal borders or LGBT activists supported by Brussels-based NGOs like ILGA-Europe.
The intense backlash has surprised observers. But there’s a history behind it.
Poland has been through this before
Law and Justice first came to power in 2005, immediately after Poland joined the E.U. For the next two years, the government treated LGBT people and issues harshly. Pride marches were banned, in breach of the constitution. Politicians used ugly, threatening rhetoric about gay lives. An anti-gay education minister took charge of the school system.
These measures had an unexpected consequence. Poland’s LGBT movement became one of the best organized in post-communist Europe.
To understand how backlash helped build up Poland’s LGBT rights movement, we need to begin with communism’s legacy regarding homosexuality. Across the Eastern bloc Communist authorities treated homosexuality, at best, as a kind of social disorder and, at worst, as a criminal offense. This stigmatization made homosexuality invisible, allowing negative stereotypes to thrive.
Invisibility and prejudice persisted during the transition to democracy. Gay rights groups did form in the 1990s, but they were very weakly organized: locally based, informally structured and oriented more toward self-help and services than political goals. Remaining under the political radar helped them to survive but not to thrive or build a social movement. Over the 1990s most faded away. By 2000 only a single group remained in the whole country: Lambda-Warsaw.
Within a decade, however, the Polish LGBT movement became one of the best organized in post-communist Europe. It built a national-level network with professional staff and branches in each of the country’s regions. It successfully challenged government bans on Pride marches in the European Court of Human Rights. The number of participants in Warsaw’s parade climbed from a couple hundred in 2001 to over 10,000 in 2010.
Perhaps most impressively, it mobilized for elections. In 2011, Robert Biedroń, the head of the country’s largest LGBT rights group (Campaign Against Homophobia), and Anna Grodzka, a transgender activist, won seats in parliament.
The backlash and the E.U. combined to produce change
What made this dramatic change possible? Poland’s accession to the E.U. helped, but the populist backlash that immediately followed it helped even more.
Attacks by Law and Justice and its allies linked the issues of E.U. accession and LGBT rights. That proved an organizational shot in the arm for the struggling LGBT movement. LGBT issues went from being invisible to front-page news.
The backlash also built solidarity. When the taken-for-granted routines and accommodations that gays and lesbians had constructed to negotiate their daily lives suddenly came under threat, individuals became more willing to risk costly collective action. The problems that had weakened the movement in the 1990s — disagreements over goals, weak grass roots participation, the need to rely on volunteer labor — now became much less formidable. (This effect has been noted in other contexts by social movement scholar David Snow and his colleagues.)
Finally, the determined efforts by Law and Justice and other populists to link LGBT activism with E.U. values mobilized populists — but it also counter-mobilized the very large proportion of Poles who support E.U. integration around LGBT rights to demonstrate their commitment to Europe. In short, it brought the movement allies, especially in the press.
This may — or may not — tell us what happens next
Today’s situation has strong echoes of the past, but with important differences. In some ways the current context is less favorable to activism. The 2005 anti-gay backlash was limited by the threat of E.U. action. As Russia shows, a state unconstrained by international leverage and willing to engage in open-ended repression of activists can crush a gay rights movement.
But today, the E.U. is preoccupied with the threats of Brexit, surging populism and the legacies of financial austerity, and is less inclined to pressure wayward members like Poland and Hungary.
In other ways, however, the current context is more favorable. Poland’s gay rights movement and its allies are much better organized than they were before. This was demonstrated in 2016, when the Law and Justice government attempted to tighten Poland’s antiabortion law. Narrowly construed, the debate was over abortion. But critics of Law and Justice’s proposals painted the issue as a larger debate about gender and sexuality, and conspicuously included LGBT-rights groups.
On Oct. 3, “Black Monday,” demonstrators protested Law and Justice’s proposal in 90 Polish cities, mobilizing an estimated 116,000 protesters. Law and Justice quickly withdrew the proposal.
Law and Justice’s return to anti-gay politics may be opportunism. Until recently, it had attacked immigration as the chief threat to Polish identity. As Europe’s immigration crisis has subsided, Law and Justice appears to be casting about for an issue that can rouse its base before European Parliament elections in May and national elections in the fall. Again, populists want to use anti-gay sentiment to mobilize their base, while Poland’s LGBT movement may treat the elections as an opportunity to deepen its organization even more.
Conor O’Dwyer is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and author of “Coming Out of Communism: The Emergence of LGBT Activism in Eastern Europe.”