Poland is facing increased pressure from the European Union (EU) over their “LGBT-free zones” this past week as the European Commission wrote to five regional councils warning they could lose essential funding. This is a part of a larger legal battle as both Poland and Hungary are facing legal consequences for discrimination against gay rights, such as regions declaring themselves “LGBT-free” and promoting heterosexual “Family Charters.”
Even though Poland was one of the first European countries to decriminalize homosexuality in 1932, its predominantly Catholic and conservative population has harbored resentment towards the growing movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Same-sex marriage remains illegal and in areas that are declared free of the “LGBT ideology,” there is a ban on the promotion of gay rights entirely, including in schools. The Law and Justice party (PiS), which has been in power in Poland since 2015, boasts an anti-gay rhetoric and has rejected efforts to prevent prejudice and violence for LGBT people.
The EU has condemned Poland for their actions against the gay community, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating “LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones. And they have no place in our union” at an EU parliament meeting. As a result, Poland is now risking receiving COVID recovery funding, which amounts to over 1.5 billion euros, as well as facing legal action in the EU Court of Justice if they do not respond to the Commission’s correspondence. Poland has also called into question the authority of EU law over their own national law in general, making this most recent issue not surprising as anti-LGBT practices are against article 2 in The Treaty on European Union.
As a historically Catholic-dominant nation, it is clear that these sentiments against homosexuality have been long-standing, but they have now come to the forefront as power has allowed for these values to permeate political decision making. As the international movement for the LGBTQ+ community and human rights overall has gained momentum, a division was created, and the opposition also became stronger. When PiS came to power, it gave more authority to those who were anti-LGBT in the government, allowing them to influence the political agenda. Even though there are significant LGBT allies in the government, such as Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, their actions are only going so far when the rhetoric of the administration is so adverse combined with religious beliefs.
The EU has taken action against Poland more than once in the past few years, significantly in 2017 for breaches of the rule of law in the government system where the infringement procedure was enacted. As of right now, the EU has decided to only take the first steps regarding Poland’s “LGBT-free zones” and has issued warnings that funding will be revoked. But, they have yet to invoke the infringement procedure, which would bring Poland in front of the Court of Justice and could result in possible financial consequences, such as hefty fines.
The issue of Poland’s mistreatment of LGBT+ people has been present for many years, to the point where there needs to be real action at a level higher than the national government, who is feeding into this homophobic rhetoric that speaks to Poland’s religious roots. If it is true that “men between 18 and 39 years old pointed to the LGBT community as the biggest threat to Poland” in a poll done by Polish news organization OKO.press, then there is a significant problem that requires more than written declarations of threats. Since PiS finds their support from the Catholic anti-LGBT side, they will not change their platform if it allows them to remain in power, unless there is proper incentive.
At the supranational level, the EU should enact the infringement procedure, especially if there are not enough changes made that show Poland is shifting directions. If there is one thing that is essential for the well-being of Poland all around, it is the funding that it receives from the EU. The EU needs to follow through on their warning and bring Poland to the Court of Justice if necessary, because this is not just a matter of breaching EU law, it also pertains to basic human rights. The risk of losing their funding or having to pay a fine might force PiS to realize that allowing “LGBT-free” regions and continuing to portray the gay community as the enemy cannot slide in a world where equality is becoming more important than ever. Also, by agreeing to become a part of the EU, Poland is compelled to follow certain guidelines to remain a member, with respect for human rights being one of the founding laws of the organization. The EU should not treat this lightly as it is a precedent for future issues and questions its authority as a whole.
On the local level, Poland still has allies of the LGBTQ+ community that should be given more of a voice. Supporters should always be allowed to demonstrate and rally as much help as they can, in order to garner a larger movement within Poland itself. If there are more citizens pressuring the government to make a change, perhaps they would be more likely to listen instead of from EU bureaucrats. But also, education is key and if supporters can teach more of the population about issues the gay community faces and their perspective, as pro-LGBT citizen groups are already doing, that could at least appeal to more moderate Catholics and conservatives. With education and a larger movement for gay rights, that may force a change in the political landscape, allowing for progressive candidates such as Rafał Trzaskowski, who was presidential nominee of the centrist Civic Platform Party, to have a chance at winning an election.
Every step makes a difference and the EU is on the right track in declaring that “LGBT-free zones” are not permissible in Poland and risks financial penalties. With combined pressure from the EU and its pro-LGBT citizens, gay rights have a likely chance of becoming a part of their political agenda, for now and in the future. Yet, it is impossible to eliminate prejudice entirely. If conservative Catholics can at least recognize that everybody deserves to live freely and openly, then that is a move towards mending the divide that has even caused Polish members of the gay community to emigrate. Basic rights and fair treatment are something that every human being deserves and it is crazy that it is still not the reality, no matter what your values are.