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Białystok’s First Pride Fell Under Attack. Here's How We Can Help

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This is an anonymous op-ed provided from a member of Poland's LGBTQ+ community, co-written with Antonio Perricone, and facilitated by the queer activist organization Voices4 and Adam Eli.

 

On 20th July 2019, after a long legal battle with the local government, queer people in Białystok, a deeply conservative city in Eastern Poland, were getting ready for their first ever Pride march. Online, liberal circles were buzzing with excitement and hailing the event, dubbed ‘Equality March in Poland’, a success before it had even begun. The march was to be the first of many steps towards normalizing the LGBTQ+ community in Poland, with an end goal to legalize same-sex marriage and expand queer rights overall.

For the marchers, unsurprisingly, some opposition was to be expected. Usually, most Pride marches in Poland are faced with counter-demonstrators who claim to be protecting traditional family values. These counter-demonstrators are often motivated by the church or come as part of the ‘family picnics’ organized by the ruling Law and Justice Party – a conservative, nationalist, Christian democratic populist political party. They often read prayers, meant to save “the souls of paedophiles marching through the city.” However, what occurred during the march this week quickly descended past prayer and into violence. Led by groups of soccer fans, who tend to lean to the right politically, violent counter-protestors began harassing participants of the Pride march before they had even begun walking. Marchers were spat at and told to “get the fuck out of here”. In the end, a line of Policemen shoulder-to-shoulder in riot gear were called to the front of the march to keep it moving, while pushing aside counter-protestors in their path. Hundreds of officers were still not enough to prevent outbursts of violence; videos and images were shared online of eggs, rocks and firecrackers being thrown into the crowds of peaceful marchers. The counter protesters led their attacks with the phrase “God, Honor, Fatherland”, the semi-official motto of the historical Polish independence and pro-freedom movements. This was a phrase used in the past to unite polish people being adopted by rightwing extremists to encourage hate. Amongst the crowd, news travelled that people leaving  the march were threatened -even physically assaulted - by counter-protestors. Afterwards, seeing videos of young queer people being beaten up circulating online only confirmed our fears.

That night, I stayed up, terrified. I scrolled through Twitter trying to figure out what had happened. The peaceful celebration of Pride, meant to symbolize modern Poland, had been marred by forces claiming to be the moral compass of the nation. The prevailing feeling amongst me and other queer youth was fear; fear for what had happened to people at the march, and fear of the implications for those in the LGBTQ+ community at large. We’re scared for our lives. Even before today, I didn’t know if my own family would be able to accept me as a queer person. I was getting ready to wash out the pink dye from my hair and hide any rainbow merchandise I’d picked up when I read a reddit post that struck me. Reading it, I realized that the march had persisted through the disruption, walking along the entire planned route; a small token of hope. Whatever had been thrown at us, whether explosives, rocks, or torrents of abuse, I knew that we had the strength to keep walking and be proud. While I was still scared, I was also hopeful.

The next morning, things were bleak. The majority of public bodies, governmental and religious, were either silent on the matter or damning. The main opposition camp (made up of the center-right PO, PSL and .nowoczesna coalition), for instance, made no statement on the events that had unfolded in Białystok; this is likely due to their wish to avoid any criticism from the church. The line of the ruling Law and Justice Party, who grow increasingly authoritarian and comfortably dismissive of the facts by the day, was to blame the violence on LGBTQ+ marchers, arguing that the “LGBT ideology”, as they like to call it, shouldn’t organize such events if they’re not willing to be assaulted. It was also suggested that the parade was puppeteered by Ukrainians and Lithuanians, trying to fake the presence of support for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland. The Polish Minister of Education made a statement, claiming that “Ideologies forcing non-standard sexual behaviors evoke a lot of opposition and put good citizens in danger, therefore we should seriously think about outlawing the organization of similar events”. The local church went on to thank the counter-demonstrations for “protecting the city from the LGBT community”. The general output of right-wing opinion was one of unsympathetic condemnation and straight up misinformation. The only people who expressed remorse were the left-coalition, who currently hold some seats in the EU parliament, although none in the Polish parliament. They announced plans for a counter-counter-demonstration, to be held a week later, while a solidarity demonstration in Warsaw began to pick up steam online.

In the meantime, it seems as though things will get worse. Another hate group already started planning a counter-protest against an Equality Parade in Płock, and the conservative weekly magazine Gazeta Polska promised to include “LGBT-Free Zone” stickers with its next issue. Online, it may seem  that words of support and sympathy are pouring in from around the world,, but regardless, the queer community is scared. Queer people in Poland need more than just words. They need activism, actions, support and awareness. They need the people who accept their queerness, and they need the people who tweet them words of compassion to stand up and help the fight for their basic human rights. Currently, Poland seems full of hate; the debate over LGBT+ representation continues to grow into an ideological civil war with no foreseeable end in sight. The only way forward is to continue being vocal, and to overcome one’s fears and fight for love.

 

RELATED | Anti-LGBTQ+ Violence Sweeping Eastern Europe Strikes Poland Pride

 

 

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