Ten days ago, approaching the main city square where Białystok’s first ever LGBTI pride march was due to start, I was met with a scene of chaos.
Thousands of angry people were confronting the marchers, shouting homophobic abuse and lashing out with fists, boots and flag poles.
I saw a young man kicked to the ground by skin-heads and a woman pushed onto the road. A young mother hurried past me with her child, and a boy with a bleeding lip had his rainbow flag wrenched from his hands and set alight. The police just stood by and watched.
I went to Bialystok Pride with Amnesty International colleagues, but as cobble stones and firecrackers rained down around us, it became apparent that we would not be able to undertake our usual human rights monitoring. Instead we gathered at the start of the march to show our solidarity.
Remarkably, despite being outnumbered four-to-one and being faced with a barrage of violence and abuse, marchers stood their ground. Defiantly and joyfully people danced to music which was almost loud enough to drown out the chants of “F*** off faggots!” And as the organizers rolled out the huge rainbow flag that would lead the procession, I felt my eyes well with tears.
For many Poles, the level of violence witnessed at the Pride March in Białystok came as a shock but it did not come from nowhere. Over the past few months, the Polish government and pro-government media have been increasingly spreading homophobic and transphobic propaganda and using homophobia as a rallying poing ahead of upcoming general elections.
Earlier this year, the leader of the ruling Law and Just Party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński, described “LGBTI ideology” as an imported “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state”. After some cities, including Warsaw, declared support for LGBTI people, the Prime Minister Morawiecki stated that Polish parents do not wish their children to be encouraged in "homosexual tendencies" and some regional party officials have tried to declare cities and entire provinces as “LGBTI-ideology free”.
The campaign, which has spread homophobic rhetoric online and offline, has been enthusiastically adopted by politicians and the conservative media with one newspaper even including “LGBTI free zone” stickers for its readers.
But in the ten days since the Białystok violence, something miraculous has happened in Poland.
Two days ago, a young man called Tomasz tweeted a message suggesting that LGBTI people post photos of themselves “in school or work showing that we are the normal people whom you might meet anywhere: in the shop, on the street, the office”. He added the hashtag #jestemLGBT ("I am LGBT”) and for the last two days, it has been trending at the No.1 spot on Polish twitter, with thousands expressing solidarity by tweeting and re-tweeting.
Poles have used the hashtag on social media to show the people they are behind the labels: students, waitresses, firemen, doctors or just people you sit next to on a bus or pass in the street. “I'm fed up with the way the LGBTI community in Poland are dehumanised” tweeted Alexandra, a student. ”I am just a normal person. I get up, go to work, come home, make dinner for me and my girlfriend, go to a class, then go to bed." Tens of thousands of others are joining in, offering solidarity and support by tweeting #jestemzLGBT (I am with LGBTI) expressing solidarity with LGBTI people.
“I am very happy that a simple action has had such an impact,” Tomasz told me when I spoke to him. “Many people have contacted me to say that the hashtag has helped them muster the courage to come out to friends. Despite the amount of hate LGBTI people face, the last few days have shown that they have a lot of strength and they are not ashamed of who they are.”
While a hashtag alone,is not enough to overturn entrenched societal homophobia the #MeToo movement demonstrated that social media can be an effective tool to empower, challenge prejudice and help redefine what is acceptable in a culture. Poland has a long way to go, and for a start it should adequately protect the participants of Pride marches to ensure that the violence which occurred in Białystok does not happen again.
But the solidarity movement – buoyed by a huge ground swell of people on social media – has shown loud and clear that there is a urgent thirst for change.
As one Polish woman tweeted today alongside the hashtag #jestemLGBT: “I might be your friend one day. I might be your family one day. But I am also someone today.”
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