LGBT-Free Zones established years ago in Poland remain valid in a legal system controlled by right-wing conservatives. The country's human rights representative is determined to fight them one by one.
In 2019, a wave of Polish towns and cities passed resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-Free Zones” that at one point encompassed one-third of the country.
Since then, activists and legal experts have fought to revoke or nullify these declarations, chipping away at the bloc of LGBT-Free Zones largely found in the southeastern part of the country.
Significant progress has been difficult, since Poland has been facing a rule-of-law crisis going back to at least 2017, when the right-wing Law and Justice, or PiS party began spreading its influence on key bodies such as the Constitutional Court.
The crisis in the judiciary runs so deep that the EU initiated Article 7 proceedings against Poland, which suspend certain rights for member states if they are deemed to persistently be in breach of the EU’s fundamental values.
The European Commission launched legal proceedings against Poland at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in a case known as Commission v Poland, and the ECJ ordered Poland to suspend the laws that interfere with the independence of the judiciary.
Poland ignored these rulings.
Now the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Marcin Wiącek, has decided to tackle both the homophobic resolutions and the faltering legal system at the same time.
The Office of the Ombudsman, while formally an institution financed by the government, exists in many countries as an independent one-man state body with the mandate to launch inquiries into violations of human rights perpetrated by any institution or body in the country.
Even his election was marred by difficulty, with PiS blocking the opposition-backed candidate for 10 months.
‘Fighting the rainbow plague’
This week, Wiącek launched a complaint against one of the municipalities that have held onto their LGBT-Free Zone designation since 2017.
Tuszów Narodowy is a small settlement in the municipality of Rzeszów known to those outside of Poland as one of the main stops along the Ukrainian refugee route from the border to Warsaw.
Local authorities have refused to rescind the anti-LGBT legislation, with the mayor stating that this “would mean taking the side of the rainbow plague, which is the aforementioned diabolical ideology, and consenting to downgrading the morals of young generations, starting from kindergarten.”
So Wiącek decided to sue them in the administrative courts.
His complaint indicates that the anti-LGBT resolution “crosses the boundaries of public debate, violates the Constitution, international law and EU law” as well as creating “stigmatisation and an atmosphere of exclusion for the LGBT community.”
“Legal and ideological issues concerning LGBT people are the subject of public debate in Poland. Participants in this debate may be local communities, as well as bodies of local government units,” said Wiącek in a statement.
“However, this debate cannot be conducted in forms inconsistent with modern standards of human rights protection, in particular resulting in violation of human dignity and discrimination.”
Crucially, he is also getting the EU involved in what may seem like a very local fight.
In order for countries in the bloc to receive EU funds, they have to guarantee that these funds do not encourage or promote discrimination – as in, the EU needs to keep a check on whether those benefitting act in a discriminatory or exclusionary manner.
So while the country’s Ministry of Development Funds and Regional Policy have said that they are “taking actions to verify the compliance of the spending of EU funds by local government units with the horizontal principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination,” there has not been any move by the ministry to get these resolutions rescinded.
Wiącek insists that the issue of LGBT-Free Zones is not merely a matter of “public opinion,” but a mounting legal problem for Poland.
“The wording contained in these resolutions leads to stigmatisation and creates an atmosphere of exclusion of LGBT people from local communities ... even humiliation ... and also has real legal effects, especially in the area of the possibility of absorbing EU funds,” the statement continued.
‘The world is possessed by Satan’
Tuszów Narodowy is not backing down without a fight.
Last month the mayor, Andrzej Głaz, held an event for local governments who do not want to say goodbye to these resolutions.
He claims that “the current world, influenced by LGBT ideology, has been possessed by Satan, eroticism and sex.”
“We do not deserve to be deprived of any EU funds in any way, because we have done nothing wrong,” he said at the event, where representatives of 10 other localities participated.
“If we want to talk about discrimination, it would be more appropriate to talk about discrimination against us, local governments, and through local governments, our residents,” he said at a press conference after the meeting.
Małgorzata Jarosińska-Jedynak, the Deputy Minister of Funds and Regional Policy – the very ministry that is supposed to monitor if EU funds are going to those that violate its values – attended the meeting.
According to Głaz, she assured him that they will “look for a good solution that would satisfy local government officials who are not withdrawing.”
A court system fighting itself
Wiącek is not the first Ombudsman to become the public face of the fight against LGBT-Free Zones.
His predecessor, Adam Bodnar, also sued the local administrations of Serniki, Istebna, Osiek, and Klwów in the Supreme Administrative Court, which ruled that these resolutions needed to be repealed.
Judge Małgorzata Masternak-Kubiak stated in her justification for the decision that “the social effect of the resolutions is to violate the dignity, honour, good name and the private life of a specific group of residents,” and that the state needs to protect and not attack marginalised or vulnerable groups.
Poland has seen a strong wave of re-traditionalisation starting since the fall of communism, with the Catholic Church becoming a bedrock of the country’s identity and many political parties and individuals championing conservative values.
This approach became particularly prominent after Law and Justice came to power in 2015. Their anti-LGBT and anti-progressive rhetoric posits that these “ideas” are an unwanted import from the West that are not only unwelcome in Poland – but that also effectively weaken and undermine the country.
An ultra-conservative Catholic organisation, Ordo Iuris, which claims to promote a rethinking of Poland’s legal framework, has been at the forefront of promotion the LGBT-Free Zones and defending their legal basis, along with other policies banning abortion and divorce.