This is #rainbow
- By Krzysztof Rowiński
Photo: Kancelaria Sejmu/Łukasz Błasikiewicz / CC BY
At a time when unidentifiable government-paid thugs are abducting people into unmarked vans off the streets of Portland, it might take extra effort to notice and recognize the brutality of police states outside the U.S. Especially when the news comes from a country whose government has worked tirelessly in the last five years to secure a reputation of homophobia-fueled authoritarianism. Last Friday, a Polish LGBTQ activist was detained for two months, and currently awaits trial (a measure reserved for especially dangerous criminals) for "damage to property". The property in question? A van driving around Warsaw during lockdown, blasting homophobic messages over loudspeakers and displaying homophobic posters, despite a prior court decision that ordered the van off the streets. The damage included cuts to the posters, a ripped-off wing mirror, and a cut tire, and was estimated by the owners of the vehicle at 6,000 PLN ($1,600).
The detainee, Margot, a trans activist and member of the "Stop Bzdurom" (Stop the Nonsense) collective, had been arrested before, for this same offense. On July 14, two days after a presidential election that saw an unprecedented level of homophobic hate and violence, the activist was handcuffed and dragged out of her house without her shoes on and arrested for forty-eight hours. In protest, a number of monuments in Warsaw were adorned with rainbow flags, installed in solidarity with the arrested activist. A manifesto published online by the groups claiming the flag campaign read:
It's a #strike! It's an #attack! It's #rainbow!
In memory of the ones fallen in the struggle against the daily hate.
The ones who had the strength to leap into darkness.
To give hope that a better future awaits those whom this state has deprived of liberty and safety.
Calling for an open war on discrimination.
Enough with asking politely.
No more begging for #respect and #pity.
This city belongs to us all. F*ck you, ignoramuses!
Rainbow flags threw the Polish right-wing government into a hissy fit: an official investigation into the alleged "offense to religious feelings" was launched by the police, leading to several arrests of people suspected of hanging the flags. The prime minister took time from his schedule for a photo op of himself lighting a candle next to a giant figure of Christ, one of the monuments targeted by the activists. The state-controlled media harangued about violent LGBTQ militias threatening Polish statehood and traditional values, and several members of the ruling party condemned the flag action, adding to the already-heightened level of homophobic discourse in Poland. The Polish police, who have been unusually active about this topic on social media, considering the low level of the alleged offense, used openly transphobic language to defend the arrest, referring to Margot, who is non-binary and uses feminine pronouns, with her masculine birth name and masculine gender in Polish, adding the phrase, "claiming to be Margot".
On Friday, the court ruled that Margot would be detained for two months (in a men's jail), citing the danger of "obstruction of justice". Hundreds of people turned out in the streets to protect Margot and block the police vehicle coming to arrest the activist for a second time. The police responded aggressively, dragging people away and throwing them against the pavement. Despite the crowd's efforts, the police arrested Margot as well as several other people, later charged with obstruction of justice and resisting arrest. A police detail was posted by the Christ figure, blocking access to the monument. Throughout the weekend, peaceful solidarity protests erupted in Warsaw and other cities.
In light of such an apparently abrupt change of course, the confrontational strategy of the Polish government may seem perplexing. Why would the president, who is formally non-partisan but is a former member of PiS and a loyal soldier of the party's gray eminence, Jarosław Kaczyński, embrace equality only to condemn the "desecration of national monument" three weeks later? The answer likely lies in the efficacy of homophobia as a political tool for the current government in Poland. In an often-cited study published in 2017, a group of researchers headed by Maciej Gdula claim that the popularity of the PiS government lies partly in the rise of what they term "neo-authoritarianism": a form of identification with a powerful government that acts decisively not only against the "liberal elites," but also against minority groups who are portrayed as foreign to the national community. A similar sentiment seems to have informed the creation of "LGBT-free zones," a series of proclamations by local governments in Poland that defended "traditional family values" and opposed the perceived dangers of the "LGBT ideology".
Not surprisingly, such heightened homophobic discourse in Poland has left a trail of victims. Poland ranks lowest in the EU in terms of LGBTQ rights and quality of life, according to ILGA-Europe. Several LGBTQ youth have committed suicide in recent years as a result of the bullying and violence they faced daily. Pride marches in cities around Poland have been attacked by nationalists and football hooligans, leaving people physically wounded and psychologically traumatized. Government representatives formally denounce violence, only to later present it as an understandable response to provocation. Many of the attackers were left unpunished.
Unfortunately, the liberal opposition in Poland remains, for the most part, slow to act when faced with these virulent attacks on the LGBTQ community. The mayor of Warsaw and presidential election challenger remained largely silent about the issue and originally even joined the choir of right-wing politicians condemning the flag campaign. Last week, he did little to voice his opposition to the persecution of Margot and police brutality, with only a couple of belated posts on social media. Instead, the face of the democratic opposition was saved by Magdalena Biejat and Beata Maciejewska, two Left party MPs who came out on Friday night to physically block police vehicles (using their parliamentary immunity) in order to demand more information on the whereabouts of the detained.
With their maniacal attacks on LGBTQ people, President Duda and the back-seat decision maker Jarosław Kaczyński are joining the likes of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán , and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a group of male leaders whose need to censor anything resembling a rainbow flag suggests an underlying insecurity about their self-image as strong male leaders. Following the 2013 law banning "gay propaganda," Russian citizens have posted images of Putin wearing makeup, set against the rainbow flag. The picture was promptly banned in Russia, because, as the Justice Ministry explained, it suggested "the supposed nonstandard sexual orientation of the president of the Russian Federation". . As of last week, Poland has its own photo that the country's homophobic government doesn't want you to see. Taken by the official parliament photographer during the president's inaugural speech, and, within minutes, taken down from the Sejm's Flickr account, it depicted the former neighbor of two "non-provocative" gay men speaking to the parliament, set against a background of Left party MPs, wearing rainbow face masks and outfits that together form a large rainbow. This censored picture has resurfaced on social media and, together with the activism on the streets, represents a struggle to ensure that a better future does indeed await.
Krzysztof Rowiński is an MR contributor and Ph.D candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
 For a sample of some of the local government debates, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9SwBihJVzY