This year, over twenty Equality Marches have walked or will walk in Poland. Equality March is a Polish equivalent for what’s known in the West as a Pride Parade. From the biggest ever Warsaw march to new initiatives in smaller locations like Koszalin, Kalisz, or Gniezno, Polish cities more and more openly celebrate diversity.
Marches in big cities became important dates in urban cultural calendars, attracting thousands of local families and people from all over Poland and abroad. Just like the one in Poznań, which grew to be a Pride Week, seven days full of equality education, queer culture, and joy.
The newest ones normally meet with equal amount of enthusiasm of the young organizers and uncertainty about the reaction of the local community.
In light of these developments, what recently happened in Białystok was truly unexpected. Ringed by riot police, around 1,000 marchers walked defiantly through the streets of the north-eastern Polishcity as thousands of nationalist hooligans, extreme right supporters, and others threw flash bombs, rocks, and glass bottles into the crowd.
The anti-LGBT masses were shouting “God, honor, and motherland!” and “Białystok free of perverts!”. It became violent. The hooligans stole banners and physically attacked pride-goers. Some 100 people were arrested.
It must be mentioned that on the day of the Białystok March, 32 conservative demonstrations were registered in the capital city of the Podlasie region, including a picnic for traditional families supported by PiS officials. The anti-LGBT mania had been pumped up by right-wing politicians and media for weeks. Also the catholic church initiated outdoor prayers and archbishop Tadeusz Wojda called on congregants to “defend Christian values”, adding that the LGBTQ march was “an initiative foreign to” the region.
The Białystok events could be also analyzed in a broader context of the anti-LGBT propaganda of the government and PiS-dependent media. The most visible example of this rhetoric in recent weeks were advertisements of “LGBT Free Zone” stickers that were supposed to be added to a conservative weekly Gazeta Polska.
The stickers were designed to mark bars, cafes, and shops that are proudly LGBT+ hostile. LGBT+ organization and citizens protested against such a disgusting manifestation of hate speech. Many liberal commentators drew parallels between the sticker and discrimination propaganda of the Nazis.
Only the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) couldn’t see that there was something wrong and didn’t put a halt to the distribution.
Exactly when all this was happening a group of of Polish liberals and representatives of civil society, with support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, went for a fact finding mission to Latvia and Estonia to see what are the newest developments in the area of protection of minorities and LGBT+ rights.
We visited Estonian Human Rights Center and Estonian LGBT Center, Zanis Lipke Memorial in Riga, we met with representatives of Latvian LGBT Organization Mozaika, Estonian Rainbow Rose, and two liberal parties – the Reform Party and Latvijas Attistibai.
LGBT+ in Estonia
In Estonia, we realized really quickly that it is not only Polish minorities that are facing difficult times with a conservative government. New Estonian coalition includes nationalist populists (EKRE) who use anti-LGBT+ narrative, including hate speech, to gain support.
EKRE chairman said that “The safeguarding of a parade of perverts is not the job of the police”. EKRE’s youth branch leader says openly that one of his goals in politics is fighting “LGBT agenda”. And in the party manifesto we can read that
“Homosexual- and multicultural propaganda has to be taken out of schools. Children need to get the best education, an Estonian-minded upbringing and healthy values from school. We support giving children a patriotic education. We do not allow so-called tolerance propaganda in schools. Education should not be played with!”.
Estonia’s far right has been edging upwards in the polls in recent years, and it won 19 out of 101 seats in parliamentary elections in March 2019. The real shock came a few weeks later when the prime minister, Jüri Ratas, invited EKRE to join a coalition government offering it 5 ministers.
One of points of the coalition agreement was about launching a referendum on constitutional amendment that would define marriage as union between a man and a women. Something well known from Romania and other countries where politicians wanted to use minorities as new public enemies to polarize voters.
The new coalition surely will not make operational the cohabitation law adopted by the previous government of the liberal Reform Party and social democrats. This framework law introduced the institution of civil partnership but it can’t be used due to lack of amendments in other laws that according to the Estonian legislation would require constitutional majority.
So there are no executive orders and nobody really knows how such rights can be executed. The only way to use the law in practice is by suiting the state. And it’s something that human rights groups, especially the Estonian Human Rights Center, are doing. It’s time consuming and costly but there’s no other way.
Situation in Latvia
The Latvian case is different. Progressive politicians in Riga often look at their northern neighbor and adapt legislative solution from Tallinn. It was also the case with the 2015 cohabitation law that was copy-pasted, introduced in the Latvian parliament as civic initiative, and failed.
The activists behind that initiative now are MPs, even ministers, representing the liberal Latvijas Attisitibai party, and are getting ready for a new campaign in favor of the civil partnership. This year, they presented in the parliament together with an LGBT+ organization a new bill known as the life-spouses law.
The bill will be promoted not only as a solution for same sex couples, but also as an antidote for elderly people who live with their friends or more distant family members.
By giving such people who are living together and are supporting each other new rights the state could prove that is taking seriously one of the most important problems of the 21st century, namely the loneliness.
The legislation piece looks less ambitious from the perspective of minority rights but is fully supported by the LGBT+ groups, who see it as a first step in a long way journey towards equal rights.
However, it will not be easy for Latvian liberals to collect the support for such a law from their conservative and nationalistic coalition partners. Therefore, votes of the opposition, and pro-Russian, social democrats will be needed.
A very exotic coalition may be built, with approval of the newly elected nationalistic president of the republic. But it’s not a lost case, as human rights activists say.
Now, Back to Poland
There is more similarities between Poland and the Baltic States that one may assume at first glance. Especially in the sphere of LGBT+ rights.
Poland, Latvia, and Estonia started their rainbow revolutions much later than the West – when Stonewell riots happened in NYC, all three countries were still deep in the communist regime with no hope for emancipation.
The wind of change of the 1990s also triggered fight for equal rights. It has been a slow process when LGBT+ community learned how to mark their presence, voice their postulates of acceptance and respect for rights, and when all societies learned that they are not homogeneous, and it’s a good thing.
In all three states acceptance for LGBT+ people is growing. So is the support for same-sex partnerships. It seems like the political class has been learning it slower than the people themselves (except in Estonia).
Unfortunately, Poland, Latvia, and Estonia did not avoid the wave of right-wing populism that uses hatred against minorities as one of its main tools and the development of LGBT+ rights was stopped.
After concluding our study trip, I am convinced that this regress is only temporary because there are significant progressive forces and vibrant civil society movements that are not afraid of fighting for equal rights.
The political landscape and populist challenges of these three countries are very similar and it’s crucial for liberals to keep in contact and learn from one another’s best and worst practices.