The Gay Enemy in Poland’s Culture War

(Bloomberg) -- When you’re the self-proclaimed defender of a nation’s Christian values in a morally bankrupt Europe, you see enemies everywhere.

Poland’s populist government has vilified European Union elites, Muslim refugees, the Germans and anyone questioning Poland’s role in World War II. Now the latest threat comes from homosexuals.

Dipping into the playbook of another sworn adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the message from the ruling Law & Justice party is that the advancement of gay rights is a “grave danger” for families. And it’s not just Poland that needs protection, but the whole of Europe.

A campaign ad circulated by Law & Justice officials ahead of European Parliament elections in May shows an umbrella with the party logo shielding a family from the rainbow of gay pride.

After Pawel Rabiej, an openly gay deputy president of Warsaw, backed giving adoption rights to same-sex couples, Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the homosexual lobby wasn’t fighting for tolerance but seeking to change the Polish way of life. “Hands off our children,” he thundered at his party’s convention at the weekend.

The Gay Enemy in Poland’s Culture War

It’s all part of Law & Justice’s narrative of a country under siege as the party tries to make gains in the European legislature before fighting for re-election later this year. Should it succeed, the EU’s biggest eastern member and largest net recipient of money could stray further from the mainstream and undermine a bloc also dealing with populist leaderships in Italy and Hungary.

While barriers to same-sex marriage and equal rights are falling in western Europe, Poland is going the other way, tightening the Catholic church’s control of sex education and unleashing open hostility against the gay lobby.

“Focusing attention on eternal fears of penetration, by refugees or by gays, makes a European future less likely for everyone,” said Timothy Snyder, professor at Yale University and the author of “The Road to Unfreedom.” “If Poland has a future in Europe it will be thanks to Poles who help formulate responses to real problems.”

The latest offensive began when a government-appointed school superintendent said a declaration by the mayor of Warsaw to support sex education, shelters for gay teens and mechanisms to monitor homophobic offences -- all based on United Nations guidelines -- amounted to legitimizing pedophilia.

Kaczynski 69, the most powerful man in Poland, made the issue a key component of the election campaign a few weeks later, along with an $11 billion package of new welfare spending and tax cuts. Opinion polls show Law & Justice neck-and-neck with a new pro-EU group called the European Coalition. In third place is the left-wing Spring party run by Robert Biedron, who is gay. 

The Gay Enemy in Poland’s Culture War

Pro-government weekly Do Rzeczy warned in its latest edition on Monday about the “Approaching LGBT Dictatorship” and “How to Defend Against It.” Meanwhile, rival Wprost led with famous Polish athletes speaking out against homophobia in sport.

“This campaign is awakening demons,” Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said in an interview. “Our goal is to educate and keep our children safe, believing that Poles won’t allow themselves to be manipulated.”

Indeed, the rhetoric has echoes of Poland’s eastern neighbors slamming what they call “Gayropa.”

Putin banned “gay propaganda” in the name of protecting traditional values while his allies have exported the views to other east European nations. 

Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician whose daughter has Putin as her godfather, bankrolled a campaign in 2013 trying to sway Ukrainians against a trade deal with the EU. It said closer links would render the nation helpless against a powerful gay lobby out to destroy Ukraine’s “Slavic and orthodox values.”

Poland now seems to be following suit, said Snyder at Yale. “This is one more example of a Polish government that claims to oppose Russia imitating a Russian policy,” he said.

While mindsets are slowly changing, the situation for sexual minorities in Poland remains grim. Over two-thirds of people identifying as LGBT suffered from psychological or physical violence, while 70 percent of teens from the group have had suicidal thoughts, according to a report compiled by the University of Warsaw last year.

Gay rights issues in western Europe have in Poland descended into public accusations that the gay lobby and its supporters in opposition political parties seek to teach pre-schoolers how to masturbate and want sexual initiation for pre-teens.

Law & Justice wants to keep sex education conducted mainly by parents, instead of schools or non-government organizations. The policy prompted a high-profile campaign by supermodel Anja Rubik to counter the resurgent forces of Christian conservatism. The government is crusading against abortion, as well as IVF treatment opposed by the Catholic church.

Meanwhile, the party’s clerical allies are sticking with the narrative that homosexuality can be cured, condoms are bad and that gay-rights advocates are little more than promoters of homosexuality.

“We are in the gloom of the middle ages,” Wojciech Sadurski, law professor at the University of Sydney, told the Onet website. “The whole hysteria that Law & Justice is leading with support of the church against LGBT is being driven by purely cynical motives.” 

The church also has its own issues to contend with. It spurred accusations last week that it was trying to deflect responsibility for clergy sexually molesting children following the publication of a report into abuse cases.

The Gay Enemy in Poland’s Culture War

Yet painting Poland as the victim in a great European conspiracy has been serving Law & Justice well. So has deepening its relationship with the church, with priests playing a greater role in politics and the economy.

In 2015, Kaczynski motivated his core electorate against mainly Muslim incomers by saying that immigrants carry dangerous parasites and cholera. The party went on to win an unprecedented parliamentary majority before building on what the government calls “anti-Polonism,” or prejudice towards Poles.

Last year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki caused an international outcry with a new law passed making suggestions of the country was complicit in the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to three years in jail. While the law has since been softened, Morawiecki defended it at a conference in Munich by saying some Jews were “perpetrators” of Nazi-era crimes, along with Germans, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles.

For gay rights, the government is playing a dangerous game, according to Irmina Szalapak, a representative of the Association of Mothers, Fathers and Allies of LGBT Persons. “These levels of hate speech will soon translate into even more terrifying statistics” about homosexual lives in Poland, she said.  “This will have terrible consequences.”

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