In Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones,’ existing is an act of defiance

Karolina Duzniak and her fiancee Ola Głowacka drive away from Kozy.

Kozy, Poland (CNN) — Karolina Duzniak has lived within the drowsy, tree-dotted Polish village of Kozy for 26 years. But she doesn’t really feel herself till she will get into her automotive every morning, shuts the door and drives away.

“I prefer big cities,” she says, reflecting on her each day journey to work in close by Bielsko-Biala, an industrial city sprawl close to the border with the Czech Republic. “I come again house and I really feel dangerous. It’s not me.

“All the time I hide something.”

Duzniak is a assured, amicable profession coach with a companion of 10 years, however she has good purpose to cover one necessary side of her persona. She is homosexual, and homosexual persons are not welcome in Kozy. An official doc reminds them of that.

Last yr, the encircling Bielsko county — which incorporates Kozy and dozens of different cities and villages, however not Bielsko-Biala — handed a decision supporting “traditional family values” and rejecting the LGBT group for “undermining the concept of a family model.”

“We encourage young people to start families which are by their essence a natural environment for self-realization,” the textual content reads. Families “shaped by the centuries-old heritage of Christianity,” and that are “so important for the comprehensive development of our homeland.”

The area is not an exception. In little over a yr, lots of of areas throughout Poland — overlaying a few third of the nation, and greater than 10 million residents — have reworked themselves, in a single day, into so-called “LGBT-free zones.”

Duzniak, left, and Głowacka hope to marry in Poland, however the nation presently prohibits any variety of formal same-sex unions.

These areas, the place opposition to LGBT “ideology” is symbolically written into legislation at state and native ranges, have put Poland on a collision course with the European Union and compelled sister cities, allies and watchdogs throughout the continent to recoil in condemnation. Local legal guidelines have been contested, and a few communities that launched such laws have seen their EU funding blocked.

But the impression is felt most painfully — and each day — by the homosexual, lesbian and transgender Poles who reside in cities that would like they merely weren’t there.

“I’m more stressed. For the first time in my life I’m very, very scared,” Duzniak says, reflecting on the decision as she walks CNN round her hometown along with her girlfriend Ola Głowacka.

Kozy — which interprets as “Goats” — claims to be Poland’s most populous village. It is a slumbering place with a neat, well-maintained park, a number of church buildings and an 18th century palace that when welcomed native the Aristocracy and now serves as a cultural heart and library.

But Duzniak tries to not speak about her companion when she’s in her hometown. “People would talk behind our back,” she says. “It’s strange for them. It’s something terrible. It’s unnormal, unnatural. They say that, sometimes.” Things are simpler in Bielsko-Biala, the place Głowacka lives, and the place anti-LGBT intolerance has not been adopted in legislation.

Instead, the love between the 2 is noticeable solely of their glances, half-smiles and the engagement that they preserve well-hidden when strolling by Kozy. While they briefly hug after they meet one another, they might by no means — ever — maintain fingers.

“Of course not!” Duzniak says with a dismissive chortle, as if the idea had been so outlandish as to not warrant a thought. “It’s not possible here,” provides Głowacka.

Poland is a rustic nonetheless steeped in Catholic customized and fiercely, reflexively defensive of its nationwide custom. Around nine in 10 Poles determine as Roman Catholics, and about 40% attend Sunday mass weekly.

A household arrives to Sunday mass at a Catholic church in Istebna. Poland is staunchly Catholic, and almost half of Poles attend church weekly.

Parts of its significantly conservative, rural areas to the southeast have by no means embraced LGBT individuals; however now, homophobic rhetoric is uttered by the state and preached in church buildings, and hostility on the streets is boiling over.

During a reelection marketing campaign partially dominated by the difficulty earlier this yr, incumbent President Andrzej Duda — a staunch ally of US President Donald Trump — warned of an LGBT “ideology” extra harmful to Poland than communism. The governing celebration’s highly effective chief, Jarosław Kaczyński, has claimed LGBT individuals “threaten the Polish state.” Its new training minister stated final yr that “these people are not equal to normal people.” And final yr, Krakow’s archbishop bemoaned that the nation was under siege from a “rainbow plague.”

“The church tells (worshippers) we are dangerous,” says Głowacka. The couple say that a couple of years in the past, “people would just ignore us.” But not anymore; the surge of anti-LGBT rhetoric from governing officers has been met by a quantity of high-profile acts of violence at LGBT occasions, pro-government media steadily parrots the populist authorities, and Poland has now change into the worst EU country for LGBT people in Europe in keeping with continental watchdog ILGA-Europe.

When a massive EU study earlier this yr discovered that LGBT+ individuals on the continent typically really feel safer than they did 5 years in the past, Poland was the obtrusive exception; two-thirds of homosexual, lesbian and transgender Poles stated intolerance and acts of violence in opposition to them had elevated, whereas 4 in 5 stated they keep away from sure locations for worry of being assaulted — the best charge in Europe.

And final yr, a pro-government journal was met with an indignant backlash after handing out “LGBT-free” stickers to readers — permitting them to imitate their lawmakers by proclaiming that their houses, automobiles or companies welcome solely heterosexual individuals.

“My mum all the time asks me, are you OK? Are you with Ola?” Duzniak says. “All the time, she rings or texts,” fearful about her daughter’s security.

“I love this country. I was born here,” Duzniak says as she wears her engagement ring round Kozy. “It’s very important to me that if we have a wedding, if we get married and she is my wife, that it is respected by the law of this country.”

The couple have averted the worst, for now. But neither Duzniak or Głowacka, who put on engagement rings although same-sex marriage and civil partnerships are unlawful in Poland, can keep away from the each day stress of being who they’re.

“It’s like I’m just less human than the other people,” says Głowacka. “They can hold hands, they have children. Just because they’re like they are, they are better. But why?”

“A lot of people know me,” provides Duzniak, referring to her neighbors within the village of 12,000 individuals. “I’ll never tell them (that I’m gay),” she says. “But I know that they know.”

‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve’

Homophobia exists not simply on many of Poland’s streets, however within the closed-door council conferences the place the liberty of LGBT individuals is debated; and the place a visceral, deep-rooted and alarmingly informal sentiment is laid naked.

In Swidnik, a small city close to the Ukrainian border, councilors painted gays and lesbians as “radical people striving for a cultural revolution,” accusing them of wishing to “attack freedom of speech (and) the innocence of children.” In Nowa Sarzyna, one other japanese city, homosexuality was labelled “contrary to the laws of nature” and a violation of “human dignity.” And within the Lublin province, a sprawling space of japanese Poland house to greater than 2 million residents, LGBT rights campaigners had been condemned by native lawmakers for in search of “the annihilation of values shaped by the Catholic church.”

It is from these debates, and amid a relentless eruption of anti-LGBT rhetoric from the nation’s populist authorities and spiritual leaders, that the native legal guidelines emerge.

The nation’s pursuit of illiberal, anti-LGBT laws embellished as a protection of conventional values has additionally spurred comparisons with Russia, a usually unwelcome connection to attract in Poland; Moscow’s 2013 legislation banning LGBT “propaganda” relied on many of the identical arguments, and fostered the same world outcry.

But in contrast to Russia, the place the worldwide group has little sway, Poland has been thrust right into a battle with Brussels over the laws. At least six cities have misplaced EU funding over their adoption of “LGBT-free” payments. In the face of such world condemnation, the ruling Law and Justice Party has furiously rejected the “LGBT-free” characterization; when US presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the areas final month, one Polish lawmaker retorted angrily that it was an LGBT activist who had used the label, and that he would stand trial for doing so.

The Polish authorities didn’t reply to CNN’s requests for remark for this story.

“Nationalism and Catholicism are very connected in Poland,” explains Tomek Zuber, a younger homosexual man residing in Czechowice-Dziedzice — a bigger city just some miles from Kozy that additionally lies inside the wider “LGBT-free zone” of Bielsko.

Tomek Zuber sits within the heart of Czechowice-Dziedzice. In the previous yr, he has come out, attended his first Pride parade, and suffered his first expertise with homophobia.

At a sq. within the city heart, a statue of Pope John Paul II seems upon the church Zuber used to attend as a schoolboy. The late Pope, an icon who evokes nearly sacred adoration amongst many older Poles, wears a shy smile on his face, his arms outstretched as if he had been about to embrace passersby in a hug. The pontiff was born just some cities to the east, and is revered for giving Poles hope in the course of the period of martial legislation — however his staunch opposition to homosexuality widened the chasm between many LGBT individuals and the church.

“His words are used for not giving LGBT people rights,” Zuber says. “‘John Paul II wouldn’t approve,’” he provides, imitating the admonitions of conservative Poles.

Those classes are discovered from an early age. At faculty in close by Katowice, Zuber stated his principal issued a warning to all college students earlier than their final-year promenade: “No drinking, no smoking (and) no same-sex dancing.” He and his classmates rallied in opposition to the rule and, with the assistance of some of their dad and mom, received it overturned.

“I had a phase where I was a really Catholic and spiritual person,” Zuber says. “But in the end … the Catholic church doesn’t seem to me like it’s true to most of the teachings they claim to follow.”

A statue of Pope John Paul II greets passersby in Czechowice-Dziedzice.

Zuber’s former church, which he attended as a toddler and a teen.

The “LGBT-free zone” he lives in is a daily reminder. “The zones themselves don’t have any legal power, they’re mostly symbolic,” he notes. No indicators go up in a single day; no companies change into instantly empowered to refuse customized. “(But) it encourages the opposite-minded people to speak out against us, and be more active.”

Just two weeks earlier than assembly with CNN, Zuber stated he overheard an aged woman say she was disgusted by his rainbow tote bag.

“It increases the fear,” he says.

What drives so many areas to undertake a invoice that sends worry by many of their residents? “The interest of communities (is) not to protect romantic, emotional relationships, but the relationships that are fruitful,” Nikodem Bernaciak, an legal professional whose agency wrote a template for an “LGBT-free” decision that has since been adopted by dozens of Polish cities, tells CNN in a telephone interview. His group, the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, is despised amongst many Polish LGBT activists for its distinguished function in driving the nationwide backlash in opposition to LGBT rights.

A toddler on a scooter rides previous the Bielsko council constructing, the place the decision to create an “LGBT-free zone” was drawn up.

“Informal relationships are not as strong as marriage, so the state chooses the kind of relationship that is more helpful.”

“The family needs to be protected against all kinds of threats,” Bernaciak says, explaining the premise of his group’s decision. He argues that its wording is “positive” and doesn’t point out LGBT individuals particularly, which critics say is merely an try to evade authorized challenges.

Others, just like the Bielsko area, select as an alternative to jot down their very own resolutions that extra immediately single out these campaigning for equal rights for LGBT individuals. The Bielsko council refused a number of requests to touch upon their reasoning for passing the invoice, telling CNN they don’t talk about the resolutions they enact.

But the message to LGBT individuals in Poland has been clear. “The Polish government used to use immigrants and the migration crisis as their scapegoat,” says Mathias Wasik, director of applications on the New York and London-based LGBT+ monitoring group All Out — one of many human rights teams watching Poland from overseas. “Now, they’ve found the LGBT+ community as the next scapegoat.”

“The rhetoric they’re hearing from the government, from the pro-government media, from the church — all of that shows them, you don’t belong here.”

People collect on the Katowice Pride occasion on September 5.

‘He told us we were pedophiles’

For a couple of hours on one gloriously sunny latest Saturday, the scene in Katowice resembles another European metropolis.

In the bustling and extra liberal southern location, rainbow flags flutter beneath a baby-blue sky. Revelers from the area, together with Zuber, have gathered for town’s third annual Pride parade.

The occasion hardly rivals occasions in London, Madrid or Berlin. Authorities estimate 200 persons are current — and the group is dwarfed by 700 law enforcement officials, some in riot gear, who tightly encompass the festivities.

But the parade supplies consolation. “It gives this feeling of living in a normal city, in a normal country, where we don’t have nationalists wanting us to be gone,” Zuber says, after marching previous the varsity during which he got here to phrases together with his sexuality — and which tried to ban him from dancing with one other man.

Zuber marches previous his former faculty, the place he says his principal tried to ban same-sex dancing throughout promenade.

Dominika Danska got here to the occasion along with her mom, younger sister and 11-year-old brother. “We want to show him that LGBT people are normal,” she explains.

Hours earlier, she was on a practice with a dozen others, travelling to Pride from “LGBT-free zones” round Bielsko-Biala. As the practice approached Katowice, many became their Pride apparel. Their rainbow socks, flags and T-shirts with slogans emerged from plain baggage. Pins had been hooked up. One younger couple went to the lavatory to place make-up on, a transfer that may be unthinkable again at house. Few attendees needed to threat boarding the carriage in rainbow colours.

But even earlier than arriving on the parade’s start line, the group was reminded of the each day risks they face. A automotive pulled over, and the motive force shouted “F**k faggots” out of the window.

It’s the primary insult of many. “He told us we were pedophiles. He told me not to smile or he’d take my flag,” Danska says. Moments later, a person walks previous, shouting and theatrically pulling his youngsters in the wrong way as if to guard them from the group. An aged woman weighs in, telling the group to go away.

From left: Dominika Danska rides the practice house from the Pride parade along with her mom, Agata; brother, Szymon; and sister, Gosia.

“Two people love each other and they call them pedophiles just because they are different,” Danska’s mom says. “This is hard. It’s hard.”

Pride parades have taken on a tangible pressure in Poland since violence at Bialystok final yr, the place an occasion was overrun by nationalists throwing rocks and bottles.

“I feel bad in Poland,” says David Kufel, an 18-year-old attendee on the occasion. “The President says I’m not human.

“I have one friend who was kicked out of his home because he was gay. I don’t want to live in this country,” he says. “I just don’t want to have to fight all the time, just when I go out of my house.”

People watch from balconies because the Pride parade strikes by Katowice.

David Kufel wears his rainbow socks to the Katowice Pride march.

Even in Poland’s bigger cities, the antipathy is by no means distant. At one counter-protest close to the parade, anti-LGBT activists arrange a makeshift stall to collect signatures for a petition in opposition to LGBT occasions. They introduced a giant speaker that performs lengthy homophobic monologues denouncing the LGBT group as “deviant” and “dangerous.” Many of these passing by cease to signal the petition. At occasions, a line types.

“In Poland, we have a civil war between LGBT and normal, conservative people,” says Grzegorz Frejno, the 23-year-old who co-organized the protest together with his spouse. “We want to stop Pride parades.”

“We don’t want our kids to see that, to see the naked people on the street,” his spouse Anna provides, gesturing in the direction of a small group of clothed revelers doing the macarena close by. She refers to LGBT activists as coming from “the dark side,” and says their petition has garnered 5,000 signatures in a single afternoon, far outnumbering these celebrating on the occasion.

Anna Frejno and her husband Grzegorz Frejno, proper, collect signatures for his or her petition.

Patryk Grabowiecki signed the petition to ban Pride marches.

Marchers are mirrored in a police protect in the course of the Pride parade. An estimated 700 officers packed Katowice in the course of the occasion.

Several of those that got here to help the anti-LGBT gathering informed CNN they determine as Polish nationalists. Some put on excessive black boots and T-shirts adorned with slogans written in Fraktur, the outdated German typeface favored by Eastern European far-right teams. Just a few complained about “Antifa” infiltrating Poland’s streets among the many protesters.

“I am disturbed. For them, anti-conception and abortion are the same thing. They are talking about murdering people,” says Patryk Grabowiecki, a tall man with a shaven head, sporting suspenders and black boots with white laces — traditional identifiers of Eastern European far-right nationalism.

The gaggle of petitioners briefly and bitterly interact with Pride marchers, earlier than police intervene. Danska wearily says that partaking with the opposition is “pointless.”

“Of course I wouldn’t like for someone to try to hurt me, to beat me. But I am prepared for that — I have this pepper spray,” she says, displaying an merchandise she retains as a final resort. “I don’t want to use it.”

Anti- and pro-LGBT demonstrators confront each other following the Pride march in Katowice. Violence at earlier occasions throughout Poland have made Pride parades tense encounters within the nation.

‘We are the public enemy’

A day later, below a colorless gray sky, locals within the southern village of Istebna filter into Sunday mass.

The village, surrounded by mountains and strolling distance from each the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is house to simply over 5,000 individuals. But since its “LGBT-free” standing was deemed unconstitutional and annulled by a neighborhood court docket in July, the dozy city has been thrust into the guts of Poland’s battle over homosexual rights.

The court docket discovered that claims the zones goal an LGBT “ideology” — and never LGBT individuals themselves — flip “a blind eye to reality.” The designation “harms LGBT people and strengthens their sense of threat,” it said.

Campaigners had been overjoyed by the ruling. But activists in Istebna are already working to regain the “LGBT-free” label, and Sunday morning is an preferrred time to rally help.

A household of parishioners make their technique to Sunday mass in Istebna.

Jan Legierski stands outdoors the church, the place he collects petitions to show Istebna again into an “LGBT-free zone.”

“People here are against the (LGBT) ideology,” says Jan Legierski. He spends hours standing within the drizzle outdoors the church gathering signatures, lobbying for the court docket’s resolution to be reversed.

“I don’t want this to affect my grandchildren,” he says, insisting that “children and future generations are not indoctrinated, and that they are not depraved.”

The church hosted 4 back-to-back packed plenty that morning. Nearly everybody attending — older individuals, children, youngsters — signed the paperwork. Legierski began the small-scale motion with round a dozen buddies, impressed by the resolutions being handed throughout the nation.

Parishioners crowd round a desk outdoors the church to signal Legierski’s petition.

The battle ongoing in Istebna, and numerous cities prefer it, is quickly pushing Poland right into a geopolitical quagmire.

“There is no place for LGBTI-free zones in the EU or anywhere else,” Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality, tells CNN. Dalli has rejected town-twinning purposes and pulled EU funding for a quantity of areas that pursued the designation, whereas Poland has been publicly condemned by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The claimed ‘LGBTI ideology’ that these charters supposedly address is only a veil to mask the underlying discrimination,” Dalli says. “Poland joined the European Union on a voluntary basis and must now respect the EU treaties and fundamental rights.”

“I’m in favor of normal families,” says Jerzy, a 71-year-old worshipper who signed the petition, arguing that the “LGBT-free” designation makes him really feel safer. He declined to offer his final title.

But contained in the Istebna clergy home, deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała defends his city’s sentiment. “There are certain communities, societies, groups on this planet who try to impose a different way of thinking, which is in conflict with natural law,” he says, telling CNN he is comfy together with his parishioners supporting the petition outdoors. He says the organizers can rely on his help.

“Jesus loved everybody, and this has not changed,” he provides. “However, typically individuals use sure phrases for sure supposedly Christian ideas, however actually they’re speaking about one thing utterly totally different.

“The words love, acceptance, dignity, freedom — these words in the context of scripture have a particular meaning. In dialogue with LGBT people, we used the same words, but we mean something totally different.”

Deputy priest Grzegorz Strządała within the clergy home in Istebna.

Strządała’s feedback reveal the obtrusive chasm between LGBT Poles and lots of of their staunchly Catholic compatriots — an abyss so huge, it may possibly really feel as in the event that they’re talking totally different languages.

Activists, together with Bartosz Staszewski — arguably Poland’s most distinguished LGBT rights campaigner — are decided to bridge that hole. Staszewski’s long-running try to focus on “LGBT-free zones” by plastering warning indicators round each relevant area has drawn nationwide consideration, and made him the goal of anti-LGBT organizations. Staszewski, together with different LGBT activists in Poland, is going through authorized motion over his demonstrations.

“This is a witch hunt, where we are the victims,” Staszewski tells CNN. “We are second-category residents. It’s by no means occurred earlier than — we had been merely not the topic. And now we’re the topic, we’re the general public enemy.

“They all are against us.”

Istebna’s rolling hills and homes lie draped in fog.

Homophobic laws and resolutions have pressured many Poles to select: go away city or keep quiet.

But the wave of resolutions has impressed many extra to affix Staszewski and discover their voices. Zuber, Duzniak and Głowacka rely themselves amongst these newfound activists, unusual Poles for whom merely existing is an act of defiance.

“To be honest, I can move to a bigger town,” Głowacka says. “But there are numerous people who find themselves youthful, and can’t simply transfer out from their households, and oldsters, and faculty.

“I think we have a job to do here.”

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