With Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and the Catholic Church using gay rights to stir up a culture war, the country's LGBTQ community is feeling the effects. Depression and suicide are rising dramatically, and many now feel they have no choice but to leave.
WARSAW — Suicidal thoughts, violence and lack of support from state institutions. This is the grim reality faced by Polish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and asexual people outlined in the report "The Social Situation of LGBTQ Persons in Poland."
Gay rights have become a divisive issue in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. The ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has used the issue to galvanize supporters, declaring it "a great danger" and an "attack" on the family and children.
“The situation of LGBTQ people has not really improved, but rather gotten worse," says Mirosława Makuchowska, deputy director of the Campaign Against Homophobia. The organization – together with the association Lambda and the University of Warsaw's Centre for Research on Prejudice – published a report last week that describes the situation of non-heteronormative people in Poland in 2019-20.
The survey is conducted every five years or so. The results of the previous report in 2017 covered the beginning of the PiS government. Since then, LGBTQ+ people have been constantly hearing from the Church, ruling party politicians and the head of state that they are "not equal to normal people" because they are not people at all, but "simply an ideology" or the "rainbow plague."
The difficulty of living in a country where such statements have become an everyday reality is shown by the percentage of people – up to 12% – declaring a readiness to leave Poland in the coming months. Every third respondent indicated the experience of discrimination as the reason.
Here are some stories participants of the study shared: "During a lesson, a priest stated that homosexual people are pedophiles and zoophiles. He kept claiming this even after my coming out to him." (18-year-old lesbian from a village)
"At a pre-Christmas meeting among cousins and their partners, I was yelled at and physically threatened for trying to explain that gay people do not adopt children in order to rape them later, after someone made such a statement." (21-year-old transgender person from a small town)
"I found a note under the office door saying: You will die in three days." (36-year-old gay man from a medium-sized city)
As the survey shows, the psychological well-being of non-heterosexual people has deteriorated significantly in just the past few years. Nearly one in two (44%) show severe symptoms of depression (up from 28% in the previous survey), while more than half (55%) admit that they sometimes have suicidal thoughts (up from 45% in 2016). The situation is worse for young people: 59% of students and 74% of pupils experience such thoughts.
Opinion polls show that negative attitudes toward LGBTQ people have increased in Poland in recent years
Map of hate
In 2019, almost 100 regions in Poland passed resolutions declaring themselves free of "LGBT ideology." The authors of the study point out the harm caused to LGBTQ residents of those zones: "Regardless of their individual characteristics, people living in counties that were declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ experience suicidal thoughts with greater intensity than respondents living in counties where such resolutions were not adopted."
At the beginning of last year, according to data collected by the creators of the "Map of Hate" – an interactive map documenting such places – 31% of the country's population already lived in these zones. In fear of losing EU funding, some local governments recently began withdrawing from those resolutions.
Up to 37% of LGBTQ+ people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from their entire family
Makuchowska points out: “This increase cannot be explained simply by a pandemic that has affected everyone. It's clear that LGBT people are psychologically exhausted by the backlash. Participants in the study wrote outright: ‘Parents and friends are becoming more radical, repeating nonsense about the 'LGBT ideology,' about how we are a threat because we are pedophiles.’ This in turn leads to arguments and young people very often have to leave their homes." Almost 10% of respondents were thrown out of their family homes, while 20% ran away.
"My mother threw me out of the house by quoting politicians' statements about destroying her family. I feel like they turned my family against me," recalls one survey participant.
What's more, up to 37% of LGBTQ people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from their entire family (4% more than previously). Among mothers who are aware of their child's sexuality, 61% accept it (which is 7% less than before). Among fathers, this ratio is even smaller: 54% (5% less than previously).
Fewer people tell their neighbors, and nearly 21% had a loved one disappear from their lives due to their sexuality.
Sexual violence and lack of trust
Mikołaj Winiewski, from the Centre for Research on Prejudice of the University of Warsaw says, “Opinion polls show that negative attitudes toward LGBT people have increased in Poland in recent years. The media are full of stereotypes and homophobia, and, importantly, various figures of authority, such as Church personalities or politicians, often openly spread hatred.The results of our research show that this open hatred, often manifested by aggression, has a huge impact on almost every sphere of life of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual and queer people.”
Nearly 69% of the survey participants experienced violent behavior related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Verbal violence is still the most common (59%, 5% less than in the previous survey), but the rate of sexual violence has increased significantly: up from 14% to 22%. The authors of the survey noted that this occurs mainly at home and was facilitated by the lockdown.
The reporting of these hate crimes is only 2.5%. Most frequently, victims talk about the usefulness in taking such an action, a lack of trust in the effectiveness of the police and the fear of whether their case will be taken seriously or if they will be ridiculed by the officers.
It is impossible to defend human rights without taking LGBT people into account
"My friend (a trans woman) experienced transphobic violence at the police station (they stripped her to check her genitals), so thank you very much for the police's help," says one transgender person. In fact, as the survey shows, trans people's situation is particularly difficult.
“When I look around, I see that those who have not left are simply emigrating internally, they just shut themselves off from information. How long can you stand being repeated that you are a ‘faggot’?” asks Makuchowska.
“The growing hostility caused by the hate campaign translates into LGBTQ people growing wary of state institutions. The level of trust in the government, parliament and the police is extremely low: The results of the survey indicate an almost complete distrust in these institutions," notes Krzysztof Kliszczyński from the Lambda association.
At the same time, 87% of respondents are interested in entering into a civil partnership and 69% are interested in marriage.
Makuchowska says, “I hope that in the next survey we will get to ask: ‘have you ever entered a civil partnership?’ Because it would mean we will have bounced back from the situation we are currently in. I think that the new government will change a lot, that these five years of hatred will have taught a large part of the pro-democracy opposition that it is impossible to defend human rights without taking LGBT people into account because their rights are closely related to the rule of law.”
The survey was conducted by the University of Warsaw's Center for Research on Prejudice through an online survey completed from December 2020 to February 2021, with a total of 22,883 participants.
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