Last Saturday, Warsaw held its annual “Parada Równości” (Equality Parade), the label used in Poland for gay rights marches. The organizers said afterwards that it was their largest ever, and my (very impressionistic) impression is that the responses from Varsovians ranged from disinterest to support. That is, there were very few signs of hostility, and only a tiny counter-demonstration of a couple dozen people.
The issue of gay rights is shaping up to be an important cultural and political dividing line in Poland. For a change, however, this won’t map directly onto the conflict between the current authoritarian regime and its opponents. Instead, it is an issue that threatens to divide the pro-democracy activists, insofar as it symbolizes an even broader problem: the difficulty of uniting the center-right, the liberal left, and the social-democratic left (and all the variations of each). This isn’t just a political challenge, but a cultural one as well—and that’s what makes the gay and lesbian rights cause so dicey.
The most recent data I have on attitudes towards homosexuality in Poland come from 2013. That four-year-old survey shows a clear trend line towards more acceptance of gays and lesbians, but the progress has been slow and incomplete. First the good news: only 26% of the population considers homosexuality worthy of condemnation, down from 41% in 2001. Similarly, 69% believe in “toleration” for sexual minorities, up from 52% at the start of the century. But now the bad news: the number of people willing to accept same-sex marriage remains small (26%), and only 8% believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children. Only 30% are willing to accept public displays of affection of non-heteronormative couples, though (to again look on the bright side) that figure was at 16% as recently as 2005. So despite a rhetorical appreciation of “tolerance,” these survey results don’t suggest much genuine acceptance. But before we single out Poland for approbation, let’s remember what happened in the United States: as recently as 2004, almost 2/3 of Americans opposed gay marriage, but today just over 1/3 feel that way.
Regardless of how we interpret these survey results, we can’t escape the fact that Poland is a country where homophobia is common. There are points of light—most notably the rising national popularity of Robert Biedroń, the openly gay mayor of Słupsk—but far too many points of darkness.
Given this context, the political valiance of this issue is quite striking. There is a reason that gay rights marches are called “Equality Parades” in Poland, and not “Pride Parades” after the anglophone model. The leaders of the LGBT movement made the strategic decision long ago to position their cause within a rhetorical framework of universalistic rights and liberties, giving somewhat less emphasis to public affirmations of difference. A turning point for the movement came in 2004, when then-mayor Lech Kaczyński of Warsaw tried to ban one the Equality Parade. Thousands turned out to protest the decision, including a long list of politicians and celebrities who previously hadn’t even given much thought to the issue of gay and lesbian rights, much less supported the cause. Sure, some of those politicians were trying to coopt the LGBT movement for their own purpose, but since that purpose was to expose the antidemocratic tendencies of the radical right, I wouldn’t be too critical. And whatever the motives of individual liberal and centrist politicians, the cause of Poland’s sexual minorities gained a place on the national political stage. A small and precarious place for the time being…but still.
Fast forward to 2017, and once again the LGBT cause is inextricably tied up with a wide range of ancillary issues. Within the main opposition party, Civic Platform, there are now open debates about this, which is quite surprising given the general conservatism of that party. Last week the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, attended his city’s Equality Parade, after many years of ignoring the event. In a speech at the start of the parade, he said that the rise of a more general atmosphere of intolerance and hatred in Poland has caused him to reassess his own attitudes, and identify his own prejudices. It was a stunning moment; not often does one hear a politician say “I was wrong.” He now hopes to persuade fellow members of Civic Platform to change the party’s positions on gay and lesbian rights. One of those he must persuade is the mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. She has long ensured that the city would provide no support for the capital’s Equality Parade, and she personally boycotts it. More broadly and significantly, for the eight years that Civic Platform was in power (2007-2015), they did virtually nothing to improve the legal status of gays and lesbians in Poland, even as party leaders criticized their opponents on the extreme right for their open homophobia.
This matters a lot, and not only because we are talking about a fundamental measure of respect for human dignity, not to mention tolerance and equality. It gets to the heart of the political decision that Civic Platform’s leadership must take: to shift their party a bit to the left, or to try to compete with the current ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) for voters on the right.
It might seem reasonable that in a country like Poland there would be space for two parties on the right, one catering to nationalists and another to more centrist, mainstream conservatives. And under normal circumstances, those two parties would compete mainly with each other for dominance on that side of the ideological spectrum. But even setting aside the question of whether Polish politics can be aligned along a two-dimensional “spectrum” (short answer: it can’t), these are not normal circumstances. With PiS steadily dismantling Poland’s constitutional democracy, the stakes are incredibly high, and starkly clear. As the largest opposition party, Civic Platform currently has one task: to lead the struggle to defeat PiS and restore liberal democracy to Poland. That goal will never be accomplished if the entire political stage is subsumed by a debate between a center-right party and a far-right party.
Some have argued that the left is irrelevant in Poland, so issues like LGBT rights should be sidelines, lest the large base of conservative voters be frightened away. After all, left-wing voters will never vote for PiS, so why even worry about them? This reasoning is dangerously flawed. We have just witnessed a US election where low turnout among African-Americans cost Hilary Clinton a victory. Of course American blacks weren’t going to vote for Trump, but large numbers of them saw no reason to support Clinton either, so they just stayed home. Had they voted in anything close to the frequency they voted in 2012 or 2008, she would be in the White House today. This is the fatal and perennial fallacy of centrist politicians who feel they can take the votes of the marginalized (minorities of all varieties, as well as the poor in general) for granted.
Would some gestures towards the LGBT community cost Civic Platform votes among some Catholics? I doubt it. Those on the right who are strongly motivated by fear of or hostility towards minorities make up the core of the PiS voting base, and they aren’t going to be won over. The surveys I mentioned above show that whatever their feelings about specific issues, a very large majority of Poles want to cling to a self-identity as “tolerant.” About half of those who call themselves tolerant currently say that they’d prefer that gays and lesbians stay invisible. In other words, their “tolerance” is (to put it mildly) shallow. But what will those people do if (for example) Civic Platform puts forward a proposal to allow gays and lesbians to obtain hospital visitation rights for their partners (they don’t have that now), or inherit money and property from their partners (which would require some sort of civil union, if not fully recognized marriage rights)? PiS and their allies in the Church would respond that the law must never legitimate “deviant” and “sinful” behavior, and the ideological divide would be crystal clear. I am convinced that very few people outside of PiS’s committed base would want to stand openly for intolerance under that scenario.
Civic Platform will never be a leftist party, and that’s fine. But unless and until there is a viable leftist alternative—that is, a party that is well organized, with a competent and united leadership—then it is up to Civic Platform to ensure that voters on the left will view them as an acceptable, even if not ideal alternative. A large majority of voters oppose PiS; the party’s support is stuck in the 30s, and occasionally falls even below that. But that’s enough to win against a fragmented opposition, if all those on the left are faced with the option of either wasting their votes on tiny parties that won’t get enough support to enter parliament, or voting for a party that is represented by people like Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Under that dismal scenario, large numbers of them will stay home during the next round of elections. They will be making a grave mistake in doing so, but we can be assured that many will in fact take that path. It is up to Civic Platform to give them a reason not to, and the LGBT issue carries just the right symbolism to serve that purpose.
It’s also the right thing to do.