Poland is shaking up Eastern Europe. And LGBTQ+ people and women are leading the charge for change.
Since early 2019, queer activists have been demonstrating against a smear campaign by the right-wing Polish government and Catholic Church that paints queer people as a danger to children and undeserving of civil rights. Protesters have stood up to attacks by street thugs and cops.
Next, tens of thousands of women and supporters hit the streets in October 2020 after a court outlawed almost all abortions. Pro-abortion forces denounced the ruling and escalated their demands to include a stop to church influence over the state and an end to the reactionary government itself.
Since 2015, Poland has been run by the ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has close ties to the Catholic Church. The party built its base by scapegoating immigrants. Once in power, PiS proceeded to stack the judiciary, increase repression and restrict civil rights, especially for LGBTQ+ people.
The party again won the presidency this year after a campaign denouncing LGBTQ+ rights as “an ideology worse than communism.” President Andrzej Duda supports a constitutional amendment to ban adoptions by same-sex partners. Rising homophobia spurred a small town to pass a resolution declaring the municipality an “LGBT-free zone.” Over 100 other villages followed suit. But the queer community fought back.
In August, 47 people were detained for interfering with cops arresting a prominent LGBTQ+ activist, Margot Szutowicz, on trumped-up charges. Heralded as the “Polish Stonewall,” it triggered a wave of protests across the country in support of LGBTQ+ rights.
Undeterred, the government took aim at women’s right to control their own bodies. The Constitutional Tribunal (an appointed judicial body) ruled on Oct. 22, 2020, to ban abortions sought because of severe, even deadly, fetal birth defects. These constitute 98% of legal terminations in Poland and there is almost no government support for children with disabilities. The Tribunal only allowed procedures necessary to save the mother’s health or because of rape or incest.
Severe abortion restrictions have been in effect since 1993, resulting in only about 1,100 legal abortions a year. Due to a “conscience” clause allowing doctors to refuse to perform the procedure, abortions are totally unavailable in large parts of the country. An estimated 200,000 women a year obtain terminations illegally or by traveling abroad.
Led by young women, and with strong support from the LGBTQ+ community, massive demonstrations for reproductive rights broke out, starting in major cities and extending throughout the country. Symbols of the movement include red thunderbolts and umbrellas. Women blocked traffic and protested inside churches. The outpourings were the largest since the Solidarnos´c´ democracy movement of the 1980s and happened in defiance of Covid-19 rules forbidding gatherings of more than five people.
Four years ago there were also mass demonstrations for liberalized abortion laws. But the new round of protests is bigger and more radical, with more youth involved. The group Women’s Strike called on unions to support the movement with a one-day general strike. Vast numbers heeded the call, including farmers, miners, and medical personnel who have been protesting lack of medical supplies and facilities.
After 14 straight days of massive protests, the government backed down, and “indefinitely” suspended the Tribunal ruling.
Yet the demonstrations continue, because the previous, hated abortion law remains and because disgust for the right-wing government has become widespread. Demands include more rights for women and LGBTQ+ people, separation of church and state, and better healthcare and education.
Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has encouraged right-wing vigilante supporters to attack protesters to “defend Poland” and the church. But the movement is not surrendering. As the FS goes to press, demonstrations continue.
This movement for civil liberties and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights is seismically affecting the whole of Eastern Europe, which is dominated by right-wing and authoritarian governments. It joins current battles in Hungary against homophobic laws and in Belarus against a brutal, authoritarian ruler. Poles are forcefully showing the whole world how to fight against patriarchal reaction.