What does Tusk’s victory mean for oppressed groups in Poland?

The confirmation of Donald Tusk as Poland’s new prime minister, ending the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s eight year spell in power, offers cautious optimism that freedom of expression for the country’s minority groups will be better protected. Tusk’s appointment follows October’s parliamentary election, in which a broad coalition of opposition parties secured the majority of votes needed to form a government, which was officially voted in by MPs in December.

Throughout the eight years the PiS spent in power, freedom of expression in the country was continually eroded. Minority groups were targeted through strict legislation and judicial reform, while the party also tightened their grip on the media and encouraged far-right extremism

One of the worst affected groups were LGBT+ people. In 2023, Poland was named as the worst country for LGBT+ rights in the EU in a report by watchdog ILGA-Europe for the third successive year. This is no surprise given the homophobic rhetoric pushed by the country’s leaders in recent years: PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that LGBT+ people “threaten the Polish state”; former education minister Przemysław Czarnek likened what he called “LGBT ideology” to Nazism; and in 2019, Krakow’s archbishop described LGBT+ rights as a “rainbow plague”.

Spokesperson for the Love Does Not Exclude Association, a national non-governmental organisation fighting for marriage equality in Poland, Hubert Sobecki told Index that the organisation views the new government with “a mixture of hope and anxiety”.

They are hoping that the new Tusk-led coalition will pass laws legalising same-sex marriage, a concept that Sobecki explained is still seen as “radical” in the state, as well as addressing other issues such as same-sex parenthood and rising hate crimes, although he accused the polish leader of “slaloming” around these issues in the past.

“I do expect some actual specific concrete changes being made, legislative changes,” Sobecki said. “The current prime minister, Mr Tusk, we know him, we have a history, let’s call it that. He was quite reluctant to be remotely close to an allied position.”

It is clear that change won’t happen overnight. Eight years of the PiS in power has seen anti-LGBT+ sentiment rise throughout the country, with pride parades being targeted by violent counter-protesters and some regional governments passing resolutions to effectively make areas of the state an ‘LGBT-free zone’.

Sobecki’s descriptions of life in Poland in recent years paint a shocking portrait of the lived reality of LGBT+ people, who faced near constant abuse and discrimination in the state. He told of the increasing wave of people within the LGBT+ community who are struggling with mental illness, and those who have even had to migrate as a result of their treatment. During one incident, Sobecki recalled activists being targeted by police during a peaceful protest in Warsaw. “They were basically attacked, they were dragged on the pavement. Some people needed medical attention, some of them were molested after they got arrested. It’s mind-numbing,” he said.

However, Sobecki suggested that while the situation is bad, such incidents have also served to show just how much things needed to change. “It created a huge wave of support from people who thought ‘it’s too much’”, he explained. “After several years of this hate campaign being run, they can’t really shut it out anymore, they can’t remain blind to it.”

When asked whether he believed legislation would be enough to secure equality for LGBT+ people, Sobecki agreed that changed attitudes were as important as changed laws. 

“What you need on the social level is visibility, storytelling techniques, constant campaigning, presence, representation, from the micro level of having dinner with your grandparents to the macro level of securing proper coverage on the main news channels,” he said. 

However, there was still confidence that the government would make a difference. “What they can do is stop the hate in the public media. That is going to be a huge game changer,” he said. “You have millions of people who only watch one or two channels, who are effectively brainwashed. This change will be massive if it happens.” 

Sobecki also pointed to moments, such as the recent ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights that Poland’s lack of legal recognition and protection for same-sex marriages breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, as evidence that progress is being made, albeit slowly. 

“It was something that we’ve been working on for eight years, because those guys do take their time!” he said. “We knew that this was a message for the new government because the courts are savvy like that. We managed to get some responses from members of the new government who said ‘yes, this is a clear sign that we need to make a change’”.

The election results are also likely to be welcomed by proponents of women’s rights. During their years in power the PiS clamped down on reproductive rights in Poland, ending state funding for IVF and enforcing a prescription requirement for emergency contraception. Most significantly, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, an institution which critics say is heavily politicised by the PiS, implemented a near-total ban on abortion in the country in 2021, with the only exceptions being instances of rape, incest or a threat to health. As a result of this ruling, doctors and others who help women terminate pregnancies may face up to three years in prison, rising to eight if it occurs after the point of viability. These actions, which the PiS say have been made in an attempt to boost fertility rates and promote Catholic values, have had a disturbing effect on women’s freedoms in the state. Just this year, Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was sentenced to 8 months’ community service for helping a pregnant woman to access abortion pills in what Amnesty International described as a “depressing low in the repression of reproductive rights in Poland” which serves as a “chilling snapshot of the consequences of such restrictive laws”.

Sobecki spoke about the need for change across all areas of society, as he argued that the PiS “weaponised the state” against a variety of social groups. “They basically attacked women’s rights openly as part of their agenda,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure and expectation from the public for change, for something new, for something that is progressive.”

However, there are still concerns that even without PiS in power, the new Tusk-led government will not do enough to protect these rights. One feminist activist, Jana Shostak, was dropped by the opposition alliance after voicing support for wider abortion rights. She told the Guardian that her trust in Tusk to fight for women’s rights is “limited”.

There are concerns that the new government will resist calls for more progressive protections on rights and freedoms in an attempt to placate conservative voters. These worries extend beyond women and LGBT+ rights to immigration; Tusk warned of the “danger” of migrants and called for stricter border controls during a campaign speech which was denounced as racist and xenophobic by human rights NGOs.

The PiS being ousted from power sparked hope, but action from the new government to prevent women and minority groups from being silenced and threatened is much-needed. Sobecki vows to keep fighting: “At some point you just think it’s such a mess, what can you do? You just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, showing actual faces, actual people, telling their stories, trying to be hopeful that somehow it manages to get through.”

Why we all need to be angelic troublemakers

Photo: Gage Walker/Unsplash

Pride is protest. Pride is celebration. Pride is defiant.

Next month marks half a century since the first official Pride march was held in London. An event that Peter Tatchell has written about for Index in the next edition of the magazine. As Peter states:

“The idea spread to the UK, and a group of us in the Gay Liberation Front in London came up with the idea of holding a celebratory and defiant “Gay Pride” march, to challenge queer invisibility and the prevailing view that we should be ashamed of our homosexuality. The ethos of Pride was born.”

Pride was never designed to be apolitical – it was a statement. It was a demand for public acceptance at a time when being LGBT+ wasn’t just difficult – it was almost impossible to be openly queer in public. It was to a personal platform for those who were being silenced in their own communities. It embodied our collective basic right to free expression and used that right in such a way that it began a journey of changing hearts and minds.

Given how much society has changed since the first parade was held on 1 July 1972, it seems easy for some to believe that Pride is no longer an act of protest or defiance. Instead, it is now a family-friendly event. And of course, it has evolved since it was first launched – from a march of 2,000 people to a parade and a festival of over a million people with associated events throughout the country. It is no longer the obvious protest it once was, and it is a celebration of diversity and inclusion – but at its heart it remains the annual embodiment of a protest movement and we should never forget that.

Over the last 50 years Pride has been one of the most political movements in the UK. Pride campaigned against police harassment, it stood in solidarity with the striking miners in the 1980s, it campaigned against Section 28 and demanded support for people with HIV. And this year a theme won’t just be a celebration of the last 50 years – it will also be a moment to demand that the ban on conversion therapy includes therapy targeted at trans people.

Because Pride is protest.

Which brings me to my own experiences of Pride this year. I love Pride, I love the atmosphere, the chat, the protest and the music. At this year’s Pride there was a protest within a protest – targeted at some of the local politicians for their views on conversion therapy. I wasn’t surprised by the protest but rather the political response to it – “Pride is a family event, this isn’t the place for a political protest”. This lack of historical understanding should worry us all.

Because if nothing else this response demonstrated how quickly people forget societal history. How easy it is to forget why free expression is so important. Because it protects the voices of every minority group. Because it allows each one of us to have a minority opinion and to be protected when we articulate it. Because freedom of speech is one of the foundation stones of every positive change that has happened in our society. It has given every campaigner, every disenfranchised group, every equality campaigner the right to demand change.

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of Pride, it’s the key tool which facilitates activists – through peaceful protest – to demand better from their leaders, to demand change, to empower people.

Bayard Rustin, one of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s closest advisers and the organiser of the March on Washington, wasn’t only a civil rights leader, he was a gay civil rights leader and remains an inspiration today. When asked about his activism he said: “We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers”.

Last weekend I saw a group of angelic troublemakers at work and I was proud of them.

Because this isn’t just my personal mantra for Pride – it’s my mantra for life. I aspire to be an angelic troublemaker – as should we all.

Fifty years of Pride and prejudice

Britain’s first LGBT+ Pride march took place 50 years ago, on 1 July 1972. What began as one event in London has since grown into more than 160 Pride events across the UK – from big cities to small towns. Pride has also spread to more than 100 countries, making it one of the most ubiquitous and successful global movements of all time.

How did it all begin?

After the Stonewall uprising in New York in 1969 – when the patrons of gay bars fought back against police harassment – the newly-formed gay liberation movement in the USA decided to organise protests to coincide with the anniversary. The idea spread to the UK, and a group of us in the Gay Liberation Front in London came up with the idea of holding a celebratory and defiant “Gay Pride” march, to challenge queer invisibility and the prevailing view that we should be ashamed of our homosexuality. The ethos of Pride was born.

This was an era of de facto censorship of LGBT+ issues. There was no media coverage of homophobic persecution, no public figures were openly LGBT+ and there were no positive representations of queer people. The only time we appeared in the press was when a gay person was arrested by the police, murdered by queer-bashers, outed by the tabloids, or exposed as a spy, child molester or serial killer.

This is why a Pride march was necessary: to show that we were proud of who we were. But a march was a gamble. Would anyone join us?

Back then, most LGBTs were closeted and dared not reveal themselves publicly, fearing police victimisation. Many aspects of same-sex behaviour were still a crime, given that homosexuality had been only partially decriminalised in 1967. Some were afraid that coming out publicly would result in them being queer-bashed, rejected by family and friends or sacked by homophobic employers.

But, much to our surprise and delight, about 700 people turned out for the first UK Pride in 1972. It was a joyful, carnival-style parade through the streets of London, from Trafalgar Square via Oxford Street to Hyde Park.

We had a political message: LGBT+ liberation. Our banners proclaimed: “Gay is good” and “Gay is angry”. Despite heavy policing and abuse from some members of the public, we made our point.

Buoyed by this first modest success, we had the confidence to organise further Pride marches in the years that followed. They had explicit political demands such as an equal age of consent, an end to police harassment and opposition to lesbian mothers losing custody of their children on the grounds that they were deemed to be unfit parents.

Peter Tatchell in 1974

For most of the 1970s, Pride remained feisty but tiny, with fewer than 3,000 people. However, by the mid-1980s the numbers marching rose to 12,000.

Then we were hit with a triple whammy. First came the moral panic of the Aids pandemic. Dubbed the “gay plague”, it demonised gay and bisexual men as the harbingers of death and destruction. Next the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, attacked the right to be gay at the 1987 Conservative Party conference. And then, in 1988, Section 28 became law, prohibiting the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities – the first new homophobic law in Britain for a century.

The LGBT+ community felt under attack – and we were. It brought us together and mobilised a fightback which was reflected in the turnout for Pride in 1988, with 30,000 marchers compared with 15,000 the year before. The march was angry and political, with some people attempting to storm Downing Street.

The first ever Pride in London, 1972. Photo: Jamie Gardiner

From 1988, Pride grew exponentially year on year. By 1997, there were 100,000 people on the march and the post-march festival on Clapham Common was attended by 300,000 revellers. This was the high point of Pride, run by – and for – the community, with strong LGBT+ human rights demands.

Since then, it has been downhill. A takeover by gay businesspeople at the turn of the century rebranded Pride as a “Mardi Gras” party and started charging for the post-march festival. Many people felt that Pride had been hijacked by commercial interests. Numbers plummeted, income crashed and the business consortium walked away.

For the past decade, the event has been run by a private community interest company, Pride in London, under contract and with funding from the mayor of London. It has been accused of being not representative of, or accountable to, the LGBT+ community, and of turning Pride into a depoliticised, overly commercial jamboree.

While some business sponsorship may be necessary to finance Pride, there is unease at the pre-eminence of commercial branding and advertising and the way huge extravagant corporate floats dominate the parade, overshadowing LGBT+ community groups.

Critics also question the participation of the police, arms manufacturers, fossil fuel companies, the Home Office and airlines involved in the deportation of LGBT+ refugees. Is this compatible with the liberation goals that inspired the first Pride?

And there is huge resentment that only 30,000 people are allowed to march in the parade, making Pride in London one of the smallest Prides of any Western capital city. Every year, thousands of people who want to march are turned away. This is against the original premise of Pride: that it should be open to everyone who wants to participate.

Pride in London claims that 1.5 million people attend. But there is no evidence to back this claim and it looks like hype to lure advertisers and sponsors. Even if we generously assume that 100,000 spectators line the route and there are 30,000 people in Trafalgar Square and 50,000 in Soho, plus 30,000 marchers, that’s still only 210,000.

Discontent led to last year’s Reclaim Pride march. It reverted to the roots of Pride, with a grassroots community focus, no corporate sponsors, and demands to ban LGBT+ conversion therapy, reform the Gender Recognition Act and provide a safe haven for LGBT+ refugees fleeing persecution abroad – political issues that have been absent from the official Pride for two decades.

It cost only £1,800 to organise, refuting Pride in London’s claims that Pride cannot exist without corporate funding to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This year’s Pride in London parade is on 2 July. The day before, on the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first Pride, a handful of surviving Gay Liberation Front and 1972 Pride veterans will retrace the original route from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. Among other things, we’ll be urging the decriminalisation of LGBT+ people worldwide – including in the Commonwealth, where 35 out of the 54 member states still criminalise same-sex relations.

As radical and committed as ever, we pioneers of Pride continue the liberation struggle we began half a century ago. There will be no stopping until homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are history.

This article appears in the forthcoming summer 2022 edition of Index on Censorship. Get ahead of the game and take out a subscription with a 30% discount from Exact Editions using the promo code Battle4Ukraine.

Hungary elections 2022: What does another Orban term mean for freedoms?

LGBTQI rights. Gender equality. Media freedom. The fate of liberties in Hungary hang in the balance as the nation heads to the polls on Sunday. With a falling currency, a mismanaged response to the pandemic still fresh to mind and a stronger opposition under United For Hungary – a coalition of six parties spanning the political spectrum – the election campaign has been the closest in years. But the war in Ukraine, right on Hungary’s border, has changed its course in unexpected ways. Below we’ve picked the most important things to consider when it comes to the April 2022 elections.

Basic rights could worsen

Since his election in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has whittled away fundamental rights in the country to the extent that Hungarian activist Dora Papp told Index in 2019 free expression had no more space “to worsen”.

Orban’s main targets have been people who identify as LGBTQI. Last year, amid global outcry, he passed a law that bans the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. Seeking approval for this legislation, Hungary is holding a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools this Sunday alongside the parliamentary elections.

Orban also takes aim at the nation’s Roma and immigrants, and has revived old anti-Semitic tropes in his attacks on George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who Orban claims is plotting to flood the country with migrants (an accusation Soros firmly denies).

As for half of the population, Orban’s macho-style leadership manifests in rhetoric on women that is dismissive, insulting and focuses on traditional roles. Asked in 2015 why there were no women in his cabinet, he replied that few women could deal with the stress of politics. That’s just one example. The list goes on.

His populist politics have seeped into every democratic institution and effectively dismantled them. The constitution, the judiciary and municipal councils have all been reorganised to serve the interests of Orban. Education, both higher and lower, has seen huge levels of interference. Progressive teachers and classes have been removed. Even the Billy Elliot musical was cancelled after Orban called the show a propaganda tool for homosexuality.

But the media can’t freely report much of this

In response to claims of media-freedom erosion, the Hungarian government likes to point out that there are no journalists in jail in Hungary, nor have any been murdered on Orban’s watch. But as we know only too well there are many ways to cook an egg. Through gaining control of public media, concentrating private media in the hands of Orban allies and creating a hostile environment for the remaining independent media (think misinformation laws and constant insults), the attacks come from every other angle. Orban has even been accused of using Pegasus, the invasive spyware behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, to target investigative journalists.

It’s little wonder then that in 2021 Reporters Without Borders labelled Orban a “press freedom predator”, the only one to make the list from the EU.

As election day approaches the attacks continue. In February, for example, pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet said it had obtained recordings showing that NGOs linked to Soros were “manipulating” international press coverage of Hungary, a claim instantly rejected by civil society groups.

Ukraine War has shifted the narrative, for better and worse

Given Orban’s track-record on rights, it comes as no surprise that he’s the closest EU ally of Vladimir Putin. This wasn’t a great look before 24 February and it’s even less so today, as the opposition are keen to highlight. They are pushing Orban hard on his neutral stance, which has seen him simultaneously open Hungary’s borders to Ukrainian refugees and oppose sanctions and the sending of weapons.

But Orban is playing his hand well. Fears of becoming embroiled in the war appear to be stronger in Hungary than anger at Putin’s aggression, many analysts says. Orban is claiming a vote for him is a vote for stability and neutrality, while a vote for the opposition is a vote for war. He’s even tried to cast his February visit to Moscow as a “peace mission”.

And though he has condemned the invasion, he has yet to say anything bad about Putin himself. Worse still, Hungarian media is blasting out Russian propaganda. Pundits, TV stations and print outlets are pushing out lines like the war was caused by NATO’s aggressive acts toward Russia, Russian troops have occupied Ukraine’s nuclear plants to protect them and the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis.

 Anything else?

Yes. Orban met with a coalition of Europe’s far-right in Spain at the start of the year. They discussed the possibility of a Europe-wide alliance. What that looks like now in a post-Ukraine world is hard to tell. We’d rather not see.

Then there’s the fact that Serbia also goes to the polls Sunday. Like Orban, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by president Aleksandar Vučić, has been unnerved by growing opposition. Also like Orban, they’re close to Putin and using the Ukraine war to their advantage – reminding people of the 1999 Kosovo war when NATO launched a three-month air strike. Orban and Vučić have developed close ties and will no doubt be buoyed up by each other’s victories should that happen on Sunday.

So will the Hungary elections be free and fair?

If the 2018 elections are anything to go by, they will be “free but not fair”, the conclusion of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who partially monitored the 2018 election process. That’s the optimistic take. Others are fearful they will be neither free nor fair, so much so that a grassroots civic initiative called 20K22 has recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters – two for each of Hungary’s voting precincts – to be stationed at polling centres on election day with the aim of stopping any voting irregularities.

News from yesterday isn’t confidence-boosting either. Hungarian election officials reported a suspected case of voter fraud to the police. Bags full of completed ballots were found at a rubbish dump in north-western Romania, home to a large Hungarian minority who have the right to vote in Hungary’s elections. Images and videos shared by the opposition featured partially burnt ballots marked to support them. As of writing, no details have been provided of the actual perpetrators and their motives, and Orban has been quick to accuse the opposition of being behind the incident. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.