New Internationalist

For the happiness of individuals

Issue 408

Relevant rights: Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ In the landmark Toonen v Australia case, the UN Human Rights Committee took the view that the reference to sex in Article 2 included sexual orientation, as did Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that: ‘All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.’ The European Convention on Human Rights has articles protecting freedom of association and assembly, and prohibition of discrimination.

If there were medals for bizarre homophobic statements, Poland’s recently ousted Law and Justice Party Government probably deserves gold. The party, led by the notorious Kaczynski twins, declared in its bulletin Right Turn! that gay people are ‘animals’ and ‘the emissaries of Satan sent to destroy the Catholic Church’.

Their coalition allies were equally forthcoming. Wojciech Wierzesjski, front-bench MP for the League of Polish Families Party, suggested: ‘If the deviants start demonstrating… they will need to be bashed with a thick club’, while his colleague, Education Minister Roman Giertych, reasoned that ‘discrimination against homosexuals… is necessary for the public good and for the happiness of individuals’.

But on 21 October 2007 Polish voters indicated that homophobia coupled with ultra nationalism was no guarantee of happiness or indeed an election victory. They kicked out the ruling Law and Justice Government, while its coalition ally, the League of Polish Families Party, failed to return a single member.

Although one of the twins, Lech Kaczynski, retains his position as Poland’s President until 2010, lesbian and gay people were delighted to see the back of a government that has targeted them for the past two years.

The socially conservative Civic Platform Party which has come to power in its place has a more moderate image – but it is hardly pro-gay rights. Like the previous Government, it is reluctant to sign up to the European Union charter of rights in its entirety because this would mean giving rights to sexual minorities.

Robert Biedron, president of Campaign Against Homophobia, said after the election: ‘For sure it means a change and I hope a change for the better – but I wouldn’t be that optimistic.’

Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk is on record as saying he would never agree to gay marriages and other pro-gay regulation in Poland. The newly appointed deputy of the Parliament, Stefan Niesiolowski, responded to a request from activists for a meeting with: ‘Tusk has no time for such tripe as meeting feminists, gays and lesbians.’ He complained that homosexuals were ‘lying’ about discrimination and ‘provoke’ society by manifesting contempt towards the Catholic Church and moral standards in general. Poland’s anti-gay lobby draws heavily upon religion. All Polish Youth – which favours a ‘Christian’ Poland – is at the vanguard. Its thugs were responsible for attacking ‘tolerance’ marches in Krakow in 2006. Skinhead members regularly carry Nazi placards in demonstrations. A recent report from the Campaign Against Homophobia found that almost 18 per cent of Polish lesbians and gay men had experienced physical violence and 51 per cent psychological violence. Not surprisingly, 85 per cent did not report cases to police because they feared further discrimination.

In spite of this, resistance is fertile. In recent years thousands have taken to the streets in cities across Poland. Marches organized by the gay rights Equality Foundation have become emblematic of a wider struggle for civil society and democracy. One Warsaw journalist commented: ‘Bit by bit, Poland’s small gay rights movement is transforming itself into a larger civil rights movement… The gays could be Poland’s saviours.’

They are certainly organized. Activists from the Equality Foundation took their Government to the European Court of Human Rights – and won. In May 2007 the Court ruled that Polish President Lech Kaczynski violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights when, as Mayor of the City, he banned Warsaw Gay Pride in 2005. A week before the Court ruling, the European Parliament in Strasbourg had voted overwhelmingly to condemn Polish politicians for ‘inciting discrimination and hatred based on sexual orientation’.

For all the official homophobia, gay culture is burgeoning in Poland, which in 2006 launched its first Queer Film Festival and conference. The plight of sexual minorities in another eastern European country, Latvia, is perhaps cause for greater concern. There, judges and politicians gave way to an alliance of neo-Nazis, Christian fundamentalists and extreme nationalists by banning the July 2007 Riga Gay Pride march. To avoid trouble, the Latvian sexual diversity organization Mosaika settled for an indoor rally in Riga’s Reval Hotel. A mob of 250 protesters from the anti-gay ‘No Pride’ movement laid siege while thugs roamed the streets looking for lesbians and gay men to attack. A well-known, openly gay pastor was assaulted. Others were pelted with rotten fruit, eggs and excrement. Peter Tatchell, a British human-rights activist, reported: ‘The police seemed to stand back and let the No Priders terrorize people with virtual impunity. Perhaps this hands-off approach was a deliberate policy authorized at the top.’

Government policy is telling. The Latvian Parliament recently refused to pass a law prohibiting employment discrimination against lesbian and gay men, even though, as a member of the European Union, it is required to do so. Latvia also recently banned same-sex marriage.

Medals: Equality Foundation and Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland
Mosaika in Latvia
The Equality Foundation
www.paradarownosci.pl
Campaign Against Homophobia www.kampania.org.pl
Mozaika www.mozaika.lv

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