Equality March in Warsaw, Poland (March 2018)

The othering of LGBTQ+ people by Polish nationalism

5 minutes to read
Article
Bart van Donselaar
10/02/2021

LGBTQ+ people in Poland are facing increasing discrimination at the hands of Polish national, regional and local governments. The Law and Justice (PiS) party, the current majority party, has homophobic and transphobic views and has demonstrated these to gain popularity with the Polish populace (BBC News, 2020). For example, they recently endorsed ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

To an outsider this might seem unrelated to Polish nationalism, which the PiS party also employs as a political tool. What is interesting, however, is that for many who do identify with Polish nationalism, the two go hand in hand. It is, in any case, a form of exclusive nationalism (Hechter, 2000). Hence why this article will offer a brief exploration of Polish nationalism and its relation to the oppression of sexual and gender minorities.

Outsiders in Polishness

In Polish nationalist discourse, those who do not conform to cis- and heteronormative society are not just shunned but seen as outsiders who spew an ideology destructive to Polish society. Sexual and gender minorities are considered to be breaking rules created by those who see themselves as the arbiters of Polish nationalism. Polish nationalists see these rules as commonsensical, however, they are socially situated in Polish nationalism, and so is the process of labelling (Becker, 1963). Exploring how LGBTQ+ people acquired this outsideness through Polishness requires a brief theorization of Polishness.

Othering LGBTQ+ people is rooted in the nature of Polish nationalism.

‘LGBT ideology’ is often put in the same category as communism (BBC News, 2020). This framing appeals to Polish collective memory and functions as a way to other LGBTQ+ people, since communism is seen as being imposed on Poland from the outside. In the Polish narrative, communism was yet another foreign occupation, comparable to those faced in the past (Zubrzycki, 2006). In a similar way, some Polish nationalists perceive LGBTQ+ people as part of a western threat to Polish nationhood (Bratcher, 2020). How this particular perspective of sexual and gender minorities became common has less to do with the inner workings of communism and how it arrived in Poland, and more to do with the function of the Polish Catholic church, which has been a key pillar of Polishness (Porter-Szücs, 2014; Zubrzycki, 2006).

The Polish nationality, like many national conceptions in Europe, originated among the nobility in the late 18th century. However, nationality has become less dependent on class over time. At first, questions of religion or ethnicity were not relevant to nationality; membership of the nation was civic. This changed throughout the many partitions of Poland in modern history. This advanced the connection of ethnicity (manifesting in language and religion) to nationality (Zubrzycki, 2006).

Religion as an agent in Polish nationalism

In the nationalist narrative, the Polish Catholic church was the guardian of the Poles during communism. In post-WWII Poland, the church and communism competed for authority. Society was vastly different from Polish society before WWII: ethnic Germans were expelled, the Jewish population was largely exterminated, and survivors had migrated.

Catholicism was the religion of many ethnic Poles, a demographic that was not as heavily targeted during WWII. This enabled the catholicization of Polish nationalism at large (Porter-Szücs, 2014; Zubrzycski, 2006). The communist state, in the meantime, was not able to muster the Poles' support. This culminated in resistance to the authoritarian state becoming intertwined with the Polish Catholic church, an institution that was at the forefront of this political resistance.

Discourse and policy meet in the concept of ‘LGBT-free zones’, i.e. areas in Poland that are demarcated as free of the LGBT-ideology

Both political and moral authority were attributed to the church by the public and the resistance parties that represented them until the end of communism in Poland in the late 1980s (Porter-Szücs, 2014; Zubrzycski, 2006). Having acquired political and moral legitimacy, conservative Catholic morals found their place in the Polish everyday life (Porter-Szücs, 2014). This makes for an environment in which a large-scale conservative, intolerant stance on LGBTQ+ rights is not unimaginable. The way LGBTQ+ people are portrayed in this society is quite peculiar: comparable to Jews and communists, they are viewed as conspirators and corruptors, and akin to a fifth column within Poland (Bratcher, 2020). This outsideness can to a certain extent be attributed to a dichotomy between conservative, Catholic values and LGBTQ+ rights. 

It is not just through discourse that sexual and gender minorities are othered and excluded, but also through the discriminatory policies that stem from this discourse. PiS is actively dismantling protections for these groups. Discourse and policy meet in the concept of ‘LGBT-free zones’, i.e. areas in Poland that are demarcated as free of the LGBT-ideology: a politicized way to say that sexual and gender minorities both do not live there and are not welcome to exist there (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

In search of a new discourse

Othering LGBTQ+ people is rooted in the nature of Polish nationalism. Similar to othered groups in other nationalisms, this is not arbitrary but socially motivated. Polish nationalism is inseparable from Catholicism due to the circumstances society found itself in after WWII. Because of this catholicization, Polish nationalism excludes LGBTQ+ people. Symptoms of exclusion are clear in current day discourse and policy.

Based on this analysis, it can be argued that Polish nationalism needs to be reconceptualized on a statewide level to allow space for sexual and gender minorities. This is not up to those who already find themselves excluded; it is those who claim ownership of Polish nationalism who would need to drastically adapt their discourse. The process would include small changes, such as in vocabulary, and large scale changes, i.e. the rejection of heteronormativity and cisnormativity. Impactful parties could be politicians on the national, regional and local levels and members of the Polish Catholic clergy.

Such a change in discourse seems unlikely in light of the recent developments in Polish (nationalist) politics, and certainly so in a Poland under the PiS party. Until then, LGBTQ+ people in Poland will find themselves excluded from discourse and politics, and the othering of LGBTQ+ people in Polish nationalism continues.

References

BBC News. (2020, June 14). Polish election: Andrzej Duda says LGBT 'ideology' worse than communism. BBC News.

Becker, H.S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

Bratcher, I. (2020). Ideological others and national identifications in contemporary Poland. Nations and Nationalism, 26(3), 677-91.

Hechter, M. (2000). Containing nationalism. Oxford University Press.

Human Rights Watch. (2020, August 7). Poland: Crackdown on LGBT activists. Human Rights Watch.

Porter-Szücs, B. (2014). Poland in the modern world: Beyond martyrdom. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Zubrzycki, G. (2006). The crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and religion in post-communist Poland. University of Chicago Press.