Black Box East: Struggles over Women’s and LGBTQ Rights in Poland

Controversial statements and decisions made by the national-conservative government regarding women’s and LGBTQ rights have led in recent months to even greater divisions in Polish society. More and more people are taking to the streets and demonstrating. Literary scholar Karolina Golimowska reports about the struggles on the ground.

During the presidential campaign in June 2020, Poland’s incumbent president Andrzej Duda avowed that LGBT were not people, but an ideology. That reaffirmed a homophobic movement initiated by conservatives that had been going on since spring 2019; it had led, among other things, to the emergence of so-called LGBT-free zones, which more and more communes – especially in southeastern Poland and in the center of the country – have since declared themselves to be. I know of an increasing number of people who feel addressed and who have since then gradually left the country; they feel deprived of their human rights, and are trying to start a new life somewhere else. They include writers and artists, nurses, lawyers and bakers.

Already in March 2020 a demonstration was held in front of the Polish Institute in Berlin as an act of solidarity with the people in Poland, who by then had already been protesting for months for the rights of LGBTQ+ communities. At that point, the pandemic had just begun. In the summer of 2020, the Covid-19 situation seemed to be under control: the election campaign in Poland took place more or less normally; conservative rhetoric was ringing out from all sides, while the use of masks was rather “liberal.” Andrzej Duda was re-elected president, although the fight was tough – the split of votes very clearly showed the polarization of Polish society.

Abortion law is tightened

In October 2020, when the second wave of the pandemic hit, the Polish Constitutional Court, chaired by Julia Przyłębska, wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany, ruled that terminating a pregnancy due to severe malformations of the fetus violated the Polish constitution. Abortion law has been an issue in Poland for years. Time and again, the PiS government has tried to make it stricter; each time, after massive protests, they have quit their efforts. But after the Constitutional Court was staffed with PiS-affiliated people as part of the internationally controversial judicial reform, suddenly much more was possible. Then came the lockdown, the ever-increasing numbers of new Covid cases, school closures and, above all, the omnipresent fear of the virus.

Despite all this, many people took to the streets to peacefully walk against the tightening of the already harsh abortion law. Taking a walk was allowed, but mass demonstrations, of course, were not. The movement Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (Poland-wide women’s strike) under the aegis of Marta Lempart literally declared war on the state, organized protest walks all over the country, and established links with organizations in other EU countries that help Polish women to legally have abortions there. It was no longer “just” about making the law stricter, it was about human rights and democracy. Suddenly, everything was at stake.

In Berlin-Dahlem, in front of the fancy villa where the ambassador and “bloody Julia,” as Przyłębska is called by the protesters, reside, people demonstrated for days, upholding social distance guidelines and wearing masks. They distributed leaflets in the neighborhood explaining in German the decision of the Polish Constitutional Court and the role of its chairwoman. The action was organized by the feminist collective Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Girls for Girls). Anna Krenz from this collective said in a discussion at the Campus Forum the other day that she was afraid that one generation will not be enough to patch up the cracks that have appeared in Polish society as a result of antagonizing PiS policies.

Before 1993, everything was different – abortions were legal in communist Poland. Shortly after the transformation, however, the political elites agreed that the Polish Catholic Church (which was, of course, in the political opposition during communism) would be in charge of decisions concerning areas such as Poles’ family, sexuality and morality. The power structures have become so entrenched that none of the political parties that have ruled since the transformation has dared to openly rebel against the Catholic Church.

In 1993, a so-called compromise was reached. Since then, abortion has been legal in three cases: if the woman’s life is endangered; if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; or if the fetus is found to have severe deformities. This last case no longer exists since the last decision of the Constitutional Court.

Love me, I’m LGBT

In November 2020, despite various lockdown-related difficulties, I’m driving through Poland and I’m amazed. The country is plastered all over with huge posters depicting a heart-shaped womb, with an almost cute fetus squashed inside. In the first phase of this campaign, it was not quite clear what it was all about. Later, pro-life organizations professed to running it – it was supposed to be about the protection of human life, in the context of the abortion debate, of course. As a woman and a citizen of this country, I feel personally insulted – how can anybody claim to protect human life when a woman is being reduced to her uterus, that is then used as a stage to argue about who has the right to decide about that organ? The suffering of women, the humiliations do not play a role in this publicly led discussion. I wonder where the money comes from for all the advertising. On the radio, an ad for a Viagra-like drug against erection problems is being aired. I used to feel closer to the people here, I used to be able to understand their feelings and behavior much better.

After a few months, the heart-shaped uterus is accompanied on the posters by a message: it says kochaj mnie (love me). These new posters then become the surface for responses and protests. Photos of one of the many interventions by the civil society circulate on social networks: the uterus on the left, with “Love me, I’m LGBT” on the right. Also common is the slogan “I wish I could abort my government,” which more and more women (and men) are putting over their profile picture on social networks.

Symbols and language

Since the “declaration of war” by women, symbols and language have played an incredibly important role in the public discourse. The language of protesting women is vulgar and uncompromising. The main slogan became “Wypierdalać!”, meaning “fuck off!” Red flashes and light bulbs, along with black umbrellas and coat hangers, become visual symbols of the movement. The battle of symbols is also played out on the facades of Warsaw apartment buildings: on balconies and in windows you can see them, rainbow flags and red lightning bolts right next to the white and red state flags that became the symbol of the conservative government and its supporters. It seems that the need to participate in this power struggle is huge.

There were also protests – or rather walks – in many Polish cities on March 8, 2021, International Women’s Day. At this time, there were around 12,000 new Covid cases per day in Poland and several hundred deaths. Nevertheless, many people risked it and took to the streets to fight for freedom of choice. Polls show that the events of the last few months have led to a great change in societal mood and public opinion. There is no way to “compromise.” Polish women now demand full access to legal abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. This position is supported by 66% of Polish citizens.

As I walk to the subway in Warsaw early in May 2021, I am brutally exposed to a pro-life campaign right in front of the Centrum station, just like everyone else here at rush hour. In front of a yellow tent are two large loudspeakers from which a tireless voice booms, “Help end the killing of unborn children. Sign today.”

So the “war” continues. Then, on the subway, I read in Gazeta Wyborcza that German-Polish relations are currently more tense than they have been in a long time, which has to do, among other things, with Germany’s concerns about human rights in Poland in connection with the “LGBT-free zones.” Angela Merkel is unlikely to come to Warsaw for the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourship between the two countries. On June 17, Germany is to be represented by its President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

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This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Karolina Golimowska
Karolina Golimowska studied English and American Studies, Modern German Literature and Media Studies in Berlin and London. She holds a PhD in American Studies and wrote her dissertation on post-9/11 city novels (published by McFarland in 2016). She worked as a visiting professor at the University of Richmond, Virginia, and was a visiting scholar at NYU in New York City. She is a translator and conference interpreter as well as author of short prose and journalistic pieces, and teaches at the Free University in Berlin. In 2014 she was awarded the German-Polish Tadeusz Mazowiecki Journalism Award.

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