Recent developments show that Poland’s anti-gender campaigns, initiated around 2012 by the Polish Catholic Church and ultraconservative organisations, will continue into the next parliamentary term. While the right-wing populist Law and Justice party has made attacks on ‘gender ideology’ a key element of the critique of individualism and neoliberal globalisation, anti-gender rhetoric is also today being adopted by neo-fascists, who combine a desire to maintain a gender hierarchy and hatred towards ‘sexual degenerates’ with anti-European Union sentiments and Islamophobia.
‘We are going to fight for the separation of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] and the state. We are going to pass an anti-LGBT law … to make sure that public spaces are free from provocative symbols and behaviours’, announced Witold Tumanowicz, the MP candidate of the new far-right party Konfederacja, during a press conference on September 29, 2019. Tumanowicz lost the race but his party secured almost 7 per cent of votes in the Polish parliamentary elections in October 2019. According to politicians representing Konfederacja, the ruling Law and Justice party has been inefficient and irresolute in fighting ‘gender’ and ‘LGBT ideology’; thus, the Polish nation needs politicians who will finally put an end to this ‘madness’. This declaration shows that Poland’s anti-gender campaigns, initiated around 2012 by the Polish Catholic Church and ultraconservative organisations, will continue into the next parliamentary term. While the right-wing populist Law and Justice party has made attacks on ‘gender ideology’ a key element of the critique of individualism and neoliberal globalisation, anti-gender rhetoric is also today being adopted by neo-fascists, who combine a desire to maintain a gender hierarchy and hatred towards ‘sexual degenerates’ with anti-European Union (EU) sentiments and Islamophobia.
Initially, Polish anti-gender campaigns focused primarily on opposing sex education and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention; between 2016 and 2018, they also included attempts to introduce new restrictions on access to abortion. Since the spring of 2019, the main enemy of ultraconservative forces has been LGBT people, and the term ‘LGBT ideology’ has, to some extent, replaced the phrase ‘gender ideology’, which has been used to suggest that the proponents of gender equality and sexual equality are wolves in sheep’s clothing: dangerous ideologues aiming to dismantle the ‘traditional’ family, the nation and, ultimately, ‘Christian civilisation’. The main charges against the LGBT community include accusations of paedophilia, ‘Christianophobia’ and the desire to destroy the Catholic Church, which is portrayed as the healthy core of the Polish nation. Similarly to the American anti-gay rights campaigners of the 1970s, who employed the conservative master frame of ‘saving our children’ and ‘protecting the traditional family’, Polish anti-gender activists spread false information suggesting that gay men are disproportionally more prone to paedophilia and that sex education in schools is, in fact, just a smokescreen for the ‘sexualisation’ of children, which will make them easy prey for sexual predators. Simultaneously, it has been suggested that ‘LGBT ideology’ targets religion and endangers the Polish nation.
Historical analogies to the Swedish, German and Russian invasions of the past are evoked to suggest that LGBT activists are inspired and paid for by foreign elites – that they are acting in the interests of the enemies of Poland. A short documentary entitled ‘Invasion’ produced by the public TV channel TVP.Info and shown on the eve of the 2019 parliamentary elections illustrates how this discursive strategy works in practice. In the film, ‘LGBT ideology’ is portrayed as the work of a dangerous and powerful network, continuously attacking and provoking Catholics and Polish patriots. The aim was to prove to the world that the ‘ordinary folk’ are the victims of the leftists’ provocations, not the perpetrators of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. This victim–perpetrator reversal, a classic tool of right-wing populists, allows the justification of violence as self-defence. Hence, the attacks on the participants of the Equality March in Białystok in July 2019, when tear gas was deployed against aggressive far-right groups and several people were injured, are portrayed in the film as a desperate reaction of ordinary citizens assaulted by the all-powerful homo-lobby.
While the primary target is now the gay community, anti-gender campaigners are continuing their efforts to influence public education and curtail women’s reproductive rights. In the autumn of 2019, ultraconservative organisations submitted to the Polish Parliament a proposed law that included an effective ban on comprehensive sex education and anti-discriminatory education in schools (at the time of writing, the proposal had been sent for consideration to the parliamentary commission). In October of the same year, a new anti-choice campaign was inaugurated in relation to the release of the American anti-abortion propaganda film ‘Unplanned’. Polish President Andrzej Duda publicly endorsed the film, awarding it the ‘life-changing film’ prize, and teachers were encouraged by Church officials and anti-choice organisations to take pupils to cinemas and discuss the horrors of abortion in class. Ultraconservative organisations have also continued to harass academics, artists and progressive organisations; for instance, the Ordo Iuris Institute made an official complaint to the prosecutor’s office regarding artworks that allegedly ‘offend religious feelings’, supported a right-wing publisher planning to distribute stickers with the slogan ‘LGBT-free zone’ and sent requests to a number of progressive non-governmental organisations (NGOs) demanding access to all documentation regarding publicly funded projects. As of November 2019, four out of 16 voivodships in the country had already passed resolutions against LGBT ideology, declaring for example that ‘homo-propaganda’ should be banned from local schools.
The anti-gender campaigns in Poland provide ample evidence of how an ultraconservative agenda can facilitate the electoral victory of right-wing parties and how it can be used for the continuous mobilisation of specific groups, especially young men and older, deeply religious voters. These two socio-demographic groups have been the main supporters of the far-right, neo-fascist and populist parties in Poland, including both Law and Justice and Konfederacja; according to recent studies, they have also been the most susceptible recipients of the anti-gender ideology discourse. A 2019 opinion poll published by OKO.Press showed that when asked about the biggest threats to Poland in the 21st century, the majority of young men and older people declared that their biggest fear is the threat of the ‘gender ideology and LGBT movement’. Women, especially those of a younger age, are far more likely to fear climate change, Polexit or the rise of nationalist movements in the country, which confirms earlier studies demonstrating that gender matters, both in terms of political choices and the likelihood of supporting a far-right agenda. This does not mean that all women support a progressive agenda or that women are somehow immune to homophobic propaganda. In fact, some of the best-known public intellectuals supporting the anti-gender ideology movement and its local leaders are women. Rather, these data show that right-wing populist and far-right parties adopt anti-gender ideology rhetoric strategically and opportunistically in order to exploit the anxieties and hopes of groups that are experiencing relative deprivation and precarity, as well as those who fear sociocultural change and/or losing their power and status.
The ascent to power of right-wing parties in Poland opened up political opportunities for ultraconservative organisations, which resulted in the intensification of the cultural war rhetoric and the emergence of new anti-gender initiatives and activists. As in the case of Italy under Salvini and Hungary under Orbán, the growing ideological and organisational affinity between ultraconservative organisations and right-wing parties is leading to the institutionalisation of the anti-gender ideology movement within state structures. The Ordo Iuris Institute, one of the key actors in the anti-gender ideology campaigns, already has two representatives in the Polish Supreme Court, and many people who work at, or cooperate with, this foundation have either been employed or appointed as experts in ministries and parliamentary commissions. In an effort to foster elite change in the country, the ruling party also supports many ultraconservative, far-right and neo-fascist organisations – including the association that was behind the violent attacks at the Equality March in Białystok – with substantial grants from the National Freedom Institute, a newly established state institution supporting civil society. So far, the anti-gender ideology campaigners in Poland have not been particularly successful: the Istanbul Convention was ratified and efforts to implement a blanket ban on abortion were halted due to the mass mobilisation of women. However, the new political configuration, with both far-right and left-wing parties in the new Parliament and the anti-gender ideology movement’s representatives working within state structures, is likely to result in the opening of new fronts in the ‘war on gender ideology’.