Hate in the Headlines: Media Reactions to Homophobic Rhetoric in Poland

It has never been easy to be homosexual in Poland. In a country where 96% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, and ethnic and racial minorities consist of as little as 2% of society, Poles are not used to confronting differences. Indeed, Polish homogeneity is a foundation of the Polish conception of their national identity. Additionally, the Catholic Church has become an extremely strong force in Polish politics since the fall of the socialist regime in 1989. It is therefore no surprise that the majority of Poles refuse to accept same-sex marriage or adoption of children by homosexual couples. 

However, homophobic feelings go much deeper than opposition to these two main issues. According to the 2001 Report on the Situation of Bisexual and Homosexual Persons in Poland, 88% of those surveyed consider homosexuality to be a 'deviation from the norm'. Of that group, 47% think that homosexuality should be tolerated, while 41% find it 'unacceptable'. Only 5% consider homosexuality a 'normal' thing . More disturbing, however, are statistics on the physical and psychological harassment that homosexuals in Poland face. A 2005-2006 report shows that 51% of respondents had experienced psychological violence, defined as verbal harassment, insults, threats, blackmail, vandalism, etc. Worse, 17% of respondents had experienced physical harassment, including pushing, hitting, kicking, battering, armed assault, sexual violence, etc.  

Despite this widespread homophobia, however, the public discourse on LGBT  issues is relatively new. Only in 2005 did any type of debate in the mainstream media begin, coinciding, coincidentally (or perhaps not...), with the election of the conservative Law and Justice Party to the Sejm (Polish Parliament), and the Presidency. Representatives from Law and Justice, as well as from other parties of the ruling conservative coalition, have frequently made egregiously homophobic statements in public, in line with their idea of 'family values', a cornerstone of their agenda. These statements have been consistently reported in the mainstream media, and although there have been reactions against them, the overall discourse has been unsatisfactory. It is the aim of this essay to explore the environment surrounding these homophobic statements, the media reactions to them, and the possible implications for Polish homosexuals in the future. We will specifically focus on three media incidents that played out in the Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest liberal daily newspaper in Poland, one each from 2005, 2006, and 2007. We have chosen to limit our research to this paper during these years because 2005 marked the beginning of a national discourse about LGBT issues that was largely in reaction to coverage by the Gazeta Wyborcza. 

The Invisible Minority

Although the conservative positions of the Catholic Church have certainly not been favorable towards the homosexual community in Poland, it is not the only source of homophobic sentiment in the country. In fact, many of the negative feelings toward homosexuals that are common in Polish society can be traced back to the country's communist history. From 1945 to 1989, Poland lived under a Soviet - imposed Socialist totalitarian system. During this time, the nuclear family was of utmost importance to the average Pole, for the simple reason that it was safe and private. The family sphere was the only one that the government could not control. The importance of the family has continued into modern Polish culture, and anything that threatens the family unit can be viewed as dangerous to Polish identity. Konstanty Gebert, a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza, explained that in every totalitarian system, the role of the man is to be the masculine protector of society. Moreover, “in a totalitarian state, the individual does not decide his own identity; it is the role of the state to design it.”  This, combined with the aforementioned Polish family ideal, meant that the practice of homosexuality was completely unacceptable. Although the situation of homosexuals in Poland was better than that of their counterparts in other Soviet countries, who were routinely jailed or worse, homosexuality was never accepted as a normal or healthy lifestyle by Polish society. In fact, in the People's Republic of Poland, homosexuals were secretly monitored by police, suggesting that sexual orientation was considered a possible reason to target and oppress certain individuals. 

Michał Horbulewicz, a political scientist and LGBT rights activist, sees another element of the Socialist period which has adversely affected homosexuals in Poland. “Poland did not have the sexual revolution that took place in the West in the 1960s. In Poland, it was treated as an exotic fad of Westerners”.  While homosexuals in the West were beginning to gain acceptance and acknowledgment, gays on the other side of the Iron Curtain were forced to stay completely closeted and alone. Under the Socialist regime, personal matters were simply not discussed. Many homosexuals in Poland thought that they were the only ones of their kind in the world. In 1989, when the communist regime fell, they were shocked to discover that the LGBT rights movement had been going strong for over a decade in the West.  

Kinga Dunin, a noted feminist and columnist for the Gazeta Wyborcza, however, feels that the roots of homophobia in Poland are not all that different from those in other countries. “We can't pretend that the problem has been solved anywhere else”, she says.  Ms. Dunin believes that 'heteronormality' and the institution of marriage have always had to deal with deviations, and in order to preserve those ideals, homosexuality is stigmatized. However, what is specific to Poland, in her view, is the way in which homophobia has been used as a political tool by right-wing politicians. She feels that populist parties in Poland are looking for a common enemy against whom the rest of society might unite by focusing frustration on one specific minority. In light of Poland's Holocaust history and the public dialog that has occurred on the issue over the past two decades, it is no longer acceptable to make anti-Semitic comments in public. Unfortunately, no such taboo exists when it comes to homophobia . 

Out of the Closet and Into the Streets

Before and after the collapse of the communist state in 1989, homosexuality was considered a private matter, an oddity from the west, and rarely were there public manifestations of the lifestyle. The communist period interrupted the emancipation process for homosexuals in Poland , putting the LGBT rights movement decades behind similar movements in other countries. 

Since the late 1990s, however, homosexuals have begun to demonstrate through parades and marches. Unfortunately, with their increased visibility has come increasingly open discrimination. Parades and demonstrations were not authorized by the authorities, and those that participated faced physical and verbal harassment, both from counter demonstrators and police. Legally, Polish anti-discrimination acts were phrased so vaguely and narrowly that sexual orientation was not mentioned as a possible reason for discrimination. The Polish Constitution, passed in 1997, clearly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. 

Despite this open discrimination, the LGBT movement in Poland has consistently grown and strengthened. The advent of the internet has been vital for the movement, as it provides a safe and anonymous environment for the homosexual community to gather and discuss action plans. In 2004, a public service campaign ran by Campaign against Homophobia titled “Let them see us”, which depicted same sex couples on billboards in three major cities, started a huge public debate on the place of homosexuals in Polish society. Conservative groups claimed that the exhibition, and the homosexual minority generally, threatened the basic values of Polish and European culture. This campaign, and the massive media attention that it incited, showed Polish society that the homosexual minority existed, and had to be taken as a serious political force. 

Over the past few years, marches and parades have become increasingly visible- both in the numbers of participants and in the media coverage of the events. Simultaneously, counter demonstrations and violent attacks have also increased, and have been legitimized by leading right-wing government officials and Church representatives. These leaders argue that the parades provoke a violent reaction from the onlookers, and that the demonstrators must deal with the consequences of their actions. The victims are blamed for the increase of violence surrounding the demonstrations. 

It of course should be noted that not all segments of Polish society condone such homophobic rhetoric and violence against gays. When local authorities banned demonstrations by arguing that they could not ensure the safety of the demonstrators, a huge wave of solidarity from the society occurred, and it is believed that the biggest rallies since the fall of communism in 1989 occurred in reaction against the obvious violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Additionally, in 2006 the Constitutional Court of Poland ruled that security concerns are not a legitimate reason to ban a peaceful demonstration, and consequently, the 2007 Equality Parade occurred without any major legal obstacles.

But despite these advances, the ruling conservative coalition, led by the Law and Justice Party, have only created obstacles for the homo- and transsexual communities since their election in 2005. According to Konstanty Gebert, these populist parties have purposefully used homophobic rhetoric in order to gain votes. “Very often, the fight against the homosexual minority is a cover for the lack of activity in the really important fields, and moreover, it does not require money. Competing through radicalization is a tool to keep voters in the League of Polish Families, because its electorate demands such strong slogans.” 

Although the accession to the EU theoretically ensures Poland's compliance with and enforcement of human rights statutes, the radicalization of the homophobic attitudes of major political figures has made life increasingly difficult for the LGBT community. This conflict can be seen in the media debates that occurred in response to the open homophobia displayed by the ruling party and their allies. The following examples from 2005, 2006, and 2007 show the evolving nature of the issue, and point to some possible implications for the future. 

2005: Condemnation from the Church

On June 3, 2005, Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest mainstream, liberal daily paper, published an article “Ten arguments against” by Father Dariusz Oko, a philosopher from the Pontifical Academy of Theology. Oko's article included such inflammatory statements as, “it is common knowledge that homosexuals more often than the rest of society commit acts of pedophilia, it is common knowledge that homosexuals more often contract sexually transmitted diseases, it is common knowledge that more crimes are committed in the homosexual community, that their relationships are emotionally inferior...”  The following day, journalists from the paper published a condemnation of the article:

We believe that in its method of argumentation, the article by Father Oko resembles the meanest propaganda and should never have been published in ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’. The fact that such a text has been published in our newspaper without a word of comment causes our concern. „Gazeta Wyborcza” might as well have published the following statements: ‘it is common knowledge that Jewish people are responsible for all misfortunes of the Polish nation’. Or: ‘it is common knowledge that all priests have lovers, both male and female 

The editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, also responded to the article. In a strongly worded op-ed piece, Mr. Michnik stated that he had never taken a stand on the homosexual rights issue because he had felt that it was a personal matter that should be left out of the public sphere. However, in response to the offensive discrimination demonstrated in the article by Father Oko and the violent gay-bashing youth that attend the Equality Parades, he decided to come out in favor of gay rights, because in protecting them, he would be taking a stand against the anti-democratic forces at work in Poland. 

The comments of the editor-in-chief opened up the floodgates for a debate that would play out in the Gazeta Wyborcza over the next years. Although the flagrantly homophobic statements of Father Oko elicited a strong response from the paper, the debate would soon conform to the style of a one-pro LGBT rights article juxtaposed with one anti-LGBT rights article. Konstanty Gebert explains that “this is a format widely used in Polish media regarding questions regarded as controversial. It allows for a simple and clear framing of the debate, and avoids the necessity of the journalist and/or paper taking a stand itself.”  

2006/ 2007: 'Homosexual Propaganda' in Schools

On October 9, 2006, the Gazeta Wyborcza published an article about Roman Giertych, the Minister of Education, who had dismissed the director of the Center for Teacher's Advancement because he allowed the textbook “Kompas” to be published. The book had been prepared by the Council of Europe, and contained one section that suggested inviting representatives from LGBT rights NGOs into schools for discussion. Mr. Giertych was enraged that the director had allowed a book that “promoted homosexuality” to be published. 

The Gazeta Wyborcza also printed the response of the International Organization for Education, which demanded that Giertych stop airing homophobic statements and promote education based on the respect for human dignity and human rights.  

On March 15, 2007, a Vice minister of Education, Mirosław Orzechowski announced that there was a need to ban the promotion of homosexuality in schools. He declared that promotion of homosexuality in schools would be prosecuted, and schools would be forced to pay fines if they did not react. Giertych, the Minister of Education backed up the claim, threatening disciplinary measures against teachers who promote homosexuality. Two days after this news broke, the Gazeta Wyborcza published an interview with a teacher who had been deemed a 'deviant' by the Ministry of Education because of his sexual orientation. The teacher denied that he had promoted homosexuality in the classroom, considering that his job was to teach English, not to debate sexuality with his students.  On the 19th of March, Gazeta Wyborcza published an open letter to the Prime Minister from Human Rights Watch, which condemned the Vice minister's statements, claiming that his actions create an atmosphere of intolerance that threatens the civic and political rights of Polish teachers, LGBT school employees, and most importantly students . In response to this heavy criticism, vice minister of Education, Mirosław Orzechowski, announced that his office was preparing an act banning 'the promotion of homosexuality and other sexual deviations', but that the assumption that this meant that gays could not teach was a misunderstanding.  

2007: Tinky Winky-Gate

2007 has been a big year for the debate on LGBT rights issues in Poland, largely because the Law and Justice party has made such a concerted effort to enforce its homophobic agenda in recent months. On February 22, the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, during a diplomatic visit to Ireland, stated that if many more people convert to homosexuality, the human race will become extinct. The international media reaction to this outrageous statement was immediate, especially considering that it came at a time when the European Parliament was discussing a proposal to equalize the legal status of hetero- and homosexual relationships. The President defended himself by stating that he had many gay friends, and was not against their right to lead normal lives. While he did not advocate the condemnation or detention of homosexuals, he did say that the 'dissemination of the homosexual orientation' should be prevented.  

A few months later, on May 28, the homophobic rhetoric of the ruling coalition reached new heights. The Commissioner for Children's Rights Ewa Sowińska announced that the children's cartoon “Teletubbies” would be closely examined by the government to determine if the character Tinky Winky promotes homosexuality. The same day, Gazeta Wyborcza published a statement by psychologist who claimed that, as the Teletubbies are extraterrestrials, they do not have sexes, and therefore the study proposed by Ms. Sowińska would be moot.  Quickly dubbed 'Tinky-Winky-Gate', the Commissioner's plan was publicly mocked and ridiculed. In a survey published shortly after the affair began, 84% or respondents felt that the Tinky Winky affair had harmed Poland's image.  By the 23rd of June, Ms. Sowińska had found that Tinky Winky was indeed promoting homosexuality, as indicated by the upside down triangle on his head, his purple color, and the fact that he carries a red handbag. However, public ridicule for the whole affair had become so widespread that government officials felt the need to distance themselves from the Commissioner. Ms. Sowinska was roundly criticized by foreign politicians, as well as members of the Law and Justice party and the conservative League of Polish Families.  This reaction from the government shows their sensitivity to public opinion, as well as the potential influence that the media can have on political affairs.

Unsatisfactory Reactions

While these examples of media reactions to homophobic statements are on the one hand promising, as they represent the existence of an opposition voice in the mainstream, we did find some disturbing patterns in the coverage of LGBT rights issues. First of all, the accepted format of presenting an equal amount of pro- and anti-LGBT articles, explained by Gebert above, legitimizes homophobic statements. Kinga Dunin explains, “Pro-homosexual statements are juxtaposed with homophobic ones. In this way the boundaries of discourse are created, in which homophobic statements are acceptable and legitimized. Even if one finds sympathy for the emancipation of the minority in the liberal media, it is obligatory to include the opposing opinion.”  

Furthermore, the 'pro-LGBT' texts tend to focus on arguments about the similarity of homosexuality to 'normal' society. “Homosexuals are divided into “good”- the same as us- and “bad”- wearing strange clothes or behaving in a “weird” way."  Texts about homosexual culture and issues that are separate from the interactions between the LGBT community and the rest of society are effectively non-existent. Ms. Dunin believes that this is the case because there is no real interest in the issues of the community. Rather, the increase in ‘pro LGBT’ articles and statements has occurred in reaction against the conservative ruling coalition. Supporting the rights of homosexuals in Poland is more of a political statement than a real acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. 

Konstanty Gebert further believes that the taboo surrounding homosexual issues prevents many journalists from writing on the topic. Gebert explains that journalists always write for their audience, and so their boundaries are largely set by public opinion. If journalists treat homosexuality as a taboo, it is because they want to gain the sympathy of their audience. Moreover, journalists perceived as being too 'gay-friendly' would face public backlash. “Most readers are either indifferent to the issue, or homophobic. A journalist perceived as friendly towards LGBT risks being perceived as a closet gay himself, or having given in to gay pressure, or –at best – being outlandishly out of touch with social reality.” 

Finally, Kinga Dunin believes that at least some of the media reaction against the homophobic rhetoric is an attempt to salvage Poland's international reputation. In the last year especially, Poland has received a large amount of criticism from international human rights groups and Western politicians, who are shocked by the bluntness of the homophobia espoused by the current government. Konstanty Gebert agrees, “even LGBT-hostile people will concede that this has hurt Poland internationally a lot, though they would probably say it was worth it, for the cause is just.” However, Mr. Gebert feels that the media is unable to repair Poland's reputation, as the damage done by the current government has been too extensive.

Michał Horbulewicz, on the other hand, has a much more optimistic analysis of the media coverage on LGBT rights issues. He believes that the coverage has been evolving, especially over the last three years. “One no longer hears homosexuality referred to as a disease in the media, rather, you hear about the issue of 'promotion of homosexuality'” Mr. Horbulewicz has noticed that the media has become more sensitive to the rhetoric that they use regarding LGBT issues, and homosexuals are no longer presented as 'freaks', but as normal people with the same problems as the heterosexual majority. The result of this media evolution is that homosexuality is no longer an exotic topic, and the more mainstream the issue becomes, the easier it will be for Polish society to face the problem head-on. 

Hope for the Future?

In a recent meeting with the HIA Polish group, Krystian Legierski, a lawyer, social activist, and owner of gay clubs in Poland, made the somewhat paradoxical statement that the current government in Poland has actually done a lot for the LGBT movement. Legierski believes that the rhetoric of hate and discrimination has been so outlandish and ridiculous that it sheds light on the absurdity of homophobia overall.  Indeed, Konstanty Gebert has noticed a distinct generation gap when it comes to perceptions of homosexuality in Poland. “The generation change is visible- the youth do not view homosexuality as a topic worthy of discussion in the public discourse. In truth, the debate about homosexuality is an increasing embarrassment for younger generations”.  In Gebert's view, younger generations simply consider homosexuality as a normal thing, and don't understand what the conflict is all about. Michał Horbulewicz also feels that the situation of homosexuals in Poland is steadily improving, and points to the evolution of media coverage as an example. In one sense, Horbulewicz is right to be optimistic. Small steps are better than no progress at all, and media reactions condemning homophobic rhetoric seem to be increasing in frequency and gravity. Whether this is a result of growing understanding and acceptance of LGBT issues in Poland, or simply a reaction against the current government, is unclear at this point. In any case, the homosexual minority in the country has a long way to go before it catches up with the rest of society. However, the Polish media must play an important role in supporting the LGBT movement. Legitimization of homophobic statements is unacceptable, and the more articles and opinion pieces that condemn such statements, the better the situation for homosexuals in Poland will become. Horbulewicz agrees. “This new media coverage is bringing the homosexual minority back into the public discourse, and it is slowly gaining an equal voice.”

References

Articles

Rupnik, Jaques: ‘Eastern Europe’s Turn Right’, in: The New Republic (February 19, 2007)

Interviews

Bosak, Krzysztof, Politician, MP for League of Polish Families (June 23, 2007)

Ostolski, Adam, Journalist for “Krytyka Polityczna” (June 22, 2007)

Purski, Jacek, “Never Again” association (June 26, 2007)

Wróbel, Jan, Journalist for “Daily News” (June 27, 2007)

Wroński, Paweł, Journalist for “Gazeta Wyborcza” (June 26, 2007)

Websites

http://www.spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=1848 (Last visit: June 29, 2007; 14.00): Spritzer, Dinah: Maciej Giertych’s ‘Civilization at War in Europe’ (February 15, 2007)

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