WARSAW, Poland — Bart Staszewski felt angry and hopeless when local governments in Poland started passing resolutions last year declaring themselves to be free of “LGBT ideology.”
The activist and filmmaker objected to the way conservative officials were using the word “ideology” to describe what he considers a natural desire for people who love each other to be together. At least 100 municipalities or regions, mostly in conservative southeastern Poland, have passed declarations that vowed to keep out “LGBT ideology” or adopted “family charters” that backed heterosexual unions.
“I am just a normal Pole who just wants a good life with my partner and to be able to marry him one day,” the 30-year-old said. “Where is the ideology?”
In response, he settled on a protest around the communities that are now widely referred to as “LGBT-free zones,” a move that has enraged Poland’s conservative, nationalist government as his posts have gone viral.
With Poland under mounting international criticism for its treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Staszewski of carrying out a “hoax” that has led some to believe that Poland has a human rights problem.
Staszewski travels to the the areas involved, where he briefly attaches a yellow sign saying “LGBT-FREE ZONE” next to the town sign. He posts the photos on social media, sometimes including a lesbian or gay man from the town.
The signs, in four languages, have the look of military warnings. Staszewski calls it “performance art” aimed at “making it possible to visualize the literalness and meaning of the harmful documents.”
Almost 32 percent of Poland’s 38 million people live in such areas, according to “Atlas of Hate,” an LGBTQ group tracking the issue.
Morawiecki singled out the activist for rebuke after 50 ambassadors to Poland and foreign representatives published an open letter of solidarity with LGBTQ people in Poland.
“He completely falsified reality,” Morawiecki said. “To call it fake news would not do it justice. It was a deep fake.”
The term “LGBT-free” is sensitive because it carries an association of language used by Nazi Germany to describe areas free of Jews — Judenrein or Judenfrei — after they had been forced out or killed during the Holocaust.
The term, however, was already being used before Staszewski began posting. A pro-government newspaper, Gazeta Polska, printed stickers last summer saying “LGBT-Free Zone” with a rainbow flag crossed out. The European Parliament used it in a December resolution denouncing the Polish municipalities.
Representatives of Poland’s conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, which have sponsored the resolutions, argue they are trying to protect families and their Christian traditions, and say they are not discriminatory because they do not ban anyone from living in the areas.
“To the dear ambassadors, I can only say that tolerance belongs to Polish DNA,” Morawiecki said.
But Staszewski and other activists say the resolutions stigmatize a minority that is already suffering from bullying, depression and homophobic violence, including attacks on pride parades. He recites the names of Polish teenagers who have died by suicide after facing homophobia.
He fears Poland could follow Russia, where regional resolutions banning “gay propaganda” preceded a 2013 national law that Human Rights Watch calls “a tool for discrimination and harassment.”
Poland’s culture clash has been simmering for years but intensified as LGBTQ activists became more visible, holding more Equality Parades and demanding same-sex unions and marriage.
A tolerance declaration signed by Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in 2019 — itself mostly symbolic — was a key trigger for the backlash. Another was his gay deputy, Pawel Rabiej, saying that same-sex civil unions should be introduced to pave the way for marriage rights and adoption.
President Andrzej Duda made the protection of traditional families a key campaign theme during his successful re-election this summer against Trzaskowski, vowing a constitutional ban on same-sex adoptions. He called the LGBT rights movement a “neo-Bolshevism” group pushing an “aggressive sexualization” in schools.
Two towns are now suing Staszewski, while a right-wing magazine has denounced him as a “professional liar.” In Warsaw where he lives, he has faced angry insults by strangers in public and death treats online, but also many expressions of support.
Staszewski accused Morawiecki of hypocrisy for blaming him for Poland’s image problem.
“He is using his power to spread fake news,” Staszewski said. “The problem is not the activists. It’s the homophobic acts introduced by local governments.”
Two days after Morawiecki lashed out at Staszewski, he appointed a new minister of education and science, Przemyslaw Czarnek, who has said that LGBT people “are not equal to normal people.”
Czarnek was also sued by Staszewski for accusing the 2018 Equality Parade in Lublin, which Staszewski was co-organizing, of promoting depravity. Czarnek lost and was forced to apologize — then repeated his claim.
Protests were held in Warsaw and Wroclaw Sunday expressing outrage that a man with his views was tapped to oversee the nation’s schools and universities.
In recent weeks, international pressure on Poland has intensified. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared “LGBT-free zones” are “humanity-free zones” that have no place in the 27-member bloc.
The Polish towns have begun losing funding from the EU and Norway, a non-EU member which contributes millions of euros in development aid for access to the bloc’s common market. Two towns have reversed their resolutions.
While U.S. President Donald Trump sees an ideological friend in Poland’s government on issues like migration, his ambassador has issued a strong rebuke on this issue.
“Human rights are not an ideology,” Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher tweeted, posting the letter calling for tolerance that she signed with dozens of other ambassadors. She later said Poland’s government is on the “wrong side of history” on LGBT rights.
Mosbacher said Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden were united on this matter, and that U.S. companies and Congress would consider Poland’s treatment of sexual minorities when making investment and military decisions. That was a strong warning to the ally on NATO’s eastern flank that relies heavily on the U.S. for protection.
Mosbacher was summoned Thursday to the Foreign Ministry, where a deputy minister told her that Poland has never persecuted sexual minorities and it “has always been on the right side of history.”