1st Oct 2023


Poland's ruling party's attempts to censor LGBTQ+ artists

  • One Polish artist was charged under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code for "offending religious feelings" with her LGBTQ-centric art works that challenged the belief system of the Catholic church (Photo: Federico Moroni)
Listen to article

As far-right parties continue to gain political traction in Europe, the European Commission's move to withhold EU funds from member states Hungary and Poland is a reminder of how democratic freedoms are under threat in the ever-changing landscape of EU politics.

In particular, ongoing political tensions between the EU and Poland over LGBTQ+ rights demonstrate the limitations of the commission's ability to protect democratic standards and promote EU values on the ground.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

For instance, while the commission's 2021 threat to withhold Covid-19 recovery funds from Poland pending the roll back of anti-LGBTQ+ measures forced Poland's compliance with minimum EU standards on democratic hiring practices, the severity of Poland's actions and its very public resistance to such pressures have had a debilitating impact on Polish civil society.

Despite the EU's effort to hold the PiS to account for failing to protect LGBTQ+ rights, homophobic hate crimes and other acts of violence are on the rise in Poland.

The spike in violence against the LGBTQ+ community directly reflects the proliferation of hateful, ultra-nationalist rhetoric, often perpetrated by PiS party leaders.

One of the PiS president Andrzej Duda's main campaign platforms in 2015 was to "protect Poland's children from harmful LGBTQ+ ideology" which he deemed to be "more destructive than communism."

In 2020, Przemysław Czarnek, a PiS MP closely linked to Duda, said of the LGBTQ+ community in a televised event, "let's stop listening to these idiocies about human rights. These people are not equal with normal people."

Such rhetoric has spurred a spate of hateful actions in recent years — in 2019 alone, close to 100 Polish regions passed anti-gay resolutions to encourage discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, more than 4,000 far-right protestors violently assaulted participants in the city of Bialystok's pride parade with glass bottles, rocks, and flash bombs, and the number of reported hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals nearly doubled according to a report sent to the Council of Europe.

The deteriorating situation for the LGBTQ+ rights has severely negatively affected the mental health of the community. According to a 2021 report by the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia, nearly one in two LGBTQ+ individuals reported major depressive symptoms while more than half reported suicidal ideation — both figures represented major increases from those recorded in the previous survey taken in 2017.

Censorship, and crowding out

In addition to hateful rhetoric, the PiS has also fostered the rapid growth of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment through a relentless campaign to censor LGBTQ+ artists.

The PiS has stacked the leadership of Poland's major arts and cultural institutions with party loyalists committed to furthering a nationalist Catholic ideology and crowding out LGBTQ+ voices.

This has led to the prosecution of artists who rebuke the party's ideology, as seen in the 2019 arrest of activist Elżbieta Podleśna, who was charged under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code for "offending religious feelings" with her LGBTQ-centric art works that challenged the belief system of the Catholic church.

Despite her ultimate acquittal, the case against her was sensationalised by Poland's rightwing media.

Unfortunately, Podleśna's case represents one of many efforts made by the PiS to abuse the Polish justice system to intimidate artists and activists and censor expression that contradicts the Catholic church.

A group of activists — Jakub Gawron, Kamil Mczuga, Paulina Pajak and Pawel Preneta — have faced defamation lawsuits after creating a digital representation of Poland's "Atlas of Hate", referring to the charter resolutions passed in 94 regions that declared themselves to be free from "LGBT ideology."

The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights found the resolutions had a "chilling effect […] on residents and institutions, who are increasingly reluctant to be associated with any activity related to the human rights of LGBTI people for fear of reprisals or loss of funds."

The popularity of these resolutions, backed by the fervent support of the PiS politicians, send a clear message to LGBTQ+ Poles that the government is unwilling to protect their basic rights.

As a human rights researcher who has worked directly with LGBTQ+ Polish artists and cultural workers, I have heard first-hand how PiS's actions have caused many LGBTQ+ Poles to live in fear.

A recently-published report from the Artistic Freedom Initiative details the risks inherent to living in Poland as an LGBTQ+ artist and culture worker today, including potential job loss if their sexual orientation were made public, social stigmatisation and isolation, rampant online harassment, threats of harm, and the growing fear of suffering physical violence.

As the situation in Poland for LGBTQ+ rights continues to deteriorate under the PiS, many contemplate emigrating elsewhere in Europe to live and work in a safe environment where they can create freely. The mass emigration of LGBTQ+ Polish artists would represent both a devastating loss for Polish culture and a major step backwards for democracy — not only in Poland, but across the EU.

The PiS's continued abuse of over-broad blasphemy and defamation suits as an excuse to denigrate LGBTQ+ art and artists in the public eye is unacceptable.

Though the EU's financial interventions are a necessary and appropriate step, Poland's flagrant disregard for upholding shared EU values of equality and respect for the human rights of LGBTQ+ Poles underscores the limited effectiveness of such interventions. More importantly, the PiS's unwillingness to protect and respect their own citizens in the absence of financial penalties has a lasting, negative impact on the development of Poland's LGBTQ+ community.

Fearing legal repercussions, LGBTQ+ Poles are currently unable to fully enjoy their right to free expression. As such, it is critical for the EU to consider effective mechanisms to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights as the politics of its member states radically change under far-right leaders.

Author bio

Johanna Bankston MSc is the human rights research officer for Artistic Freedom Initiative.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

How can Serbia ban EuroPride yet still hope to join EU?

Bowing to pressure from radical-nationalist groups and the deeply-conservative Orthodox Church, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić announced last week EuroPride 2022 would be cancelled –– even though he legally lacks the authority to do so.


Shock gives way to division after Slovak gay bar shooting

Despite the immediate shock and outburst of solidarity after the recent terrorist attack by a 19-year-old sympathiser of far-right conspiracies, Slovak society appears to be absorbed in even deeper ideological divisions on issues related to gender and sexual orientation

How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.


Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?

International media must make clear that these are not fair, democratic elections. The flawed race should be the story at least as much as the race itself.

Latest News

  1. EU women promised new dawn under anti-violence pact
  2. Three steps EU can take to halt Azerbaijan's mafia-style bullying
  3. Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war
  4. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions
  5. EU states to agree on asylum crisis bill, say EU officials
  6. Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'
  7. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  8. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  2. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
  2. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  3. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  4. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us