The main square in the city center of Bialystok, Poland, at dawn. / Image via Wikimedia (@Slowacki)

As Instinct reported yesterday, a wave of violence struck Bialystok, Poland’s first Pride celebrations over last weekend. Thousands converged on the city, northeast Poland’s largest, including both rainbow-clad Pride revelers and anti-gay protesters, many of whom were tied to various far-right political organizations and to the fringes of the ruling Law and Justice Party.

These aggressively anti-gay crowds, shouting obscenities and physically threatening marchers, had far greater numbers among their ranks; the scene quickly deteriorated, with the mob turning physically violent, leading to police intervention and several dozen arrests

It’s important to understand how these developments reflect broader regional and global trends as well, where anti-democratic and anti-LGBTQ forces have aligned in frightening ways. The shockwaves extend far beyond Bialystok. 

Poland as a Symptom of Regional and Global Concerns, Challenges

The violence in Bialystok is not alone among recent major instances of anti-gay violence in Poland. During a 2018 equality march in Lublin, NBC News reported, “activists were hounded by groups of men, who were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas.” Bialystok, if anything, is merely an escalation of long-simmering far-right agitation.

NBC News drew this line directly, connecting to other incidents earlier this year. For example, “at a political rally before European Parliament elections … [Law and Justice] leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski urged Poles to vote for what he called ‘the only party that gives a 100% guarantee that our values will be protected.’”

Following Bialystok, reported PBS, Polish LGBT activists underscored how political leaders’ statements have subtly encouraged the far-right to continue anti-gay demonstrations and assaults. “What is going on around the LGBT community appalls me,” said Daniel Rycharski. “The fact that the governing party uses us as electoral fuel, because of the fact that the government works closely with the [Catholic Church] … You could say it incites hatred against LGBT people.”

Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza Instagram account, reporting on and condemning anti-gay violence in Poland.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, anti-LGBTQ violence increasingly has gained attention and grabbed global headlines. In St. Petersburg, Russia, last weekend, LGBT activist Yelena Grigoryeva was brutally murdered, her body left near her home in Russia’s second-largest city. As Instinct explained yesterday, Grigoryeva’s murder “possibly [occurred] because she was featured on a now-blocked website that encouraged people to hunt down non-heterosexual people by offering the killer prizes.”

Growing Authoritarian Threats

The mounting violence against LGBTQ people in places like St. Petersburg and Bialystok are hard to separate from trends toward authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.

Over the last decade, a wave of ominous news reports and academic analyses have sounded alarm bells over deteriorating democratic institutions worldwide. In Poland and Hungary, for example, the rising tide of “populism” has been tied to leaders’ undermining of those states’ constitutions. University of Sheffield Professor Bojan Bugarič wrote earlier this year that the “chameleon-like” populism of Central and Eastern European regimes produces an ideologically incoherent yet flexible reactionary politics, shifting fears and hatreds among constantly moving targets. As some of the Bialystok marchers pointed out, hostility toward refugees and asylum-seekers has waned while anti-gay hatred has flourished, effectively replacing one “Other” with the LGBTQ community.

Hungary and Poland are exemplary cases of democratic backsliding. As Bugarič explained in his research, leaders in both countries are

These developments have alarmed European Union leaders, who see Hungary, Poland and other countries drifting toward the open arms of overtly undemocratic states like Russia and Turkey, so-called “illiberal democracies.” As France24 reported last September, 

This was the “second-largest decline” ever recorded by Freedom House’s research, following the global anti-democratic wave in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The report also “found that, for the first time since 1995, there are now more of what it calls ‘Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes’ than ‘Consolidated Democracies’ in the region,” showing the prolonged, sustained nature of democratic backsliding.

American Foreign Policy (Mostly) Missing from the Scene

Sadly, American leaders largely have remained on the sidelines, if not complicit in the anti-democratic, anti-gay movements sweeping parts of Europe.

The recently announced “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” an initiative launched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be chaired by Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, hardly an LGBTQ ally, prompted concerned statements from many civil rights groups. While U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher tweeted that she was “disappointed” and “concerned” about recent events in Poland, the conflicting messages and silence from more-senior officials—not to mention President Trump’s warm embrace of Polish, Hungarian and other aspiring autocrats around the world—sends a message to anti-gay interests abroad: You have license to act upon your hatred and to inspire others to do the same.

Glimmers of Hope Elsewhere?

Despite deteriorating conditions in Europe, other places around the world have shown some reasons for hope for progress on LGBTQ+ rights. Last month, Botswana’s high court finally overturned a colonial-era law criminalizing same-sex relationships, a major victory hailed as “a monumental decision” by the Human Rights Campaign. Also in June 2019, Ecuador’s courts ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, joining 26 other countries around the world, including the South American states of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay. 

While the United States has made undeniable progress in the last decade on LGBTQ+ rights and joined the first cohort of states to legalize same-sex marriage globally just four years ago, the current administration has reversed course. Worryingly, too, the sliding support for LGBTQ+ people and for healthy democratic institutions appear to move in lockstep. 


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