The Atlas of Hate, an interactive map delineating Poland’s “LGBT-free zones” (courtesy the Atlas of Hate)

Homophobia in Poland is on the rise with about a third of the country now declared an “LGBT-free zone.” More than 80 Polish municipal and local governments, covering an area larger than the size of Hungary, have announced themselves as “free from LGBT ideology,” coupled with local laws that encourage intolerance toward LGBTQ people. The Atlas of Hate, an interactive map of Poland created by local activists, delineates these anti-gay zones as part of the LGBTQ community’s efforts to fight the proliferation of bigotry.

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The Atlas of Hate map is the work of activists Pawel Preneta, Paulina Pajak, and Jakub Gawron. It outlines regions that have adopted the “anti-LGBT declaration” (colored in red); others that have rejected it (green); and regions where extremist lobbying activities are being conducted to adopt the declaration (yellow). The map was launched in November of 2019 and continues to be updated.

In addition, users from other countries can check a spreadsheet to see if their city or province has a partnership with a Polish “LGBT-free zone.”

Gawron, a 38-year-old database administrator living in the city of Rzeszów in southeastern Poland, told Hyperallergic in an email that the project aims to “alert public opinion to threats coming from Christian fundamentalists.”

“We wanted to summarize the local governments’ resolutions in a simple and accessible form,” Gawron wrote. “The resolutions are dispersed, and too difficult to track by journalists who usually have too little time for that.”

From an LGBTQI march in the city of Rzeszow in Poland held in 2019 (courtesy Jakub Gawron)

The zones started in reaction to a declaration in favor of LGBTQ rights signed in February 2019 by Warsaw’s then-newly elected mayor Rafał Trzaskowski. The discriminatory motions are shepherded by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński.

Kaczyński, who in the past maligned migrants as carriers of “parasites and protozoa,” condemned the Warsaw mayor’s pro-LGBTQ declaration as “an attack on the family and children” and asserted that non-heteronormative relations are an “imported” ideology. Kaczyński was joined by Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of Krakow, who called the “LGBT ideology” a “rainbow plague.”

Protests holding posters of the Virgin Mary in the colors of the pride flag during the Equality March in the city of Częstochowa in 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

In May of 2019, Polish police arrested human rights activist Elżbieta Podleśna for holding posters of the Virgin Mary with a halo around her head and shoulders in the colors of the LGBTQ flag during the Equality March in the city of Częstochowa. The activist was charged with “offending religious beliefs,” which is illegal in Poland.

In July of 2019, the conservative Gazeta Polska newspaper issued “LGBT-free zone” stickers to readers. Facing backlash from activists, Polish opposition and diplomats, the newspaper’s editor in chief Tomasz Sakiewicz defended the move, saying: “what is happening is the best evidence that LGBT is a totalitarian ideology.”

The Warsaw district court ordered the newspaper to stop the distribution of the stickers pending the resolution of a court case. Gazeta’s editor scuffed the ruling as “fake news” and censorship. The newspaper continued to distribute the stickers, but modified the slogan to read “LGBT Ideology-Free Zone.”

While unenforceable and largely symbolic, activists say the declared zones represent an attempt to stigmatize and exclude members of the LGBTQ community.

“The initiators of such resolutions do not want these people to be visible in public life, so they wrap the whole set of equality actions in the pejorative word ‘ideology,’” Gawron wrote.

“The purpose of these resolutions is pressure for local government workers to cease all anti-discrimination and pro-equality measures,” Gawron continued. “Such resolutions, combined with conformism, fear and lack of legal knowledge, can be an effective way of symbolically excluding non-heteronormative people from the public space, starting with educational institutions.”

On the 18th of December 2019, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the zones, describing them as part of “a broader context of attacks against the LGBTQ community in Poland, which include growing hate speech by public and elected officials and public media, as well as attacks and bans on Pride marches and actions such as Rainbow Friday.”

Gawron and his project partners used the Atlas of Hate to lobby for the resolution at the European Parliament. But the condemnation did not stop LGBTQ-free zones from expanding in Poland.

According to the map, most of the discriminatory zones are concentrated in Poland’s south-east. Big cities remain relatively safe for members of the community. “Warsaw and big cities in Poland are asylums for the LGBTI community,” Gawron wrote. “It’s where we have clubs, associations, friendly politicians, and marches.”

When asked how these resolutions affect his daily life, Gawron said, “Physical violence is rare but you are accompanied by a constant fear of it erupting, compounded by the suffocating atmosphere and verbal aggression. You know that the police will consider violence for homophobic reasons as unimportant.”

“There is always an anxiety in the back of your head,” Gawron continued. “You maintain superficial social contacts with most people because you assume in advance that they are homophobic. You weigh the words, learn to pass over the facts, sometimes you lie a little so as not to fall into a spiral of hate.”