This past Sunday, hundreds of far-right nationalists gathered at the gates of the University of Warsaw in Poland. They rallied against “LGBT aggression” and chanted taunts about a well-known activist known as Margot. Another group countered them, rainbow flags in hand, while a massive police presence kept them apart.
Margot — Małgorzata Szutowicz — a 25-year-old nonbinary person who uses female pronouns, runs a radical, queer collective in Warsaw called Stop Bzdurom, or Stop the Nonsense, with her partner, Łania Madej, 21.
The collective, and particularly Margot, have become the face of the LGBT rights movement in Poland in recent days. Margot is currently being held in two-month, pretrial detention for assault and property damage charges after a dispute with a van driver from an organization spreading anti-LGBT messages.
Supporters inside the country and beyond continue to call for her release, and a range of celebrities — from the writer Margaret Atwood to the actor Stellan Skarsgaard — are calling for greater LGBT rights in Poland.
Poland is considered the worst country in the European Union in terms of gay rights. The cultural divisiveness of the issue came through in the narrow reelection of Andrzej Duda for president in July. Duda, backed by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, campaigned on an anti-LGBT platform, calling it an "ideology worse than communism."
According to an IPSOS poll in late 2019, 1 in 4 Poles said the LGBT movement is the country’s greatest threat. Nearly a third of Polish towns and cities have declared themselves as “LGBT-free zones,” a move that resulted in the European Union denying funding to certain towns.
Stop Bzdurom’s name is a reference to a proposed, "Stop Pedophilia” bill that opened the door to legal action for teaching sexual education. The bill’s supporters blamed what they call the “LGBT lobby” for promoting sexual discussions in schools and “grooming” children toward homosexuality.
These are messages echoed by the anti-abortion, Pro-Right to Life Foundation, which sends vans around Polish cities — displaying banners of aborted fetuses and anti-gay messages that they also broadcast through megaphones. The organization is also against the so-called LGBT lobby.
Their messages often connect homosexuality with pedophilia and child abuse.
“A few hours every day, they ride around the city with huge speakers and just scream about us raping children and stuff like that, so we started spray painting the cars.”
“A few hours every day, they ride around the city with huge speakers and just scream about us raping children and stuff like that, so we started spray painting the cars,” Madej said.
Margot and Madej would also stand in the street to block them, sometimes remove the license plates, and one day in June, they fought with a driver. The drivers know the activists and often pass by where they live. That day, a fight broke out that resulted in Margot’s later arrest and charges for property destruction and assault, though Margot says she only shoved the driver and he was not injured. She was released after a night in jail.
Tensions around gay rights have been building in socially conservative Poland for years. Conservative governments in Europe have courted the right by scapegoating vulnerable minority groups.
Karolina Gierdal, a lawyer with the organization Campaign Against Homophobia, says refugees used to be the target in Poland. In the past few years, queer people have emerged as the new boogeyman.
“You can create an enemy that does not necessarily have to take away your money like the refugees are supposed to do, but they can take away you feeling Polish, you being Polish. They can take away your culture. Or they can destroy your family and hurt your children,” she explained via Skype.
Gierdal says her organization works to improve rights for queer people through policy and by normalizing the issues. But this doesn’t seem to be enough right now, she says.
Margot and Madej say this is where they come in. Margot says they push the boundaries to make space for others to operate in.
“We are too radical for everybody, but we support our supporters and our queer activists and they move the middle part,” she explained during an interview with The World prior to her detention.
“We are the people who will destroy the van and bring attention to it and the other organizations are the people who are going to maybe take care of that with laws and stuff,” Madej said.
Earlier this month, the two took another step. With other activists, they hung rainbow flags on monuments, including a statue of Christ. For many devout Catholics in the country, this was a highly provocative message. Margot, Madej and one other activist were briefly held on charges of offending religious sentiments.
The next day, Margot was taken back into custody for the earlier charges related to the incident with the van driver, now to serve two-month pretrial detention. A crowd blocked the police car holding her and 48 people were arrested. Gierdal says both Margot’s long detention and the seemingly random arrests were excessive.
Madej says they don’t expect to change the minds on the right but want to help queer Polish youth feel less alone.
“We do it only for the queer kids who run with us and they have a little bit of fun and feel brave for 10 minutes.”
“We do it only for the queer kids who run with us and they have a little bit of fun and feel brave for 10 minutes,” she said, referring to their activism around the anti-LGBT vans.
A day later, on Aug. 8, thousands gathered at the city center in protest.
Maria Kobus, a 69-year-old accountant, was one of them. Though she says she’s not an activist, she feels queer people are being denied equal rights. Kobus’ daughter lives outside the country with her wife.
“She will never come back,” Kobus said.
Smaller protests sprung up around Poland and even some other European cities. But not all Polish supporters think activism is the right way. From a park outside her Warsaw apartment, 78-year-old Helena Kośnicka remembers officiating the unofficial wedding of her gay neighbors. Gay marriage is not legal in Poland.
Kośnicka supports LGBT rights. But she doesn’t agree with protesting.
“They shouldn’t do silly things too much. Because that annoys people,” she said.
But the activists say maybe it’s time to start making more noise. Some are asking if this could be Poland’s Stonewall, the 1969 riots in New York City that were a turning point for the gay rights movement in the US.
“I believe we really want Polish Stonewall because we’re so tired and we want something to change,” said Gierdal, the lawyer.