It is estimated that more than two million people in Poland are LGBTQ+, a large group of people in a country of 38 million who still cannot count on full rights or free acceptance by society.
Associations, activists and independent foundations have been fighting for years for the possibility of legal regulation of partnerships and marriages, legal recognition of same-sex marriage families and more, freedoms which are enjoyed in many other European countries.
One of the largest and most active association in Poland is the Stonewall Group, which owes its name to the 1969 demonstrations in New York City that went down in history for the entire LGBTQ+ community.
The group was founded in 2015, shortly before the conservative party Law and Justice (in Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) won power in a general election; the party, already famous for its controversial statements regarding the LGBTQ+ community, still rules the country today.
“We started our activities back with the elections that PiS won, so during the time of the centrist party. Even then, we saw the issues of LGBT+ people not being looked after and taken into account by the state. After the change of government, the problems started to increase, and we started to see that the needs regarding LGBT+ education were increasing significantly,” Sue Bartel, a representative of the Stonewall Group, told us.
“Various propaganda materials about LGBT+ people started to appear, which were very deceitful, and it was a clear signal to us that we needed to act urgently not only in our own backyard, but also in the national sphere, on the level of just providing reliable information.”
Although they are based in Poznań, one of the larger cities in Poland, many of their activities are nationwide, and they have a range of different initiatives that comprehensively help the LGBTQ+ community.
Sue explains that this can “mean help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, help from a lawyer in various matters. We run an intervention flat where LGBT+ people in crisis of homelessness can find shelter. We have recently launched the Stonewall Outpatient Clinic, so we also deal partly with LGBT+ health; at the moment it is mainly sexual health, prevention and diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases, but we also have plans to expand our activities to include a gynaecology clinic.”
In addition, the Stonewall Group has a strong focus on uniting LGBTQ+ people in its activities, creating spaces and cultural initiatives for them that are free from discrimination.
“We also take care of the cultural and entertainment side. We run a Stonewall venue, which is a club space where the LGBT+ community can meet and have fun in a safe space. We are involved in cultural events. We co-produced, with Teatr Polski (Theatre Poland), a play about queer youth,” Sue told Artefact.
“In addition, we organise workshops for teachers and companies that simply want to introduce more equal rules in their workplaces. We run the only stationary composition bookshop in Poland with queer and feminist literature. We also run a commercial hostel for a second year. We organise Poznan’s Pride Week, which culminates in the Equality March.”
This is what sparked the formation of the association and inspired a group of activists and people wanting to be active in the community to continue.
Sue explains that the Stonewall Group’s business activities are not only aimed at creating venues for the LGBTQ+ community or new jobs, but thanks to them, the association can be fully independent of external sponsors or collections and earn its own money to carry out its statutory and support activities.
One of the most important, and distinguishing, projects is the intervention hostel, which has been in operation for two years now. It is a flat that is made available free of charge to the most vulnerable members of Poznan’s LGBTQ+ community.
“The flat has been very popular from the beginning. A large percentage of the people who find refuge with us in the flat are trans or non-binary,” Sue tells us. This is because this group are discriminated against in the labour market, so they find it hard to earn money to pay the fees.
“We also had two people who were kicked out of their home by their parents while they were studying, and one of them was not even 18. Every time, we are surprised how people can be ruthless and cruel to their own child,” Sue explains. “Unfortunately, there are also a lot of young people who, in their 20s, are theoretically adults, but in practice it is known that they would like to finish their studies and do not have enough space to get a job. For the last few months, more of these people have been coming forward because of the difficult economic and housing situation in Poland.”
In addition to a number of aid initiatives, there are a range of educational activities carried out by the Stonewall Group, including some for schools, which in recent years have fallen victim to systemic indoctrination by the ruling party and the Ministry of Education and Science. The group hold regular workshops and training sessions for teachers and school management on combating discrimination and homophobia.
“We’re clever, and we’ve come up with a different way of doing it than is usually done. If we organise workshops for teachers, they are not from one particular school. We send information to as wide a range as we can reach with the information about the workshop,” Sue explained.
“Recently, these sessions have been conducted over the Internet, so they have been very widely accessible, not only to people in our region. Previously, we ran them at the town hall, for example, in a neutral location. The participation of teachers is voluntary. Of course, it’s clear, again we are reaching people who are convinced to educate themselves, but we are happy to equip them with new knowledge or tools on how to respond to homophobia at school.”
In addition to the workshops, the Stonewall Group runs a Polish and English-language profile on Instagram, where it presents news and the latest information from Poland and the world that concerns the LGBTQ+ community. It also runs a podcast with interviews, as well as an educational YouTube channel.
“The content we produce caters to people who either already know a lot or simply have a basic knowledge of queer people and want to supplement their knowledge. On the other hand, I think that there is a great lack of basic knowledge in a large part of society, especially in smaller towns. There’s also a lack of showing LGBT people as people who simply live among us, are completely normal, have or want to start a family, that they are actually not much different from us,” Sue told Artefact.
“I think this education should simply be introduced in schools as a subject. There is more and more going on in terms of films and series, but this form of message won’t reach everyone either.”
The Stonewall Group’s work has been going on for more than seven years, during which time they have been able to see various social changes and also hear about issues from people in the Polish LGBTQ+ community.
“In terms of purely legal issues, nothing has changed, as these solutions were not there and are still not present. The only legal solution that was, and is still there, is the protection of LGBT+ people through the Labour Law. This gets to the fact that a person cannot be fired from their job for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Nothing has changed in terms of legislation, and thankfully nothing has changed to the detriment, neither,” Sue said.
However, she has seen the social and world-view changes: “Socially, things have certainly changed a lot to the disadvantage of LGBT+ people. Inaccurate information about us has started to be disseminated, offensive and very hurtful, especially through television and publicly funded media.”
It’s a generational shift that not all Poles accept: “The young, queer Generation Z, looks at the world very differently comparing to my generation of Millennials or the previous ones e.g. our parents. Gen Z are the people who want to live in harmony with themselves on the level of their gender expression, and are more visible than we were when we were young,” Sue told us.
“This, in part, provides an opportunity for different people to engage in acts of homophobia or transphobia, which we see gaining momentum. After the current ruling party came into power, various homophobic statements became more and more frequent and society started to have their opinions on the subject in general and express them a lot too.”
Meanwhile, with PiS continuing to dominate politics and government, this presents challenges for the activists of the Stonewall Group see for the LGBTQ+ community in Poland in the near future.
“A big challenge and test for our community, will be to support, and in any way protect, trans people, who not only have a difficult daily situation anyway, but in addition, all indications are that they will be on target for the next election campaign in 2023,” Sue told us.
“Already, alarming statements and comments from ruling party politicians have started to emerge. We fear that this weakest link in our community will now be further attacked. Going a little bit in this direction as well, we are keen to get trans people more active in the labour market and make it easier for them to go about their daily lives.”
All images courtesy of the Stonewall Group, Poland.