Pandemic as Opportunity? The Meaning of COVID-19 to the Polish LGBT Movement
by Pawel Knut, Human rights attorney and Fulbright visiting scholar at The New School Transregional Center for Democratic Studies
When discussing the COVID-19 outbreak, metaphors of crisis, standstill or threat are often invoked to describe the atmosphere of the current moment. Such metaphors powerfully capture the situation of the LGBT communities around the world who are particularly vulnerable to the economic and political effects of the pandemic.
Sadly, some decision-makers, instead of addressing concerns over the uncertainties of the present situation, are directing public anxiety and fear toward LGBT communities by scapegoating them for these hard times.
This is certainly the case with Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Law and Justice government in Poland. Since 2015, when his party won the parliamentary elections, the government has systematically dismantled an already weak system of legal protection for the LGBT community. Kaczynski’s anti-LGBT vision has been implemented by different state agencies and nongovernmental far-right organizations with the explicit support of the Catholic Church. According to a recently published ILGA-Europe report, Poland has become the worst country in the EU for LGBT people.
As a result, prior to COVID-19, the Polish LGBT community already lived in a de facto state of emergency, stripped of basic protections against discrimination and violence. Poland now has designated “LGBT free zones.” Numerous local municipalities adopted resolutions against the so-called “LGBT ideology.” Trucks that slander LGBT people with homophobic slogans are allowed to freely roam cities. NGOs are infiltrated by journalists – acting as fake volunteers – who then use what they learn to prepare smear campaigns broadcast on the state-controlled television network. Recently, there was an attempt to bomb the Equality March in Lublin.
Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that the Polish government used the outbreak of the pandemic to further pursue its homophobic agenda, and that LGBT people are being verbally and legally attacked.
A new law, successfully adopted on March 31st, amended article 161 of the Polish Penal Code, aimed at those who “consciously” expose others to HIV, doubling sentences from three to eight years in prison. The amendment, which went almost unnoticed by the general public, was a rider to the “Anti-Crisis Shield” bill for mitigating the negative economic consequences of the pandemic. Needless to say, this change in the Penal Code does nothing to tackle the economic crisis, raising questions about the real motivation behind the amendment. In a country where AIDS is still considered a “gay problem,” and where the LGBT community is regularly portrayed as the source of all social ills by the media, this move is very disconcerting.
At the beginning of April, Law and Justice unexpectedly introduced a civic initiative bill, colloquially called the “Stop Pedophilia Act,” that penalizes members of the so-called “LGBT lobby” for providing reliable sex education. The bill, which had consumed public attention for a few days, was sent for further review by parliamentary committees on April 16th. Rest assured, when the opportune moment comes, the bill will be politically “recycled.”
Fortunately, the LGBT community has rallied, and the current crisis has led to a wave of new strategies and actions by Polish LGBT activists. For instance, they are making protective masks, handing them out to hospitals and homeless shelters in cities in the “LGBT free zones.” Some are providing free psychological counseling services to medical professionals, infected persons and their relatives, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Others are organizing first aid courses and working as paramedics.
In other words, activists are using the pandemic as an opportunity too – to reconnect with the larger community, and to remind fellow Poles of that connection.
When we perceive the COVID-19 pandemic, like any other traumatic collective experiences of the past, as a liminal experience, it is possible to see that the struggle for power between the state and the LGBT community in Poland is not over. Instead of retreating we are crossing a new threshold. The pre-pandemic reality will never return. And although the post-pandemic reality has not yet been born, we are in a very peculiar temporary phase of world history which will turn many things upside down, making alternative visions of the future realizable.
Polish LGBT activists are re-inventing their political imaginary.
This is, of course, what the American LGBT community did when ACT UP radically transformed queer activism during the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Back then, the AIDS pandemic, also known as “the plague,” not only caused deaths and induced stress for infected persons and their caregivers, but also fostered political and civic uncertainty.
The American LGBT movement, already politically active, turned militant in response to the government’s intentional inaction. LGBT people viewed expressing non-heteronormative identities as a political strategy in itself, chanting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” They mobilized queerness to disrupt public spaces through well-planned direct action. This included, among other things, die-in protests at churches, disruptions of live programs in TV studios, public funerals where they spread the ashes of people who died from AIDS on the White House lawn, and a shutdown of the U.S. Federal Drug Administration office. This period of activism did result in a major victory for the LGBT community, forcing the government to accelerate national drug testing procedures.
Thus, the current pandemic provokes a question: can the present-day Polish LGBT movement, much like its American counterpart in the 1980s and 90s, continue to think of the current situation not only as a threat but also as the right time to generate new, and more effective, resistance strategies? How the Polish LGBT movement can best utilize this peculiar window of opportunity is not only theoretically interesting, but also a politically necessary question.
There are at least three interrelated issues that might help us start solving this puzzle.
The first one is about telling effective stories. A pandemic is an event bound to create a space for collective meaning-making. COVID-19 affects the society as a whole. We can of course decide to hold onto existing discourses and practices with the hope of restoring the previous order. And so far, Kaczynski and Law and Justice have done just this — managing the social dynamics within a familiar narrative framework, patiently crafted over the last few years.
But alternative narratives are possible, ones that imagine a different organization of social relations. One interesting vision of a new political imaginary is captured in Judith Butler’s recent book, The Force of Nonviolence (2020). Butler claims that radical change is possible only if we are able to accept the fact that our lives are interdependent and equally grievable, regardless of our political views, social status, and identity. “We do not have to love one another to engage in meaningful solidarity,” Butler writes, “when nonviolence becomes the desire for the other’s desire to live, a way of saying, ‘You are grievable; the loss of you is intolerable; and I want you to live; I want you to want to live, so take my desire as your desire, for yours is already mine.’ The ‘I’ is not you, yet it remains unthinkable without the ‘you.’” The experience of a pandemic reminds us, like few other misfortunes, how dependent we are on each other.
This is what Polish LGBT activists have been trying to do: focus on local issues and work closely with local communities to address COVID-19. Presently, this means concentrating on health care, but it is also connected to other social problems, such as access to housing or food, that are meaningful to everyone in Poland, regardless of sexual or gender identity.
The second issue raises the question of tactics. Many of the existing strategies used by the Polish LGBT movement — political advocacy, campaigning, education, strategic litigation, and community building — have been appropriated by right-wing organizations. In a deeply divided society, such direct action may actually be ineffective in influencing people in opposing camps or in finding common ground for dialogue. They may only lead to further polarization. Butler’s concept of interdependence and grievability may offer another path. When Polish LGBT activists hand out protective masks, or assist people affected by COVID-19 in other ways, they send a clear message: “you need us and our support because we are all in this together.”
Finally, the issue of technology’s effect on activism has been made more urgent by the pandemic. Forced confinement in our homes deepens our dependence on the internet, and particularly social media, bolstering what Paul Preciado calls the “cybernetic biosurveillance.” Preciado argues that the biosurveillance practices of governments and corporations will further enhance de-collectivization and telecontrol, and shrink the space for civil disobedience. At the same time, 21st century social movements have also become skilled at harnessing new media. It helps to spread information, mobilize and fund activities, as well as keep them alive during the hard times. Yet in the post-pandemic era we should be especially cautious not to confuse the value of real social presence with that of virtual representation: as Gil Scott-Heron famously noted, “the revolution will not be televised.” Even if a physical presence in public spaces is risky in a pandemic, Polish activists have already started coming up with new ways of interacting with one another which minimize the threat of virus transmission, or a physical assault, even without the vaccine in place.
These new strategies demonstrate that the Polish LGBT community is viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to seek original answers to challenges posed both by the pandemic and their own government. COVID-19 is not just a threat: it is a laboratory for radical experimentation.
Pawel Knut is a human rights attorney and Fulbright visiting scholar at The New School Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (2019/2020). For the last eight years he has been cooperating with several Polish NGOs specializing in human rights protection. Currently he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the Liberal Arts Faculty, University of Warsaw on new strategies of response to hate speech.