The story behind Warsaw’s new LGBT+ declaration

Amy Labarrière

By Amy Labarrière, on March 28th, 2019

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Amy Labarriere meets activist Oktawiusz Chrzanowski, who prompted city officials to write a declaration supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights in the Polish capital.

“Everyone is equal before the law. No form of discrimination is allowed, and Warsaw should be open to everybody.” This is how the City of Warsaw (PL) announced Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski’s recent signature of a declaration promising new measures to support LGBT+ citizens and fight discrimination.

The new 12-point LGBT+ Declaration promises improvements in security, education, culture, sport, administration and employment. Drawn up with local associations, it follows EU and UN human rights principles, the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, and national law. Proposed actions range from providing shelter for teenagers rejected by their families, to anti-discrimination and sex education in schools.

In Poland, nearly 70% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are estimated to have experienced some form of violence over the last two years. LGBT teenagers regularly experience aggression at school. Of Warsaw’s nearly two million residents, some 200,000 are members of LGBT+ groups.

With European and national elections looming, Warsaw’s new LGBT rights declaration has sparked a backlash from the right-wing ruling party, PiS, and the Catholic church, who warn of threats to the ‘traditional family’.

But Mayor Trzaskowski continues to support the move, enabling local authorities to provide what the national government refuses to administer. He stated: “This is not just a political slogan, but the vision I have for my beloved city as one where there is a place for everyone. Political leaders, also at the local government level, need to take a determined stand against homophobia and discrimination to bring about a positive change in social behaviour.”

Warsaw’s newly appointed Coordinating Director for Culture and Social Communication, Aldona Machnowska-Góra said: “Local governments can change the social situation of LGBT+ persons by taking action to improve their safety, provide psychological support, and educate and inspire sympathy in society. What we have no control over is their legal situation, as this is something for the Polish government to handle.

So how did the new LGBT+ Declaration make its journey from NGO to city hall – and could other towns do the same? To find out, I spoke to Oktawiusz Chrzanowski, ‘Love does not exclude’ (Miłość Nie Wyklucza) activist who helped politicians draft the LGBT+ Declaration during their local election campaign.

“What inspired you to push for this LGBT declaration?

For years I’d worked with local governments in Poland, then as an employee of an NGO dealing with civic participation, local democracy, empowering people to take part in what’s going on around them, and I gathered good practices from all over Europe.

I was also inspired by Barcelona’s strategy for work with the LGBT community  since 2015. They recognise different communities in city-wide policy building – I’ve heard it’s going well, and they recently opened an LGBT local community centre.

But the final deciding factor was the political situation in Poland: we cannot yet change the situation at central level when PiS is governing our country, but we want to – and can – make changes locally. That was the idea: to show that we can help LGBT communities all around the country, by talking to local politicians. At first, no one believed anyone would listen!

So how did you get your mayor to listen?

Poland had local elections in October 2018, and we started talking to Warsaw politicians and committees in the spring. Then it spread to other cities because it was seen as a good thing to talk about during the campaign. The idea was very simple: we want to raise the LGBT community’s problems to the level of the public discourse. We managed it, step by step, talking to different mayoral candidates. Their declarations gathered some interest, and then we just scaled it up, gathering attention from local media and then national media, and then finally we put pressure on the committee of the current mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – and he agreed to sign.

What’s the legal weight of the LGBT+ Declaration?

It’s not a policy in terms of local legislation, not yet, but the whole point of it is to make way for a city-wide programme decided by the Warsaw council. It’s a political declaration from the President of Warsaw that these actions will be taken during his presidency, over the next five years.

Did the council vote on it?

They don’t have to: The President has the majority in the local Warsaw council – and his party and coalition were aware of the upcoming signing of the declaration. When there are decisions – budgetary decisions for instance – at the end of the year, there’s a promise for instance that the local council will back the plan to fund a shelter for young LGBT people rejected by their families who need a place to live.

As well as the LGBT+ Hostel, promises include a community centre, a ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ project to prevent victimisation of children and adolescents on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and provisions for urgent psychological and legal support. How will these be funded?

Some actions in the declaration need very little or no funding. But for others, we propose to combine funding from the public sector, private sector, and from local community as well. For instance the hostel has to be built on a social economy formula, with some funding from the government of Warsaw, but then a huge part of it has to be self-sustaining. We want it to be run independently from the city, just like certain agencies in the UK funded by the government but less affected by the political climate on an everyday basis. We want it to be ‘safe’ from politics.

For other things, like the LGBT community centre, there’s a more common formula: the city has funding for projects and programmes and open calls for NGOs to run them. But we want this call to be written in a way that really helps the local community, rather than simply selecting the applicant with the lowest price.

As for the activities of the LGBT community centre, the declaration calls for deep consultation with the LGBT community in Warsaw. It cannot be that someone in the city hall decides and then nobody’s interested because it’s not done for the people and by the people.

Is there an upside to the media interest – even if much of it is critical?

This is the first time in Central and Eastern Europe that we have a document of this kind supporting the LGBT community: that’s why we wanted it to be signed publicly. In Poland – except for some measures on banning discrimination of LGBT persons in terms of employment enforced by EU – there’s no other guarantees or protection for LGBT people at central level, despite huge efforts… This media interest is doing a good job in explaining the problems of the LGBT community. It’s showing that 70% of LGBT young people are thinking of suicide. And it’s drawing attention to the fact we have to put much more effort as a society towards understanding and helping the LGBT community to feel at home.

It’s become a nationwide issue; we’re happy about that because it’s new way to break Poland’s inability to talk about LGBT issues. As a result we’re seeing a movement of interest in Polish society: “How about my city? Does my city have such a declaration?” And other cities may join, to defend Warsaw’s mayor for political reasons, and because more people now understand the scale of the problems and they see no reason not to solve them.

Could the mayor’s declaration risk being blocked?

There is no way to block it. It’s not a local law: it’s just a declaration that something’s going to happen. And we drafted this declaration knowing how local government works. Everything is according to national bills, whether on education, on local government… All the actions in the declaration fall under the law of the local government. There is no reason and no way to stop it. And, it was recently highlighted by Ombudsman Adam Bodnar in a special statement.

The issue may be used as political ammunition before the coming European elections. But today research is showing that supporting the LGBT community will not reduce support for the major opposition party.

Did you work with the city to build the declaration?

We chose to work directly with the politicians, because I know how long it takes to change things when I work with the city hall itself. Now the declaration is signed and the city hall has to just do what is said.

How did you involve schools, and other relevant people in the community?

Our agenda is based on years of experience working with the LGBT community and other actors. I see what’s going on across Poland: Gdansk for instance has a policy called Model for Equal Treatment which includes LGBT persons. Łódź, one of the biggest cities in Poland, has general anti-discrimination local law that’s currently being translated into a city wide anti-discrimination programme. We also work with some teachers: our association has a programme on giving young people knowledge about LGBT issues. How they can get help, and so on, because there’s much more false information in Poland on LGBT issues than correct information. We went all around Poland and met with young people, and schoolteachers. It’s not easy to get into schools in Poland these days, but teachers came to us. We talked with them about their problems of how to help young people. And, we built our programme for these elections based on such experiences.

What message would you like to send to other cities?

What I’d like to emphasize is that local government can do a lot for LGBT communities. It’s not always obvious: When we started this programme, many people said there is nothing local government can do to help LGBT communities. But we just dug in and explained a lot.

Actually, local government is the closest thing in politics, in society, to a person living in a place. I lived for two years in Amsterdam (NL), and it was amazing that I felt really close to my municipal town hall. I can have a relation with a local government that takes care of my needs and tries to understand me as a person who lives in this neighbourhood, and wants to know what I think!

Local government needs to understand that LGBT persons are citizens that have needs, and there’s no reason whatsoever to treat them differently than any other community. The city can work with elderly people, provide services for them. The city can work for people with disabilities, recognising that they have special needs. And the same pattern is true for the LGBT community: there are some special requirements, there are some dangers that those people are facing. Why can’t the city take human dignity as a point of inspiration for what local community can do – for what local government can do?

What’s the next step towards implementing the LGBT+ Declaration?

The first and most important step, as promised in the declaration, is an open call for the position of spokesperson for LGBT community – a President plenipotentiary. He or she will coordinate the implementation of the declaration. Considerations are now going on about how to find this person: the rules on employing people in local governments are very strict.

And then talks will start on how to do every single thing written down in the declaration over the next five years.”


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