Mikolaj Milcke is a writer and broadcaster in Poland, publishing half a dozen novels, hosting radio shows and starring as a commentator on reality show “Big Brother” last year. Yet when he’s spotted in his hometown, he’s seen as a menace rather than a celebrity.

Milcke, 39, is gay in a country where his sexuality makes him an enemy of the state as the government weaponizes homophobia for political gain. After visiting friends with children recently, some received text messages from locals asking why they’re not afraid to leave their kids with him, he said.

“We’ve been brutally and deliberately pulled into politics,” said Milcke, a pseudonym he adopted at the start of his career to protect his parents. “The worst is that people started believing that they need to not only protect themselves from gays at schools, but also at home.”

Once a model European Union country diligently integrating with its Western allies, Poland stands out even among eastern members like Hungary that have also been rebelling against Brussels and Berlin, most recently over the bloc’s coronavirus relief plan. The last few years have seen Poland turn into one the continent’s most socially regressive states.

Backed by the nation’s omnipotent Catholic Church, the ruling Law & Justice party has targeted abortion and demonized Muslim refugees. But it’s the LGBTQ community that has been subject to the most inflammatory attacks, depicted as an “ideology” backed by the EU that needs to be eradicated.

This story is based on interviews in recent weeks with members of that community in Poland. They included activists fearful of reprisals and teenagers hiding their sexual identity in what they felt was a hostile environment. Some talked of the organizations linked to the Catholic Church seeking to “cure” them, others the desire to leave the country.

Five of Poland’s 16 provinces and more than 80 towns and cities have declared themselves free of LGBTQ “ideology” or passed resolutions targeting sexual minorities. For months, trucks funded by an anti-abortion group have carried billboards linking homosexuality to pedophilia, their loudspeakers roaring out homophobic messages in big cities.

Police officers stand guard in front of the Education Ministry where protesters left banners, earlier this month in Warsaw. | AFP-JIJI
Police officers stand guard in front of the Education Ministry where protesters left banners, earlier this month in Warsaw. | AFP-JIJI

Polish bishops have called for the creation of counseling centers to counter “behaviors that until recently were considered unacceptable and morally reprehensible.” That’s as the Vatican softens its position, with Pope Francis saying homosexuals have the right to civil unions and a family.

Some such centers already exist, including a Catholic organization called Odwaga — or “courage” in Polish — whose website offers “therapeutic help to people with unwanted homosexual inclination.”

President Andrzej Duda made opposition to gay rights a key theme of his re-election in July, calling them more destructive than the communists that ruled the country for more than 40 years. His opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, pledged support for LGBTQ groups, including anti-discrimination education in schools.

“Stop listening to this idiocy about human rights or equality,” Przemyslaw Czarnek, a Law & Justice parliamentarian and ally of Duda, told national television during the election campaign. “These people are not equal to normal people.” Last month, he was appointed education minister.

It was after the campaign that Milcke and others in the LGBTQ community said that the gloves came off. In his mailbox in Warsaw, where there were protests in support of gay rights following Duda’s re-election, Milcke found a print of his picture covered in red liquid. It was also on the sidewalk in front of his building with graffiti saying “to hell with LGBTQ.”

It’s in poorer provincial strongholds of Law & Justice that are more influenced by the Catholic Church where homophobia is particularly rife. Yet it’s growing even in areas where the main opposition party is trying to resist it.

Danuta Zarzeczna, a mother of a lesbian in Wloclawek in central Poland, runs a support group for young LGBTQ people. She said the country is fast turning into a place where they have to hide as the government becomes more radical and the church diverges from the Vatican.

The city of about 100,000 people isn’t in one of the LGBTQ-free “zones” and its mayor has spoken out against the government. But a 15-year-old LGBT boy who lives there said more people now think they have free rein to abuse.

He was used to insults over his choice of clothes, occasional makeup and long hair. He avoids coming home late and tries to sit at the front of the bus. Then over the summer, a group of girls verbally attacked him on one journey. Echoing Czarnek’s line, they told him they’d prefer to be a human being rather than an ideology.

In September, 50 ambassadors expressed concern about political attacks on sexual minorities in a letter to the government. U.S. envoy Georgette Mosbacher said Poland is “on the wrong side of history” on LGBTQ.

That month, the EU and Norway followed through on warnings that infrastructure projects in affected Polish regions would have funding halted. The EU has also been threatening other financial aid curbs on Poland for its undermining of democratic institutions such as the courts and independent media. On Nov. 12, the bloc unveiled plans to defend the rights of LGBTQ people across its 27 member states.

But reversing the tide in a nation that prominent opposition newspaper Rzeczpospolita labelled the “Iran of Europe” means colliding with some powerful forces.

Poland has always had a closer relationship with the church than in many other former Eastern Bloc countries. Pope John Paul II, the former archbishop of Krakow, was credited with helping the Solidarity movement topple communism. In 2005, he wrote about how it was necessary to ask whether the European Parliament’s “pressure” to recognize gay marriage and adoption was “the work of another ideology of evil.” No previous government, though, has targeted gay rights to the same extent.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has promised that several areas that adopted anti-LGBTQ resolutions would receive subsidies to replace EU money. The government won’t leave “such municipalities vulnerable to oppression by the European Commission,” he said in August.

This month, a petition to ban all LGBTQ pride parades was submitted to the Polish Parliament. The draft legislation was driven by the same radical religious group that was behind a push last month to tighten abortion laws, which led to weeks of street protests.

A demonstrator holds a placard next to police officers during a pro-choice protest in the streets of central Warsaw earlier this month. | AFP-JIJI
A demonstrator holds a placard next to police officers during a pro-choice protest in the streets of central Warsaw earlier this month. | AFP-JIJI

In Krasnik, southeastern Poland, Cezary Nieradko is an activist in a municipality that’s now “free of LGBTQ ideology.” In February, he tried to mobilize votes to annul the resolution. At a council session, he asked publicly if the town planned to displace or eliminate LGBTQ people.

He’s now considering whether to study abroad. “I live in fear,” said Nieradko, 21. “They’re coming up with imaginary enemies trying to evoke an atmosphere of danger — as if we could endanger Catholic tradition and demolish churches.”

Maks, a 17-year-old from Wloclawek who has undergone hormonal treatment and a first round of surgery as he transitions to a male, also has his eyes on the exit door. He’s planning to study in Scandinavia when he’s old enough to leave.

“The campaign against LGBTQ is dictated by fear that if more people start revealing their identity the influence of the church will decline, even though the pope criticizes this,” said Maks, whose family name was withheld to protect his identity.

Odwaga, based in the eastern city of Lublin, is trying to maintain that influence. Its aim is to change the way of life so that’s it’s in line with the gospel. The organization’s website states it’s “very happy when those that receive help grow into heterosexuality.”

In 2017, the Ministry of Development praised Odwaga for “spiritual and therapeutic help for persons with unwanted sexual propensity and their families.” At that time, the person in charge of the ministry was Mateusz Morawiecki, the current Polish prime minister.

The center didn’t reply to emails or calls seeking comment for this story. The Polish Episcopate, the highest authority of the Catholic Church in the country, said by email it was ready to help anyone who needed it, including “people facing the challenge of sexual auto-identification.” It said there was no special list of church clinics.

Milcke, the novelist and broadcaster, said he joined a prayer group in Warsaw about a decade ago as part of research for one of his books. He said first he had to prove how badly he didn’t want to be gay. The healing process involved sports, fishing with your father and giving up contact with the LGBTQ community, Milcke said.

Therapy was about inducing a feeling of shame, telling young gays that they will remain unhappy and unable to love anyone while scaring them about illnesses and suicide statistics, he said. “This is not a therapy, it’s deception, the breaking of minds and lives.”

Back in his native Sokolow Podlaski in eastern Poland, visits have become more fraught. He said despite his success as one of the country’s most-read gay writers, there’s never been anything about him in the local press or any positive interest from the community. The local library may have his books, just to balance it out, he joked.

“My hometown doesn’t recognize my existence,” said Milcke. “Those in power created an enemy and started fighting it. People were told that an evil gay person will come and eat them alive.”

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