Update: Monday, 7:30 a.m. CET, July 13, 2020: The BBC reports three exit polls show Poland's incumbent President Andrzej Duda holds a slim lead after Sunday's presidential elections, with 51 percent of the vote against socially liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.
The final round of Poland’s presidential election held Sunday was dominated by incumbent President Andrzej Duda’s efforts to mobilize voters against the country’s LGBTQ people. It was a very ugly campaign, with the groundwork carefully laid.
Hubert Sobecki, who has been an activist for LGBTQ rights in Poland for more than a decade, says, “I have never seen anything like the harassment of the past one and a half years.”
Naturally, most attention focused on the two rivals in the runoff election, Duda and the more liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, who said he would stand up for minorities. Trzaskowski has taken part in LGBTQ Equality marches, but he also has said he would oppose adoptions by same-sex couples. This is 93-percent Catholic Poland, after all. As the BBC noted, Duda constantly claims Trzaskowski is “in cahoots with Jewish and LGBTQ interest groups.”
In Poland, as in many countries, there also is a pronounced and often bitter divide between urban and rural voters, and it is in the smaller cities and towns that Duda has found the strongest support for his anti-LGBTQ message. The “pro-family” way, as it is pitched, is helped as well by his party’s popular program giving the equivalent of $125 a month to traditional families for each child under 18 years of age.
Sobecki’s group, Love Doesn’t Exclude, recently uploaded a video onto YouTube that aimed to show the dehumanizing aspect of the propaganda that has spread far and wide in Catholic Poland. This Is Not About People shows town councils proudly declaring themselves “free of LGBT ideology,” with one literally predicting “Armageddon” if it spreads too far.
Sobecki says he hoped to reach “the people who are uninformed,” but also what he calls “the movable middle”—they respond to stuff that makes them “cringe,” he said, “So if they see these councillors saying these things, they won’t want to be like them.” That may be wishful thinking, but the video has been watched more than 100,000 times.
Many of the de facto anti-LGBTQ resolutions that were branded as “pro family” (defined solely as a union between man and wife plus biological children) were drafted by a group called the Ordo Iuris Legal Initiative, made up mostly of young lawyers who get cited regularly in the right-wing press as legal experts while they try to push a far-right agenda through legislation and campaigns.
In recent years, under Duda’s ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, Ordo Iuris (Legal Order) has become one of Poland’s most influential pressure groups. The group’s founder, Aleksander Stepkowski, is currently spokesman of the Supreme Court. The institute also provides legal support for the far right organizers of Poland’s annual “Independence Day March,” an event widely denounced as a magnet for far right and white supremacist groups from around the world.
Meanwhile, Ordo Iuris’ current director has expressed his support repeatedly for the Polish far-right campaign against a U.S. law intended to assist Holocaust survivors in recovering stolen property.
“For us moral conservatism in itself is not a problem, it’s a problem when it becomes merged with this nasty right-wing agenda directed against minorities,” says Rafal Pankowski, who is head of the Never Again association in Poland. “One of Ordo Iuris’ abilities is to take the homophobic sentiments from the streets and translate them into law.”
“There is a lot of fake information about us, saying we are a dark evil organisation,” says Bartosz Lewandowski, who is head of litigation at Ordo Iuris. “Because of this disinformation, we have opened legal proceedings in our Polish courts for defamation.”
As examples of “fake information,” Lewandowski cites reports that the Ordo Iuris Legal Institute has connections to Russia, or that it is an affiliate of a transnational Catholic fundamentalist network called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), whose members campaign against LGBTQ rights and abortion while pledging allegiance to a feudal social hierarchy reminiscent of the Middle Ages—or, as they call it, the “natural order.”
‘TRADITION, FAMILY AND PROPERTY’
In 2016, the Tradition, Family and Property representative to the European Union, who is called Duke Paul von Oldenburg, bragged on his Facebook profile that TFP was leading the fight for a full abortion ban in Poland. Von Oldenburg, who is a grandson of the last German emperor, has had a reputation for handing out leaflets with homophobic and anti-feminist epithets in the streets of Brussels while clad in a red sash that he says means he’s doing battle. A video he posted in 2011 shows von Oldenburg and his confrères doing their thing, campaigning against what they called "Christianophobia."
According to Neil Datta from the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, it is common practice for TFP to split into several organizations in the countries where it is present and “go by several different names.”
In Poland, Ordo Iuris was founded and initially funded by the Father Piotr Skarga Foundation, which was in turn founded by the Father Piotr Skarga Association for Christian Culture, whose founder, a man named Sławomir Olejniczak, came from the first Polish TFP organization, which was set up in Krakow in 1995.
“They were created by us, they are part of the spiritual family,” confirms Julio Loredo, the president of the Italian TFP society, when we asked him about Ordo Iuris this Friday.
Taking away people’s sexuality and reproductive rights wasn’t always the number one priority of the TFP. When a wealthy landowner with ties to the Brazilian royal family called Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira first founded the movement in the 1960s, he and his recruits lobbied to stop much-needed agrarian reforms. De Oliveira preached that power must be restored to a “nobility,” via an “apocalyptic battle.”
(Note that Luiz de Orleans e Bragança, a pretender to the Brazilian imperial throne, was an early fan. Also note that the Brazilian monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in 1889.)
Under the guise of fighting communism, the TFP network then expanded across Latin America, the USA, and Europe. Affiliates wanted to restore monarchy, but they often settled for supporting military dictatorships. In Chile, TFP members accused Catholic priests who spoke out against General Augusto Pinochet’s gross human rights abuses of favoring “Marxization.”
After the Soviet Union collapsed, TFP had to rebrand. Nowadays the movement is involved with activists and politicians who appear to subscribe to a conspiracy theory about the supposed threat of “gender ideology”: that Marxists are plotting to destroy the traditional family by erasing differences between men and women, and that this will lead to the extinction of white people.
Hugo Bos, who is the chairman of the TFP spinoff in the Netherlands, told us his ideal society is “the Holy Roman Empire.” Last year, Ordo Iuris, which has drafted multiple legal proposals to make Poland’s nearly total abortion ban even stricter, invited Bos to speak at a press conference about banning abortion from an “international perspective.” (Lewandowski says for his part he has “never even met someone from TFP.”)
As for Duke Paul von Oldenburg, his obsession is the concept of the ancient Roman “paterfamilias—where the oldest man of the household rules over the lives of everyone else. His cousin is Beatrix von Storch, a politician in the radical right Alternative für Deutschland Party and the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister, who is also heavily involved in various campaigns to roll back reproductive and sexuality rights.
“To hate inequality is to hate God,” is one of the mantras on the German TFP website. German journalist Andreas Kemper has noted that so many aristocrats are concerned with protecting the idea of the “traditional family” because they fear changes could target their inheritance not only of property but of pedigree.
A DARK TUNNEL
The 97 Polish municipal councils and local governments that have declared themselves as “LGBT-free zones” are now sending their “free from LGBT ideology” and “pro family” resolutions to schools to demand that they not work with certain progressive organizations.
But even before, Ordo Iuris was already monitoring funding going to progressive groups from local governments. Last summer they sent out legal letters to NGOs, demanding information on all cases of public funding they got. In any cases where a gay rights group, or another organization they didn’t like, was getting public funding, they would publish their findings make a scandal.
In 2016, the LGBTQ-activist Bartosz Staszewski posed as a masters student to get into an event hosted by Ordo Iuris called Agenda Europe. Since 2013, this event has served as a sort of pan-European mixer for American hate groups, right-wing European politicians and anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice super-Catholics who want to share tactics for banning abortion, stopping same-sex marriage, and so on.
What disturbed Staszewski the most, he says, was to observe the attendees. They “had files and were talking about what words to use or not to use.” One Family Watch International powerpoint included instructions to speak of “unsavory policies” (such as decriminalizing domestic violence) in terms of “family rights.” A Slovakian priest gave a presentation on a (failed) referendum to ban same-sex marriage.
“There was an atmosphere like they were at war,” Staszewski says. “They behaved like they were a small light in a dark tunnel.”
Currently, Ordo Iuris is suing Jakub Gawron, one of the LGBTQ activists who created the online “Atlas of Hate,” a map of Poland to delineate the country’s anti-gay zones, which in total cover an area larger than the size of Hungary. Ordo Iuris is accusing Gawron for defamation, on behalf of municipal councils that adopted their “pro family charter” which the group says is distinct from anti-LGBTQ activism.
The Campaign against Homophobia will support Gawron’s case.