We set off from the Arsenal gallery in a small group of about 20 people, first through Białystok’s Branicki Palace gardens, where a “family picnic” is in full swing, organised by the Law and Justice party local authorities as a contrast to the Pride march. There are bouncy castles, but what there’s most of is military stuff, border guards, some big guns and armoured personnel carriers − it’s a family event, for the kiddies, so let’s have plenty of militarism.
We continue along Skłodowska Street towards the square from where the march is meant to start, but some people are running away from there and heading down another street, because marchers are being hit. So we turn into Blues Avenue, then into Suraska Street. Just before the square, we can see gangs of thugs 10 metres ahead of us, attacking people: a large guy in a red balaclava is kicking everyone in sight, including some teenage girls, with the full weight of his body. Some in the crowd run away, but more of the “warriors”, beefy men with angry faces, go for them.
We take refuge in a pharmacy. The staff are horrified and there’s a frightened girl of about 10 with her mother (they probably weren’t going to the march). “Do something, Mummy,” she wails, “get me out of here, I’m scared.” Moments later, a trembling teenage girl rushes in, with what’s left of her ripped handbag hanging from her shoulder; she tries to call the friend with whom she was marching but he was attacked again and they’ve lost phone contact. I try to reassure her. I do up the shoulder strap on her dungarees, and we make sure none of her things are lost, because she had to pick them up from the pavement and put them in her backpack.
Thugs run past the windows, one of them carrying a burning rainbow flag. There are clouds of smoke. My friend M thinks they’ve set fire to a car, but these are smoke bombs. When things start to calm down, we stand in the doorway and look around to see what we should do.
After hiding behind some police cars, we reach the square. I was supposed to be making a speech at the opening, but it’s out of the question – this is like a riot. Beneath a monument on the far side of the square there are hooligans, with flags, and in the centre there’s the rather inconspicuous parade with its rainbow flags. There’s a stink of rotten eggs and lots of abusive shouting. The police cordon isn’t “tight”, as the press later reported – there are big gaps near us, so now and then hoodlums lunge at the marchers, ripping their placards to pieces and threatening to beat them up.
Most of all, they bellow insult after insult, some in gangs, others individually, some with their own crazy monologues. And everywhere there are hands showing the finger, lots and lots of those middle fingers, to say, “Fuck you, faggots”. They are chanting, “Fags out!” (to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West), which is also written on their shirts.
Altogether, there’s plenty of sexual reference: sex is pouring from their mouths, throats and eyes. A skinny little guy comes running after us for just about the entire march. He’ll be with us for a good hour and a half; now and then, his nice, tanned face will loom up, distorted with rage, but plainly with fascination, too.
There are almost only men here. Sometimes one holds a woman by the hand, but this is a men’s club: hooligans old and young; some in neo-fascist attire, others like typical uncles or grandads, holding shopping bags, with sagging cheeks and comb-overs; work-worn blokes in down-at-heel shoes, sweat stains under their arms.
These are ordinary, thoroughly ordinary people: nice Mr Kowalski from the allotments, Mr Nowak who goes to the local shop, Mr Wolski from No 6. But with masks instead of their usual faces, which are altered in a nightmarish way, their eyes full of blood, their voices raucous, yelling, “fuck, arse, faggots”. The fact that those rosaries, those crosses, those icons of Jesus they’re holding up are soiled with filth, interlaced with the ugliest words of all, with linguistic excrement, is an act of blasphemy no Polish bishop will ever condemn.
There are bottles flying. The whole way, we march amid the stench of rotten eggs; the cobbles are covered in yellow gunk. We pass a girl of about 20, with very fine features.She stops and takes a break, facing away from the front of the march; she has a huge, bleeding lump on her forehead, the size of a plum; her brother strokes her arm and, with a smile, she says something about how everyone’s looking, so she combs her hair the other way with her fingers to cover up the mark.
There’s non-stop whistling, and bangers exploding. There’s also non-stop chanting: “Fuck-off-out-of-it! But the Pride march gathers strength; we start chanting too, drowning out their shrieks.
We pass a guy with a beer belly bulging from under his T-shirt like risen dough from a bread tin; he’s wielding a snapped-off pedal (in Polish, pedał means a bike pedal, but also “faggot”), twirling it with abandon. He’s like a sozzled uncle at a wedding who thinks he’s a great comedian. “Your-bike’s-bust-ed! ” we chant at him, but he’s inordinately pleased with himself.
Now and then, a lorry drives along the march with a megaphone, spitting out Catholic propaganda about how gays and lesbians rape children by the dozen. But finally our own truck playing music drives up, too. Crude insults are hurled by a guy with black hair, wearing a T-shirt inscribed “Army of God” and “I’m not ashamed of Jesus” (but what if Jesus is ashamed of you, I wonder). When our truck starts playing Abba, he’s soon wiggling to the music, probably without even realising it. So it seems our songs are better than the ones in church.
We march doggedly, through a series of blockades, and it seems as if we are marching through the darkest valley, a lions’ den, though these are definitely less noble animals.
As well as the hooligans, now there are others: young women with clenched jaws, old and middle-aged women. One, in a silk shawl, doesn’t give us the finger, but the thumbs down instead. When we respond with a stream of hearts and kisses, she smiles a syrupy smile and draws the sign of the cross over us. Next to her, there’s a woman who looks about 80 and she’s radiant, waving at us enthusiastically. So here stand two different Polands, shoulder to shoulder. Above them, in a housing block, there’s another old woman standing on a balcony, blowing us kisses. Higher up, there’s a furious, beefy man with a cigarette in his mouth, firing a volley of fuck-you signs at us.
I’m trying to understand it all, all this fury, all this gutter filth.
The same sort of ordinary people are marching beside us: there’s a touching old couple, holding hands, and two couples with pushchairs. There are lots of straight people, marching either for friends or relatives or out of basic human decency, to be on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. There’s a woman with a dachshund and our part of the march is worried we might be going too fast for the little dog, that he might be feeling stressed. We’re worried about the children, too, but somehow we don’t say that out loud, perhaps to avoid jinxing the situation. A boy and a girl are carrying a large card with the word LOVE on it; – it’s all creased and crumpled but, arm in arm, they’re carrying it anyway.
The contrast between the courage of the people marching and the cowardice of the people attacking them is staggering. Now and then, a pushier thug appears from behind the police, trying to go for someone one-to-one. It’s always a guy the size of a wardrobe, wanting to take on a lad half his size, or a musclebound 40-year-old man against a 15-year-old girl with a hair bow – what fine defenders of widows and orphans. We’re fully aware that, if the police weren’t here, it wouldn’t stop at hitting, spitting and kicking: Białystok has had pogroms before. And those were the work of perfectly ordinary people, too. From the start, M has been shaking badly, unable to get over the sight of that thug in the red balaclava kicking the girl – but he carries on marching. I can tell how much it’s costing him, but I know he’s far braver than the guys in the T-shirts with the “cursed soldiers” and Warsaw Uprising anchors on them (both are icons of Polish wartime suffering, sacred symbols for the nationalists). They are bold with the boldness of the herd, which is sure of its impunity as it attacks a lone victim.
As we pass the cathedral, source of all this fury, there’s a crowd on its steps. It was from here that the city’s archbishop, Tadeusz Wojda, sent out his message of “Non possumus” (“we cannot [agree]” for the march to go through the city) earlier in the month – we can’t allow free citizens of Poland to exercise their constitutional rights. Now all these Mr Kowalskis and Mrs Bielskas, in their flowery cotton dresses, the Damians with “Law of the Wolf” on their shirts and in their eyes, are standing the length of the march, running and showing the finger, spewing forth their homily of vulgarities. Wojda doesn’t have to attack anyone in person. Hooligan gangs preach his gospel for him.
We’ve been standing here for so long that people ask me to get up on the platform and make the speech I was supposed to make at the start. I don’t bother to get out my notes and speak off the top of my head, so it’s not entirely coherent. I do my best, but I can’t find the voice I’d like to find − one that sounds more hopeful.
Afterwards, I stay on the platform, because now we are moving again. From up here, with the music, the whole scene looks slightly different, and I decide to send two, three, five times more kisses and hearts to all the people showing us the finger. A girl of about 15 in the crowd glares at me angrily and, without losing eye contact, slowly draws a finger across her throat. The wheels of the platform roll over a ripped-up cobblestone that was thrown at us. A marshal extracts another from under the wheels and takes it over to the policemen to ask what he should do with it, but they just shrug. Ahead, there’s another volley of bangers, and the police force a passage into the final square for us.
So here we are, we got there, we did it despite Wojda’s declaration. But we’re surrounded by hatred.
There’s a drag queen on the platform and she’s taking off her shoes. I wonder how long it will take to disassemble her costume. And around me everyone’s doing the same. It feels agonising, possibly even worse than the sea of furious faces. Everyone is disguising themselves.
The boy next to me tells his girlfriend to take off her glasses and gently unpeels the rings of glitter sparkling around her eyes. A girl with a cloud of gauze tries to hide it in her supermarket carrier bag but finally realises it’s impossible to hide so she tosses the bag on to the platform. Everyone is taking off their rainbow accessories, folding up flags, stuffing them into black backpacks and putting on dark clothing. Somehow, they have to get out of here, and they have to go on living in this city.
My friend J comes to fetch me and we walk to the car together, at first with a radio journalist holding a microphone – she has asked for a comment, and I give her one, because it’s a bit safer like this, they probably won’t beat us up in the eyes or ears of the media, that might hold them back; then we walk on, across the sunny city, one guy leaps in my direction and kicks, but wide of the mark, any old how, while screeching something, “fuck off fucking faggots”, but after that things are calmer. We reach the “family picnic”, with the big guns and military stuff, and he comments that the city actually made the grade, because that sort of picnic distracts people from going to attack others. I explain that in fact it’s there to counteract the march and there’s nothing innocent about it. He doesn’t entirely believe me, until we pass two security guards standing at the entrance to the park and a telling incident occurs.
We have just walked between the two guards when a couple of young girls appear from the opposite direction, one with a star stuck on her cheek. The guards refuse to let them through: this is the exit, not the entrance, they say. The girls ask where the entrance is and the guards reply that they won’t be let in anyway, because they’re from the march and people from the march aren’t being admitted to the “family picnic”.
“Hold on,” says J, “we’re from the march and we walked through!” The guards are embarrassed, saying that’s very bad, and that they won’t let the girls in. “But the march is over now,” says J. That’s irrelevant, they say, the picnic is obviously an LGBT-free zone.
J, who happens to be heterosexual, drove me home to Warsaw. He told me what had made the deepest impression on him. It was a woman with a toddler, aged about two or three, both of whose tiny hands she was posing to show the middle finger, while she said: “This is how you do it!” And then she chanted: “Fuck-off-fag-gots! Fuck-off-fag-gots!”
Jacek Dehnel is a novelist, poet and columnist who speaks publicly on issues affecting Poland’s LGBT community. In 2018 he married his long-term partner in London, as same-sex marriage is not legally recognised in Poland. Antonia Lloyd-Jones translated
Why Poland’s ruling party is demonising ‘LGBT ideology’
The brutal attack on last weekend’s equality march in the city of Białystok, in north-eastern Poland, occurred amid a government campaign to whip up homophobic feeling and fear of so-called “LGBT ideology”.
Twenty-five people were detained by police after the attack on the march, during which far-right nationalist hooligans threw bottles, fireworks, rocks, rotten eggs and punches at participants. Opponents of the march spat, swore, and hurled abuse – in between invocations of fealty to God and the fatherland.
Two days after the march, Tadeusz Wojda, archbishop of Białystok, condemned the violence as “incompatible with the attitude of a Christian”, his brief statement leading swiftly on to an appeal for people to pray “for the family and its internal purity”.
Far-right thugs have been a presence on Polish streets since the early 1990s. What has changed in recent years is that the government itself now routinely makes statements that would make the average God-fearing hooligan blush. Ahead of the 2015 elections that brought the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) to power – and which were held at the peak of the European migration crisis – the PiS, ), then in opposition, portrayed Muslim migrants as the great existential threat to the nation. Now, with key parliamentary elections due in the autumn, gay rights are being constituted as the new invasion.
“These ideologies, philosophies, all of this is imported. These are not internal Polish mechanisms,” PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński told a party gathering ahead of the recent European elections. “They are a threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence.”
In many ways, however, what Kaczyński and the thugs on the streets of Białystok are all expressing is a sense of impotent rage that Polish society as a whole is moving away from them. This was the first equality march in Białystok – just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for many that such an event could be held at all. For Wojda, who decried it as “an initiative alien to our land and society”, it clearly still is.
But the church’s authority is collapsing, leaving nationalists and conservatives terrified that their country will go the way of Ireland and adopt a “new morality” rooted in the language of diversity and human rights. The fear is well-founded. On Saturday in Warsaw more than 1,000 gathered in support of gay rights after the violence in Bialystok. Amelia Rae, 15, said: “If anything is going to change then the government needs to change.”