Watch: Polish LGBTQ+ activist opens up about facing death threats for his work

Bart Staszewski spoke as part of a new video campaign by the UN highlighting human rights defenders around the globe.

A bearded man with glasses sitting in front of a bookshelf

The United Nations have launched a 10-week video campaign, Diversity in Adversity, each episode highlighting and celebrating a different LGBTQ+ human rights defender and activist around the globe and the incredible work they do.

In a statement released last week, UN experts detailed the serious risks faced by the defenders of LGBTQ+ rights worldwide. A prime example of this is activist Bart Staszewski from Poland who not only faced legal action, but was attacked by politicians and television media for his work, resulting in death threats.

Staszewski made headlines around the world for a photo series he created showing the proliferation of ‘LGBT Free Zones’ throughout his native country. Before that, however, the activist was involved in launching the first Pride march in Lublin, despite opposition.

During the video, Staszewski described that the Pride march “was a very beautiful thing. It ended in a riot because there was many hooligans attacking us, but on the other hand, it was very important for it to happen.” He continued, “You will always need to fight for yourself. It’s not given to you.”

In 2019, attacks against the LGBTQ+ community in Poland saw a stark rise following the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric at the forefront of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, reelection campaign.

Local governments across Poland proceeded to declare their village or regional assembly free of ‘LGBT+ ideology’. After this declaration, a local Polish newspaper, Gazeta Polska, announced that their July 24 edition would include stickers featuring a black cross over a pride flag, with the words ‘LGBT Free Zone’.

Staszewski decided that if towns wanted to be so open about their bigotry – “Let’s make it visible, let’s put the mirror to those homophobic faces.” The activist created signs which declared the towns ‘LGBT Free Zones’ and photographed queer people alongside them.

The photo series went viral, drawing international attention and support for the Polish queer community. The European Union also withheld funding, eventually leading to most of the towns backing down from their stance.

However, the photo series also drew attention from less friendly sources. Staszewski explained that the “Prime Minister of Poland described me as a fake news maker, public TV blamed me for every penny that Poland lost from the European funds that had been cancelled.” While he also faced lawsuits for his work, he refused to leave Poland. “It is my country,” he described, “I will not be one of those who has been booted out by force.”

Staszewski concluded the interview by sharing, “I think that my biggest success so far was to highlight the homophobia in Poland, highlight the problem of ‘LGBT Free Zones’ and the homophobic politicians. And to get the feedback that we are not alone.”

Follow the UN Diversity in Adversity campaign over the coming weeks and keep up-to-date by visiting the dedicated UN webpage here.

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