Why Rainbow Benches Are Dividing Poland
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This battle over the color of public infrastructure could shape the LGBTQ movement in the conservative nation.
By Juliette Bretan
The floral rainbow constructed on Warsaw’s hip Plac Zbawiciela in 2012 was meant as a universal symbol of love and peace. But it was burned down five times by anti-LGBTQ groups until it was permanently removed in 2015. Yet those who attacked the installation and thought they had won were mistaken. The Plac Zbawiciela rainbow took on a new identity as a symbol of LGBTQ assertiveness. Last year it was finally reinstated, this time as an “unbreakable” water hologram rainbow.
On the streets of Poland, there’s a growing battle over rainbow-colored public infrastructure, with recent plans for rainbow benches and roundabouts facing a backlash from the conservative mainstream. But supporters are standing firm — and with more LGBTQ-friendly displays planned across the country, these projects point to a growing assertiveness in the Polish LGBTQ movement.
LGBTQ acceptance in conservative, Catholic Poland has historically been low, with the community described by politicians and Church figures as a “rainbow plague” and an ideology that could “take over Poland.” The situation has worsened under the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which stoked anti-LGBTQ attitudes in its campaign in the recent October elections. Local authorities, particularly in the southeast, have declared their jurisdictions LGBTQ-free zones, promising to prevent measures to improve tolerance and refraining from offering financial assistance to NGOs promoting equal rights — a move criticized by the European Parliament.
But the LGBTQ community is fighting back. In the northwest city of Szczecin, residents have launched a petition to create the first rainbow roundabout in Poland. The petition, which currently has nearly 400 signatures, describes Szczecin as “a tolerant city.” Three hundred miles away in the conservative hotbed of the Polish southeast, the city of Kielce is witnessing a similar tussle over plans for rainbow-colored benches.
It is good — no one will be able to neglect us anymore.
Monika Tichy of Lambda Szczecin, a Polish LGBTQ rights organization
The benches, part of a wider project to create 20 leisure spaces in the city, were voted in by nearly 1,300 people as part of the Citizens’ Budget, a public consultation on city funding. But though the organizers of the benches chose the rainbow colors to brighten the city, with aims for the project to be “dedicated to all citizens,” the plan has since faced a backlash. Yet the battle over public visibility — as in the case of the benches — has only worked to galvanize the country’s LGBTQ community, says Tomasz Wigor, a founding member of organization Prowincja Równości, which organized the first equality march in Kielce.
“We hope that other cities in Poland will follow in our footsteps and begin to color this gray Polish reality with rainbow benches,” the organizers behind the benches say in an email statement.
That won’t be easy. Implementing the plan in Kielce is proving difficult enough. Hundreds of local residents and people from across Poland have condemned the benches on social media, arguing they show an LGBTQ invasion of the local area. “I am against LGBTQ promotion,” says Piotr W., a resident who did not want to give his full name. “They wanted to make rainbow benches to make Kielce nicer. … They could be made in flowers or with something different-colored and neutral.”
“Once a rainbow was a beautiful phenomenon after the rain … unfortunately they made it disgusting in my eyes,” he adds. Local councilors in Kielce have also criticized the project. Chairman of the City Council Kamil Suchański wrote on social media that the benches are not “neutral in terms of worldview.”
Over in Szczecin, activists from the far-right party Confederation — which gained 11 MPs during the October elections — are proposing a roundabout to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, also known as the Miracle on the Vistula, instead of the rainbow roundabout. The battle represented a major Polish victory against the Soviet Union in 1920 and “unambiguously unites all Poles, not like the rainbow proposed,” the activists said in a public statement.
That the rainbow roundabout proposal should have kicked off a storm in Szczecin — a relatively moderate city by Polish standards — only underscores the challenges ahead. “It’s kinda ridiculous — a shit-storm around circles of paint on the asphalt!” says Monika Tichy, president of the Polish LGBTQ rights organization Lambda Szczecin.
Tichy says that she knows LGBTQ friends who have been abused by their neighbors in Szczecin, and equality marches in the city have also been disrupted. For her, it is vital that the LGBTQ community becomes more visible in everyday life in Poland to counteract conservative antagonism.
“Our rights have always been neglected by most of the mainstream political movements,” she explains. “Now they have been brought on the front line of the political fight. It is good — no one will be able to neglect us anymore. We cannot step back even for an inch.”
And there are more public displays of LGBTQ-friendly symbols planned across Poland: One of the cofounders of the Tolerado Association in Gdańsk, who goes by the name Fabian, posted an online poll in November asking whether the northern Polish city should also embrace rainbow infrastructure to increase LGBTQ visibility. “The city belongs to every citizen, also LGBTQ people,” he tells me.
The organizers of the Kielce benches fear it is inevitable that they will be destroyed due to the extreme conservative backlash. But they have hope that with the rising assertiveness of the LGBTQ community, things may change in time. These rainbow colors are proving far more important than mere paint. “One thing is certain,” they say in their statement. “If the benches are vandalized, we will submit a project to repair them in the next year’s edition of the participatory budgeting, so that they can be reborn again as a phoenix from ashes.”
- Juliette Bretan, OZY Author Contact Juliette Bretan