Bart Staszewski

Interview by
Andrew Pasquier
Photography by
Kuba Ryniewicz


After eight years of homophobic rule, Poland’s Law and Justice party lost the country’s recent election, giving queers of all stripes hope for new rights and less hate-spewing. Before kicking off Warsaw pride with a film screening and after-party tonight, BUTT spoke with Bart Staszewski about the political situation in Poland. The rainbow-loving rabble rouser has been at the forefront of advocacy and the target for state smear campaigns in the country of 41 million. Blasphemy!

Andrew Pasquier: Hey Bart. Can you introduce yourself? Tell me about the work you’ve been doing in Poland.
Bart Staszewski: I’ve been an LGBT activist for about 14 years now. It’s amazing how long it takes. We have a new government after eight years of a right-wing one which targeted us with smear campaigns. It was a horrible nightmare. And now suddenly, we have this one-time opportunity to create laws that will give us at least the first steps towards full equality in Poland. For instance, civil unions are included in a proposed hate speech law.
How did you get into activism?
I was pissed off. The NGOs here were handling things badly back then. But instead of, you know, trolling them on Facebook, I started to think maybe I should start my own. And this was like, 14 years ago, when I started to meet people who were really focused on fighting back against the government. And suddenly, we became one of the leading NGOs fighting for marriage equality in Poland. The group, which was formed by various friends, became quite big, one of the three biggest NGOs in Poland. It’s called iłość Nie Wyklucza, ‘Love Does Not Exclude’. This is where I met my boyfriend – he was our lawyer! He was one of the people who created the first civil unions bills. He was constantly ignoring me. I liked this type of attitude.
It’s a bit of a turn on.
Yes. (laughs) Since then, we’re still together and fighting for the same shit.
How big is the organization? You, your boyfriend, and a few others, I’m guessing?
There are about 14 of us.
Wow. Is most of your work in legal and policy advocacy?
Yeah. And of course in education. The way to reach people when the Law and Justice Party was in power was all very grassroots. I created my own NGO called Basta Foundation which is dedicated to fighting hate speech in the media. When I was fighting with the last right-wing government, I understood that this was a real priority – to have a new, reintroduced hate speech law.
So, there is a preexisting hate speech law, but it didn’t include homophobia?
It was about other, different minorities, but never LGBT people. And it was ignored and unenforced for many years. Now, we have a very good understanding of what can happen when you are not protected. The new pro-EU government is working on the bill. I am very, very involved in campaigning for this change. Hopefully it will be passed soon, and it will be a very big step forward.

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Amazing. I read you grew up in Lublin, and that you started the first Pride parade there. What was it like growing up gay in eastern Poland? Were there spaces where you went as a teenager, like underground gay bars?
Nothing like this. There was a great shadow over that time in my life. I was focused on school, focused on, you know, being the one gay in the village – not understanding that there was anyone else. Some years later there was a gay pub, which now is closed. It’s a shame because Lublin is one of the biggest university cities but the community doesn’t have anywhere to go out. But it’s also telling about the situation in Poland – that people are still in the closet, afraid of meeting, so clubs couldn’t earn enough money to pay their bills because people were not really comfortable to show up there. But things are starting to change. When I visit my mother, I see gays holding hands in public. I remember at our second Pride in 2019 there were hundreds of hooligans attacking us.
Fuck. What was the context for the attacks?
The mayor of Lublin, who was part of the liberal Civic Platform party but still very conservative, banned our Pride. We understood that we will always need to fight for our rights. They will not be given to us. At the march, the hooligans attacked us, even trying to detonate homemade explosives. It was our small Stonewall in Lublin. I understood how privileged I was then because I was living in Warsaw at the time. Others in Lublin were afraid to even use their real name or appear in public because they could lose their job. The state TV channel started a hate campaign against me for one year, describing me as one of the reasons why Poland was not getting funds from the European Union. Because Bart and LGBT activists were creating this fake campaign to smear Poland.
They were calling you a traitor, basically.
Yes. Each time there was some problem with money, the government and state media would just throw out the line that Bart Staszewski or some other activist is to blame. Of course, this led to me receiving lots of hate speech – all these horrible things I still get in my mailbox, on Facebook and everywhere. Tomorrow, it’s the start of the court case I filed against the state TV. One of the problems with the new government is that they don’t really see the need to go into dialogue with civil society. They don’t treat it seriously. It’s been six months since the new government came into power. There was such a big expectation after eight years of Law and Justice party rule. Politicians promised change, wrapping themselves in the European Union flag, saying they are so European. Now they need to prove their democratic values or it was all just propaganda.

My community of activists are all drama queens, but we also use our drama for a good cause.

I recently saw a ranking that Poland is the most homophobic country in the EU. Do you feel like that’s true?
Recent polls show that more than 60% of Polish people support civil unions, whatever that means – civil unions can be everything and nothing. On the other hand, it’s a positive sign that a majority of people are supporting the idea of same-sex relationships. Politicians are always searching for excuses to not deliver, because we are not a player in their political game. We don’t have trade unions that can go and organize big protests, throw smoke grenades, get attacked by the police and make bad PR for Poland. And the conservatives, like the PSL party, the Farmers Party, always say that they support homosexuals but not civil unions, or that they support some civil unions, but without adoption rights. So what are you really supporting, then? There is nothing else in sight.
During the AIDS crisis, organizations like ACT UP created powerful visual language to support their activism. Are there certain symbols that have become really important in the fight for gay rights in Poland?
One of the most important symbols for me is the Polish coat of arms placed on the rainbow flag, which was created by a trans activist in 2016. She was always at the Pride parade with this big flag. I started to use it, and it became a big drama in Polish society. People thought it was distracting, disrespectful, and so on. But it became quite popular in Poland, because it was like a symbol of resistance. A symbol that we are a part of this nation. They want to erase us, they say we are foreign agents. But we are here. The flag doesn’t mean that we are nationalists. It’s just a symbol of resistance. There is also Daniel Rycharski, a quite a good contemporary artist, who is focusing on how to redesign church symbolism with the rainbow. He made a Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo, which went viral because the Polish government wanted to ban it.
And, the Catholic Church is famously powerful in Poland.
Exactly. We have a law which places religious feelings under special protection. It’s a criminal charge that was not used very often in the past, until Law and Justice came into power. Suddenly it became a tool for them to use against activists, so we started to create more blasphemous things, to provoke them. We did things like place small paper rainbow flags under the crosses around the city. This was considered a criminal offense. People got arrested! And by this act, we were showing that even a crucifix has more rights than we do in our society.
I love Catholic imagery being subverted in that way.
The Catholic Church was so involved with the whole propaganda campaign against us. The archbishop Marek Jędraszewski said how for many years, the Church helped Polish society fight back against the red flag, which was communism, and now we need to fight back against the rainbow flag – the ‘rainbow plague’. For years, the Church put all of their money and resources into the Law and Justice party. And they started to lose. So they became nervous.
That they were on the wrong side of history.
What excites you locally about the queer scene in Warsaw? What do you like to do for fun?
Oh, it’s all activism for me. I mean, my community of activists are all drama queens, but we also use our drama for a good cause. I am quite introverted. Most of the time when I’m not working, I’m sitting at home watching Netflix series. My boyfriend is more into art and he’s kind of my rock on cultural things.
Hopefully, with the new government, you’ll be able to relax a little bit more…right?
I’ll wait for them to deliver first. We are giving them the credit of trust, but all credit has its limit. It’s a new beginning and it’s up to our new leaders if they will make the same mistakes or not.

Published on 21 June 2024