For the past 20 years, Szymon Niemiec wore a rainbow-colored stole at the Equality Parade in the Polish capital of Warsaw on June 19.
“I won’t have a banner because I will be leading the entire parade. I can’t keep my hands full.”
The 43-year-old leads somewhat contradictory roles; as a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and as a priest, in a country where church and government are united in condemnation of and hostility towards the LGBTQ community.
Niemiec organized Poland’s first Equality Parade in Warsaw 10 years ago. It drew a crowd of 300 people. By 2003, thousands joined and in 2019, 50,000 people marched in the largest Pride event in central and eastern Europe. Now, in at least 20 cities across Poland, the parades are taking place throughout June with fewer numbers because of the pandemic.
“Just holding a rainbow umbrella or bag could get you kicked out from the church.”
According to Time magazine,
Homophobia is on the rise in Poland, fueled by hateful comments from the government and Roman Catholic Church (RCC) leaders. According to a 2020 survey by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based advocacy group, Poland ranks as the most homophobic country of the E.U.’s 27 member- states. In the past two years, 94 local authorities have adopted non-binding resolutions opposing what they call the “LGBT ideology”, labelled “humanity free” zones by E.U. president Ursula von der Leyen.
“It has a chilling effect on people living there, who are now even more scared to come out. Those who bully LGBTQ people are emboldened by homophobic politicians,” says Bart Staszewski, a Polish director and LGBTQ rights activist.
In deeply devout Poland, where 87% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, activists are trying to create a space for people to be openly LGBTQ and also Christian. They are part of a growing international movement of churches and religious organizations that advocate LGBTQ rights.
But in 2019, Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, referred to LGBTQ people as
“the rainbow plague”
Last summer, Polish President Andrej Duda declared,
“LGBT are not people; they are an ideology.”
In 1998, Niemiec became an activist as a 21-year-old journalist for a weekly newspaper covering news of Warsaw. His editor in chief sent him to report on what Niemiec calls one of the first gay demonstrations in the city. Like the two men, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. The spontaneous decision was both his coming out as gay and first act of LGBTQ activism.
“Two men and a lot of journalists attended… It triggered something in me,”
Niemiec says the next day he was fired from his job.
“My boss told me that I crossed a line by joining the demonstration.”
In 1998, five years before the passing of anti-discrimination legislation in Poland’s labor code, he says it was possible for someone to lose their job for being openly LGBTQ or being seen to support this community’s rights.
One of his main goals was to find churches that welcomed the LGBTQ community. He wrote to every church and religious association in the country. He did not receive a single response.
“We were rejected.”
Niemiec was forced to stop holding public masses after a public prosecutor in October 2019 accused him and two of his colleagues of “offending religious feelings”. The offense is punishable by up to two years in jail.
Niemiec no longer holds public masses, but he still conducts private weddings, funerals and other services.
“If anyone needs me to make sacraments, I will be there… there are people like me all over the world”.
After a year of restricted religious services and virtual meetings due to the pandemic, this year’s Equality Parade is an especially significant celebration for activists of faith.
The Unorthodox Priest Leading Poland’s Fight for LGBTQ Rights— gaymen-online (@gaymen_online) June 18, 2021
This year, like every year for the past 20, Szymon Niemiec will wear a rainbow-colored stole at the Equality Parade in the Polish capital of Warsaw on June 19.https://t.co/Kshd8jX1wC pic.twitter.com/ynJCjbaSxb