An annual countrywide event supporting the acceptance of LGBTQ students in Poland became a target of conservative groups and politicians last Friday.
Called Rainbow Friday, the event is dedicated to shedding light on LGBTQ issues in Poland through schools by highlighting LGBTQ history or discussing LGBTQ topics in some form within the curriculum. This year was to mark the fourth year of Rainbow Friday, organized by Campaign against Homophobia, or KPH, with over 200 schools scheduled to participate. However, motivated by right-wing media, a backlash ensued causing the Polish government to speak out against the day.
A statement from KPH and international LGBTQ rights group ILGA-Europe said that the day before the event the Polish Bishop’s Conference, the Episcopate, condemned the event and LGBTQ discussions in schools. Soon after, the Minister of National Education, Anna Zalewska, told media that schools that did participate in Rainbow Friday were actually breaking education laws.
This led to some schools forbidding the event even taking place.
Schools reported to KPH that unannounced inspections happened, supposedly to find any indication that the schools were part of Rainbow Friday, ILGA-Europe and KPH said.
KPH’s Executive Director Slava Melnyk tells INTO that some teachers had been reportedly threatened with disciplinary action if they had indeed participated.
KPH, Melnyk explains, has previously worked with teachers on supporting LGBTQ students and on creating accepting environments. However, even though Rainbow Friday had been organized previously, “The backlash we witnessed was of an enormous proportion.”
Rainbow Friday was inspired by global movements including Spirit Day in the United States, Melnyk says. “It’s a day about inclusion and a day talking about LGBTQ rights. It’s not new in the world. It’s a global movement and Rainbow Friday is an element of it.”
The inspiration for the day came several years ago when a student died by suicide because he was considered not straight enough, regardless of his sexuality.
“He was not following the typical macho-norm in Poland and he was homophobically bullied,” Melnyk tells INTO.
The student’s death led to the previous government calling for assistance in combatting this sort of violence in schools due to a lack of resources, he says. KPH came forward and started Rainbow Friday.
But that was a different administration. Times have changed.
ILGA-Europe and KPH report that Zalewska herself had been to some schools in Warsaw to inspect them. Schools told KPH that trucks with anti-LGBTQ messages were parked around some schools in the country.
The day before Rainbow Friday was to take place, Zalewska told local media that those deciding to organize the event were “bypassing procedures” and that would mean school leaders broke the law on education. She also urged parents to tell school boards if their children’s school had been part.
The National Education Ministry also said the number of schools participating was small, writing on Twitter: “We know that the action [around] so-called Rainbow Friday was marginal.”
But Melnyk explains that in the last three years the number of schools participating has increased from 70 to 211.
The ministry also threatened the teachers and school officials who did end up recognizing the day.
“There will be a thorough analysis of whether or not the educational law has been broken,” the ministry wrote.
Melnyk says that they have reports of some principals calling students to their offices and telling them a message from the ministry of education said that rainbow items had to be thrown away and it was illegal for the students to wear them.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Melnyk tells INTO.
The main issue that the ministry of education keeps bringing up is whether the cooperation between KPH and schools required parental permission for Rainbow Friday.
Melnyk says KPH provides material, but it’s up to the discretion of the schools, teachers, and students to use them. It’s a cornerstone of the day because the local school staff knows more about the environment of their particular school.
Regarding the education law, he explains it states that “schools should educate young people in the spirit of tolerance, respect, and human rights.”
At the end of the day, the event is meant to do just that by highlighting LGBTQ history and overall acceptance, Melnyk says.
An example he gives is teaching about the persecution of LGBTQ people during World War II or simply screening a movie on a queer theme.
“Rainbow Friday,” Melnyk says, “is the day to show [LGBTQ topics] clearly and symbolically.”
Next year, though, KPH will organize differently due to this year’s backlash. However, Melnyk says, the spirit remains strong.
“It was the students who decided to show solidarity with the LGBTI community by wearing rainbow clothing,” he says. “[The law] doesn’t say students can’t show support with their clothes.”
KPH has now organized legal support for those who might face discipline for supporting Rainbow Friday.
In their statement to the media, KPH and ILGA-Europe said that the organized efforts against Rainbow Friday were planned ahead of time in order to undermine LGBTQ rights and education.
“This points to the fact that this was not a one-off media storm, but a premeditated, ongoing attack on awareness-raising about LGBT people and autonomy of schools in Poland. This is yet another level of an attack on the rule of law in the country,” they said.
Melnyk tells INTO that the attacks on Rainbow Friday actually seemed to motivate a significant number of politicians to come out to support the event like never before.
The threats by ministry officials also didn’t seem to bother some students who were posting images of their rainbow gear on Instagram and other social media sites with “#teczowpiatek,” which is Rainbow Friday in Polish.
“[Students] are fed up with being disciplined [for] who they are or who they support,” Melnyk says.
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