New York City-based LGBTQ activist Brendan Fay was visiting his hometown of Drogheda, Ireland, at the end of July when he received an urgent plea for help — from Poland.
The city of Bialystok in northeastern Poland descended into violence and chaos on July 20 when the area’s first-ever Pride March was tarnished by far-right homophobes who physically attacked demonstrators and hurled anti-LGBTQ slurs at them. Some assailants were arrested, but the impact of the attacks reverberated across the nation and prompted LGBTQ folks to rise up and take a bold stand for queer rights in a climate rife with conservative religious attitudes.
Fay, a longtime civil rights activist and filmmaker who founded the St. Pats for All Parade in Queens in 2000, was back home in Ireland to attend a wedding and his hometown’s first-ever Pride March. That was when he was asked by his friends in Poland to come participate in two demonstrations — one in Warsaw, the capital, and another at the epicenter of the violence in Bialystock.
“They said, ‘Brendan, we need you at the rally,’” Fay recalled. “There still weren’t many details at that point. They said it would be Polish community leaders and I would be the face of the international movement.”
As news of the protests spread around the world, Fay seized the opportunity. He scratched some of his hometown plans and booked a flight to Warsaw. It was an easy decision for him in light of his existing ties to the central European nation dating back more than a decade: He first visited Poland in 2008 when he went there to respond to attacks levied against him by then-President Lech Kaczynski, who showed an image of Fay and his husband, Tom Moulton, during an anti-gay speech. He had since returned multiple times.
Upon his arrival in Poland on July 27, Fay quickly dropped off his bags where he was staying and went straight to the Warsaw protest. He brought with him a Rainbow Flag signed by Gilbert Baker, the creator of the flag, and spent time with numerous local LGBTQ leaders including Anna Grodzska, a transgender member of Poland’s parliament, Ewa Holuszko, a transgender community leader, and Robert Biedroń, a prominent politician and LGBTQ activist in Poland and currently a member of the European Parliament.
It was at the Warsaw rally that he heard raw, firsthand accounts of the violent attacks in Bialystock. Rainbow Flags were ripped and torched; stones, bricks, and cans were thrown at people; and, at one point, attackers started urinating in bottles and throwing those bottles at LGBTQ people.
“This was a traumatic and shocking experience [for the demonstrators],” Fay said.
The July 20 attack emerged at a time when the overwhelmingly Catholic nation is grappling with emerging political friction ahead of looming parliamentary elections slated for October. Poland’s ruling nationalist party, known as the Law and Justice Party, was under fire earlier this year for opposing a new LGBTQ education program in Warsaw. Influential Catholic leaders also voiced strong opposition to the program, calling it an “attack on families, on children.”
Yet, Fay saw LGBTQ-friendly Catholic groups and broader Christian-related organizations at the demonstrations. Queer folks of all backgrounds emerged from the shadows to stand with the community, giving people an outlet through which they could express emotions that reflected the marginalization of LGBTQ life in Poland. The atmosphere at the rallies, Fay said, included “tears, anger, and rage.”
“There was a certain vibrancy in people raising the Rainbow Flags and Polish flag,” he said. “There was a sense of coming together in response to this.”
At the Warsaw protest, Fay brought strong messages of solidarity and support from communities in New York and Ireland. In his remarks, Fay told political and religious leaders to stop spreading divisive anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and further conveyed that violent attacks like the one in Bialystok — especially attacks on younger activists — can cause more than just physical harm.
“The young people often experience bullying and intimidation,” he said. “Sometimes seasoned activists build inner strength and resistance.”
The day after the Warsaw gathering, Fay hopped on a bus with Polish LGBTQ activists and rode several hours northeast to Bialystok for another rally. The area is not rural — the population is just under 300,000 — but it is a fraction of the size of Warsaw and is surrounded by countryside.
“Bialystok was much more intimate,” Fay said. “How the rally closed was so different from Warsaw. The last speaker was an elder leader of a Polish socialist party. I was told to return to the stage with all the presenters, and politicians moved forward. Everyone began singing an anti-fascist anthem. We held hands and danced together.”
The presence of anti-fascist groups represented the fear instilled in progressive Poles who have seen the rise of fascist ideology in their country. Fay was impressed by the Polish people’s concern for the future of a nation that has not embraced LGBTQ rights as much as many other countries in Europe and around the world.
“This was so moving,” he said. “You had all these young people linking arms. I was in the middle and led by this elder of another generation.”
Now back in Ireland to wrap up his original trip, Fay is reflecting on his quick detour to Poland with a feeling of hope for the future. He left Poland with an even greater appreciation for the activism and resilience there, but perhaps above all there was one moment will stick with him forever.
“Someone said to me, ‘This could be Poland’s Stonewall movement,’” he said. “I hope that people will remember Bialystock when they go to the polls and vote.”