Poland has become an increasingly unwelcoming place for the LGBTQ community. Fifty diplomats hope to change that.
- An open letter, signed by 50 ambassadors and NGO leaders, asked the Polish government to respect LGBT rights.
- The Polish Government responded by denying the implied discrimination exists.
- Poland has been deemed the "worst place to be gay" in the EU in spite of this.
Of all the countries in Europe to have a right-wing, authoritarian turn over the last few years, one would have thought Poland to be one of the least likely candidates.
After enduring a brutal invasion by Nazi Germany, suffering under the military regime imposed on them, and seeing millions of their countrymen die, Poland experienced fifty years of soviet-style dictatorship which ended only with the revolutions of 1989. Few nations have endured so much in living memory.
Despite these hard-won lessons, Poland has taken a turn towards authoritarianism over the last few years. As with all such turns, an enemy is designated as the implausible source of potential national decline and a threat to a decent way of life. In this case, it is LGBT+ individuals.
The stigmatization of LGBT+ individuals in Poland has been increasingly vicious, with several provinces, covering nearly a third of the country, having declared themselves "LGBT Free Zones." While of dubious legality and mostly unenforceable, the declarations seek to limit things such as pride parades by declaring the polity in opposition to "LGBT ideology." Despite the limited legal ramifications of these declarations, life for LGBT people in these zones can be unpleasant.
In response to this, more than 50 signatories, consisting primarily of ambassadors to Poland, have endorsed an open letter speaking to the need for all people to be able to enjoy their rights and the duties of governments to protect them.
Strongly worded letters, the weapon of champions.
Organized by the Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium in Poland, the open letter was signed by the Ambassadors of 43 nations representing most of Europe and all of continental North America, as well as several countries from Asia, Africa, and South America. Representatives of various international organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also signed.
The letter pays tribute to those working for LGBT+ rights in Poland and affirms the dignity found in each person "as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." It goes on to remind the reader that "respect for these fundamental rights, which are also enshrined in OSCE commitments and the obligations and standards of the Council of Europe and the European Union as communities of rights and values, obliges governments to protect all citizens from violence and discrimination and to ensure they enjoy equal opportunities."
It ends with the declaration, "Human rights are universal and everyone, including LGBT+ persons, are entitled to their full enjoyment. This is something that everyone should support."
The American Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, retweeted the letter and added, "Human Rights are not an ideology - they are universal. 50 Ambassadors and Representatives agree."
The Response of the Polish Government
The Polish Government was less than pleased with the letter and its implications.
The Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, rejected the letter and its implications, saying "nobody needs to teach us tolerance, because we are a nation that has learned such tolerance for centuries and we have given many testimonies to the history of such tolerance."
This sort of rebuttal is nothing new; just last week, when American Presidential Candidate Joe Biden tweeted that "LGBT-free zones' have no place in the European Union or anywhere in the world," the Polish Embassy in the United States was quick to say the tweet was based on inaccurate information, to reassure the world that there are no such zones, and to restate their belief there is no place for discrimination in society.
A quick fact check demonstrates otherwise. Several places in Poland have declared themselves to be "LGBT free zones," violence inspired by anti-LGBT+ propaganda has taken place, leading government figures have declared homosexuality to be a "threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state," and the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda has declared the LGBT movement to be more dangerous than Communism. Surveys show nearly a third of Poland's people believe in a grand conspiracy against them involving "gender ideology."
It is also worth repeating that Poland has been declared the worst place in the European Union for gay rights. Same-sex unions of any kind, including civil unions, are still illegal, and gay couples have no right to adopt children. Laws against hate crimes and conversion therapy are also notoriously lacking. Though to their credit, gay men and bisexuals can donate blood in Poland with greater ease then they can in the United States.
Despite having a first-hand understanding of the dangers of authoritarianism and intolerance than most nations, some in Poland continue to use the LGBT+ community as a boogeyman. While it is not the first time such things have been done, perhaps it will be one of the last.
Sexuality is fluid and it's important that people get to define it for themselves.
- Sexuality is fluid and ever-changing, and our understanding of it has come a long way since the invention of the Kinsey Scale in the 1940's.
- Defining your own sexuality is important as it is a uniquely personal experience.
- While creating labels for yourself can help you better understand your orientation and build connections along your sexual journey, it's important not to place labels on others. Be open to hearing how they see themselves and respectful enough to refer to them on those terms.
Sexuality can be a big part of your identity. It can encompass nearly every aspect of your being, including your actions, your attitude, your behaviors, and your feelings. It can impact the way you experience sexual attraction (if you do) and it can alter your preferences around sexual and romantic relationships.
Why is sexuality thought of as a spectrum?
A spectrum, in this context, is a tool that can help us better understand the fluidity of sexuality, among other things. The Kinsey Scale, perhaps one of the most well-known spectrum scales, was created in 1948 by Alfred Kinsey, founder of the Kinsey Institute.
The scale allows people at "zero" to report as exclusively heterosexual, and people at the opposite end (six) to report as exclusively homosexual - with ratings 1-5 being people who report varying levels of attraction or sexual activity with either sex. There is also a "category X" designated for those who report no sexual reactions or relations.
This scale was the first of it's kind and it challenged the perceptions of sexuality and really, was a starting point for where we are today.
Modern-day sexuality and labels...
Over time, we have learned more and more about the sexuality spectrum and it's become more and more normalized to place yourself really anywhere along the spectrum. It's safe to say we have come a very long way since the 1940s when the Kinsey Scale was first created.
Sexuality is fluid, it is ever-changing and extremely personal - defining your own sexuality is what's important, not placing these labels on others for them. It's also extremely normal to be overwhelmed by all the different words we now have to describe various sexual and romantic orientations, attractions, and behaviors.
Along with the ever-growing spectrum, it's our responsibility as human beings to adapt and expand the language we use to describe our own (and other people's) sexual preferences. While these "labels" can help us better understand ourselves, they are by no means set in stone.
Defining lesser-known orientations along the spectrum
Unofficial Kinsey Scale test (an official test does not exist, according to the Kinsey Institute)
"Many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one to the other extreme." - Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, 1953.
It's safe (and wonderful) to say that we have come a long way since the 1950's. Sexuality and sexual orientation have become more widely talked about, accepted, and even respected. There are still many areas of the world where people are punished for simply existing as who they are and loving who they love, but the best thing we can do as a society is to adapt and evolve with the spectrum.
In the spirit of adapting and growing, here is a breakdown of some lesser-known orientations along the sexuality spectrum.
Autosexual and/or Autoromantic
Autosexuality is the idea of being sexually attracted to yourself. Autoromantic describes the notion of being in a romantic relationship with yourself.
Autosexuality can mean being turned on by your own look, being excited to spend time alone rather than with a significant other, and/or masturbating to the idea of yourself.
Dr. Jess O'Reilly, a sex and relationship expert, suggests that we may all be "a shade of autosexual," with some people using it to define themselves and others shying away from it due to body shaming.
While autosexuality is often used synonymously with narcissism, Dr. O'Reilly believes otherwise: "[The core erotic feeling] is a feeling you require to even consider having sex, and for many of us, our core erotic feeling involves feeling sexy and feeling desired. You might have an outside source who conveys that desire or it may even be within yourself."
Dr. O'Reilly goes on to question: "Can't we give ourselves permission to feel arousal in response to our own body?"
Demisexual (compared to Graysexual and Asexual)
To be demisexual is to experience sexual attraction in very specific situations, most often with people you have an emotional connection with.
Someone who identifies as demisexual can typically only experience and thrive in sexual attraction once an emotional bond has been formed. That bond doesn't necessarily have to be explained as love or romance, but it can be friendship (even a platonic friendship) that allows them to feel a sexual or romantic attraction.
While many people choose to only have sexual relations with people we feel connected to, demisexual people aren't making that choice, but rather, they need that bond to even begin to feel sexually attracted to someone.
And yet, having an emotional bond with someone doesn't mean people who identify as demisexual will develop a sexual attraction to that person—just as heterosexual men are attracted to women but may not find every single woman they meet to be attractive.
Graysexual, on the other hand, is often considered as the "gray area" between asexual (a term used to describe not having any sexual attraction to others) and allosexual (the opposite of asexual; also called sexual).
People who identify as graysexual don't explicitly or exclusively identify with being asexual or allosexual. They do experience sexual attraction or desire on some level but perhaps not the same intensity as people on either end of the asexual-allosexual line.
Pansexual, Pomosexual and Spectrasexual
Pansexual is a term that describes individuals who experience sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to any person regardless of that person's gender, sex, or sexual orientation.
Pomosexual is more of a term than an identity. It's used to describe individuals who reject sexuality labels or who simply don't identify with any one of them.
Spectrasexuality is a term used to describe people who are able to feel romantic or physical attraction/emotional connections with people of multiple or various sexual orientations and genders, but not necessarily all of them (or any of them).
These terms are often used interchangeably, but it's important to point out the differences. Pansexual is by far the most commonly used word of the bunch and is more geared towards not seeing the label and seeing the person instead, thus being able to build romantic and sexual relationships with anyone, regardless of their orientation.
People who identify as spectrasexual, on the other hand, are able to be attracted to multiple or various genders or sexual orientations, but still may have certain preferences.
The answer depends on how we choose to balance religious freedom, social inclusion, and the search for self-identity.
- Most medical and mental health organizations have condemned conversion therapy as injurious and lacking support of empirical evidence.
- Today, 19 states and many cities have passed laws protecting youths from the practice.
- However, lawsuits and pushback by religious organizations have limited what laws can be passed.
Recent years have seen a monumental shift in conversion therapy's standing in society. In 2017, the New York City Council passed an ordinance banning anyone from charging a fee for conversion therapy services. Last year, Utah became the 19th state to outlaw conversion therapy for minors, with support from the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints. Twenty-three more states have legislation pending, and former president Obama even floated the idea of a nationwide ban in his second term.
While progress has been undeniable and hard-fought, it may also feel disenchanting given the time we've had to course correct. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, and we've long known that such therapies are far from efficacious. The customary outcome is the opposite of rehabilitation: mental anguish compounded by lingering homosexual urges and social abjection.
So, if conversion therapy lacks mainstream approval, why hasn't it been banned?
What exactly is conversion therapy?
Though former president Obama floated the idea of a nationwide ban on conversion therapy, it never came to fruition during this term.
Conversion therapy seeks to "cure" homosexuals and bisexuals by changing their sexual orientation to heterosexual. That's as close as we can get to a unifying definition, because the principles and practices diverge wildly beyond that core goal.
The therapist could be a religious individual who views homosexuality through the lens of sin or a family member hoping to correct a wayward child. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists may also practice conversion therapy, but since homosexuality is not a classified mental disorder, their beliefs vary with their school of theory.
A psychoanalytic approach, for example, may assert homosexuality to be a divergence from normal psychosexual development—the classic, and ill-substantiated, Freudian tale of the absent father and over-doting mother.
The so-called treatments are no less varied.
Aversive conditioning, for example, may ask a patient to wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap themselves whenever a homosexual urge or thought arises. In more extreme forms, patients will be shown homosexual images while the therapist instigates a noxious sensation, such as an electric shock or nausea-inducing drug. Cessation of the negative stimuli may then be paired with opposite-sex erotica—with the goal of strengthening the patient's preference for heterosexual feelings.
Sam Brinton, who underwent conversion therapy as a middle-school student in the early 2000s, recounts his aversive conditioning in a New York Times op-ed:
The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat, and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end, it didn't work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.
Other techniques include shaming, spiritual interventions, fantasy modification, and social-skills training, such as teaching patients to act more gender normative or how to ask out the opposite sex. While not physically harmful, these treatments cultivate feelings of depression and social isolation in the patient.
"Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather, they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings," writes Douglas C. Haldeman, a counseling psychologist and former member of the APA Board of Directors. Such procedures applied to any other patient, he reminds us, would be aptly labeled as torture.
Is there evidence that conversion therapy works?
In 2017, Dannel Malloy, then governor of Connecticut, signed into law the state's ban against practicing conversion therapy on minors.
All told, 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have received conversion therapy in some form, according to a Williams Institute report. While some studies and testimonials purport to have successfully altered some of their sexual orientations, such claims crumble when one examines the slipshod methodology and flawed data gathering.
"No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed," states the APA in its position statement.
In an examination of the evidence, Haldeman found several methodological flaws. These included using only clinical samples, a lack of replicability, poor assessment of sexual orientation, and outcomes substantiated by internal validation rather than external data.
Many studies, for example, hang their results on either therapist impressions or self-reporting. But such measurements cannot prove conversion. Therapists may cite a momentary drop in homosexual arousal as a full-fledged cure, while demeaned patients may report conversion in a bid to acquire personal and social validation.
"This reiterates one of the major objections to conversion studies: These interventions do not shift sexual orientation at all," Haldeman writes. "Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather, they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings."
Beyond a lack of methodological rigor, conversion therapy houses many ethical concerns. These include patient blaming, patient abandonment, indiscriminate treatments, breaches of confidentiality, and building informed consent on the subjective beliefs of the practitioner, not medical consensus.
These practices violate the ethical standards adopted by most professional organizations, and like the APA, many have issued statements condoning its use. Among them: the American College of Physicians, the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American School Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Medical consensus versus religious freedom?
Given the history, the lack of evidence, the harm done, the ethics violated, and the changing times—given all of this—one would think a universal ban was soon to come. But that doesn't appear to be the case.
Remember that New York City ordinance? The city council repealed it in 2019 after the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the ordinance. The group claimed the ban infringed on people's freedom of speech and religion.
"All New Yorkers and all Americans deserve the right to private conversations, free from government control," Roger Brooks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. "By trying to regulate and censor private sessions between an adult and his counselor, New York City directly violated freedom of speech—a core right that the First Amendment protects."
Council members chose to repeal the ordinance rather than risk it going to the Supreme Court, where they feared the court's conservative alignment would set a precedent making future LGBTQ advocacy efforts more difficult.
And to gain backing from the Mormon church, the Utah bill had to stipulate an exception for clergy, religious counselors, and any child's parent or grandparent who is also a mental health therapist.
"Progress is progress in this state. You kind of have to make some compromises," Justin Utley, a conversion therapy survivor, told the Associated Press. "My concern, though, is clergy who are licensed professionals having this ability to justify conversion therapy by claiming that they've turned off the switch and now are acting as a clergy member instead of a licensed professional. That's a very dangerous precedent."
Utley's concern is founded. A study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that attempts by family members and religious leaders to change an LGBT adolescent's sexual orientation can lead to multiple health and behavioral risks. The researchers found higher levels of depression compared to those who reported no conversion experience, as well as double rates of attempted suicide. Undergoing conversion therapy was also correlated with young LGBT adults attaining less education and lower socioeconomic status.
As Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project and the study's lead author, said in a release: "Although parents and religious leaders who try to change a child's LGBT identity may be motivated by attempts to 'protect' their children, these rejecting behaviors instead undermine an LGBT child's sense of self-worth, contribute to self-destructive behaviors that significantly increase risk and inhibit self-care, which includes constricting their ability to make a living."
Can we find the balance?
An 2010 anti-gay protest in San Francisco.
Given all this: Will conversion therapy be banned in the U.S.? The answer is probably not—at least, a universal prohibition is unlikely.
As we saw with Utah and New York City, any universal ban would be viewed with skepticism and hostility by some religious organizations. Opponents will argue a person's religious identity is a critical facet to their sense of self, and the government cannot institute legislation to revokes anyone's right to cultivate that identity as they choose. And they have a point.
As Douglas Haldeman writes in a paper on the subject:
We sometimes forget, however, that religious identity and practice is a form of human diversity that is also often misunderstood and that deserves psychology's attention. Although it is sometimes the case that attempting to combat scriptural references to homosexuality with psychological knowledge about the subject is like trying to have a conversation in two different languages, that does not mean that we should turn away from the conversation.
However, Haldeman also notes that the right to choose conversion therapy goes beyond religious orientation. It is often driven by the "internalized effects of a hostile family and an intolerant society" and a desire for acceptance.
How do we balance these seemingly competing needs?
First, a ban on conversion therapy for minors is necessary and widely supported. Children and adolescents need love, support, and the time to explore and grow into all facets of their identities. As Caitlin Ryan pointed out, conversion therapy disrupts this healthy process and replaces it with one of rejection and undermined self-worth that ripples well into adulthood.
"We're building off several years of great success in the movement to protect youth from conversion therapy," Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, told Forbes. "We've seen continued momentum because the stories of survivors are getting out there."
Regulatory bodies should develop guidelines to assist adults harmed by conversion therapies and improve access to non-conversion therapies. Adults may still choose conversion therapy as a right, but hopefully, they will have an easier time finding the counseling, community, and support they need if that therapy fails them.
Finally, improved education and understanding can disentangle the biases and social stigmas that push people to seek conversion therapy in the first place. In this regard, we are trending in the right direction. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that half of Americans now believe sexual orientation cannot be changed, while only 36 believe it can be.
"Ideally, the individual ultimately integrates sexual orientation and spirituality into the overall concept of identity by resolving anti-gay stigma internalized from negative experiences in family, social, educational, and/or vocational contexts" Haldeman concludes in his paper.
Even without laws banning conversion therapy, that's still an idea we can strive for in society.
Taking the fourth spot on Big Think's 2019 top 10 countdown is the question: Evolutionarily speaking, is being gay still something of an enigma?
- Big Think's fourth most popular video of 2019 features bioethicist Alice Dreger. She presents the idea that heterosexual people have been less interesting to scientists than gay people in terms of why they exist. This is because, evolutionarily speaking, being gay doesn't lead to a higher "higher reproductive fitness" — meaning, it doesn't lead to more babies.
- Huge and rigorous studies have proven the fraternal birth order effect: Statistically, if a mother has lots of pregnancies of males, every successive male child will be a little bit more likely to be gay. This is because the mother's immune system appears to react to the male fetus' hormones and may dampen them down.
- The Western view of gay and straight isn't the definitive definition. In Samoan culture, there is a third gender: fa'afafine. These are boys who are raised as girls; they become women culturally and partner with men, although they don't change their physical anatomy.
Sally Susman explains how to use truth-telling moments to your future benefit.
- The biggest decision of Pfizer executive Sally Susman's life was to come out as gay in 1984, when society was not as accepting as it is now.
- She was told she would never have a spouse, a career, or children; those were the fears told to her by the people who loved her most.
- Defying that prediction became her personal north star, and 31 years later she has done it. Susman used that truth-telling moment of coming out as a way to focus her ambitions and plant the seeds for her future.