By Rachel Savage and Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, Aug 3 (Openly) - LGBT+ campaigners have praised an EU decision to withhold funds from six Polish municipalities that declared themselves "LGBT-free zones", urging Brussels to intensify pressure on the nationalist government over its increasingly homophobic stance.
Gay, bisexual and transgender rights have become a divisive political subject in Poland, with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party campaigning on the issue in 2019 and again when President Andrzej Duda won re-election last month.
As government ministers blasted last week's EU decision on funds for a twin town scheme, LGBT+ activists in Poland and elsewhere in Europe said Brussels should get even tougher.
"We cannot count on our government, we cannot count on our president, the only thing we can count on is the European Union," said Bartosz Staszewski, a board member of the Lublin Pride Association.
"I hope that they can do more and this warning should be enough for now," Staszewski said. "And the second time I think that it will be something much bigger."
While the amount of funding withheld from the municipalities was relatively small - between 5,000 and 25,000 euros ($5,900 to $29,300), campaigners said it was significant.
"We feel seen, and we know we're not alone and that means a lot," said Ola Kaczorek, co-president of the Love Does Not Exclude Association.
'LGBT IDEOLOGY-FREE ZONE'
Government figures have reacted angrily to the EU's move, with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro accusing the bloc of an "unlawful" decision.
Janusz Kowalski, the deputy minister for state assets, called on Monday for a law to ban public funds from being used "to pay for any actions and institutions which are aimed at openly promoting the LGBT ideology".
"The entire territory of Poland should be designated as a LGBT ideology-free zone, since the Polish Constitution clearly identifies a family as a relationship between a man and a woman," Kowalski told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
LGBT+ members of the European Parliament expressed support for further action against Poland and Hungary, which banned trans people from legally changing gender in May and has also seen criticism for alleged infringements of democracy.
"This is the beginning only," Marc Angel, the co-chair of the European Parliament's 150-member Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, said, adding that he supported further financial sanctions tied to breaches of the rule of law.
"We cannot let this happen in the middle of the EU," said Angel, a social democrat from Luxembourg.
"Gay rights are human rights."
More and more towns in Ireland, France, Germany and the Netherlands are reassessing ties with Polish towns that have declared themselves "LGBT-free zones".
The Dutch town of Nieuwegein voted to sever its twinning ties with Pulawy, a city in southeastern Poland, while authorities in the German town of Stendal wrote a letter expressing disapproval of Pulawy's May 2019 resolution against "LGBT subculture".
Asked if he was concerned about a backlash against LGBT+ people, Polish activist Staszewski said the situation could not get much worse than it was at present.
"We're the public enemy number one."
($1 = 0.8520 euros)
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage and Hugo Greenhalgh; Additional reporting by Enrique Anarte; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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