Thousands of Poles flanked by a cordon of police in body armour marched through the city of Plock on Saturday in a display of support for LGBT rights, which have emerged as a deeply divisive topic ahead of a parliamentary election later this year.

Politicians from both sides of Poland’s conservative-liberal divide have labelled the October poll as a clash of civilisations, and in recent months, the ruling Law and Justice party has sought to rally its conservative base by presenting itself as a bulwark against LGBT groups, which it portrays as a threat to Catholic family values.

Tensions spilled over last month, when hooligans chased, beat and hurled bricks and bottles at participants in the first LGBT march in the city of Bialystok in Poland’s conservative east.

To avoid similar violence in the first Pride march since then, police armed with batons, tear gas, and shields flooded into Plock, a city of 120,000 north-west of Warsaw. Organisers said that more than 2,000 people — many waving EU and rainbow flags — joined the march. Several hundred joined counter-protests, shouting abuse and whistling at the marchers. Despite scuffles, police recorded no serious incidents.

Nevertheless, the escalating rhetoric from Law and Justice — which began during the campaign for the European elections in early spring — and the eruption of violence in Bialystok has left many in Poland’s LGBT community deeply unsettled.

“Bialystok and the things that happened around the march were a tipping point in the public discourse regarding LGBTI issues in Poland and this part of Europe as well,” said Slava Melnyk from KPH, a group that campaigns against homophobia.

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“Physical violence was very rare, at least in this decade in Poland. Previously there were instances of hate crime violence . . . but to the extent that there was hunting of people and an almost pogrom-like atmosphere, this hasn’t happened before.”

Mr Melnyk’s concerns were echoed by many of those who joined the march in Plock. “I came [to take part] because I am opposed to discrimination and to what happened in Bialystok . . . I don’t want certain groups to feel discriminated against and to be afraid to go on the streets,” said Olga, who travelled from Warsaw to join the march.

People protest against the pride parade in Plock on Saturday © Czarek Sokolowski/AP

“[The situation of gay people in Poland] isn’t the best. We don’t have full rights . . . and sometimes we are attacked for who we are. Luckily as a woman, less happens to me, but I have male friends who have been physically attacked . . . and we can’t allow this in Poland.”

During the past decade, attitudes towards LGBT groups have eased in Poland, with polls showing rising support for civic partnerships and gay marriage. But this year, the increasingly fraught political environment has begun to take its toll.

In recent months, several Polish municipalities have declared themselves free from “LGBT ideology”. Last month, the rightwing magazine Gazeta Polska distributed “LGBT-free zone” stickers with one of its editions. And at the beginning of August, the Archbishop of Krakow branded the LGBT movement a “rainbow plague”.

“In the past [LGBT people] lived in silence. What is happening now is a provocation, it’s not necessary,” said Jarek, an engineer from Plock, as he watched the marchers gather. “Poles don’t want this. We’re a Catholic country. What is this? . . . They are trying to provoke us.”

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The battle has also drawn in business. Last month, the Swedish furniture group Ikea came under fire from the rightwing justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro after it sacked a member of staff for allegedly expressing homophobic views.

Several participants in the march in Plock compared the mobilisation against LGBT groups to Law and Justice’s hostile rhetoric towards refugees in the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary elections.

“Last time refugees were the candidate for the government to frighten people,” said Pawel, who had come to the march in drag. “Now the gays are the new enemy for the government.”

Via Financial Times