WARSAW, Poland — In an apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw, 5-year-old Olek fills his home with the twangs of a ukulele while his 2-year-old sister, Jagienka, sings along in a strong, off-key yowl.

Their mothers, Ola and Karolina, smile at the cacophony: the sounds of a happy family. But here in Poland, this family is not protected under law.

"Starting a family like ours, we knew what kinds of obstacles we'd be facing, and we always had hope," says Karolina. "I remember when we voted last October, we told each other, 'We are about to change the world.'"

Karolina and Ola — who withhold their surnames to protect their children — are in a same-sex partnership, and Ola is the biological mother of Olek and Jagienka. The two have been partners for 11 years.

Now that Poland has a new, liberal government, Karolina and Ola are hoping it paves the way for legal status for civil unions. Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised he'd do so within his government's first 100 days in power, and a bill that would legalize civil unions is expected to be debated in the Polish Parliament sometime in March.

"We're not hung up on having a pretty wedding and white wedding dresses," Karolina says. "We want equal rights — the same rights that married couples have. We want to have a legal family under Polish law. That's our dream."

The road to civil unions in Poland has been a long one, so far without an end

It's a dream that, for the last eight years, seemed unreachable under a government run by the Law and Justice party. Polish civil rights activist Bart Staszewski says the far-right party considers the LGBTQ+ community a threat to society.

He gives an example of how that hostility plays out under current law.

A same-sex Polish couple he knows who were married in the United Kingdom have to travel with their marriage certificate, their children's birth certificates and other documentation whenever they return to Poland for fear of having their children taken from them at the border.

"Although they are a legally married couple in the United Kingdom, but they are two gays," Staszewski says. "And two gays in Poland means 'pedophiles.' It was the agenda of the Polish Law and Justice government. So, this is the type of thinking we have right now."

It's that same type of thinking that, a few years ago, led dozens of cities throughout eastern Poland, nearly a third of the country, to declare themselves "LGBT-free zones" — cities that, under the encouragement of the country's right-wing public television, declared themselves unwelcoming of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.

"The public officials were saying that in those days, 'LGBT people' are not welcome there, that even if they're their own people living there — having their homes, lives, families, whatever — they are not welcome there," Staszewski says, adding that officials were "describing 'LGBT ideology' as a threat for the Polish nation, for Polish tradition and for the Polish church."

Staszewski became famous in Poland for a performance art project starting in 2020, when he took a sign saying "LGBT-free zone" in different languages with him to all these cities, posting videos of himself putting up the sign in each city. His efforts brought international awareness to the issue, prompting the European Union to cut funding to all the cities involved.

Now with a new government in charge, public broadcaster TVP invited Staszewski on its main news program for the first time.

After years of the broadcaster calling LGBTQ+ people "pedophiles" and accusing them of spreading "LGBT ideology," a visibly shaken anchor of the program publicly apologized to Staszewski and a colleague, calling the anchor's and his station's treatment of them "shameful," adding: "LGBTQ+ people are not an ideology. They're people."

Staszewski is asking the new Tusk government for a law protecting his community from hate speech and one that enshrines legal rights for same-sex couples.

"For us, the fight is not over," he says.

And it's not over for Ola, Karolina and their children either. "Do you hear our children calling for their mothers from the other room?" Karolina asks. "In the eyes of Polish law, they are strangers to me. And we are the whole world to them. I'm their mom and they're my children."

Getting Poland to legally recognize that, she says, is the next step.

Grzegorz Sokol contributed reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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