People hold flags and placards during the first gay pride march on July 20, 2019 in the city of Bialystok, in eastern Poland. (Photo by Jerzy Baliski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JERZY BALISKI/AFP/Getty Images)
JERZY BALISKI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
People hold flags and placards during the first gay pride march on July 20, 2019 in the city of Bialystok, in eastern Poland. (Photo by Jerzy Baliski / AFP) (Photo credit should read JERZY BALISKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Bialystok, Poland CNN —  

Drag queens strut, rainbow flags flutter in the breeze, and smiling marchers form heart symbols with their hands.

From certain angles, the pride parade looks just like other such events held around the world, from San Francisco to Berlin, London to Taipei.

But behind the glitter and glamor, there is a darker side to this celebration: Cher’s “Believe” blasting from the sound system isn’t simply music to dance to; it is there to drown out the boos, the bangs of flash-bombs and the chants of “perverts!”

Because this is no ordinary pride gathering: It is the first-ever equality march in the deeply conservative Polish city of Bialystok, where the LGBTQ community’s increasing visibility has sparked a backlash.

The northeastern city of 298,000 is located in the Bible-belt region of Podlasie, which is a stronghold of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and has become synonymous with far-right movements. “Many of the acts of xenophobic aggression have been committed in Podlasie compared to other regions in Poland,” Rafal Pankowski, from the anti-extremism group Never Again, told CNN.

The mayor of Bialystok, Tadeusz Truskolaski, an independent, is eager to change that reputation.

Unlike some centrist and right-wing counterparts in Poland, who have attempted to ban pride marches from their cities – Truskolaski let the Bialystock event proceed – despite widespread criticism from officials in the PiS.

Football "ultras," far-right organizations and others took part in counter-protests across Bialystock.
Muhammad Darwish/CNN
Football "ultras," far-right organizations and others took part in counter-protests across Bialystock.

According to one 2017 study by Poland’s Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS), more than half of Poles (55%) think homosexuality is abnormal but should be tolerated. Around a quarter (24%) believe it should not be tolerated at all.

As the country gears up for an election this fall, the right-wing PiS is targeting what it calls “LGBT ideology” to fire up its conservative base. This hostile rhetoric has emboldened far-right elements in the country.

The ruling party’s socially conservative message has also helped it in the national polls – it crushed a coalition of opposition parties in May’s European Parliament elections, winning 46% of the votes. Experts predict another victory in October’s elections and LGBTQ activists are bracing for the worst.

Poland’s opposition is divided on whether to address the increased marginalization of the country’s LGBTQ community, or to cater to socially conservative voters.

In February, Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, from the opposition Civic Platform (PO), signed a declaration in support of LGBTQ rights.

But just months before, his PO colleague Krzysztof Zuk, mayor of Lublin, banned that city’s first pride march, citing security concerns. The march went ahead after Lublin’s Court of Appeals overturned the mayor’s decision.

The police kept a protective ring around pride marchers throughout the three-hour march.
Muhammad Darwish/CNN
The police kept a protective ring around pride marchers throughout the three-hour march.

“The problem for PO is that if they embrace LGBTQ rights too much, they might lose some of their conservative electorates,” explained Volha Charnysh, assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

That played out last Saturday. According to Hubert Sobecki, co-president of Warsaw-based LGBT+ organization Love Does Not Exclude, the Bialystok event was one of 24 such parades planned this year in Poland– a country where same-sex marriage and adoptions are illegal, there is no hate crime category for the LGBTQ community, and gay conversion therapy is legal.

The pride marches reflect many urban Poles’ growing support for increased LGBTQ rights. They are also a defiant response to a rise in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from Poland’s Catholic leaders, the right-wing press, and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). In June, tens of thousands of people took part in Warsaw’s pride march – said to be the largest pride parade in central and eastern Europe.

But Bialystok’s pride marchers were outnumbered, four to one, by thousands of counter-protesters, according to local police.

Precel was chased down a street by counter-protestors after stewarding at the march
Tara John/CNN
Precel was chased down a street by counter-protestors after stewarding at the march

Nationalist football “ultra” fans, members of far-right groups and others packed the parade route and nearby parks.

“Get out of this city,” yelled a group of men trying to break through the 700-strong line of riot police protecting the marchers.

“This is MY city,” orange-haired parade steward Precel, 19, shouted back, warning marchers to watch out for rocks thrown by the counter-protesters.

Dozens of LGBTQ marchers were physically assaulted before, during and after the parade, according to the Warsaw-based advocacy group Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), the organizers of the parade, and witnesses CNN spoke to.

Ant Ambroziak, a journalist from Warsaw, told CNN he was spat at and assaulted as he live-streamed the protest for work. “I have a friend who was assaulted before the march. He was punched in the face because he [was wearing] lipstick” he said.

Another marcher was spat on and hit in the back, “all in front of my mother’s eyes, who started to cry and tremble,” Paulina Brzoza, 28, told CNN.

Hundreds took part in a vigil outside Bialystok Cathedral
Tara John/CNN
Hundreds took part in a vigil outside Bialystok Cathedral

“They were hunting us down,” said Precel, who is gender non-conforming and prefers they/them pronouns, adding that they had been spat at and chased by a group of men.

Michal Bilewicz, who researches the social psychology of groups at the University of Warsaw, said Poland’s socio-political environment had demonized diversity and otherness. “What happened Saturday is a consequence of political language and discourse which targets gay people,” he told CNN.

According to Urszula Boublej, the spokesperson for Bialystok’s mayor, there were about 32 protest groups registered for Saturday, the majority in opposition to the pride march.

It included the far-right group All-Polish Youth, which took its name from fascist and anti-Semitic pre-war youth organization.

Last year, its former head Adam Andruszkiewicz who went to college in Bialystok, joined the federal government as Secretary of State at the Ministry of Digital Affairs.

The march after riot police deployed stun grenades and pepper spray to clear the far-right protesters.
JERZY BALISKI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
The march after riot police deployed stun grenades and pepper spray to clear the far-right protesters.

Critics said the appointment was another example of PiS mainstreaming right-wing extremism, according to Pankowski. Both the PiS and the government refused repeated requests for comment from CNN.

Bialystok’s Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda told congregants to “defend Christian values” by attending a family picnic – organized by the marshal of Podlasie Artur Kosicki – or an outdoor prayer vigil.

Kosicki, a PiS member, refused to speak to CNN at the picnic, which came replete with a military artillery display and bouncy castles.

At the vigil, CNN saw hundreds praying, some on their knees, outside the grand Bialystok Cathedral, in which participants held a banner aloft that read, “reparation to god and the blessed mother for the sin of sodomy.”

The Polish Ministry of the Interior said they have determined the identity of 104 people who broke the law in Bialystok “with 77 people, actions have already been carried out in relation to committed crimes or offenses,” it added.

Interior Minister Elzbieta Witek, who is a member of the PiS, condemned the violence. “Officers ensure security regardless of the ideas, values and beliefs proclaimed by citizens. Any person who breaks the law… should know they can be held responsible,” Witek said on Twitter, Reuters reported.

But according to research by The Warsaw-based nonprofit Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), some 90% of violent incidents against people who identify as non-heterosexual go unreported, Miroslawa Makuchowska, head of the political division at KPH, told CNN.

“People who are attacked don’t want to report to police because they feel the authorities can’t do anything. They are traumatized and afraid of having to hear homophobic slurs,” Makuchowska, head of the political division at KPH, said.

Precel, who has been toying with the idea of leaving Bialystok, said the attacks at the Pride parade may have hastened that decision: “I was born here, and now I am studying here, but now I don’t know how it will be in the future.

“I don’t really feel safe in Bialystok.”