Wed, Oct 20, 2004 - Page 16 News List

New Europe and its old attitudes

AFP , WARSAW

Poland's only openly gay politician, 28-year-old Robert Biedron, should be in a celebratory mood as senators discuss a bill to legalize same-sex partnerships in this devoutly Roman Catholic country.

But despite a Europe-wide trend towards giving equal rights to homosexuals, with Spain the latest country to have liberalized its laws, Biedron says that zero-tolerance prevails in Poland despite joining the European Union this year.

"The Catholic Church is very powerful in Poland and it views homosexuality as a perversion, an attack on the family," he said, predicting that conservatives in the lower chamber of parliament would block the legislation.

An estimated two million gays and lesbians live in Poland, making up 5 percent of the population. But they complain of discrimination at work and open hostility in a society which is more than 90 percent Catholic.

Maciej Giertych, a leader of the ultra-Catholic opposition party, the League of Polish Families, makes no apologies for his view of homosexuality.

"We cannot accept this behavior. These are people with a problem which can be compared to a dependency, like nicotine, alcohol or pornography," he said.

Biedron, who heads a gay rights group, Campaign Against Homophobia, is a member of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance although he has never been elected to public office.

A member of the upper house from his party, Maria Szyskowska, proposed the law after similar reforms failed last year but also doubts its chances of success faced with widespread anti-homosexual views in Poland.

"There is a stereotype that equates a good Pole with a Catholic. We went from one extreme to another, from Marxism to catholicism," she says of the former Communist country.

Under pressure from its opponents, the bill was significantly watered down and no longer envisages the right for homosexuals to file joint tax returns, adopt children or have access to a partner's medical information.

It merely allows gay couples to register a permanent relationship at the registar's office on the basis of which they can conclude an agreement on property ownership and acquire the rights to inheritance.

But even this was a step too far for 300 local officials from across Poland who fired off an angry letter of protest to the interior minister, threatening to flout the law and refuse to register gay partnerships.

Attitudes are no different even in the capital. Jacek, a dark-haired 33-year-old from Warsaw, who has been in a relationship with Marcin, 24, for four years, says they have suffered from persistent prejudice.

The two men were forced to move out of the apartment that they shared in a working-class suburb of the capital city because of both verbal and physical aggression from large groups of unemployed young men.

Marcin lost his job at a branch of US fast-food chain McDonald's, after customers complained to his boss about him employing a gay man.

Now they both live with their parents but, even at home, they cannot live normal lives.

"My parents know about us, they think we are ill and have to see a doctor, go to a priest. If we walk on the street together, people will often shout at us `You homosexuals, get away from here,'" said Jacek.

A British gay couple James, 23 and Steven, 32, got the cold shoulder last month in the southern city of Bielsku when shocked officials discovered that they had been selected for an exchange from a twin town in England.

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