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Pride Marches

in POLAND, 09/06/2006

Gay rights march in Warsaw comes amid intensified struggle

WARSAW, Poland (AP) - Gay rights activists and politicians from throughout Europe plan to march through Warsaw Saturday in a show of support for homosexuals, who are waging an intensified battle for acceptance through much of Eastern Europe.

The Equality Parade comes as an increasingly vocal gay rights movement faces off against conservative leaders determined to maintain the status quo. Homosexuality remains very much a taboo in Poland and much of the region, and activists are up against a widespread belief that homosexuality is a perversion and that gays and lesbians should seek psychological help rather than take to the streets in displays of pride.

"Homosexuality should be cured," said Miroslawa Nowakowska, 55, a retired teacher in Warsaw who voiced the opposition many older and conservative Poles feel to Saturday's march. "Illnesses should be treated and not advertised."

Such thinking is to some extent a legacy of decades of communist ideology, which long held that "deviations" such as homosexuality did not exist in the
ideal socialist world. In mainly Roman Catholic Poland, it is reinforced by the strong role the church plays in political and social life.

Gay rights groups say they've suffered even more of a setback since the election victory last fall of Law and Justice, a conservative party whose leaders have openly denounced homosexuality. A new coalition formed last month has also raised concerns because it includes a right-wing party, League of Polish Families, with a youth wing that has attacked gay pride parades in Poland in recent years.

The group, All-Polish Youth, said Thursday it was canceling plans to rally this Saturday in hopes of preventing a "physical confrontation with leftist fundamentalists."

A member of the League, Wojciech Wierzejski, also caused a stir in past weeks for asking the interior and justice ministers to investigate gay rights groups to determine whether pedophiles and drug dealers were financing them.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch this week condemned Wierzejski and other Polish leaders who have made anti-gay comments, saying they "constitute a pattern of repression in Poland."

Law and Justice leader Lech Kaczynski, who won the presidency in October, has also staked out a strong stance on the issue in his past job as Warsaw mayor by refusing permits for the Equality Parade in 2004 and 2005. He argued that "propagating" a gay lifestyle could ultimately threaten civilization.

The issue of gay rights has gained a new intensity since Poland joined the European Union in 2004 along with seven other ex-communist countries, a step which has emboldened activists to speak out more forcefully for an end to discrimination.

"EU membership has had a huge impact," said Piotr Kaczynski, an analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank. "Activists feel more secure in Poland now. They know the EU is watching."

He says intensified public debate about homosexual rights marks the start of a liberalizing social movement similar to what the West went through in the 1960s and 1970s - years when Eastern Europeans were more focused on the threat of Soviet tanks than fighting counter-cultural battles.

"This is turning into a clash between the liberal societies of Western Europe and North America and those societies that didn't have that generational, liberalizing moment of the '60s and '70s," Kaczynski said. "In the West, it's a pointless discussion because it was answered 20, 30 years ago."

Saturday's march is expected to draw supporters from throughout Europe, ncluding lawmakers from Germany and Sweden who are mobilizing in reaction to recent violence against gays in the region. A week earlier in Bucharest, Romania, passers-by threw plastic bottles and shouted anti-gay slogans at a gay rights demonstration.

During a march in Moscow on May 27, gay rights activists were pummeled by right-wing protesters and detained by police when they rallied in defiance of a city ban. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said gay parades "may be acceptable for some kind of progressive, in some sense, countries in the West, but it is absolutely unacceptable for Moscow, for Russia."

Several politicians from throughout Europe are also mobilizing to support gay rights. Members of Germany's Greens party plan to travel to Warsaw to take part in the march, including Volker Beck, who was beaten by nationalist youths during the Moscow rally, as well as Renate Kuenast and Claudia Roth.

The Campaign Against Homophobia said lawmakers from Sweden, France and the Netherlands would also attend in a sign of solidarity.

"This isn't just about gays and lesbians anymore," Biedron, the leader, said in an interview. "This march will be a big demonstration against fundamentalism and the violation of human rights."

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