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'Climate of hate' stalks former communist Europe's gays
by Karin Zeitvogel
Sat Jun 10, 3:48 PM ET
Gays in former communist eastern Europe live in a climate of hate and fear, subject to frequent verbal and physical attacks, rights activists said on the eve of a gay pride rally in the Polish capital.
"We are afraid. The situation is becoming dangerous," said Robert Biedron, an official from the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland.
The Saturday rally, officially banned for the last two years though thousands defied the 2005 prohibitio, was given the go-ahead this year by Warsaw officials.
But the same day they approved a counter-demonstration along the same route by the openly homophobic Polish Youth, an offshoot of the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR).
Ironically, the Polish Youth called off its march at the 11th hour because of the football World Cup, but jitters remain.
The backdrop is a heavily Roman Catholic country where Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has likened homosexuality to a disease whose spread must be stopped.
"If a person tries to contaminate others with their homosexuality, the state must intervene against any such obstacle to freedom," he said last year.
He contends "homosexuality is not natural. What is natural is the family, and the state is obliged to protect the family."
Biedron insists what he calls the "atmosphere of hate" in which Polish gays live has grown worse since the LPR joined Poland's coalition government last month.
"It reminds me of Germany in the 1920s," said Tomasz Baczkowski, president of the Equality Foundation which is organising Saturday's "Equality Parade."
In 1928, before it rose to power in Germany, the National Socialist party, or Nazis, castigated homosexuals as a threat to German survival.
"Therefore, we reject you (homosexuals), as we reject anything which hurts our people," said a party statement from the period.
During a state visit to Germany in March, Polish President Lech Kaczynski -- who as Warsaw mayor banned the 2004 and 2005 gay pride rallies -- shot back at a group of gay rights activists who were heckling him.
"I do not plan to persecute homosexuals or to hinder their careers. But there is no reason to encourage it because it would mean that mankind would slowly die out," he said.
Anecdotes abound, in Poland and elsewhere in the old Eastern bloc.
On Friday, the head of a teacher training school in Poland was sacked for publishing a brochure that the Education Ministry -- led by LPR leader Roman Giertych -- denounced as "encouraging contact with homosexual organisations."
LPR deputy Wojciech Wierzejski was recently quoted by the Warsaw-based Zycie Warszawy daily as saying of Saturday's rally: "If perverts take to demonstrating, they should be hit with sticks... If they're given a few blows with a stick, they won't come back. A gay is a coward by definition."
Wierzejski has denied making the comments.
When gay rights supporters in Poznan defied a ban by the city's conservative authorities to stage a "march for tolerance", they were pelted with eggs by far-right activists and denounced by the Catholic church as going "against natural law."
Many of formerly communist eastern Europe's anti-gay groups find support for their position in the church, which has regained a strong foothold in society since the demise of communism in the early 1990s.
Last week, ahead of a gay rights march in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, the powerful Orthodox Church and conservative groups slammed homosexuality as immoral and abnormal.
The 500 homosexuals who turned out for the Bucharest parade were insulted and hammered with eggs.
In Russia, a small group of gay activists who defied a ban on a rally in Moscow last month were met by neo-fascist skinheads -- alongside fundamentalists from the powerful Russian Orthodox church and other counter-protesters.
The Moscow gay parade had been banned by the city's mayor, saying homosexuals had no inherent right to promote their "immoral" sexual "deviations".
In the Baltic state of Latvia, a Soviet republic until 1991 and now a member of the EU, a court on Thursday rejected a claim by openly gay Lutheran Reverend Maris Sants that he was not given a job as religious history teacher because of his sexual orientation.
The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the largest in the Baltic state, excommunicated Sants in 2002 after he admitted his homosexuality.
"The democratization process in Latvia has allowed lesbians and gays to establish organizations and... bars, clubs, stores, libraries, etc. Unfortunately, however, our society has not reached a high level of tolerance, which clearly is a consequence of 50 years of totalitarianism," the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) has said.
In December, the Latvian parliament voted to bar same-sex marriages.
And in August last year, Latvian Catholic Cardinal Janis Pujats slammed the first-ever gay parade in the capital, Riga.
"In Soviet times we faced atheism, which oppressed religion; now we have an era of sexual atheism," Pujats said in a homily to mark the feast of the Assumption.
Last year's gay parade in Riga attracted only 50 participants, who were vastly outnumbered by several thousand mostly unsympathetic onlookers and a few violent counter-demonstrators.
"In other countries (gay) pride parades are a festivity, but here one should be afraid of abuse," said Juris Lavrikovs.
Thousands stage gay rights march in Poland
by Bernard Osser
Sat Jun 10, 2:51 PM ET
Thousands braved abuse from egg-throwing skinheads to stage an international rally in Warsaw for the rights of gays who complain of deep hostility in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Nearly 3,000 people by police estimates, 6,000 according to rally organizers, turned out for the colourful Equality Parade in which gay rights activists, some in drag, danced, waved and marched their way through the centre of the Polish capital.
They were surrounded by a contingent of some 2,000 officers, called in to prevent a repeat of last year's clashes with right-wing extremists.
Some 100 skinheads showed up this time to follow the paraders. They threw eggs at demonstrators, waved a banner with the slogan "Queers forbidden" and chanted "Use a hammer, then a sickle on the red rabble." Police prevented the skinheads from approaching marchers.
Warsaw police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said 14 skinheads, some of them carrying tear gas canisters, had been arrested. But despite tension before the rally, he added that as a whole the demonstration "took place very peacefully."
Locals in the rainbow-striped procession were joined by politicians and activists from elsewhere in Europe, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Gay rights organizations say Polish homosexuals live in a climate of hatred and fear that has grown worse since the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) party entered Poland's governing coalition last month.
Claudia Roth, head of Germany's Green Party, marched at the front of the parade alongside leading Polish gay rights activists.
They were accompanied by Renate Kuenast, Germany's former agriculture minister, and Volker Beck, a German Green deputy who was attacked on May 27 during a banned gay demonstration in Moscow.
"When democratic rights are attacked in a country, it's a matter for all Europeans," Beck told AFP.
"Our participation in this march is a friendly service, not hostile interference (in Polish affairs)," said Roth.
Kuenast, head of the German Green parliamentary group, said the Polish government should understand that "things don't function in Europe this way -- taking money from the EU, taking advantage (of EU membership) but not applying democratic principles."
Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, but attitudes towards gays here are far less tolerant than in most older members of the bloc.
At one stage in Saturday's demonstration, an elderly onlooker threw a disdainful glance at the paraders and said: "To the gas chambers with them."
"It's important for gay organisations from abroad to be here, so that the Polish right understands that Polish gays have support," Stephane Corbin, president of the French gay rights group Interpride, told AFP at the rally.
One of the banners carried by marchers read: "Discrimination, is that your tradition?" Other participants held a giant rainbow flag, the international symbol of gay pride activism.
A lorry with a banner saying "homophobia kills" plastered on its front carried dozens of paraders who danced and waved cheerfully to onlookers.
"It was a beautiful demonstration, joyful, multicoloured and multicultural," said Robert Biedron, one of the march organizers, at the end of the rally in the late afternoon.
The gay parade was banned in Warsaw in 2004 and 2005 by then mayor Lech Kaczynski, who was sworn in as president of Poland last December.
But last year, several thousand people defied Kaczynski's ban and marched through the capital, where they ran into sometimes violent opposition from the far right.
Like President Kaczynski, leading Polish politicians have not shied away from publicly voicing homo phobic opinions.
Conservative Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has likened homosexuality to a disease whose spread must be stopped.
Last Updated: Saturday, 10 June 2006, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Gay activists hold Warsaw rally
Thousands of people have taken part in a gay rights march in the Polish capital to protest against ongoing discrimination against homosexuals.
The march was given the go-ahead by Warsaw city officials after being banned for the last two years.
There was a heavy police presence at the rally which passed off peacefully and was also attended by politicians and international supporters.
Activists have accused the government of fuelling hostility towards them.
City officials had also given the green light to a counter-protest by a far-right youth movement called Polish Youth.
However, the group chose to cancel its march following an appeal by prominent right-wing politician Roman Giertych.
A group of some 100 skinheads threw eggs at the marchers, but were prevented from approaching them by police.
"Climate of fear"
Homosexuality is legal in Poland but the gay community faces an uphill battle for public acceptance.
"We do not agree to being pushed into a ghetto," Ania Kurowicka, a 21-year-old Warsaw University student told AP news agency.
"We do not want to be publicly called deviants, sick people or criminals. We don't want young people to think it is ok to throw stones at us because we are different."
Gay rights activists say homosexuals in former communist Eastern Europe live in a climate of fear and hatred and are frequently subjected to verbal and physical attacks.