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Gay rights mostly out of reach in central, eastern Europe

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Ania and Yga have been inseparable for the last 17 years, living together as a couple in the Polish capital Warsaw but their love is seen as second class in this deeply Roman Catholic country.

As Britain and France legalise gay marriage, in January Polish lawmakers voted down three bills on civil unions for unmarried couples whether gay or straight.

With the Polish constitution defining marriage as a relationship between a man and woman, the drafts did not include the right for gays to marry or adopt. In July, parliament rejected four similar draft laws.

The conservative Polish scenario is repeated elsewhere in the region where homophobia is still an issue, except for the overwhelmingly secular Czech Republic, which allows gay couples legal rights within civil unions.

"It's humiliating when I fill out official documents as Yga's partner and bureaucrats cross out the word 'partner' and replace it with...'other'," Ania Zawadzka told AFP.

Although the situation won't change overnight in Poland, one of Europe's most religious and conservative countries, a recent survey suggests acceptance of civil unions for lesbians and gays is slowly on the rise.

While 69 percent of Poles opposed gay marriage and adoption in a February survey, a majority 55 said they backed civil unions for both gay and straight couples.

For Robert Biedron, Poland's only openly gay member of parliament, it's an encouraging sign.

"We will continue to submit bills on civil unions until one of them is accepted because we want to live in an egalitarian society, without exclusion or discrimination," Biedron, an MP with the anti-clerical Palikot Movement, told AFP recently.

"I can't imagine a Poland in which civil unions won't be recognised," he added.

Having entered parliament for the first time in 2011, the Palikot Movement is part of a new wave on the left-wing of Poland's political scene, until now dominated by ex-communists.

Supported mostly by young Poles, the movement is bent on shaking things up in the EU country of 38.2 million, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul, where around 90 percent of citizens declare themselves Catholic.

It has led the campaign for gay rights and for legalising marijuana and has shepherded both Biedron and Anna Grodzka, a transsexual, into parliament -- all of which was unthinkable just a decade ago.

Things are different south of the border in the largely atheist Czech Republic. A survey there in May 2012 found three-quarters of respondents backed the country's 2006 registered partnership law for lesbians and gays.

Fifty-one percent backed gay marriage, but 55 percent opposed the right to adopt for homosexuals, according to the CVVM pollsters.

In neighbouring Slovakia, which like Poland is strongly Catholic, parliament rejected a bill last year aimed at legal recognition for gay couples.

Leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico insists he is not opposed civil unions for gays, but "the issue is not on our party's agenda at the moment."

In Romania, homosexuality was illegal up until a decade ago. A 2011 survey showed 73 percent of respondents did not want gay people in their family; 45 percent did not even want to work with gays or lesbians. The capital Bucharest has hosted annual Gay Pride parades over the last nine years.

In former the Soviet Union, authorities long painted homosexuality as a lifestyle imported from the decadent West.

Members of the EU since 2004, the formerly Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do not recognise gay partnerships.

"The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) situation has improved in the last two decades, but less than we expected, and it remains among the worst in Europe", Vladimiras Simonko, a leading Lithuanian gay rights activist, told AFP.

In Latvia, a 2005 constitutional court ruling defined marriage as a union between a woman and man.

Meanwhile in Russia, where homosexuality was criminalised until 1993 and considered a mental illness until 1999, gay rights remain an issue veiled in social taboos.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130210/gay-rights-mostly-out-reach-central-eastern-europe