TODAY’S FOCUS: Fear of AIDS Sparks Rare Debate on Homosexual Rights
WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Fear of AIDS has set off a debate on homosexuals’ rights in official newspapers that for many years rarely acknowledged that homosexuality even existed in Poland.
Unlike neighboring communist countries such as the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, where it is punishable by jail, homosexuality is legal in Poland and persecution of homosexuals is unheard of.
But there has never been a ″gay rights″ movement and most homosexuals continue to lead double lives, fearing public ridicule and rejection if they are found out.
AIDS may change that.
The government says it has identified seven people as carriers of the aquired immune deficiency syndrome virus but maintains no one has fallen ill with the disease.
The figures are treated with scepticism by the public, and there is widespread belief that the government is understating the potential danger.
With fear of the spread of AIDS growing, articles on the threat to and posed by homosexuals - the group with the highest risk of contracting the disease - have started appearing in the state-controlled press for the first time.
The debate was touched off in November when the Communist Party weekly Polityka, one of the country’s most influential nwspapers, published an article by a man who accused society of intolerance and bigotry toward homosexuals.
The author, who signed the article Krzysztof T. Darski, a pseudonym, said it was cynical for the government to ask homosexuals to volunteer to be tested for AIDS after years of neglecting their concerns.
Titled ″We Are Different,″ the article said homosexuals have been ″laughed at and pushed to the margin of society ... left alone by the state, church and science.″
″For many years in Poland we avoided talking about homosexuals,″ it said. ″And now suddenly we demand from people who have already arranged their private lives ... to get in touch with various organizations and social institutions, to ‘reveal themselves’ and ’uncover.‴
The article was criticized as ″hysterical″ and overblown even by people sympathetic to homosexuals, but it touched off a storm of letters and articles in reply.
″How should we treat homosexuality?″ asked the weekly consumer magazine Veto in an article on whether homosexuals should be allowed on nudist beaches. ″As an illness? As a deviation deserving only contempt and sneers? Or as something normal?″
The party’s youth newspaper, Sztandar Mlodych, published a story on the clandestine world of homosexuals in which it said a new element has been added to the ″long social disapproval″ of homosexuality - ″fear about homosexuals″ because of AIDS.
A man interviewed in the story, who was not named, described his long battle in coming to grips with his homosexuality and his continuing ″painful homosexual loneliness.″
The publication of such interviews, unheard of until recent months, has surprised sexual psychologists who say they have for many years tried to counsel homosexuals but got no public support.
″The newspaper articles that have been appearing obviously have filled a social demand,″ said Andrzej Jaczewski, a deputy dean of education at Warsaw University and a former sexual counselor.
″But I am worried that still, not enough is being done about informing the public,″ Jaczewski said in an interview. ″A public persecution of homosexuals is not unimaginable because of AIDS.″
Conservative estimates place the number of homosexuals in Poland at about 2 percent of the country’s 37 million people. However, others claim the number is closer to 10 to 15 percent.
The security police are said to maintain an extensive file on homosexuals but have never waged a campaign against them.
″The fact that homosexuals are getting mobilized because of AIDS is a very positive development,″ said Jan Z. Suchowiak, director of the department of sanitary inspection at the Ministry of Health, in an interview.
But Suchowiak agreed that negative publicity because of AIDS could have a backlash effect on homosexual groups.
″We must say that a homosexual is not dangerous but that he should change his behavior, at least by limiting the number of partners,″ Suchowiak said.
Public attitudes are conservative on many moral issues, in part because of the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the country’s 33 million Catholics.
The church has stayed out of the public debate on AIDS but a senior priest in the church hierarchy in Warsaw, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said the disease can be explained as a result of improper moral behavior.
Suchowiak notes that without additional public education, homosexuals will remain wary of public attitudes.
One homosexual wrote in a letter published in Polityka that over the past 10 years he had ″hundreds of partners, maybe thousands,″ but that he would not be tested for AIDS.
″I have no guarantee that before conducting the tests I will not be forced to register in detail,″ the man wrote. His signature was illegible. ″I don’t trust the state health care system and I am not convinced about its discretion.″