Often considered sick, deviant or sinners, gays and lesbians in deeply Catholic Poland are being nudged towards church-steered programmes designed to help them fight their homosexuality.
In the southeastern city of Lublin, a hub of Roman Catholic teaching, a nondescript white building houses Odwaga, or Courage, an organisation which offers "therapy" for homosexuals -- to the consternation of gay rights groups who find it an aberration.
AdvertisementBehind its walls, men are taught to kick a football around, women take cookery lessons and, above all, participants spend time praying with priests.
"The goal isn't to change the patient, to shift their orientations, but rather to prepare them to accept their leanings," said Lena Wojdan, a Warsaw-based psychologist involved in Odwaga programmes.
Life can be hard for homosexuals in Poland -- where more than 90 percent of the 38.2-million-strong population is Catholic and where the gay and lesbian community has complained of living in a "climate of fear".
Even high-ranking Polish politicians make openly homophobic statements.
The authorities forbade gay pride marches in Warsaw in 2004 and 2005. The 2006 and 2007 events went ahead despite repeated calls for a ban from conservatives and far-right Catholic groups, who have returned to the fray ahead of this year's edition, scheduled for Saturday.
A survey published last year found that 53 percent of Poles considered homosexuality a sin, while 45 percent felt homosexuals should try to change their preference.
Odwaga's take is more nuanced, Wojdan told AFP in an interview away from the centre's premises. Journalists are not welcome at Odwaga, which was founded in 2007 by the church-linked Light-Life Foundation.
"They need to accept that God created them as they are. This is something that they have been given to bear as a burden," said Wojdan, sporting a large crucifix around her neck.
The aim is to convince participants they should try to choose between a "sinful" sex-life and a chaste, Christian existence.
"This is a kind of suffering which has meaning for Christians, a suffering that they have to face each day," Wojdan added.
"A human being is capable of knowing what's really important to him or her and thus of overcoming his or her feelings. When you want a sweet, for example, you are completely able to resist the urge," she said.
Odwaga's standard programmes are lengthy.
For the first year, participants must devote one weekend a month to support-group sessions.
For the following two years, they devote 20 hours a month to group therapy sessions led by psychologists, who are often priests.
They can also pray and take Communion in the centre's chapel.
To shore up its programmes, Odwaga also runs groups for participants' parents or others close to them.
On its website, Odwaga's program is lauded by "graduates" -- though none were prepared to speak to AFP.
Its methods have been adopted by psychologists and other Odwaga-type support groups across Poland.
"Today I feel free because I no longer need to live out my homosexuality actively," a woman who took an individual programme five years ago told AFP.
"I no longer feel I'm a lesbian and I have even started to discover men," she said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For gay rights campaigners, the programmes of Odwaga and its ilk are an aberration and can even threaten participants' mental health.
"When a homosexual goes to see these psychologists, he or she is told: 'You'll get over it.' But you don't 'get over it'," said Marta Abramowicz, a psychologist who works for the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Polish-based gay rights group.
"As a result, the person slides into depression. I've even known people who committed suicide," she said.