Devoutly Catholic Poland elects first openly gay mayor

Poland's first openly gay lawmaker, Robert Biedron, in a photo taken on Nov 8,2011 during a session of the Polish Parliament in Warsaw. On Sunday, Polish voters elected him their first openly gay mayor as the heavily Catholic country gradually shifts
Poland's first openly gay lawmaker, Robert Biedron, in a photo taken on Nov 8,2011 during a session of the Polish Parliament in Warsaw. On Sunday, Polish voters elected him their first openly gay mayor as the heavily Catholic country gradually shifts its stance on gay rights after he won a runoff municipal election with 57 per cent of the vote in the northern city of Slupsk. -- PHOTO: AFP

WARSAW (REUTERS) - Poland has elected its first openly gay city mayor, in a result hailed by rights activists as a sign of slowly crumbling taboos in what is still one of Europe's most devoutly Roman Catholic countries.

Polish social attitudes have become increasingly liberal and secular, especially among the younger generation, as the economy has boomed and Poles have travelled more widely since their country joined the European Union a decade ago.

Local media attributed Robert Biedron's victory in Sunday's mayoral election in Slupsk, a city of over 90,000 near the Baltic coast, to hard work and grassroots canvassing among voters he had previously served as their member of parliament.

But the election of Biedron, 38, also shows deeper changes afoot in Poland, said Agata Chaber, head of the Warsaw-based Campaign Against Homophobia non-governmental organisation.

"People are slowly ceasing to believe that a gay man or a lesbian is pure evil. Sexual orientation is no longer eclipsing a person's competence," she said.

Biedron, who became the first openly gay member of the Polish parliament in 2011 as part of the liberal Your Move party, won 57 per cent of the vote in Slupsk in the second round of municipal elections.

He said his sexual orientation has not been an issue in his campaign. He added he would not use any of the three cars at the mayor's disposal and would instead use a bicycle to get to work.

"It will be a modest mayorship and a modest office, because this city is modest," Biedron was quoted as saying by the state news agency, PAP. "My dream is to work above political and party divisions for a better future for the city."

The weekly Polityka magazine chose Biedron recently as one of the 10 best members of Poland's 460-seat Sejm lower house.

"One of the most hard-working MPs in the Sejm, (he) often plays a more important role and contributes more to the work of parliament than his whole caucus," it wrote of him in September. "Apart from that, excellent manners and favourably disposed to people."

Despite Poles' greater tolerance of homosexuality than in the past, the parliament last year defeated draft laws which would have granted limited legal rights to same-sex couples.