By Hugo Greenhalgh
SLUBICE, Poland, Sept 5 (Openly) - Led by drag queens in glitter suits and towering high heels, some 2,000 demonstrators marched from Poland to Germany on Saturday in a landmark joint Pride parade to symbolically bridge the two countries' deepening divide over LGBT+ rights.
Amid fears of a possible attack by Polish nationalists, riot police lined the streets at the start of the parade and led the marchers slowly across a blue, steel arch bridge spanning the River Oder, which marks the border between Poland and Germany.
Chanting in defiance, with rainbow flags fluttering in a light breeze, the Pride marchers peacefully passed a small group of about 20 Polish counter-protesters, holding banners and singing hymns, as well as a van daubed in anti-LGBT+ slogans.
"The only way we can change people opinions is through visibility," said Mewa Topolska, one of the organisers of the Pride march and a teacher living in Poland's Slubice, which sits directly opposite the German town of Frankfurt an der Oder.
"We don't have full queer rights in Poland - and won't for a long time so the main (aim of the march) is (German) solidarity with the Polish side," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While being gay, bisexual or trans is widely accepted in Germany, which allows same-sex marriage and adoption, Poland is the worst place to be LGBT+ in the European Union, according to ILGA-Europe, a regional advocacy group.
LGBT+ rights are increasingly contested in Poland, with ruling party Law & Justice politicians and Catholic bishops denouncing them as a foreign "ideology" that threatens traditional social values.
President Andrzej Duda was re-elected in July after an acrimonious campaign in which he proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex adoption and LGBT+ education in schools.
The Polish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman said last month there was "no public policy or regulation restricting the civil rights of people with different sexual orientation in Poland".
"There's far more tolerance in Germany than in Poland," said Ed Lada, 64, a U.S. military veteran who came to support his LGBT+ friends, standing in the main square of Slubice, home to about 17,000 people, at the start of the march.
"I don't think too many minds will be changed. But even if it's one or two, that's a change."
Slubice and Frankfurt an der Oder share a close history: they were one German town until, as part of the post-World War Two settlement, the east was given to Poland and renamed Slubice while the west became an East German border town in 1949.
Their paths have diverged in the last 75 years, particularly their nations' attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity.
In Poland, same-sex couples cannot enter into civil partnerships and there is no specific law against homophobic hate crime.
About a third of Polish municipalities have declared themselves "LGBT free zones" and an activist who was arrested for damaging an anti-LGBT+ campaigner's van went on hunger strike last month to protest her imprisonment.
Slubice is not a so-called LGBT-free zone and public opinion in both towns among those watching the march was broadly positive.
"No one should judge people according to their race, religion or (sexuality)," said Stella, a care worker in Frankfurt an der Oder, who declined to give her full name.
"We are all born different and we don't choose how we are born."
The day passed peacefully, despite the presence of a van daubed with anti-LGBT slogans that has sparked tensions at other Polish Pride parades. The driver, waving rosary beads - used by Catholics to count their prayers - declined to be interviewed.
"For me and my friends, the traditional family is very important, where there is the woman and the man and the children," said one anti-Pride protester.
"This is very fundamental for us."
Having a strong sense of community was also at the heart of the parade for the LGBT+ marchers and their allies.
"We are here to have a good time, but also to show young people living in small towns that they can feel free and that they are not alone," said Lelita Petit, 28, a former drag queen who now works on a construction site.
"We are here to cheer them up and let them know that they don't have to be afraid."
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(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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