Warsaw - Intimidation, physical assaults and prejudice are too often the price for coming out as gay or lesbian in Poland.

Hopes that the situation might improve in this mostly conservative and deeply Catholic country through legal recognition of same-sex civil unions were crushed on Friday, when Poland's parliament defeated three draft laws on the issue.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk's ruling centre-right party Civic Platform (PO) introduced a bill that would have given gay couples legal protections and tax breaks, without using the language of marriage or granting the right of adoption.

Two left-wing opposition parties introduced bills of their own that would have granted additional rights.

There were emotionally charged words by Polish politicians ahead of the vote on the draft laws.

Krystyna Pawlowkicz of the conservative Law and Justice party said the debate over civil unions would only distract from Poland's “real problems.”

“It's not in society's interests to help achieve the fulfillment of egoistic wishes,” she said. “It's a waste of time.”

Tadeusz Wozniak of the conservative United Poland party called homosexual relations “unnatural.”

Speaker of Parliament Ewa Kopacz asked politicians not to reject the proposals outright, urging them to at least allow the topic to be discussed.

“It isn't possible to run away from difficult discussions that are dividing certain parliamentary groups,” she said.

But there were clear divisions even within Tusk's ruling party, as one member of its conservative wing indicated early on that he would be voting against the proposal.

Jacek Zalek believed that between 40 and 80 of the PO's 206

members of parliament would follow his example. In the end, 46 PO members, including Justice Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, voted with the conservative opposition and against all three bills on their first reading.

The national conservatives argued that the proposed legislation would be in breach of the Polish constitution and against Catholic moral teaching.

According to opinion polls, only between 30 and 50 per cent of Poles are in favour of the legalisation of gay and lesbian partnerships.

The three draft proposals were limited compared to similar legislation in other European countries. All of the bills would have permitted couples to register partnerships and gain the right to inherit property tax-free and to make life decisions in the other partner's name, although gay couples would not be allowed to adopt.

“Our children have obligations like all other citizens but are denied many rights,” complained Aneta Ostrowska, who works in a group that supports parents of young gay couples.

“They are discriminated against and stigmatised by society, and unlike other couples in love cannot legalise their relationship.”

Marta, a 22-year-old lesbian from Warsaw, is one of many members in the country's gay community looking for movement on the issue of civil partnerships.

“I hope that a serious debate ensues,” she said. “That would at least be a start. After all, we don't want any special treatment or privileges. We just want the same rights as other couples enjoy.”

Hubert Sobolewski, from the organization Love Does not Exclude, felt legislation was needed in order to improve the lives of gay and lesbian Poles, which can be difficult especially outside of big cities.

“We want a minimum level of security and a life of dignity in our own country,” said Sobolewski.

Until recently, a wall of silence on homosexuality has existed even within Polish political circles. Robert Biedron, a member of the leftwing Palikot Movement, in 2011 became the first openly gay politician to be elected to Poland's parliament, the Sejm.

Meanwhile, local PO politician Radomir Szumelda from the port city of Gdynia, who made public his homosexuality in December, wrote an open letter to members of the Sejm calling on them to support civil union legislation.

“Yes, I also know other homosexuals in the PO as well as in other parties, including the (national conservative) PiS,” he said in an interview.

“I believe that the fear of rejection is still unbelievable large and the most important reason to remain hidden.” - Sapa-dpa