Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Rome on Saturday to demand greater gay rights and rail against the Vatican and the conservative Italian government's "backward" policies on homosexuality.
Organizers of the EuroPride parade estimated the size of the crowd at around 1 million people, while police forecasts ranged between 300,000 and 500,000. Tight security measures were in place to prevent outbreaks of violence.
The EuroPride event, held each summer in a different city, concluded Saturday evening with a concert by pop icon Lady Gaga at the Circus Maximus, a field where ancient Romans gathered for entertainment.
In her much-anticipated appearance, Lady Gaga performed her hit single "Born this Way," a song celebrating diversity.
Fighting for change
EuroPride organizers said their main message was that deeply Catholic Italy is behind the times when it comes to gay rights.
"Italy is the only country that does not recognize LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) rights," said Franco Grillini, a member of the opposition Italy of Values party and leading gay rights activist.
Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender former member of parliament who organized Italy's first gay pride festival in 1994, said the event would be more of a protest than a celebration.
"The fish stinks from the head and we have a prime minister who is a gay-basher," Luxuria told French news agency AFP.
Slogans read "Different People, Same Rights" and "Equality and Human Rights for All!"
More provocative displays including a man dressed as a bishop who had the words "pedophilia" and "sex abuse" scrawled on his costume.
Italy has no specific laws against homophobic violence and no provision for gay civil unions. Last year, Prime Minister Berlusconi outraged activists when he dismissed a sex scandal saying it was "better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay."
Gaga inflames conservatives
Ahead of the event, Catholic politicians warned Lady Gaga, a vocal advocate of gay rights, against making provocative statements concerning the pope.
Lady Gaga made waves last year when she spoke out against the now repealed US policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which forced gay servicemen and women to stay in the closet.
Carlo Giovanardi, an outspoken junior minister in charge of family policy, said Lady Gaga was "badly informed about our country, since all the opinion polls prove an overwhelming majority of Italians are against marriage between a man and a man and a woman and a woman."
Protests in Warsaw and Split
Gay pride parades were met with opposition protests Saturday in the Catholic strongholds of Poland and Croatia.
Polish ultra-nationalists threw firecrackers and shouted homophobic abuse in the capital, Warsaw, as more than 3,000 people marched from parliament, beginning the event with the Polish national anthem.
Organizers said they wanted sexual education in schools to include homosexuality, and the right to receive information on their partner's health if the partner was hospitalized.
The British ambassador to Poland, Rick Todd, told the crowd that the parade was not against anyone, and that it supported diversity. The crowd responded with cries of "God Save the Queen."
Although the three-hour parade in Warsaw ended without major incident, several people were reported injured in the southern Croatian town of Split, which saw its first gay rights rally on Saturday.
Police escorted around two hundred participants in the pride event, but marchers came under fire from homophobic opponents throwing stones and bottles.
Author: David Levitz (AFP, AP, dpa)
Editor: Sean Sinico