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Greece currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Activists there are using that spotlight to campaign for gay rights. Some are staging provocative protests, demanding legal recognition of same-sex unions. Greece is a conservative society, and many gays say they have felt invisible, that is, until now. Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a Sunday afternoon and six mothers are sitting in a bright living room, drinking milky coffee and talking about discrimination. Stella Bellia, who is president of Rainbow Families of Greece, is raising twin boys with her Italian partner, Grazia-Haris Scocozza. Bellia says the first Greek-language children's book that portrays families with same-sex parents is finally being published.

STELLA BELLIA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Our fellow Greeks are very critical when we choose to have children, she says. And legally, we don't even exist, so there's no image of our families anywhere. Gay couples like Bellia and Scocozza cannot share custody of their children because they are not recognized as couples under Greek law. Greece is one of only two countries in Europe that recognizes civil unions only between heterosexuals. The other is Lithuania.

So, Gregory Vallianatos and seven other gay activists sued Greece in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

GREGORY VALLIANATOS: Straight people have the possibility of a religious marriage or civil marriage and of a civil union. Three alternatives. We have none.

KAKISSIS: They won the case last November. Now, they're trying to push the Greek parliament to comply with the ruling and open civil unions to same-sex couples. Vallianatos, a chatty former TV host who's now running for mayor of Athens, likes to point out that ancient Greeks accepted homosexuality.

VALLIANATOS: If you see the vases, the poets, the plays, then you see that homosexuality was in bright light. And you see that people were calling each other names of love, and they were depicting and portraying it.

KAKISSIS: But modern Greece, he says, is shaped by the conservative Greek Orthodox Church.

VALLIANATOS: We have still to prove with the church that we are decent individuals and people.

KAKISSIS: A church spokesman told NPR that the church opposes homosexuality, but won't weigh in publicly on the issue. One rogue bishop, Seraphim of Piraeus, has threatened to excommunicate any politician who votes to legalize same-sex unions. But the church spokesman insists that won't happen. Last month, some activists tried to rattle the church by staging a kiss-in during an epiphany service in Piraeus.

Savvas Georgiadis, a psychiatrist and campaigner against homophobia, says activists were also trying to rattle Greeks who have grown intolerant because they believe the economic crisis is destroying their identity.

SAVVAS GEORGIADIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: We don't want someone who is different, he says, to be in our circles, in our neighborhood. Different like Petros Sapountzakis, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher. Black-shirted thugs attacked him as he left a theater performance several months ago.

PETROS SAPOUNTZAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: He says the current economic hardship has unleashed what he calls the dogs of the far right, but says homophobic attacks are rare. Sapountzakis and his boyfriend of five years say they're not afraid of street thugs. They just wish they could talk about their relationship with their mothers. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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