Recently, there has – quite rightly – been a lot of attention and protest focused on increasing homophobia in Russia.
Its much-smaller neighbour, Lithuania, is also facing a rising tide of hostility to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
I recently attended a European TUC conference on gender equality in Lithuanian capital Vilnius, and took the opportunity to raise the issue of LGBT rights and to visit the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL).
The LGL was founded in 1993 — the same year that homosexuality was legalised, and three years after the country declared independence from the USSR. Under the previous regime, homosexuality was illegal, and those found guilty could face transportation for two years. LGL representatives believe that the roots of homophobia and transphobia in Lithuania are: ongoing prejudice from the Soviet era; the role of the Catholic church; and the activities of populist-nationalists. It is ironic that these three groups have fought each other – often very bloodily – over the last hundred years of Lithuania’s history, but seem to find common ground in hostility to LGBT people.
Despite LGBT people’s very genuine fear of openly campaigning for their rights in a climate of homophobia and transphobia, LGL organises important campaigning and lobbying work. It organises for IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) in May each year, and since 2010, has worked with similar organisations in Estonia and Latvia to organise an annual Baltic Pride event, which alternates between the three countries. This year’s Pride event took place in Vilnius, and more than half the posters advertising it were vandalism within 24 hours of being put up. Vilnius is the only place in Lithuania with an LGBT ‘scene’; homophobia and transphobia is much worse in other towns and rural areas.
Although there is now full legal equality, for example in the provision of services, for gay people, there is little legal protection for transgender people, many of whom go abroad for gender reassignment.
Right-wing, homophobic groups are active, and have attacked LGBT people and events. The country’s leading anti-LGBT politician, Petras Gražulis of the Lithuanian Christian Democrats, has called for all gays to be expelled from Lithuania, and has equated homosexuality with bestiality, necrophilia and paedophilia. He tried to disrupt this year’s Baltic Pride march, but his Parliamentary immunity prevented him being prosecuted, and a proposal in Parliamentary to lift the immunity did not receive enough votes. The only openly-gay member of the Lithuanian Parliament is Rokas Žilinskas.
However, he is a member of the conservative Homeland Union party, and has opposed LGBT equality measures.
There are currently five legislative moves against LGBT rights.
They are; a ban on gender reassignment — legal protection for “criticism of homosexuality” i.e. anti-LGBT speech would be fully legal in all circumstances — criminalisation of “public denigration of constitutional moral values” — a new law that “every child has the natural right to a father and a mother”, in an attempt to ban same-sex parenting — a move to make the organisers of public meetings pay the costs of their own security – proposed in response to the 53,000-Euro cost of policing the Baltic Pride event to protect it from homophobic attack.
The first two of these have been opposed by the government, so have failed so far. The government’s motivation may be less about opposition to bigotry and more about remaining on good terms with the European Union. Lithuania’s current Presidency of the EU may be restraining the homophobes, and LGL is concerned that when this term comes to an end, the bigots may step up their efforts.
I discussed with the LGL representatives the possibilities of linking with trade unions. Unfortunately, they have few such links at present,and are concerned that Lithuanian unions seem weak and low-profile, although they are aware of recent struggles by firefighters, police and teachers’ unions. I outlined to them the potential for trade unions to help progress the struggle for LGBT equality, and they were keen to know in detail how unions work and how they can build working relationships.
We also discussed at length LGBT politics and history, ranging from the Stonewall riots of 1969 through the Pride marches and the Gay Liberation Front of the 1970s, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in the 1980s and the formation of our own RMT committee from the late 1990s.
The Lithuanian Gay League welcomes international support. RMT and Unison have both written to the LGL offering solidarity. LGL has also received support from the Lithuanian community in the UK.
Activists will be stepping up our solidarity with LGBT Lithuanians, beginning with a protest at the Lithuanian embassy.