“As Long as we Have been Invisible, it was Fine”

How the LGBT community fights its way into visibility in a post-soviet country

“Thank God it’s Friday,” Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius seems relieved. It has been a stressful week for the 32-year-old parliamentarian. “I tried to be positive about it. Four years ago, we collected 29 votes in favour. A few days ago, we collected 63 votes in favour – which is like a double improvement. So, I’m disappointed, but still looking into the bright and optimistic future.” Only a few days have passed since he and his party, tried to pass a partnership law for same-sex couples in the Lithuanian Parliament. It was rejected and send back for improvements by two missing votes. Again.

Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, the only openly gay member of the Lithuanian Parliament.
Photo: Marie Vandenhirtz

Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius is a member of parliament for the Laisvės Partija, the freedom party in Lithuania, and Chair of the Human Rights Committee. He got elected to parliament last October. Raskevičius considers himself a gay cis man. He is the only member of the Lithuanian parliament, the “Seimas”, that is openly part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) community.

Mental Health: an LGBT Problem

An annual review of the human rights situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersexual (LGBTI) people by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) of Europe of 2020 found, that 55 percent of LGBTI people in Lithuania have been discriminated against. This puts Lithuania at top of the list of discrimination against LGBTI people in the European Union (EU). It shows by physical assaults, hateful comments online or violating their right to a private and family life. Following that, more than a third of the LGBTI community in Lithuania struggle with mental health issues and felt “downhearted or depressed”.

Especially during the past months as a parliamentarian, it has not been easy, Raskevičius says. There is a lot of hate coming from comments online. At the moment, there are more than 20 pretrial investigations going on regarding direct threats to kill or harm him: “I’m also working on my mental health by seeing a therapist. So, I tried to cope. But I have to admit it has been really intense.” 

Vladimir Simonko, Executive Director of the Lithuanian Gay League
Photo: Augustas Didžgalvis, LGL Lithuania

Vladimir Simonko is the executive director of the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL). A Non-Governmental Organization that fights against the discrimination of LGBT people and is the main organizer for the pride parades happening in Lithuania.

The first pride in Lithuania took place in 2010. A pride at high risk with a lot of police protection, he remembers. The last pride in 2019, was a big celebration. But the current movements in his country make him worry: “We stopped on the issue of LGBT rights once again. And I don’t see a clear message from the government that the situation might change. I see that a lot of our community members dream about leaving the country. They don’t want to fight for their rights all their life.”

Visibility changed Societies Attitude

“As long as we have been invisible, it was fine. But once the manifestations of visibility came into being there were some cultural backlashes,” parliamentarian Raskevičius explains.

The partnership law he tried to pass, was one of those visible changes. It was supposed to allow same-sex partnerships. Until today, partnerships in Lithuania are only acknowledged between men and women. With that being said, the right to marry or adopt a child as a same-sex couple is not in sight.

Jūratė Juškaitė from the Lithuanian Center of Human Rights assumes that the problem relies upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990: “We had winners and losers. Some lost a lot; they live in poverty and had a difficult time. Today Lithuania’s income inequality is the greatest in EU.” And after becoming part of the EU in 2004, this idea has turned into seeing LGBT members as winners of the system: “Conservative people consider it a western intervention. LGBT people are portrait as state interest. They get money from the EU and call it LGBT propaganda,” Juškaitė adds.

Opponents Rely on the Constitution

The international family day in March served as a reason for 10 000 Lithuanians to gather in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. They called the event “šeimos gynimo maršas” – the big family march. A response to the partnership bill that was about to be suggested to the parliament two weeks later. Donatas Lendraitis is one of the main organizers of the Movement. “A same-sex “family” is not family as we understand it and how it is described in the constitution. (…) No one will allow this to happen, and we will make sure, that the description of a family will stay as it is,” he said responding to the concept of a same-sex family. He refers to Article 38 of the Lithuanian constitution, which portraits the concept of marriage as to be held between a man and a woman. 

The movement also tried to remove Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius from the parliament with a petition. Their claim: “From day one he was taking care of LGBT rights only and the rest of the people were forgotten. By giving privilege to only a certain group of people and making others lose their rights.” 

Apart from legal reasons, some opponents also use the church and the bible as a justification for their beliefs. Mykolas Sotničenka is the assistant secretary-general of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference. He responds to those: “Anyone who does not respect LGBT people goes contrary to the teachings of the Church. The Church is very open therefore waits for and welcomes all people.” They also see an urge for a legal regulation to protect relationships of people sharing their lives but “at the same time would not erase a line between the concept of the family to God’s plan and other forms of living together.” 77 percent of Lithuanians were officially part of the roman catholic church in 2011[1]. This prominent role of religion reflects the impact of the churches attitude.

A Long and Slow Change

Marija Aušrinė Pavilionienė was the first politician in the Lithuanian Parliament that introduced LGBT topics. In 2008, LGBT activist Artūras Rudomanskis, decided that a change is needed. He reached out to those he considered LGBT friendly candidates in the parliament. Pavilionienė was one of them. She was part of the Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija, the social democrats’ party of Lithuania. “The candidates were afraid. They thought we wanted to do something bad for them. Talking about LGBT issues was quite a hot topic at that time. They would get media attention and it would mostly be bad and homophobic,” Rudomanskis remembers.

LGBT rights supporter Marija Aušrinė Pavilionienė
Photo: Giordano Campanelli, LGL Lithuania

Pavilionienė, he explains, was the only parliamentarian, that addressed LGBT rights. Asking Pavilionienė today, why she wanted to support LGBT right she says: “I support LGBTQ+ rights as human rights. I do not accept human discrimination, segregation, humiliation, stereotypes of gender, which is, to my mind, the relics of social-historical development.”

From 2012 onwards, the liberal party started to introduce itself as an LGBT friendly party. With that change, the discourse of LGBT rights grew. But in the legislative period between 2016 and 2020, there was no prominent LGBT speaker. That changed with the formation of the freedom party in 2019 and the entrance of eleven party members to the parliament in the current legislative period.

EU’s Framework Helps

But activist Rudomanskis still sees the development going on slowly: “The liberals show themselves as an LGBT party. But that does not show in the strategy. They draw rainbows on the streets or bought a bench that is in the town. But they don’t have a strategy for LGBT rights,” he criticizes. “There is no roadmap.”

Human Rights activist Jūratė Juškaitė
Photo: Marie Vandenhirtz

Today, the legal framework for LGBT rights relies mainly on the implementation of the EU’s policies. Such as the anti-discrimination law that is supposed to protects people from being discriminated against by race, gender, sexuality and more. Though there is a problem with the implementation as Human Rights activist Jūratė Juškaitė says: “Legal institutions don’t recognize it. They don’t understand what a hate crime is and what the impact is on people. They tend to not treat them as such.” Instead, they would treat it as simple vandalism. LGL Executive Director Simonko reports a similar point of view: “Having a law, does not guarantee that the discrimination will disappear.”

When asking politician Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius about how he copes with hate and people that are against his political interest he says: “I’m in the position of power. And that position of power is my privilege because it helps to protect myself in daily life. But for me, getting into politics was about being able to access the tools, which could actually improve the lives and situation of as many people as possible.” His party will adjust the partnership law for the autumn session. But the framework will stay the same, he says. “It’s just a question about if we are ready for it now or if we have to wait a little longer.”

Photo: Ona Stasiuleviciute

[1] New numbers are published every 10 years. The data of the 2021 census will be available in early 2022.