RIGA - This June, Riga will host Europride 2015. Ten years on from when the first Latvian gay pride took place in Riga, several hundred thousand people will come from across the continent to show their support for gay rights. Proof that the Baltic States have become a much more hospitable place for the LGBT community?
Perhaps not. According to Kristine Garina, chairman of the Board of Mozaika, the Latvian association for the defence and promotion of gay rights, there are a large number of gay people in Latvia, but they are concened about forming a community.
The problem is two-fold, according to Garina. On the one hand is the widespread ignorance of LGBT members about their own rights; but on the other hand, the main reason that keeps LGBT members reluctant to affirm their sexual orientation is the fear of reproach from their friends and family. Even when it is a question of reporting abuse or a hate crime. If reporting it would mean having to come out to their relatives, with a possibility of the affair becoming known to the public, some gay people would prefer to simply to give up on going to the police, Garina informs.
“Latvian society is not informed enough about this topic and that causes problems. If gay people would be more active and would speak about gay rights, then the situation in Latvia could improve,” says Tomass, a young homosexual from Riga.
Unfavourable public attitudes are not limited to passing judgement on private individuals; they also run deep when it comes to public figures. A Eurobarometer survey in November 2012 revealed that Latvia was, at the time, the EU country where people are the least comfortable with the idea of a gay, lesbian or bisexual person elected at the highest political position. This study from the European Commission about discrimination in the EU shows that, in the opinion of the one thousand Latvians interviewed, a different sexual orientation might either cause an alteration of competency, or make someone unworthy of representing and leading the state.
Slightly more than 20 years after gay relations stopped being considered a crime by the Latvian penal code, this is one of the messages that Mozaika wants to spread; LGBT people do not want to get a special treatment or specific laws, but just to be recognized as a part of the Latvian community, and have the exact same rights as any other citizens.
One prominent politician recently broke the mould. Last November, Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics came out by announcing on Twitter that he was #proudtobegay. Many analysts heralded this moment as a potential turning point in Latvian politics. Rinkevics took this decision with the aim of “breaking this glass sealing.” Yet other politicians were not so responsive. A comment from President Andris Berzins just a month later demonstrated that a gap remained between the Latvian government and LGBT affiliates, stating that when it came to gay pride events, the display of a homosexual lifestyle “should definitely not be made public.”
Mr. Rinkevics remains unabashed by the lack of encouragement, telling The Baltic Times: “We have had good working relations with Mr. President, the fact that I was coming out didn’t change this working relation.”
“We can openly express ourselves about our views, because the government of this country respects the right to free speech and the right of public assembly,” Rinkevics added.
However, Kaspars Zalitis, a member of the Board of Mozaika, considered it sad that “the leader of our country, a country which took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union this january, instead of promoting European values, stood against them.”
Estonian progressives, Lithuanian conservatives
Estonia is often considered more progressive than other former-Soviet countries on the gay rights subject. It will become, from the first day of 2016, the only Baltic State to authorize a same-sex couples recognition called a cohabitation agreement.
In the opinion of Helen Talalaev, Manager of OMA, an LGBT information centre in Tallinn, Estonia might not be the perfect place for LGBT people from the Baltics, but it is clearly one step ahead than the two other Baltic states. And evidence now shows that Lithuania is going in the opposite direction on that matter.
Baltic Pride 2007 had been scheduled to take place in Vilnius, but a ban as a result of alleged security concerns led to the event being cancelled. In May 2010, however, the first Lithuanian gay pride took place in Vilnius, after President Dalia Grybauskaite stepped in to cited the constitutional right to peaceful assembly. The demonstration effectively took place on May 8, but encountered casting of smoke bombs by opponents of the parade, who tried to break through a barrier but were stopped by police firing tear gas.
This aversion towards the LGBT community in Lithuania are usually put down to three main reasons. First, the strong influence of the Church. According to the 2011 census, 77% of the Lithuanian population is Roman Catholic, and the official position of the Church on the question of homosexuality is quite clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stipulates in its third part, that homosexual orientation is an objectively disordered inclination that “constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
However, homosexual acts are “contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” In conclusion, for approaching the Christian perfection, “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.”
Second, the weight of Russian hostile public opinion towards homosexuality. According to a survey from the American Pew Research Center, 74% of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society. A survey from Russian Levada Center shows in the same year that 16% of those interviewed agreed that gay people should be isolated from society, 22% said they should be forced to undergo treatment, and 5% would go as far as affirm that homosexuals should be “liquidated”. This sentiment spreads to neighboring Lithuania, through Russian media that sometimes are the only information outlets that Russian-speaking Lithuanians can understand or choose to watch.
Furthermore, the impact from the Soviet era, in which homosexual acts violated the law, can still be felt nowadays. As Vladimiras Simonko, co-founder and Executive Director of the Lithuanian Gay League, describes: “We were for a long time part of this Russian empire. The old generation still have similar mentality.”
Third, the importance of conservatism. This political orientation has a significant imprint in Lithuanian political culture, especially “Tevynes sajunga”, the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats party, a successor party to the movement which delivered independence to Lithuania from the Soviet Union 25 years ago. The party has lost part of its influence over the years, yet is still today the second largest party in the Seimas with 33 seats and provided much of the backing to president Dalia Grybauskaite in the 2009 presidential elections.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rokas Zilinskas, the only openly-gay member in the whole Lithuanian Parliament, is from the Homeland Union. However, Zilinskas stands against gay marriages and gay adoption. Although most of the conservative representatives in the Lithuanian parliament do not share the opinion of Petras Grazulis of the Lithuanian Christian Democrats which compared homosexuality with bestiality, necrophilia and paedophilia, they still restrain progress on the matter of LGBT rights. It is an attitude that Simonko criticises: “Here is conservatism: they don’t change, they just go on.”
Incoming laws for “not same-sex couples”
“The Lithuanian parliament is quite active on LGBT rights, but not on our side,” adds Simonko. “And because of the free mandate, they can do what they want.”
The free mandate of a member of the Seimas guarantees independence of activities and equality of rights of MPs. However, the essence of this freedom permits them to pass laws without appealing to the mandates of the electorate, political requirements of parties or organisations which have nominated them. If President Grybauskaite’s government expresses its concerns on the subject of LGBT rights, the Parliament had already refused laws that could make a change in Lithuania’s tolerance towards homosexuality and is about to go in another direction on that matter.
On October 11, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council published the Universal Periodic Review about Lithuania, a mechanisms which aims to improve the human rights situation in each of the 193 UN Member States.
This report recommended Lithuania to “Refrain from adopting legislative measures which criminalise homosexual relations or breach the rights to freedom of expression and to non-discrimination of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people”.
September 2014 was the month of release of the Mid-term Implementation Assessment, a follow-up process which evaluates the human rights situation two years on. The Assessment spotted six amendments that contravene the direction advised by the initial recommendation, which had been proposed in the Lithuanian Parliament during the two year period.
The draft amendment to the Civil Code No. XIIP-17 (which passed the first hearing on 23 May 2013) places a total ban on gender reassignment surgeries in Lithuania.
The draft amendment to the Code of Administrative Violations No. XIP-4490 (which is about to pass the third and final hearing) introduces administrative liability for “the public denigration of a constitutional value of family through speeches, display of items, posters, slogans, audiovisual means and other activities”.
The draft amendment to the Law on the Fundamentals of Protection of the Rights of the Child No. XIP-473 (which passed the first hearing on 21 May 2013) stipulates that “every child has the natural right to a father and a mother, emanating from sex differences and mutual compatibility between motherhood and fatherhood”.
In addition, on 27 January 2014 the MP Petras Grazulis registered an amendment to the Law on Public Meetings No. XIIP-940, which would explicitly prohibit adoption by same-sex couples.
The draft amendment to the Criminal Code No. XIIP-687 (which passed the first hearing on 12 September 2013) seeks to establish that the criticism of homosexuality and attempts to change one’s sexual orientation would not be qualified as discrimination or harassment on grounds of sexual orientation.
On 3 September 2013 the MP Petras Grazulis registered an amendment to the Law on Public Meetings No. XIIP-940, requesting that the organizers of the public assemblies have to cover all the expenses in relation to ensuring safety and public order in the course of an event themselves.
This legislative motion was introduced as a response to the information, provided by the Police Department, that protection of the public order and safety of the participants in the course of the Baltic Pride 2013 March for equality cost LT 182.000 (e.i. EUR 53.000).
On 10 December 2013 the Constitutional amendment No. XIIP-1217 which would redefine a constitutionally protected concept of “family life” as emanating from traditional marriage by a man and a woman (i.e. denying the right to family life for unmarried and same-sex couples) passed the first hearing in the Lithuanian Parliament.
Looking over these points, Simonenko remarked: “There is a huge gap between Europe and its human rights and Lithuania, and Lithuania is going in the wrong direction. If we don’t stop the situation now to move in the right direction, it will get harder and harder to change.”
Freedom of speech and fairy tales
The freedom of speech is a right that has already been curtailed for Lithuanian LGBT people. In 2014 the LTL saw one of their videos promoting tolerance towards homosexuality refused airtime by all national TV stations.
Despite being free of any content of a sexual nature, the broadcast was accused of transgressing the Law on the Protection of Minors and violating the image of the traditional family and children. This case was not the first, when in 2013 an advertising video for the Baltic Pride was labelled with the “S”, a symbol which indicate an adult content in a TV programme.
In Lithuania, LGBT community faces censor from the national and independent broadcast media. In 2013, the distribution of Neringa Dangvyde’s children’s book “Gintarine Sirdis”, which tells stories of a princess not rescued by her charming prince, but by her charming princess.
The publishing house of the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences officially declared that the book was primitive and engaged propaganda of homosexuality. To continue the distribution of her book, the writer was told to get a ruling from the Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics.
The statement from the experts from the Seimas’ office was that two of the six fairy tales belonged to the category of information “that might have a negative effect on minors”. However Mrs. Dangvydė, who has 15 years of experience in the field of children‘s literature, did not agree with the decision of the panel of judges. She then decided go to court against the university, a trial concluded by the decision that the declaration from the publishing house did not contain any discriminating remark.
Neringa Dangvyde now plans to appeal against the judge‘s decision to finally obtain the right to publish her book. She declared to The Baltic Times: “Homosexual people simply have the same rights as heterosexuals in my stories. That decision shows that a discrimination of homosexual people exists in Lithuania. Why don’t children have the right to read about couples of the same sex, who fall in love, and find their happiness at the story‘s end?”
Additional reporting was provided by Signe Sene in Riga.