VILNIUS - The International Lesbian and Gay Association held its 11th annual European conference in Vilnius Oct. 24 - 28 despite a hostile reception that included negative statements by city officials, a ban on its flag raising event, an anti-gay demonstration and a smoke bomb attack.
More than 250 delegates from 38 European countries came to the event to discuss topics such as developing advocacy strategies, financing, tackling hate crime, human rights and lobbying issues.
Among the keynote speakers were member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee Michael O'Flaherty, British Euro MP Michael Cashman and the Swedish ombudsman against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Hans Ytterberg.
However the conference was not welcomed by some city officials and locals.
The Lithuanian Gay League had planned hoist a rainbow flag in Town Hall Square at the beginning of the event, but was refused permission to do so by the city government. The initial reason city officials gave for the ban was safety concerns due to construction work in the area, but opposition to "non-traditional" demonstrations was later cited.
"Although homosexuals are fully recognized in Lithuania as in the rest of the world, we don't think that this social group is somehow exceptional or more important than, for instance, people with traditional sexual orientation. That's why we are against public manifestation or any other promotion of non-traditional orientation," said Vilnius city spokeswoman Silvestra Miskiniene.
Member of the European Parliament Michael Cashman at an Oct. 24 press conference said this was the first time in many years that participants had seen strong statements against the gathering.
"It's almost childish and it makes you wonder what they [city officials] are really are afraid of, but I'm sure it will all go in the right direction in Lithuania," said Cashman.
The LGL attempted to sue the city for the right to fly its flag, but the Vilnius court upheld the ban. The group has filed an appeal with a higher court on the issue and is expecting a decision Oct. 31.
Outside the realm of officialdom the participants weren't greeted any more warmly. On the second day of the event the group was met by nine protesters who gathered outside the conference venue holding banners that read "Go Home" and "Lithuania will be a no-gay zone."
On the night of Oct. 26 a smoke bomb was released in the SoHo club where many of participants had congregated.
Vladimir Simonko of the LiGL told The Baltic Times he was at the nightclub during the attack.
"It was a strange feeling. It happened so suddenly and I was really worried about our delegates," he said.
Lithuania, along with neighboring Poland is regularly ranked among the most homophobic nations in the European Union.
Laima Vengale, advisor and lawyer with the Lithuanian Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, told The Baltic Times that four complaints have been filed this year in cases involving sexual orientation violations.
Because of the negative attitude of the population towards them, there are no exact numbers of how many gay people live and work in Lithuania.
"People usually conceal their sexual orientation at the workplace. If they don't talk about sexual orientation, nothing will happen, but even if they don't talk about it, they're obliged to keep silent which they do to prevent any discriminatory action from employers and colleagues," said Vengale. "Lithuania is homophobic."
Simonko of the LGL echoed the sentiment.
"It's the reality of the situation here," he said. "Most [gay people] are in the closet."