Paulina Bradunaite was twelve-years-old the first time Baltic Pride graced the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2010. It was the first successful display of any LGBT rights march through in the capital, but she was too young to understand its significance; too young to remember the thousand-plus counter-protestors hurling projectiles—stones and fireworks—at the LGBT demonstrators (barely in their hundreds), or the clouds of tear gas, fired by an extensive police presence as pride’s opponents turned violent.
Originating in Riga in 2005, since 2009 the annual Baltic Pride parade has rotated between its three member states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
When it returned to Vilnius for a second time in 2013, Bradunaite was now more conscious of LGBT issues. But growing up with an “amazing although very heteronormative and homophobic mother” meant she was, at best, indifferent to it. “I remember that this event was widely discussed on TV shows and there was a huge scandal about it,” she says. “But that’s about it. I was very little and at that time didn’t care about LGBT [issues].”
The wide discussion came in part due to the numerous legal attempts to shut down the event, with protesters objected to the fact that the march would this time go through the city’s central avenue, as opposed to shunted to an isolated park.
After numerous court appeals and a last minute decision from the judge, Baltic Pride 2013 went ahead, and—compared to the previous event—was a far more peaceful affair. Eggs were still thrown, arrests still made, but by and large those who came out for pride, as many as 800 of them, emerged from the festivities nursing only hangovers.
A short time after Vilnius’s second pride, Bradunaite’s brother came to stay with her. He’d grown up with their grandparents and had many gay friends, a concept Bradunaite described as “mind blowing” at the time.
He introduced his younger sibling to the LGBT community’s issues and though she knew she felt “weird” about girls, she felt “being gay wasn’t an option” for her.
It wasn’t until she met Aliona Polujanova and Tomas Raskevičius, members of the Lithuania Gay League (LGL)—the country’s only LGBT rights organization—at one of their workshops last year that she felt comfortable enough to begin exploring her identity.
“It was so good to finally say out loud that I’m bi,” says Bradunaite. “Coming out to Tomas and Aliona wasn’t that hard. I wanted to come out. The hard part was that at that particular place there were no LGBT people apart Tomas and Aliona. And if that wasn’t hard enough one of the other participants was a reporter from a local newspaper. But I think it all went fine. Nowadays peers are much liberal. As my friends and classmates define me: I’m a walking rainbow.”
This weekend (June 16th—June 19th) marks Baltic Pride’s third outing in Vilnius. Bradunaite, now 18, feels obliged to attend what she missed twice previously, this time even helping with the security.
“I’m attending this pride because I’m a part of LGL and I feel like this is my duty,” she says. “Taking part in pride makes me feel like I’m doing something for the better. Maybe this will change the Parliament’s decision on same-sex civil partnership in Lithuania. Who knows?”
Her story is one of a steady acceptance blooming into fierce pride, and it is symbolic of the changes engulfing Lithuania’s LGBT community, particularly for the country’s youth. But despite the surge in support, much of the country—from the people to the laws—remain unconvinced about, even hostile towards, the need for LGBT equality.
“In the capital it’s recently gotten much, much better,” says Tomas Raskevičius, who joined LGL in 2012 as policy coordinator. “Of course there have been some isolated incidents of hate crime, beatings up and harassment, but I would say the general atmosphere is getting much better.
“I think the problem is the rural areas, where people don’t know where to turn to, where they don’t know likeminded people. We have had some heart-breaking stories where young people are killing themselves and they’re leaving notes saying people don’t accept me as gay.”
Lithuania is currently ranked 38th out of 49 states on ILGA’s 2016 Rainbow Europe index, an assessment of how the laws and policies of European states (and more) affect the lives of LGBT people. It’s some way behind its Baltic neighbor, Estonia, in 22nd place, and just two places above Latvia.
In a poll conducted by the European Commission, just 44% of the general population agreed that LGBT people should have the same rights as heterosexual people. Just 46% said they would be comfortable working with an LGBT colleague. As a result, relatively few LGBT people live openly.
“The community is still quite closeted and it effects the number of people who are actually engaged in our organization,” says Raskevičius. “My personal estimate…if I needed to count the number of people who are very active in the public sphere, I would say 100.”
The sparse support from the general population is reflected across Lithuania’s political spectrum. Just one of the political parties, the Liberal Movement, openly supports LGBT rights; even the social democratic party have yet to show any public support, on account of what Raskevičius describes as its “ex-Soviet legacy”.
In 2009, the fight for legislative equality took a dark turn. While same-sex activity is legal and various anti-discrimination laws are in place, an amendment to the Law on the Protection of Minors was touted.
It called for a ban on any public information “which expresses contempt for family values, encourages the concept of entry into a marriage and creation of a family other than stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania.”
Like the Russian law before it, the intended target was obvious and despite a veto from the then president, the law was passed into legislation.
“We have a law quite similar with Russian anti-gay propaganda law and for me it’s still unclear how it’s possible to have such a kind of law in the European Union,” says Vladimir Simonko, who co-founded LGL in 1993 and currently sits as its executive director. “Everybody said that you had to follow all the rules of the European values, everyone thought it would be automatic.
“But suddenly when we joined the European Union club, our people, or maybe our parliament, realized nobody cares…who will check all your laws and how you live and who you follow European Union values.”
Ambiguously worded and infrequently used, the contentious law has failed to halt Pride altogether, as similar legislation in Russia has succeeded in doing in Moscow and St Petersburg. It certainly hasn’t stopped people from trying though.
“This law was used against us three times,” says Simonko. “We are not propaganda,” he adds, defiantly.
The law was used in 2013 by the national broadcaster to limit LGL’s ability to place daytime TV promotional videos for Baltic Pride.
The broadcaster claimed certain clips encouraged concepts outside of traditional family values, a notion LGL rejected and appealed against. The courts sided with the broadcaster.
The anti-propaganda has also been used to have a children’s fairy tale book about vulnerable groups in society removed from general sale, as well as to stop LGL from running another video, this time promoting tolerance.
The second Baltic Pride in Vilnius may have been more a peaceful affair, but according to Simonko it left many people—both gay and straight—wondering why it was necessary and what the point of it was.
This year the political agenda is clear; it’s a march of insubordination against a vicious law, one which survives almost inexplicably within the European Union. “We are people. Not propaganda,” reads the official Baltic Pride 2016 slogan.
“The mere existence of this legislation sends a very homophobic message,” says Tomas Raskevičius, reflecting on the message of this year’s march. “So far the application has been completely arbitrary and random. But we try to challenge the law by not obeying it any way.”
Discriminatory legislation and social prejudice have made it difficult for LGL to engage with and draw support from businesses; a significant setback considering the hosting of pride comes with an estimated 80,000 euros price tag.
“It’s always an issue when you’re calling from [LGL] or when your email says gay.lt at the end,” says Aliona Polujanova, head of Advocacy for LGL. “People are so unpleasant. LGL were ordering an audio trailer—like a slogan in audio—and the guy whose voice we picked, he refused to voice over our ads.”
Even multinational corporations, often so quick to sponsor high profile parades like London or New York, have failed to express support. “In 2013, LGL sent a lot of nice letters calling for support—not just for money—because for most companies just to say ‘I support Baltic Pride’ is a big thing. It did not happen—from Lithuanian companies or from organizations like Google or Coca Cola, in Lithuania, nothing happened. Nobody expressed their support, or donated anything. Nothing like that happened.”
The situation hasn’t changed much this time round. Much of the 80,000 euros raised through sponsorship has been sourced from foreign embassies, such as the German embassy, and global charities like Amnesty International.
Aside from Vilnius’ one Gay bar, Soho, very few local businesses have pledged their support for the event.
“There’s been some minor sponsorships from companies but nothing major, just gay owned businesses,” says Polujanova. “It starts to appear a little bit, but it’s still not where organizers would want it to be.”
Her dismay at the lack of backing from the business community is tempered by the surge in support she’s witnessed from Lithuanian youth.
“[So] many young people joined the activism and started to be aware of the situation, of their rights, of their identity,” she says. “We have 15 year olds and 16 year olds, which could not be imagined three years ago. It was completely different back then. I know how it was for me, when you couldn’t read anything online because your mum would track it. That is history now and young people are much cooler and braver than we were 15 years ago.”
Organizers still expect there to be protestors this weekend. Already one group, the Union of the Lithuanian Russians, has stated its intent to do so, after it found out the Russian Drama Theater was to be used for the ‘Pride Voices’ event, a talk on human rights featuring numerous distinguished LGBT speakers.
But the police—who so diligently protected the parades in 2010 and 2013—have been working constructively with LGL and Tomas Raskevičius lauded them for their “amazing job so far”.
But despite the protestors, that so many young LGBT people feel confident to come out and celebrate the event is a mark that slowly things are changing for the better in Lithuania.
“In some cases it has improved, but in some also not,” says 20-year-old Pijus Beizaras’, reflecting on the situation for LGBT people in his country. “Some people recognize me and my boyfriend in the street and they call us ‘fags’ or something like that, but there are also many people which accept us as we are. In Lithuania many people don’t understand what homosexuality actually is, so they’re afraid of something they don’t understand. That’s the biggest problem.”
Like Bradunaite, this weekend will be Beizaras’ first time marching with Pride through Vilnius. Just under two years ago he posted a picture of him and his boyfriend kissing on Facebook; doing so exposed them to a torrent of online homophobic abuse.
It has only encouraged him to be more visible and fight harder for LGBT equality in Lithuania. When he takes the streets this weekend, alongside the LGL and so many other young LGBT Lithuanians, he will do so bearing the national flag.
“LGBT activism is a part of my life, so attending pride event this year is not only symbolic it is an important event for LGBT community in Lithuania. It’s important for each of us. Taking part at a pride event is showing that we exist, that we are not propaganda. That love and peace always wins.”