Lithuania has recently started discussing its attitudes towards homosexuality, in what remains a novelty for a country ranked among the most homophobic in the EU.
While data shows that attitudes remain largely the same, many agree that the debates are proof that a change may be coming, albeit slowly.
The discussions were largely sparked by Lithuanian DJ Ten Walls (Marijus Adomaitis) who recently equated homosexuals with paedophiles.
His comments led to several festivals cancelling his shows.
Ten Walls‘ apologised for what he said but social media took up the issue. People either felt he had expressed an opinion that “everybody shares” or that his views revealed “completely stupid narrowmindedness”.
Music journalist Karolis Vysniauskas, however, notes that the issue became big only after it caught the intention of international media.
“Lithuanian society is used to homophobic statements. That is why people were so shocked to see how seriously such a statement was taken by international audiences,” he told EUobserver.
He noted the incident pointed to two things: Lithuanians’ insecurity about what foreigners think about their country; and the importance of attitudes to LGBT rights in a wider geo-political context.
“We are a part of NATO and EU, we joined the Euro club, we have H&M, Barclays and McDonald’s. This was a good wake-up call to remind us that the economy is not enough – we also have to solve social issues and educate society.”
President Dalia Grybauskaite, previously not so vocal on the issue of homophobia, has called the recent discussions “healthy” saying the sooner the country becomes “more open and more tolerant, the better”.
But it will take more than a few public statements to change ingrained attitudes.
Earlier this month, justice minister Juozas Bernatonis said that same-sex couples in Lithuania were ”more of an issue of propaganda than reality“ in reference to a partnership bill which excludes same-sex partnerships.
The amended bill is soon to be put before the cabinet. A statement by the prime minister that final adjustments are being made in consultations with the Catholic Church sparked another round of debate.
“The Lithuanian parliament convenes each session with several homophobic initiatives on the table. In 2014, for example, several Russian-type ‘anti-propaganda’ draft laws that could effectively restrict dissemination of any information about homosexuality were discussed by our lawmakers,” Natalija Bitiukova, Deputy Direcor of Human Rights Monitoring institute, told this website.
The “Rainbow Map 2015” released by pressure-group ILGA-Europe in May ranked Lithuania at number 36 out of 49 European countries, closer to Azerbaijan and Armenia rather than to the UK or Belgium in terms of safeguarding the fundamental human rights of LGBT people.
The first EU-wide survey conducted by the EU Agency of Fundamental Rights in 2013 revealed that 61 percent of Lithuanian LGBT people who participated in the survey felt discriminated against or harassed in the last 12 months because of their sexual orientation. It was the highest percentage in the EU.
Liutauras Gudžinskas, a political scientist from Vilnius University, says this is due to homophobic discourse being well-established and tacitly supported by leading politicians.
“The most vociferous LGBT-rights opponent MP Petras Grazulis, who repeatedly calls for suppression or even annihilation of gays, has never been held accountable for his actions,” he noted.
Some analysts go so far as to see it as a geopolitical issue with neighbouring Russia not supporting gay rights while most western European states do.
However political scientist Liutauras Gudžinskas believes the issue can be exploited by external forces only if local politicians do not feel they have to tackle discrimination against LGBT people in the country.
“The recent scandals show that public pressure on top Lithuanian politicians to fight homophobia and discrimination is increasing, which eventually may be a start for more positive developments.”
Natalija Bitiukova also notes that condemnation of homophobic outbursts by certain public figures became more frequent.
Meanwhile the EuroPride which has just taken place in neighbouring Latvia – the first one to be held in a post-Soviet country – has also prompted some soul-searching in Lithuania about its widespread homophobic attitudes.