SAPFO Fest Lithuania: Empowering and Connecting Queer Community

On July 17th-19th, 2015 the independent community festival SapfoFest took place in the scenic location of Žeimiai Manor House, Lithuania. Representatives from the National LGBT* Rights Organization LGL participated in the event and had the opportunity to fully delve into a weekend full of queer culture and self-expression.

The first festival has been organized every year since 2011. It is the first one of this kind in the Baltic States. This year we marked not only the fourth edition of the festival, but also by far the most successful one. More than 300 people participated therein, thus marking an outstanding level of participation. It is indeed very impressive number, considering how complicated and emotionally difficult it is for the members of the Lithuanian LGBT* community to attend events openly marked as “queer” and consequently hardly accepted by the majority of the Lithuanian society.

However, not only queer and LGBT* communities actively participated in the festival. Many national and international allies and activists came to the festival to have their voice heard and express their support. This international atmosphere made it possible to foster the exchange of knowledge and good practices among activists, to enlarge the power of the local LGBT* community and to create empowering connections and networking opportunities among participants.

To become a gateway for the queer, LGBT* and ally communities, SapfoFest have always adopted the policy of being an initiative without fees, organized on an independent basis, through the help of donations from friends and supporting organizations and by firmly refusing major institutional support. It is indeed a cornerstone of the festival that differences pertaining to financial possibilities should not preclude participants from the opportunity of enjoying the festival.


A queer kiss

This year the focus of the festival was on the theme of “queerness”. It was analyzed through many lenses of education, music, film, sport, sex and arts. Each field had an extensive role throughout the festival in dealing with queer topics in relation to LGBT* and other movements, but also focusing on the Lithuanian reality, i.e. on what actually means to be queer in Lithuania.

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Make some noise!

Many and of different kind were the workshops taking place during the event. On July 17th, the floor was opened up with the lecture “Food as a Political Choice” by KRISTINA SAGAIDAK and RASA KAVALIAUSKAITĖ. They focused on the connections between queer movement and veganism through the struggle against normative attitudes.

The morning of July 18th started with the lecture by MARGARITA JANKAUSKAITĖ, i.e. prominent expert on feminism and gender studies in Lithuania. Throughout her workshop on “Neoliberal Challenges to Feminist Ideals” the challenges encountered by the feminist (and partially LGBT*) movement were analyzed within the framework of neoliberal politics, economy and society. The lecture was followed by the academic MOHIRA SUYARKULOVA’s workshop “To Be Queer is to be Communist”, which took inspiration from the Queer Communism Manifesto of Bishkek-based art initiative (STAB – School of Theory and Activism Bishkek). The concepts of communism were analyzed as the essential precondition for doing away with gender normativity, for a radical reformation of the political categories of gender, sex and sexuality, since capitalism desperately depends on rigid straightjacket of gender order for its survival.


Vainius Volungevičius “Queer Games”

To conclude the afternoon with some reflections on politics and feminism, a philosopher, human rights activist, media analyst NIDA VASILIAUSKAITĖ carried out the lecture “Why Feminism Should Be Totalitarian?” where the audience was introduced with the main concepts of totalitarian feminist utopia and with the ideas on establishing new hierarchy and feminist cultural-political hegemony.

After lunch queerness and entertainment went hand in hand with the workshop “Queer Games”, realized by media philosopher and game developer VAINIUS VOLUNGEVIČIUS, who introduced the audience with the basis of gaming culture and analyzed the efforts OF ‘gaining back’ the gaming media. In order to move back things from theoretical to more practical perspective, participants of the workshop had the opportunity to try so called “avant-garde” games.

To conclude the day the things turned HOT in the evening with the workshop ”Pain & Erotics: The Origins & Short History of BDSM and the Art of Shibari”, realized by the members of the local BDSM community. Through performances and demonstrations of BDSM tools, participants of the workshop had the possibility of getting more insights and debating the topic that still divides feminist and queer communities.


Live music

The second day of the festival started by exploring one of the most controversial topics in the world politics and understanding of democracy. Through the workshop “Pinkwashing and Politics of LGBT Imperialism”, a journalist, human rights activist, and Chairperson of Tolerant Youth Association JŪRATĖ JUŠKAITĖ dealt with the uncomfortable issues on whether the LGBT* issues have become a new barometer of democracy and a mere excuse for occupation and imperialism more generally.

Reflections moved forward to a futuristic ground with the workshop “Personal is Cybernetical” by ZHANAR SEKERBAYEVA, a journalist and gender studies student from Kazakhstan. Hybrid human-machines and cyborgs were used as a tool to analyze the concept of body out of the norm and to foster some considerations on its empowering nature, as it represents the subversion of dichotomies associated with domination and inequity. From visionary and revolutionary future scenarios, a dive into history was made by JUSTAS KORSAKOVAS’ workshop “Capital & Gender”. Here, Foucault and Marx got intertwined with the latest events, news and the ongoing discourses on gender in contemporary Lithuania.

If reflections and thoughts represented a consistent part of the festival, visual arts played a fundamental role too. Cinema lovers had their appetites satisfied with Queer Cinema Boutique, and its many different screenings taking place in the Kino Salė, a specifically designed cinema room at the Mansion. Among this wide selection of choice, feather in its cap was surely the French movie “Tomboy” and the Communication Guerrilla Workshop. Deformation of the body was explored by photographer ARCANAFEMINA’s workshop “Queer De Formation”, where mirrors and special camera’s films were used as instruments to create “queer portraits” of participants. In addition, many were the exhibitions and performances taking place in every corner of the festival, such as “Operation Space Surgery” by Gabrielė Gervickaitė, “Femina” by Denisas Kolomyckis, “Forever Young” by WEARE 18, performance “You in Square” (art direction by Gediminas Rudys) and Egle Stirna’s experimental store “Lankesa”.

For those who needed to stretch their legs many initiatives and open spaces for sports were provided, including also the peculiar event “Arm-Wrestling Competition”, which reported participants back to the times of gladiators’ shows in ancient Rome theaters. Same excitement but fortunately blood-free.


Filomino DJ’s

Music surely had a prominent role during the first two days of the festival as well and it captured much attention. On July 17th a sparkling opening of the festival was given by the live performances of “Isochronus” and “Dream Dogma”, which drag the audience in a surreal atmosphere of folk songs, meditative sounding, and musical flow. Then the night got an international spice with the performance of HYENAZ, Berlin-based duo of synthwave musicians and improvisational movers which made the stage delightfully androgyny and enchanted. To conclude the first day with some zip on 80’s and 90’s notes, Filomino DJ’s and DJ Trisile Sun made people dance all night long.


Special “extras”

If it was hard to make the second day of the Festival equally good to the first in terms of musical panorama, the challenge was surely accomplished. “Riley in C” by Ensemble “Synaesthesis” made the audience almost feel transported to La Scala theatre of Milan. The live performances of “Thirty Fingers” and “Umiko” massively attracted people to the Manson’s yard, making it become as a concert stadium. Late in the night, DJs Sima and Salne drag party-people on the dance-floor and made the last night of the festival unforgettable.

To add a plus to the already full and variegated agenda of the SapfoFest, many “special” extras were inserted in the program. Participants had the change to have a special guided tour of the Mansion, to get information at an info-point stand on organ donations, to attend creative writing workshops, to listen to poetry readings and finally, to indulge themselves into a decadent chocolate tasting workshop. . .

It can be argued that a festival is after all only a festival. However, this last edition of SapfoFest was surely not about this. Connecting and empowering the queer community in a post-Soviet ‘transitioning’ democracy such as Lithuania it is not a child’s play. Because fighting prejudice and discrimination in a country which national laws overtly discriminate against the local LGBT* community does not run as a clockwork in such an oppressive environment. Increasing awareness and visibility of queers in a society that prefers to shut its eyes on minorities’ problems is not an easy walk.


Žeimiai Manor House

A three-day festival might not revolution an entire system, but can create an inception of change in people’s mind. Did SapfoFest do this? Surely, it did.

Written by Alice Michelini

Photos by Ieva Budzeikaitė