Human Rights Puzzles: LGBT People in Lithuania

Artūras Tereškinas

A foreign observer visiting Lithuania would be puzzled: on March 11, 2008, Lithuanian neo-Nazis marched the streets of Vilnius with no official permit or interruption from the police, shouting xenophobic and anti-Semitic slogans. Yet other social groups, most notably gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT), have not had this freedom. The Council of Vilnius has repeatedly prohibited public events related to LGBT rights in the capital of Lithuania.

In May 2007, the mayor of Vilnius, Juozas Imbrasas, refused to give permission for a European Union-sponsored anti-discrimination truck tour, which was visiting 19 member states as part of an information campaign “For Diversity. Against Discrimination,” to make its planned stop in Vilnius. The City Council of Vilnius also voted unanimously to ban a tolerance campaign rally in support of human rights, including LGBT rights, due to take place on May 25th, citing “security reasons.”

Later that month, the Lithuanian Gay League, the main LGBT advocacy organization in Lithuania, ordered an advertisement promoting respect for LGBT people. Posters reading, “A gay man can serve in the police force,” “A lesbian woman can work as a teacher” and “Homosexual employees can be open at work” were placed on the trolleybuses of Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. However, drivers refused to drive the trolleybuses with these posters, and the management of the trolleybus fleet required guarantees that they would be compensated for smashed windows. Soon afterward, employees of the advertising company stripped advertisement from the trolleybuses. Once again, LGBT people were denied the right to freedom of expression.

On October 24, 2007, the City Council of Vilnius refused to grant permission for the rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT rights movement, to be hoisted on the Town Hall Square. The hoisting of the flag was to be witnessed by an assembly of over two hundred LGBT rights activists from around forty different countries attending a conference organized by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). Municipality authorities claimed “road repair and maintenance” at the place chosen for the event and “safety” reasons required the event to be cancelled. However, no alternative venue was given. The Lithuanian Gay League initiated legal action against the City Council of Vilnius to overturn the ban. It’s been unsuccessful so far: the court of the 1st district of Vilnius rejected its claim.

For some, these examples can be optimism shattering. Lithuania is party to numerous human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which recognize rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Yet the described events in Vilnius show that LGBT people do not have these rights.

Hostility, silence and hatred are what the LGBT people encounter every day. Lithuanian gays and lesbians are still derided and made fun of in the Lithuanian media. They are called “perverts” and “castrated roosters.” The Lithuanian press often compares them to zoophiles, pedophiles and “sickos.” While being relatively visible in Lithuanian media, LGBT people suffer from constant stereotyping, slander and injurious speech.

Periodic public opinion polls also confirm that Lithuania is still one of the most homophobic societies in Europe. One of the last representative surveys conducted in 2006 demonstrated that 69% of Lithuanians would not want homosexuals working at schools and 50% objected to them working at a police station. During this survey, 47% of the Lithuanian population agreed with the statement “Homosexuals should be treated medically” and 62% with the statement “I would not like to belong to any organization that accepted homosexual members.” These few numbers indicate that homophobia is still rather pervasive in Lithuanian society. Repeated public attacks against LGBT persons in both everyday life and the media also point to the presence of discomfort, fear and hatred.

But a foreign observer should not be completely puzzled and saddened by these instances of discrimination, silence and hate in Lithuania. There have been several positive steps towards establishing the LGBT public agenda and drawing attention to the issues of this marginalized group. Since 1995, the Lithuanian Gay League has carried out a fair amount of research, advocacy efforts and public awareness campaigns in the country. Activities of the Lithuanian Gay League and its projects conducted over the past 10 years have fought discrimination against LGBT people by both empowering them and raising awareness of LGBT issues among the general population.

One of the most visible and significant good practices in recent years has been the EQUAL project “Open and Safe at Work” (2005-2007) coordinated by the Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson and the Lithuanian Gay League. It mapped the situation of LGBT people in both public life and the labor market. For the first time, LGBT individual’s exclusion from and discrimination in the Lithuanian labor market was analyzed. “Open and Safe at Work” mobilized governmental organizations, NGOs, university researchers and an IT company for the common goal of reducing homophobia, discrimination and intolerance towards LGBT people in both public life and the workplace.

Within this project, a team of researchers conducted forty-two interviews with Lithuanian gays and lesbians. In the interviewees’ words, the workplace was a risky environment that made them anxious about dividing their lives into an outwardly “straight” persona and privately gay, lesbian or bisexual existence. Afraid of losing their job or other possible troubles, most interviewed people hid their sexual orientation at work. Some of them have suffered from derisive jokes, constant verbal violence, insults and ridicule from their co-workers.

The representative opinion survey was also commissioned within the framework of this EQUAL project. This survey presents contradictory results. On the one hand, there are some positive changes towards a more tolerant society in Lithuania, particularly in the acknowledgment of abstract human rights for LGBT people. Sixty-five percent of Lithuanians agreed that homosexual persons should have the same opportunities in the labor market as heterosexuals. Forty-two percent also thought that laws should defend homosexuals from discrimination at work. Yet when asked concrete questions about homosexuals, their lifestyle and participation in public life, Lithuanians expressed highly homophobic and discriminatory attitudes. Sixty-four percent of Lithuanians were sickened by the mere thought of a homosexual relationship between men, and 62% expressed their distaste for homosexual relationships between women. Fifty-four percent of Lithuanians said they would remain neutral if someone verbally offended homosexuals in public, and 7% would gladly join this offence.

The results of the research were widely disseminated in the Lithuanian media. At least thirty articles, news reports, essays and press releases appeared in the press, and on the Internet and television. The EQUAL project drew considerable attention of the public to the problems of LGBT people but it achieved much more. In 2006 and 2007, a series of workshops and seminars for employers, NGOs and LGBT people were organized, which both presented research findings and attempted to foster equal opportunities for LGBT people in the workplace. It also provided tips for both employers and employees on how to create an open and inclusive work environment, and integrate sexual orientation into their daily work. In some cases, lecturers and trainers encountered resistance from their audiences but ultimately the message of the need to respect different people and treat them equally was conveyed. The project issued a number of publications which included two scholarly books, several anti-discrimination guides for employers and employees and a CD entitled “Open up your Workplace: Challenge to Homophobia and Heteronormativity.” The whole endeavor made employers and the general population aware of the discrimination issues in the labor market and public life (for more see

Having realistic expectations, we can cautiously say there is some ground for optimism. We know that it takes time to build a non-homophobic, tolerant and inclusive society. The described events of May and October 2007, and most importantly, the EQUAL project, have been big steps towards this objective. The events of May and October received international attention, with the European Commission condemning the decision of the Council of Vilnius and expressing concern about LGBT rights in Lithuania. Additionally, the BBC issued several reports about the events. The EQUAL project confirmed that a strong democratic culture had to entail a commitment to publicity, meaningful dialogue and debate. It also showed that public participation and publicity remain crucial for the Lithuanian LGBT people because of their constant exclusion, silencing and marginalization. Let’s hope that the continuous efforts of the Lithuanian Gay League and the Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson will make the Lithuanian political elite and Lithuanian people realize that sexual orientation is not a matter of private concern but an issue of human rights.