Vladimir Simonko: “The norms of the Soviet system have become norms in free Lithuania”

Vladimir Simonko, Executive Director of the National LGBT* rights organization LGL, still recalls the period when homosexual relations between men were considered a criminal act in Soviet Lithuania. In addition to these romantic memories of the sunny beaches of Palanga, there were also difficult changes during the first years of independence – this state of insecurity led to psychological and physical attacks, known as “remodelling”, against gay men in public spaces.

What was this so-called “remodelling?” How much of it have you, yourself, encountered?

In Soviet times, it was very popular to travel to Palanga or Klaipeda in the summer – at this time, the men’s beach was an oasis for gay meetings. Quite a few people from all over the Soviet Union gathered here, because everyone knew this was the place to meet new people.

Just about all of gay Lithuania gathered in Palanga and Klaipeda. In addition to these romantic meetings, there was also a sense of insecurity, which I remember to this day – often, groups of guys would come to the beach. Usually, they were drunk and had come to harass gay men.

Usually, all we could do was run: while I was able to avoid physical violence, I know a lot of stories where gay men were beaten. These “remodellers” were well aware that nobody would complain to the police, because telling the story, one way or another, would confirm their membership in the community, which meant criminal liability. It was a situation with no way out – keeping an eye out for “remodellers” was the norm.

Where did the concept of “remodelling” come from?

The concept developed from colloquialism – it’s a description based on experiences. The definition was as follows – they imagined that through beating and intimidation, they humiliated gays to the point of demolition [so that they could “remodel” society]. Remodelling was a code word that just about everyone knew the meaning of.

What kind of people were associated with these groups of “remodellers”? Do you remember what they looked like?

Since gay people were concentrated on the beaches, “remodellers” often loitered there. They thought they needed to beat all the visitors to the beach – to young troublemakers arriving from all over Lithuania, this was what seemed fun.

What stood out to me is that they were often groups of Russian-speaking hooligans of unremarkable intelligence: they’d gather in a group of five or six, with the goal of humiliating someone who’s different from them. I have no doubt that there’s a part of society that would like to do the same today.

Although today, at least theoretically, the victims of violence can expect help. At that time, they said that the police had a list of gay people, which was allegedly used as blackmail against specific people.

How much distrust and suspicion did this situation cause among the community? How did men go about making contact with others?

It was similar to what often happens in Russia now: a person pretending to be gay would lure a gay man to his apartment and beat him. This is a rather traditional way to do it – there was a historical period when this kind of harassment toward gay people was widespread in the west.

The dating scene at the time was interesting because, by going on a date with one person, you could open up a new world: that person could have their own circle of friends, which, if they trusted you, could introduce themselves to you. Let’s not forget that there was no internet, no social networks.

But it often happened that you’d call a man and one of his parents would answer. It would feel like his mother knew everything, and you’d get an angry reaction and obscene slurs. You’d feel humiliated, but understood that there were no other ways to contact him, unless you knew his address and could try to wait for him outside the entrance of his apartment.

Other than the beach, were there special places where people would meet?

There were so-called meeting areas, which in the jargon of the time were called “pleškės”. It was a code word that just about everyone in the community knew. There were at least a few of these meeting areas where you could find a partner in Vilnius.

One of them was the cinema “Kronika”, which is now an evangelical church. But, of course, these liaisons were dangerous, because who knows who you’d really meet. Another one was Vingio park. Other meeting places were Valakampių beach and the cafe “Akimirka”, which is now the restaurant “Kompanija” on Gedinimo Avenue.

How did these so-called “pleškės” form, and how did news about them spread?

I don’t know exactly how they formed. There weren’t many of them, but everyone knew about “Akimirka” – maybe due to the fact that, compared to the rest of the Soviet Union, there’s more of a cafe culture here. When you walked into Akimirka, you’d often get the feeling that there could be more people of “our” orientation here. And then, when you came for the second or third time, you’d see the same people.

But what happened was that in Akimirka, people you didn’t know would sit and laugh – I experienced this during one of my first visits to the cafe. They realized that I was of a different sexual orientation, and started to poke fun at me. I understood that I was vulnerable, and from that moment I lost the will to spend time there, and there were still no clubs.

How did people who didn’t visit these places meet?

After independence, it became popular to place ads in the newspapers using code words, but it’s difficult to remember now how these code words sounded. Of course, you didn’t show anyone your real address, so it was very popular to have a mailbox at the Central post office: we always joked that if you sat near the postbox for a while, it wouldn’t be hard to meet “your kind”

After independence and the decriminalization of homosexual relations in 1993, how did this affect your sense of security?

When we gained independence, there was an interesting moment when the majority of us didn’t know whether the Criminal Code article prohibiting homosexual relations between men had been repealed. When Lithuania wanted to join the Council of Europe, the main condition for accession was the repealment of this shameful article. In 1993, Seimas voted for decriminalization, but there was no news of this in the papers, nobody wrote “look, now our gays are free.”

Therefore, most members of the community didn’t even know they were no longer potential criminals. It took some time for people to gradually realize this, but when you’ve been persecuted for the majority of your life, decriminalization has no effect on your mentality.

How much is secrecy still characteristic of the community?

To this day there are older people who are still hiding their sexual orientation. Sometimes I think, my God, why are you hiding: someone’s 60 years old, never married, and still in the closet. In other words, the norms of the Soviet system have become norms in free Lithuania. My opinion is that it’s living a broken life so society will be calmer, so that they’ll continue to pay us no mind.

Reluctance to change, life under the typical Soviet model – that’s probably the most important reason why it’s so heavily ingrained and shapes our community to this day. It seems that this case is widespread: there are quite a few well-known people who still live according to this formula. Of course, it’s their right to behave this way, but I think it’s very convenient for them to live like this: beautiful photos in magazines, expensive and fashionable clothes, a comfortable environment around them, and so on…

How much of this is a matter of comfort, and how much a lack of understanding that the world could be different?

Not long ago, I went on holiday abroad and an older Lithuanian man approached me. He told me that when he went to Thailand, he could be however he wanted to be, but when he returned to Lithuania, he had to hide his orientation. I thought: but it’s the 21st century, Lithuania is independent! And this man, who can afford considerably more than others, has to wait until he’s on holiday to feel free. Apparently, some people’s sense of self-esteem never developed or has been suppressed for a long time. Or they’re so accustomed to living a double life that they forget where it all started.