Vladimir Simonko. Against the Current

Vladimir Simonko (57), the Executive Director of the National LGBT rights organization LGL, chose a difficult life 30 years ago. Back then, when the Soviet Criminal Code was in force, which provided for maximum three years imprisonment for sexual intercourse between two men, he decided to openly admit that he was gay, made his story and that of his life partner Eduardas public, established Lithuanian Gay League, and stood up for the human rights and freedoms of sexual minority members.

You’ve been going against the current for 30 years. A part of society has not yet liberated from its homophobic mindset, and neither does it accept the drive to legalise same-sex marriage. What price do you pay for dedicating your life to defending the human rights, freedoms and dignity of your brothers and sisters of fate?

The decision to protest was symbolic, and the rebellious spirit of was inspired by the fight for Lithuania’s independence. In 1991, I met my life partner Eduardas. I naively wanted to change our lives and the lives of the LGBTI community (we were not known as the LGBTI community then). We had a group of friends and acquaintances, and we wanted to do something nice for them, to organise leisure time. We thought that having a party would make everyone happy and change life for the better. At that time, I was working in the Lithuanian Film Studios as a sound operator. I had graduated from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Film Institute and returned to Lithuania. My film “And He Said Goodbye to You” won the Award for Best Picture and Sound at the 1995 International Film Festival in Bratislava.

So I was doing well at work, and I was going to rent a café for friends. When my colleagues realised what kind of café it could be, there was a huge backlash. Then I realised how many of my coworkers at the Film Studios were against me and people of my orientation. I resigned from the Cinematographers’ Union that was headed by Gytis Lukšas, who told me up front that he would not tolerate such relationships. I wrote a letter to all the Union members. There was no e-mail back then, so I typed the letter copies a typewriter and posted them. At that time the actress Gražina Baikštytė called me, and my colleague Vidmantas Kazlauskas, a sound operator, also supported me.

Did you have the courage to admit openly that you were homosexual?

When you make the first step, you don’t know what the second step will be. Youthful maximalism provokes you to do great things. Hiding my sexual orientation was already foolish. Leaving the Film Studios was my logical decision, the protest. Do I regret it? Now I think that my career would have taken a different turn. I am still an artist in my heart.

Did you go out on the street then?

Yes. In 1991, it was a meaningful step for me. My boyfriend and I were looking for something to do. Human rights advocacy is a recognized area of activities now, but we were not aware of it at that time. I realised I was doing something important. Courage was born out of ignorance. Soon we felt the lurking dangers.

Homosexual relations between men were decriminalised as late as in 1993. We were involved in illegal activities that could have landed us behind bars. But we didn’t think about it. We established Lithuanian Gay League, but the Ministry of Justice could not register it because the activity was still illegal. It was as late as in 1995 that we managed to legalise the League. I remember that the Lithuanian Language Commission recommended changing the name, saying that gay was not a Lithuanian word. They suggested naming it the “Amsterdam Club” or the “Homosexualist Union”. We collected a stack of foreign magazines, we demonstrated that gay was an international word, we went to the meeting, we argued with the Chairwoman of the Commission, and I still remember her impressive hairstyle. In the rush to the meeting, we ended up in the same elevator together with her. The most interesting conversations take place in elevators, when one cannot get away from the interlocutor. Then we managed to get everything we could out of her. When young people now ask me why the name of the organisation, I say, dear, we have legalised the word gay in the Lithuanian language.

Who supported you most at that time?

We are getting old together with our closest circle of friends or, as Vytenis Pauliukaitis said, we are transitioning into the autumn season. We started to think about writing down our memories, because we already confuse certain things. There were not many supporters, and our way of life did not enable us to have many friends. The closest circle of friends was small, and our acquaintances hid their way of life. When we opened up, an article about us was published in Lietuvos Rytas, Eduardas and I were the first to admit that we were living together, and we lost that circle of friends too, and many people turned away from us. We were a threat to them: if passers-by saw us together on the street, they could publically reveal the orientation of other gay people. You can imagine the oppression our community lived under. We had but few acquaintances, and then we had nearly none. We are still living like that today.

How did you meet Eduardas?

Oh, that I will leave for a book. We met by chance, through a mutual friend who is no more. He introduced me to Eduardas on Gediminas Avenue. And at first glance, we both realised that we were meant for each other. We are very different, but we complement each other. That’s the interesting thing, we are not a sweet couple. I admire and think how, as opposites, we can live together for 30 years.

You were married in Rome in 2015, or am I mistaken?

We did not get married. There were many suggestions, and our good friend from Copenhagen called and asked us to come several times: the Mayor of Copenhagen was organising a same-sex wedding ceremony at Copenhagen City Hall. We were also invited to get married in Lisbon or Paris. We had almost made up our minds before the pandemic, but… I thought, if I was going to get married, it should happen only in Lithuania. But as time passes, and we become wiser and see the debate on legalising partnerships, the hope of getting married in our home country fades. May be we will stop waiting and accept our friends’ suggestion to celebrate our joyful occasion. We have but one life, and we don’t have much of it left…

Maybe the Parliament will adopt the Partnership Law this spring?

I think the process will be difficult and take time. And if such a miracle happens, we will be very happy. The Partnership Law is yesterday’s news. In Europe, 13 countries have long seen no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual families. We remain among the six countries that do not regulate homosexual relationships in any way. On 1 April, it was 20 years since gay marriage was recognised in the Netherlands. We are 20 years behind the Western world. Can I expect another 20 years under my belt? I would like to enjoy family life already.

Did you feel that you were gay early on?

I often ask myself this question. I analyse whether there were signs, and if I could have realised that. I can’t answer myself when it happened. There may have been tiny signals earlier, but we were living in the Soviet era, when we didn’t use the word sex. I remember a live TV bridge between the USSR and the USA, with Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue hosting it. One woman on the Soviet side stood up and said: “You know, we have no sex here.” We didn’t talk about it, and even thinking about it was embarrassing. When the time came to get married, that’s when you started thinking about it. Until then, maybe you didn’t need it. So when I didn’t feel like tying the knot, I didn’t need sex.

Was there nothing to encourage you, no provocation, no flirting?

Maybe some people experienced it, but I was not that lucky (laughter).

The most interesting and beautiful years were spent studying in St Petersburg. I was interested in exhibitions, museums, and visited the Hermitage daily. Student friendships were quite different, we were busy, the Institute was international, with many people from other countries. I liked to see how foreigners lived and what they breathed. There were 12 Cubans in our year. We lived in a dormitory, and each country started celebrating the New Year at the time when it was done in their country. I remember the musical Cubans used to have a carnival at 6 a.m. It was a beautiful time when sex was not something to think about. When I returned to Lithuania, I realised that something was wrong with me. My father was a strict military officer, and I could not even think of loving a man.

There was one provocation, though. During my studies, I had to go to Berlin several times, to Potsdam, where the East Germany’s film studio was located. We became friends with German students, and they invited me to Berlin when the wall came down. I ended up in West Berlin on the first day after the wall fell. I went into a video store and saw that it was a gay video store. It was very interesting, and I was fascinated. Gay life in West Berlin was visible. I walked around that area all night, watching the gay life, and I thought I had to go back. However the East Berlin border guards got their act together, and the following day only those with East German passports were allowed into West Berlin. So hopes were dashed, but my mind underwent a turning point together with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A window to the free world opened, I felt free to think. West Berlin is one of my favourite cities. There I understood what I wanted. I have always wanted to return or escape to the Western world. However all my friends escaped, and I stayed in Lithuania.

How did your parents accept your sexual orientation?

They never found out I was gay. When Lithuania became independent, my father decided to leave the country. For a long time, he kept persuading me to leave together and was supported by my mother and brother, but then I was working in the Lithuanian Film Studios, so I stayed. When they left, I started living with my boyfriend. Maybe I would have dared to confess to my mother, but I didn’t have the chance, and there was no way I would to my father. He wouldn’t have understood. Even though my parents are gone, I still feel fear of my strict father.

How did you decide to talk about your partnership?

I had no more relatives here, so it wasn’t very difficult for me. But it was difficult for my partner. Lietuvos Rytas pressed for a long time, Audra Telksnienė gently persuaded me not to be afraid, that the story would be on page 45, and nobody would see it. The night before the publication, she called and said: I have a big request. I have spoken to the editorial board, and the colleagues say that this is an extraordinary event, and we are asking for the permission to put the story on the front page. I asked her how long I had to think about it, and she said that you do not, because we are putting the print run on hold to wait on our permission. As the print run was on hold because of us, we decided to agree. Eduardas’s mother did not know anything about his sexual orientation, she only heard about it during the morning newspaper review. It was Saturday… I still feel guilty about this happening to his mother. This is no way to treat a parent. They need to be prepared for such news. Finding out about your son’s orientation from the morning news is cruel. You are not alone in revealing yourself, and your parents, siblings and relatives are all included in your story. You have to weigh it all up and think about how to do it without causing problems for them and friends.

When we went public, we had to forget about living safely. We also felt unsafe before going public, but afterwards… We were recognised on the street, and tolerance was zero at that time. We only dared to go anywhere together during the day, and in the evenings, we called a taxi, we didn’t have a car. It was a tragedy where we lived, and every day we received a dozen handwritten, disgusting letters. It was 1995. We had to go through it all. Audrius Giržadas hosted the programme Šeštadienio Pokalbiai (Saturday Conversations) and asked us to take part in the programme together with Irena and Aušra, the colleagues from our organization. Then I realised what the power of television was. I became fully recognisable, I was beaten up several times, and a sense of insecurity crept into my consciousness. I had to endure a lot. The situation changed later, but we still hear all kinds of comments, and bullying has become part of life. Sometimes I think: how much can it last, it’s already 2021…

Studies show that the emotional and psychological status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) people in Lithuania is the worst in Europe.

We always have to be ready to defend ourselves, and it is hard to get over the fear that we could be beaten up at any moment, or disgustingly vilified. That does not contribute to good health. We activists, human rights defenders, attend workshops and conferences, and this kind of life gives us the opportunity to visit free democratic countries more often. The advantage of this is that you get a break, you breathe the air of freedom, you see how different it would be if you chose to live in another country. I have no regrets of not taking that step, though many of our friends left Lithuania. It’s good that we can always visit them. Sometimes it is a pity that creative, hard-working, beautiful, cheerful people who could have done a lot for our country are working abroad. What are young people to do here when homophobia is in the air? Not all young people are crazy activists who want to put Lithuania on the road to progress. Some choose the easier path.

I read your interesting story about looking for gay love in the Soviet era. Homosexuals used to meet men on the men’s beach, in apartments, but groups of hooligans who called themselves repairmen lurked everywhere.

If we remember the time when I started to think that I was homosexual, the relationships and attachment to partners were much stronger. You had to realise that the partner you met could be part of you. I still remember a phrase said by a guy when we were lying on a men’s beach, which were, as I understand it now, a gift for homosexual men in Soviet times, where you could meet almost freely. He said: Summer is given to find a partner for a year, until next summer. You had to ensure yourself that you did not stay alone.

Yes, repairs took place, and groups formed to repair (brutally beat up) those freaks. The road from the men’s beach to the ferry was long, and we were very scared to walk it, because the repairmen teams would gather, wait and beat up members of our community. And at that time, we couldn’t even complain to the militia. Sarafannoye Radio (word of mouth) worked on the beach. We soon would find out that we were watched. A sense of insecurity circulated in our blood.

When I speak to young people, I tell them that I had no youth that they have now. It was stolen from me. I tried to compensate for it by creativity. I discovered myself and opened up when I was 26. I have no beautiful, joyful, romantic experience of youth, and that vacuum is still not filled. St Petersburg gave me a different kind of romance, but then I was still not myself. I would very much like young people not to have to suffer a fate similar to mine.

Let us admit that your community already has a representative in the Seimas, and politicians who share your aspirations. It is not so bad anymore.

Is your sense of family strong? Is marriage important? Many heterosexual couples live without marriage and say that the institution of the family is not important to them, that what matters is love and a beautiful relationship.

I have a very strong feeling of protest. If the government tries to regulate me, I choose to resist.

I have never doubted that Eduardas and I are family. In 1995, the headline of an article in Lietuvos Rytas proclaimed, We Are a Family, and this was already declared, and de facto we live as a family, and what the family concept means to us is up to everyone. When I was 35, I felt strongly about being a parent, I thought that I would love to have a child. However, I also felt hopeless about affording a child. I lived in discord for a long time until I destroyed that desire. The biological clock is ticking, you suppress the feeling of parenthood and you never go back to such dreams. However, I see that many homosexual couples, especially female couples, live with biological children. It is lovely to see how nicely they raise their offspring.

In 2013, Eduardas and I went to Israel. What impressed me most was the public life of homosexual couples. You see two men walking together with twins. Twins are often born after using artificial insemination. On a beach in Tel Aviv, we saw an American male couple with twins, a boy and a girl. Both parents had gone for a swim and the six-year-olds were playing by the water. The girl said, Daddy, come here. I thought, how do they know which one is the daddy?

Thus parental feelings are not unusual to our community members. Some homosexual men have biological children from their first marriage or an arrangement with the biological mother, and they live as a couple. If anyone says that homosexuals do not increase fertility, they have no imagination. We also contribute to the birth rate (laughter).

I read a book Nesibaigianti Vasara (The Endless Summer) by Artūras Tereškinas and had the impression that gay people were unfaithful partners. Travellers in the world’s major cities know special numbers they can call to summon a homosexual sex partner to their hotels.

I do not want to contradict Artūras, I understand what he says. When life is structured based on the model of heterosexual couples, when the system does not encourage partnerships among different people, then coming together is a challenge, rather than the norm. Then maybe some of our community members don’t want to face those challenges, and they choose an easier path. Why live as a couple that won’t be accepted and explain it to others.

Being a sexual minority dictates a different way of life. Living together was not encouraged, and there was a time when it seemed easier to live alone or as a couple from summer to summer. However lately I see many couples living together. If we are talking about those who have access to certain apps, the apps are also used by heterosexual people. They also have a similar app. For some, making mistakes or seeking adventure is human.

There is evidence that HIV first spread in the gay community, so faithfulness is not only important morally, but also in terms of health. What does faithfulness mean to you?

A sense of faithfulness builds over time. When you’re young, you seem to want to try a lot of things. Later on, you become more and more attached to your partner and develop respect. We all are not getting younger. Sometimes I wonder if I could live without my partner. Could I replace him? I told myself a long time ago: No. Faithfulness is perhaps equal to stability. While young days encourage exploration, maturity dictates different possibilities and priorities.

17 May is the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Will you organize the Rainbow Days?

We have a tradition of using the day to highlight the difficulties that homosexual people face in their personal and professional lives. Baltic Pride events have been organised to make this day meaningful. The World Health Organisation has removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. This day is very meaningful for us. We had a tradition of riding a rainbow-coloured bus with music playing to cheer us on. This year, because of the pandemic, we will not do it.

Like the whole of society, our community is tired of loneliness. People live in families and we are, as the Government says, just economic units. A disaster happened: Eduardas’s brother died. We had to go to the funeral in Šiauliai. I had no right to go from one municipality to another because I was not a member of the family. My partner’s health deteriorated, he had a surgery, and I was not informed about it. He called me after regaining consciousness. I realised that I had no right to know about my man’s illness. Those who are married have no idea how important the family institution is, and we have nothing. I will not forget Eduardas’s call and the words: Vladimiras, I am all right, but that happened after the surgery.

Life is not always rosy, happy and good. We check whether we have any rights when we face troublesome situations. I think what if something happens to one of us? How will we deal with inheritance? Why can’t we claim a survivor’s pension if we have lived together for more than 30 years? The autumn season is nice, but I do not want to run around notaries public and wonder whether we have done our inheritance properly.

Have you thought about why you have been given such a destiny, about one man’s mission, about the possibility of changing the public attitude? They say that alone we can do little, but indeed, alone we can do a lot.

I will start with a grievance. Generations change. For some, it seems that everything our community has now has come naturally. If it wasn’t for the Baltic Pride in 2010, 2013 and 2016, we wouldn’t have seen the euphoria when people and foreign embassies raised the rainbow-coloured flags in 2019. I’m starting to analyse what I’ve given to the country, or if I helped my community. Of course, I wanted to see faster changes. I was naive. When we joined the Council of Europe, I thought it would take five years and everything would be like in the West. Then we joined the European Union. I thought we would soon catch up with the average of the old member countries… It feels like we are running, but we can never catch up. We are moving forward, but other countries are moving faster. No matter how much I work, I will never be able to do it all.

There have been beautiful moments, too: when we organised the first Eastern European conference in Palanga in 1994, and the first conference of our organisation in Vilnius in 2007. We have always been those who fight for LGBTI rights, and the Baltic Pride is our baby that we have taken care of, and I can see what it has grown into. Our work bears fruit, but no matter how hard we work, we will always have things to do, and more than we can imagine.