In the run-up to Vilnius’ traditional Baltic Pride festival, which is returning to Lithuania’s capital this 1-5 June, Vladimir Simonko, head of the national LGBT+ rights organisation LGL that organises the festival, tells us what residents of Vilnius and visitors can expect during Baltic Pride 2022. LGL’s leader also reveals why Vilnius holds a special place in his heart.
How would you describe Vilnius as a city to live in?
Vilnius has made rapid progress in recent years. We have to acknowledge that the quality of social life for LGBT+ people, the provision of equal opportunities is growing, and that there is a welcoming atmosphere for LGBT+ people in the Lithuanian capital.
I want to see more cafés in Vilnius where members of the LGBT+ community can meet, have dinner, socialise and feel at home, and where they are not forced to hide their sexual orientation. We still have a lot of work to do on this issue with the entire LGBT+ community, which needs to demonstrate that it needs such places, and the public needs to understand our expectations.
What are your favourite things about Vilnius? What’s your favourite neighbourhood, place, café, or perhaps gallery, theatre, music club or artist?
There are many great places in Vilnius, but the area that fascinates me the most is Užupis. It’s a unique, distinctive and authentic space where LGBT+ friendly places can emerge, and where you can have a nice and cosy time.
I have always liked and still like the refurbished Neringa Restaurant, and think it has maintained its original mission to be open to all.
Since 1993, the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre has welcomed many members of the LGBT+ community. I hope that this theatre remains open to all. Nowadays, all theatres are quite friendly to LGBT+ people, as many performers and directors are open about their sexual orientation. We are starting to realise that culture in Vilnius is also created by LGBT+ people.
As far as clubs are concerned, I’m probably old-fashioned and have a habit of having fun where I can feel safe. This is the SOHO club, which is for LGBT+ people and their friends.
I am also a big fan of Jazzu. I am proud that we have this unique artist who is open and friendly to the LGBT+ community. She sets a good example for all Lithuanian musicians and artists of how to be an ally to the LGBT+ community.
You have been an active member of the LGBT+ community in Vilnius for many years, fighting for equal rights. How would you describe Vilnius’ LGBT+ community?
I am Ukrainian, but I was born in Kaunas, studied in St. Petersburg, and after my studies I moved to Vilnius. I can honestly say that I am very happy that I have stayed in Vilnius – it’s my city. I admire its beauty, uniqueness, compactness, comfort and vast green spaces. I see it constantly changing, and changing for the better. As a member of the LGBT+ community, I see our community growing with Vilnius.
I have witnessed progress in Vilnius. My point of reference is Baltic Pride, as I am one of the festival’s organisers.
In 2010, around 200 activists participated in the march. In 2019, the Baltic Pride march saw more than 10,000 participants. The LGBT+ community is becoming visible in our society and young LGBT+ people are starting to live life as openly LGBT+ people at an earlier age. This is what we are fighting and working for.
Many LGBT+ community members from other Lithuanian cities come to Vilnius to live and work. Why do you think this is the case?
I remember one song by Morrissey where he says that the best thing you can do in a small town is to leave it. If a member of the LGBT+ community doesn’t feel comfortable in their small town, I sincerely encourage them to move to a bigger city without hesitation. In Lithuania, that city is Vilnius. Come and discover yourself in this big and LGBT+ friendly city. Vilnius has a very big advantage over other Lithuanian cities in this respect.
Who would you invite to come to this year’s Baltic Pride festival in Vilnius and why?
This year’s event will be a unique opportunity for our entire community to come together. Baltic Pride is already a traditional festival in Vilnius, with many visitors from other Lithuanian cities and abroad. It allows us to make new friends and see old ones. Since Baltic Pride takes place in Vilnius once every three years (the event rotates annually between all three Baltic capitals), it would be a shame not to take a holiday or a day off to come to Vilnius and follow our traditional route, which will be even longer this year.
I’ll even let you in on a little secret: there will also be three times more musicI would like to encourage everyone to start thinking about clothing and symbols, too. Perhaps it’s even worth making an interesting costume for the event!
Don’t forget that the march will end with a huge concert on the White Bridge. You’ll be treated to a great show, featuring divas from the West: LaDiva Live, Catherine d’Oex and Leona Winter. I’ve revealed our international guests, but I’ll leave the “cherry on top” to intrigue. Baltic Pride gives us a unique opportunity to enjoy world-class entertainment together.
I am particularly pleased that Vilnius has become one of the main partners of Baltic Pride. Many delegations from other cities and countries will come to Vilnius for Baltic Pride, including the Mayor of Stockholm, the Mayor of Oslo and the Mayor of La Ronge in Canada. And of course, the Mayor of Vilnius will also be attending Baltic Pride.
Baltic Pride is also collaborating for the first time this year with ‘Kablys+Kultūra’, which will be hosting the ‘Pasididžiavimo balsai/Pride Voices’ event on 2 June, directed by Gytis Ivanauskas. In this LGBT+ friendly space, our community will be able to socialise throughout the week of Baltic Pride, enjoy food and drinks on the terrace, and attend the closing brunch on 5 June.
All this shows that Baltic Pride is growing and becoming an increasing success. I have no doubt that after Baltic Pride, Vilnius will receive many compliments in the international arena.