LGL Board Chair: “If Marriage has Become Obsolete – Punish us with it”

27 years together with his partner. What a model family! “It was you who said that word – not I,” noted the Board Chair of LGL Vladimir Simonko with a smile, for whom this word holds great meaning.

Vladimir’s surname recently echoed throughout the country once again. During the music awards ceremony M.A.M.A., V. Simonko was invited to present the Group of the Year award. As soon as his name was announced on stage, the Žalgiris Stadium in Kaunas was overcome with booing and whistling.

V. Simonko smiles when asked how he felt at that moment. No one had posed that question to Vladimir as the country commented, fought, and got angry about the event.

How did you feel before a crowd of 15 thousand bellowing viewers?

When producer Martynas Tyla called me and invited me to the ceremony, I thought he was joking at first. I couldn’t believe that the organizers had decided to give me the opportunity to present one of the most important awards. I asked for three days to think it over. I seriously pondered the opportunity.

But you wanted to be in the public eye, after all?

Yes, because it was important for our organization and because it was a great honor to receive such an invitation. I didn’t doubt that some people wouldn’t like my entrance to the stage – I prepared myself for a stormy reception.

Everything didn’t necessarily have to happen as it did, especially in the world of entertainment, but the arena was filled with many different types of people. What’s more, the event took place in Kaunas, and I know its public perfectly – I was born and raised there. I thought it would be like that, but I could hardly believe that it would be like THAT.

Did it startle you?

No, not at all – I have experience in the public eye, and I know what the correct etiquette is. I hadn’t yet reached the stage when I heard the booing. My momentum kicked in immediately, as a kind of protest. I wanted to show that I have the right to be on this stage, even if some of the viewers don’t like it. Such is the challenge that I faced. I’m not sure, but it seemed to me that some of the other people on stage were startled by it.

It was also a valuable experience to stand in front of a crowd of a few thousand viewers, who are clearly disrespecting me because I have a different orientation… It’s not easy to face, but it’s nothing new. We still have a lot of steps to take for people to stop differentiating themselves from others on the basis of sexual orientation or race.

It was later discussed whether the same thing would have occurred had the event taken place in another city, such as Vilnius. I don’t know anymore. The trend, I believe, is that it’s similar everywhere – it’s just a matter of a few more or a few less people booing. Whatever the case may be, it’s still bad.

Did it warm your heart that Jazzu supported you? In coming to receive the award with her colleague Leon Somov, the two of them gave the public the middle finger, showing that they didn’t agree with the majority’s reaction. There was also speculation that the entire situation had been staged in advance.

If it was staged, then it was done so rather naturally and perfectly. The time in between the moment I called Jazzu’s name and when she and her colleague came to the stage went by very slowly for me. Very slowly. Later, when I watched the recording, I wondered how Jazzu felt. I bow my head to Jazzu for her spontaneous, sincere and polite words. It meant a lot to me that the singer hugged me on stage. That was brave. After all, she still has to think about her fans – by supporting me, will she lose some of them, and will that affect her future career?

Have you ever declined to go somewhere and speak to the public due to safety concerns?

I would like to thank “Lietuvos Rytas” for having me in this newspaper and for showing my interview with my partner Eduardas Platovas, which included our photos and surnames, on the front page in 1995. It was done responsibly and beautifully. That was my first public declaration about my sexual orientation. I did everything from the heart, because I believed that SOMEONE had to do it. It was only after that that I understood how coming out to the public would change my life.

You can only come out to the public once and there is no going back. After that, my life was totally different. To have publically declared my sexual orientation was important, but it also had its effects on my daily life. Safety? Everything happened…I was beaten up.

It was not only you who was beaten up, but also your partner E. Platovas. As a result, he was unable to get out of bed and take care of himself for three months. Is it true that you are the one who took care of him?

I don’t want to talk a lot about that. It’s a delicate topic.

Why? Now you have the chance to discuss the suffering that society has caused you.

I know that it has hurt me, but I don’t wish to respond all the same. I do not blame society. I would blame the people who have the means to change society.

Tell us plainly – what must be done for it to be more peaceful for everyone?

Change is a painful process. I have been involved in social movements since 1991. In 1995, we founded the Lithuanian Gay League. I remember how naïve I was. I believed that Lithuanian independence constituted the ideal moment to usher in freedom in all realms.

Then I waited for the country to join the European Union. The possibilities became greater, but in terms of societal consciousness, nothing happened.

Over the course of so many years, you could have lost all hope. Did you ever consider just living peacefully, no longer worrying about the needs of the organization?

Perhaps I’m infected with active citizenship; I want to attain what the basic European Union citizen has. I love my country. It’s not banal to say that I believe in what I am doing, and it’s not important that I have to endure incidents like the one in Kaunas.

What are you striving for? It seems that homosexuality has been tolerated for a long time. In 1998, Denmark was the first to recognize same–sex marriage, with Queen Margrethe II inviting a gay couple – health minister Torben Lund and his partner – to the royal banquet. The European Parliament has a group for homosexual issues. There are gay people in the police force, and they aren’t afraid to tell intelligence who they are. And, they are not fired for doing so, as they would have been earlier. There are gay museums, and Wong Kar–wai won the award for Best Director in 1997 for his film “Happy together,” which is about a gay couple. What more do you need?

Everything that you have mentioned has taken place in other countries, not in Lithuania. What do I personally need? I’ll tell you. I’ve been living together with my partner for 27 years…

… Ah, you are like a model heterosexual family!

It was you who said the word ‘family,’ not I – smiles Vladimir.  – Yes, like a family in which two partners care for one another and stay together for better or for worse.

So what’s the problem if you’re living together?

Homosexual couples want to have the same rights that are automatically granted to married heterosexual couples. I will tell you a Chinese saying: a fish is the last one to find the water. Because he is swimming in it, he doesn’t even realize that it could be otherwise. Heterosexuals take a lot of things for granted. For example, if a husband or wife dies, the other spouse inherits the estate. If that were to happen to us, whoever inherited the estate would have to pay taxes on it, which a heterosexual couple wouldn’t have to do.

Here’s another example: a family member has a right to abstain from appearing as witness in his partner’s case. A person is declined of this right when the couple is not officially married.

Perhaps those things rarely happen. But when they do, they become very important.

I myself endured such a situation when I had to be near my person when he became seriously ill. It was very difficult to help him because I couldn’t get any information about his case, which is only released to family members. Such moments are incredibly difficult.

All of Europe and America are moving forward with the recognition of partnership or same–sex marriage, but Lithuania is going in the opposite direction. Let’s take the constitutionally validated view that families can only exist between a man and a woman. This view insists that I am a strange taxpayer, from which the state is happy to collect taxes, like from anyone else, but whose needs are not required to be met.

Would the legal recognition of same-sex marriage be enough for the gay community?

Life becomes somewhat more interesting when we speak about whether that is all that we want. Marriage legalization can bring up other types of needs.

Is it new concept to you that the institution of marriage has become obsolete, divorce is rising, and a lot of heterosexuals are living together without being officially married? Why put yourself through all this trouble? – I tried to joke.

If marriage has become obsolete, why is it so vigorously protected? Let us also live with such marriages, punish us with it. Let us feel that pain, – Vladimir jokingly replies. – After almost three decades together with my partner, I do not deserve to be diminished. I often have to ask for respect and file defamation claims to legal institutions. The question that I always wait for when filling out documents: what is the state of your family? I swear, at that moment, everything inside of me starts to seethe because I cannot say how things truly are. The state is does not care about my status.

When my partner and I go somewhere together in public, I endure a moment of discrimination. How should I introduce my partner? I could say how things truly are, but other people may feel uncomfortable. Then I shrug it off. Of course, we can live without that. But, I only have one life to live. There will not be a second. In this lifetime, I want to feel like a deserving, loyal citizen of my state.

Why organize a gay march? This question is raised by the drunken hick and tolerant teenager alike. You know, I often hear the argument that real men don’t organize rallies, that they just sleep with their women, so why are gay people shouting so loudly about who they’re sleeping with?

I want to clarify that this a march not just for gay people, but for lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual people, and for their friends as well. Real men don’t go to rallies? Why? There was just a family rally with parents and children. But we don’t even notice that, right? A march is my right as a citizen to the freedom of assembly, and I would like to use it. You cannot deny that the act of marching is an important means of expressing your views. A march is an opportunity to send a message to society saying that we exist.

How should we understand the disagreements within your community: the Lithuanian Gay League is even called a private enterprise that takes care of its own material needs?

I am familiar with that position. I am entitled to represent a certain part of LGBT* community, I have never claimed to represent it all. Our community is as colorful and unique as any other heterosexual part of society. The time when there was only one party has passed. Thus far, I have been representing the Lithuanian Gay League, and how well or poorly I’ve been doing so is up for discussion, as I myself am not always satisfied.

Where there is homosexuality, there is debauchery. Is that a myth or a feature specific to your community?

When I see heterosexuals behaving poorly, I don’t think that they are casting the entire heterosexual community in a bad light – says Vladimir. That is a display of the heterosexual community’s behavior, but does it bring shame to most of you? We are people just like you and we have the same flaws. It’s just that if one of our own falters, it is judged more harshly.

How were you raised? Does your family know about your orientation?

I was raised strictly. My father was a military officer, which says a lot. He wanted to be proud of his sons – I also have a brother. I respect my father for his ambitions.

When my parents left to live in Russia they offered for me to join them, but I decided to stay in Lithuania. However, I graduated from Saint Petersburg Institute of Cinema, where I trained as a sound designer.  I worked at the Lithuanian Film Studios in Vilnius for seven years. I didn’t have the brains to hide my orientation – I couldn’t believe that artists would also be so intolerant, so I had to leave that job. I also left the Lithuanian Filmmakers Union at that time because I did not want to be in a place where I wasn’t accepted just as I was.

My parents didn’t find out about my orientation…

Is it easier for you that way?

Yes… I don’t know if I’d be able to build up the nerve to tell my father. My brother and I aren’t very close either. I always joke that I’m glad that he also fulfilled my obligation to the world by raising three daughters of his own.

The desire of gay couples to raise children is another issue that riles up society. Do you dream of having kids?

That’s a delicate topic. There was a time when I truly wanted to have a child. I understood that this wouldn’t be possible in Lithuania and stopped thinking about it. Many say that it would be difficult for the child. But I know those kinds of families, where a lesbian couple raises one partner’s biological child together, for example. Here’s a painful scenario: imagine if something were to happen to the biological mother. What would happen to the child if there were no close relatives? If the women aren’t legally married, the child would have to go to a children’s home. There’s a real life drama for you.

You have experience with a long-term partnership. What are other people doing incorrectly that they’re fighting and breaking up?

Our couples break up too. To put it tritely, life together is not a bed of roses. There are highs and lows. I would just say that as time goes on, my sense of responsibility has greatened.

Is responsibility more important than being in love?

Well, the period of being in love is very beautiful, and I hope that everyone can have that experience. It’s just a fact of life that you reach a certain stage where your relationship crosses into a different category.

Is it also a myth that gay people are unfaithful and change partners often?

For some reason, society is just more accepting of heterosexuals’ unfaithfulness. We want the right to marriage for the sake of having greater stability.

What is your daily life like? Are there places that you avoid because they’re unsafe?

I have a problem–I am so involved in my work that I can rarely separate it from my personal life. That makes it hard to relax. And it’s not just that. I am recognized, and that also bothers me. I can never fully dissociate myself from my work; I always have to think about where I am and whom I’m with.

So you can’t calmly read the instructions for laundry detergent or choose pickles in the market?

My worst nightmare is early morning flights. Charter passengers are often going on vacation at that time, and are usually continuing their fun from the night before. While waiting in line at security, I have been harassed and verbally abused plenty of times, even though it should be especially safe there.

I don’t cause any tragedies – I know where I live. Every time, I must ask myself: should I respond or remain silent? I still don’t know what I should do. People have rebuked me because it was uncomfortable for them to see children staring. The most important thing is that people don’t start physical altercations – jokes Vladimir. – After the famous M.A.M.A. ceremony, I decided not to go to the after–party because I was truly worried about whether or not I would feel safe there. I must constantly choose places where it’s safe for me. I have created a ghetto for myself – a circle of real people, stores and places to have fun.

I have the chance to rest when I take trips. I can only be myself when I’m abroad. In Lithuania, I must put up a safeguard.

I once asked the fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev why the majority of fashion designers are gay, and he responded that talent is the divergence from the norm, and that one form of divergence gives rise to others. Gay people often differ because they pay a lot of attention to their appearance. Why do you think that is?

It’s because many don’t have families or children, which consume a large part of one’s income. It’s all quite simple. I find it nice to see a person, whether it’s a man or a woman, with a beautiful appearance, – says Vladimir, while also complimenting my outfit. – I definitely pay attention to my clothing, which I usually pick abroad. For example, shirts (which I adore) that don’t require a tie (which I can’t stand) are not easy to find here.

You could call me a shopaholic because I really enjoy shopping. Where does my appreciation and understanding of beautiful things come from? During the five years when I was studying in Saint Petersburg, I had the unique opportunity to visit the State Hermitage museum every week for free. It was there that I gained my understanding of beauty.

I would like to play sports, but I confess that I’ve become lazy about it. What’s more, after past events, I wonder if there is even one gym in which I would feel safe.

Spouses link themselves to one another with rings. Do you and your partner share some type of symbol for your union?

Such symbols are expressions of sentimentality, and we are not very sentimental. But there was a period of time when we wore rings and clothes that were meaningful to us. But what joins us as a family is our partnership.

Women often say that the best friends that they can have are gay men. It’s possible go out and be seen every week at some sort of event when a lady is accompanied by such a person.

I know what you’re talking about. As in all other friendships, two people fulfill one another. There are times when a gay man can provide a woman with that which she isn’t getting from a heterosexual man, like attention and chivalry. But I don’t think that heterosexuals are incapable of providing these things – it’s just a matter of finding the right man. In other words, we enjoy having fun and we know how to do it.

Perhaps we are compensating for what we don’t get, what we don’t have. We constantly have to control ourselves, so maybe that’s why we allow ourselves to go over the top when having fun in a different space.

This interview was originally published in the “Lithuanian Morning” newspaper’s supplement “Style” on February 19th, 2015.