Pride, prejudiced

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Ten years after the legalisation of homosexuality, Lithuania
still rates among the least tolerant of it in Europe. According
to a survey by the European Values Study, Lithuanian attitudes to
homosexuals rank at around 2 on a scale of 10 of acceptance
– far below that of its Baltic neighbours and less than a
quarter of that for the region’s most liberal nation, the
Netherlands. According to the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL),
lawyers in UK, Canada, USA, France and Belgium have approached
both them and other authorities claiming that Lithuanian lesbians
and gays are seeking asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation
persecution. Undeterred, I set off to the capital touted as ‘the new
Prague’ in early autumn for a week in one of Europe’s
most charismatic countries. I chose to suffer for my miserly
morals by opting for a coach journey to get myself there in the
cheapest fashion, and found myself stuck between a surly Pole and
an unforgiving wall. Arriving fatigued but frolicsome in Vilnius
40 hours after leaving the UK, my initial impressions made it
worth it as I meandered through what claims to be the largest
‘Old Town’ in Europe on my way to my holiday abode.
Gazing at the jovial Lithuanians chatting away in Vilnius’
cobbled streets with the sun glistening over the city’s many
spires, it seems hard to believe that anti-queer sentiments could
exist in what seems to be such a harmonious city. The first stop on my reconnaissance mission of Vilnius is what
many gay Lithuanians view as their chief opposition – the
Catholic Church. Vilnius Cathedral originates from the 15th
century, the golden age of Lithuania under Grand Duke Vytautas,
when its empire extended almost to the Black Sea. Modified many
times since, it is now a gleaming white bastion of the Lithuanian
RC Church, visible across the city. The baroque cathedral sits in contrast to the nearby
masterpiece of St Anne’s Church. Built with over 33 types of
brick, it is a Gothic treasure with spires, arches and buttresses
galore. According to local historical sources, it impressed
Napoleon so much that he declared that he wanted to take it back
to Paris “in the palm of his hand”. The omnipresence of
this and so many other churches in Vilnius’ old town reminds
any visitor that Lithuania is strongly Catholic. Despite a papal
declaration that homosexuals ‘must be accepted with respect,
compassion, and sensitivity’, many view the Church’s
stance locally as apathetic with little effort made to tackle
local discrimination. The real culprit in many forms lies in the previous Soviet
rule. From the initial occupation in 1940, homosexual relations
were criminalised in a law. Article 122, which stated “Man
Lying With Man: Sexual relations between men… shall be
punishable by incarceration for a period of up to five
years,” was only repealed under international pressure in
1993. The fearsome relics of the Soviet era are still visible in
Vilnius, most notably in the former KGB building which has now
reopened as the Museum of Genocide Victims. This house of horrors
is a testament to the terrors of the Soviet reign; surviving
inmates act as tour guides through the grim cells. As you pass
from cell to cell you notice various spine-chilling details: the
straitjackets left on the hooks; the bloodstains on the walls;
the padded doors which muffled the prisoners’ screams. At
times these contained up to twenty people with barely room to
stand, but if this weren’t torture enough, inmates sat in
fear of the punishment cells. Talking to others earned oneself a
stay in the isolation cell, where you would be stripped and left
in the dark with a mere hole in the floor as a latrine; not
talking to the guards would leave you blindfolded and beaten at
random in a padded cell. Back in the colourful streets of the Old Town, however, one is
far removed from these horrific scenes. Terrace cafés and craft
markets are found lining the quaint streets, and there is more
than enough to occupy oneself with here as you explore the myriad
nooks and crannies of the capital. Whether buying the spiced
local gingerbread or scouting for the region’s best amber,
it’s hard to resist picking something up. Lithuanians are
well-known in the region for their cheerful nature, and tend to
be happy to chatter away to you in the scraps they know of your
own tongue. Entering Vilnius’ only gay club that evening, the
atmosphere is so different. The dubiously named ‘Men’s
Factory’ is the only hideaway for Vilnius’ queers where
they can meet other men in total safety – gay-bashing around
the city is not uncommon. Located in the rear entrance of a
disused warehouse, its events are only publicised within groups
such as LGL. Steel bars cover the entry and you have to knock to
enter through a turnstile. What lies within is a polarised sphere
of an intense and repressed gay society. The dance-floor plays
the stereotypical techno for embracing scantilyclad lesbians, but
from here branch off a number of rooms lined with cushions and TV
screens showing gay porn. The club has been created with sex in
mind, when much of the gay public just wants safety and equality.
After a drink, I head out again into Vilnius’ cold air,
waiting for a time when queers can meet the straight society in
the middle and gay Lithuanians can finally air their pride.ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2004 

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