Vladimir Simonko, co-founder and chair of the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL) speaks to CIVICUS about the challenges the LGBT community faces in one of the most homophobic countries in Europe.
What current barriers exist for LGBT groups trying to operate in Lithuania?
Intolerance in general and homophobia as in Lithuanian society form a barrier for LGBT groups.Lithuania is a party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as numerous other international human rights instruments. But despite these formal commitments to protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, public opinion polls show that Lithuania is one of the most homophobic countries in Europe. Sexual minorities in Lithuania suffer from systematic discrimination and are subjected to hate speech within Lithuanian media.
In the 21-year history of Lithuania’s independence, we can say that the current parliament is the worst one on LGBT issues because it has proposed several homophobic initiatives. These include an amendment to the administrative code on the protection of constitutional moral values which would criminalise a wide variety of activities such as campaigning on and providing information on LGBT rights, an amendment to the constitution stating that the family is created by a free marriage agreement between a man and a woman, and a proposed ban on gender reassignment.
2010 saw the introduction of the Law of the Protections of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information. This law classifies any information which “denigrates family values” or which “encourages” a concept of marriage and family other than that stipulated in the Constitution and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania.
In addition, Lithuanian parliamentarians have tried to overturn the permit for Baltic Pride in Vilnius, the capital. An initiative led by Member of Parliament Petras Grazulis in 2010 gathered more than 50 signatures from MPs. Additionally, the homophobic rhetoric of certain MPs, bordering on hate speech, seems overlooked by society. Social attitudes are also reflected in internet hate speech, with 80% of investigated cases on hate speech being on the grounds of sexual orientation.
You were recently at the 105th session of the UN Human Rights Committee. What was your experience there?
I was satisfied to see that LGBT rights were raised as one of the key human rights issues, and that there was in-depth discussion on prevention and regulation of hate speech, and freedom of expression and assembly.
I have previous experience with the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process, and was able to learn more about the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights process during my trip. In this regard I appreciate the opportunity to work with the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights to draw up a shadow report on LGBT rights in Lithuania. In my experience, this process was more concrete and had a clear impact on government, providing a good platform for advocacy. For example, before the session the government prepared a law package on gender reassignment surgery, as this was one of the key questions raised.
The session also offered a good opportunity to meet and establish contacts with some members of the Human Rights Committee, and helped facilitate dialogue between CSOs and the government. Following the session the head of the Lithuanian delegation, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs invited representatives of LGL to a meeting to discuss LGBT issues.
What steps has LGL taken to mitigate systematic threats to human rights by the Lithuanian government?
LGL is the main organisation in Lithuania working on the rights of LGBT people at domestic and international levels. In doing so, LGL collaborates with different regional and international organisations.
LGL strives to highlight threats to human rights by the Lithuanian government by organising visible public actions and activities, such as Rainbow Days in May 2012. Rainbow Days included a press conference held in parliament, facilitated by LGBT friendly MPs with whom we have established a good working relationship.
We disseminate information through publications, for example Changing Faces – First March for LGBT Equality in Lithuania, which focuses on the litigation process for the first pride march to be held in Lithuania.
LGL is also involved in several projects aimed at battling discrimination. LGL has coordinated the European Commission (EC) initiated EQUAL project Open and Safe at Work, which is so far the biggest and most ambitious project undertaken by LGL. This EC initiative aims to reduce intolerance toward employees who experience discrimination based on sexual orientation and to promote integration of equal opportunities at work.
We use newsletters to keep international civil society and other key actors such as members of parliament in other European countries informed about developments in Lithuania, and newsletter recipients use the information provided by us to raise our issues on different levels. We also work with Members of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Amnesty International and embassies in Lithuania to raise our issues and put pressure on the Lithuanian government.
How can international civil society groups support you in your struggle?
International civil society groups, and international agencies, are already supporting us. We have good cooperation with, for example, the European Parliament Intergroup on LGBT rights, Amnesty International, ILGA-Europe, human rights organisations in the USA, and governments and embassies of various countries, who can raise our issues in their respective arenas.
Civil society groups can support us by continuing to raise our issues as much as possible and putting pressure on their governments to act. It is also important that experts on LGBT issues from Lithuania are strongly represented in international conferences to disseminate information about the situation and developments happening in Lithuania.
Lithuanian Gay League is a national non-profit, non-governmental advocacy organisation, established in 1993, dedicated to fighting homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Through education, support, and representation of the LGBT community, LGL promotes an inclusive social environment for gay men, lesbian women, bisexual and transgender persons. Over the years, LGL has implemented a number of projects, e.g. the first survey in the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; a project, Challenges to Family Law and Policy in Europe, which included publications, seminars throughout Lithuania and a photo exhibition, Living Together. LGL was one of the main organisers of Baltic Pride 2010, the first gay pride event to be held in Lithuania. LGL has run an LGBT support and information centre in Vilnius since 2004, and is also active in lobbying.
Vladimir Simonko is the co-founder and chair of LGL. He has long experience of working on LGBT rights in Lithuania, acting as expert and trainer in various national and international projects and actively participating in human rights conferences. Vladimir was an organiser of the first Eastern European Conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) in Palanga, Lithuania in 1994 and the annual ILGA-Europe conference in Vilnius in 2007. He was also one of the main organisers of Baltic Pride 2010. Vladimir currently serves as member of the Lithuanian Human Rights Coalition and National Equality and Diversity Forum. He has also participated in National Working Groups on European Union anti-discrimination policy and the 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunities for All.