On Friday, it emerged that Lithuania’s first gay pride march to be held in the capital, Vilnius, on Saturday, had been reinstated by a supreme court ruling that cited international human rights law. This came after a last minute appeal was made by LGBT rights groups to overturn a lower court decision to suspend the parade’s license. You can read more about that here. While being widely praised by international human rights and LGBT rights advocates, the go ahead was overshadowed by threats of violence from right-wing groups and anti-gay protesters.
On Saturday, things didn’t get off to a good start. Early in the morning, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the building of Youth for Tolerance, a human rights organization that helped to organize the Baltic Pride event. Fortunately, the device failed to ignite and there were no reported casualties.
Regardless, the march itself went ahead, with 400-500 people marching in the parade, a larger number than had been expected. LGBTs and straight allies came from miles around to attend with a strong foreign contingent being present.
Marchers walked beneath a huge rainbow banner and carried placards saying “Human Rights Are My Pride”, “Different Families, Same Love” and “Marching For Those Who Can’t.”
Holding large rainbow flags and dancing to music blaring from loudspeakers, they walked along a road near the city’s Neris river.
Participants included many foreigners, diplomats and members of the European Parliament.
“We are here because we believe … in a just society. Labels are for filing, for clothing, not for people. And we are here today to remove labels from people,” said Birgitta Ohlsson, Sweden’s minister for European Union affairs.
Here is a clip of the historic pride parade:
And a longer video:
Around 500 police were stationed around the parade route, some on horseback, so as to protect marchers from a crowd of around 1000 protesters (though some reports suggest that there were closer to 2000).
Protesters were kept at a distance by a wall of barriers that had been erected around the parade route, but that did not prevent demonstrators from shouting anti-gay epithets through megaphones while carrying placards baring similar messages. The protest was allegedly joined by a fascist group that chanted such things as “Away with pederasts, away with Jews, away with occupants… EU pederasts.”
At one point, police reportedly fired teargas into the crowds of protesters when several attempted to jump the barriers. Protesters retaliated by throwing stones and improvised smoke bombs as well as broken street signs. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, while the pride marchers themselves were kept safe by the preparations the police had made.
Many protesters apparently believe that LGBT rights threaten Lithuania’s “traditional” values and that the pride march itself only came about as a result of outside influence because homosexuality, they say, is not native to Lithuania:
Protesters carried crosses and signs and shouted insults at rally participants. A Catholic Mass at the nearby national cathedral was held to pray for homosexuals.
“Sweden has already wiped out traditional families. Now they came over here to tell us how to live, how to think and who to sleep with. Lithuania will not allow such perversions,” said Jonas Kempinskas, who walked from the Cathedral to the protest holding a huge cross.
Same-sex relations were decriminalised in Lithuania in 1993 — two years after the country won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, which had banned homosexuality.
But opposition remains entrenched.
“Homosexuality is not part of our traditional values. It’s something imported into our country. They should keep it to themselves and not flaunt it,” said mother of three Lina Saluckiene, as protesters prayed earlier outside Vilnius’ cathedral.
The above quote draws on an almost universal criticism that is put to LGBTs over pride parades. “Why do you flaunt your sexuality?” “Why throw it in my face?” This is often followed by: “Just keep it private. Keep it in the bedroom.”
While in places like America and Britain, pride parades are annual, often commercial, events, Saturday’s Baltic Pride 2010 event in Lithuania demonstrates the core message at the heart of every pride parade: visibility and solidarity.
Pride events are not about “flaunting” sexuality or trying to indoctrinate or coerce. Simply, if you are not seen, it is unlikely that your voice is recognized as significant enough to be given attention; if you can not be heard, you can not combat the prejudice you face, and no one can hear you cry out when you are the victim of injustice or when you suffer intimidation, violence or labor under institutionalized homophobia, which, as we have seen, is a reality for LGBTs in Lithuania, just as it is many other places such as in Uganda and Iraq where to speak out in this manner would certainly lead to more than protests, perhaps even death. The banner mentioned above baring the message “Marching For Those Who Can’t” takes on a new dimension, then.
And if there was any doubt of the power or significance of marches like this, a small part of a Reuters news article on the parade caught my eye:
For some the parade became an emotional moment.
“I just called my mother and told her I am gay. She was shocked, initially, of course, but I hope she will get over it,” Artur, 17, who declined to give his family name, told Reuters.
Similar tales are being reported of how, moved to action by the march, others have come out to friends and family. As such, Saturday’s march was historic, and as many marchers themselves noted, a significant landmark that, even under the potentially stifling threat of violence, was not halted. While there could be a backlash from this, the positive affirmation of the march, named “For Equality”, radiates like a laser beam in the dark regardless.
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