Normally, I never turn on Facebook while at work. First of all, it’s against the rules and secondly, it would be infantile of me to be peeking at my Facebook account while admonishing the students for doing the same.
I’m convinced that people who are close in spirit have a psychic connection that transcends time and continents. That day in early May, under the influence of some force that overtook my willpower, I stood up from my desk at exactly 3:55 p.m., walked across my classroom to the old computer in the corner, and logged onto Facebook. There was a message for me from Darius — my friend from my high school days at the Lithuanian Gymnasium in Germany: “Laima! Where are you? It’s 2:15 p.m. your time in Vilnius and I need to talk to you! If you get this message before 4 pm and are able to chat via Facebook or Skype, please contact me!”
I looked down at my watch. It was exactly four. Had I missed him? No, Darius popped up on chat immediately. I sensed what Darius needed to talk about. Over the past few months, from his hide-out in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Darius had been following the Baltic Gay Pride March controversy here in Lithuania.
After a prolonged battle, the Lithuanian Gay League together with the Tolerant Youth Association had finally won permission to hold the first ever gay pride march in Lithuania. Darius was tormented over wanting to come to Vilnius to march and not really having the funds or the time to make the journey.
I knew he needed to participate in the march for personal reasons, for closure: the two years he had lived in Vilnius during the singing revolution working for Lithuania’s fledgling democracy, he had hid his homosexuality even from himself. Now he was deliberating out loud over chat whether he should spend the remainder of his savings to fly to Vilnius.
“Darius, I know you,” I wrote, “you need to do this. If you don’t, it will eat away at you.” Then I added, “You can stay with us, of course.” I hit the enter key.
Darius’s text popped up in the chat box: “I was just about to ask that.”
A week later, Darius, looking swarthy and very Brazilian, met me at my apartment door. We grabbed each other in a bear hug.
Darius and I have the type of friendship that whether we haven’t seen each other for a year or a decade, the moment we are reunited, our dialogue continues. Darius and I became friends when he was 15 and I was 17. I had just returned to the Lithuanian Gymnasium for a second year. I was a twelfth grader and he was a wide-eyed tenth grader sent to the Gymnasium under the illusion that he would be living in a luxurious castle.
Instead, he found a dilapidated crumbling manor and a community of dispossessed teachers — people who’d escaped Sovie- occupied Lithuania and didn’t quite fit into German society — and a student body with a host of problems ranging from drugs to a narrow worldview formed by the ultra-patriotism of the guilt-ridden Cold War émigré community.
That night there was a “disco” in what was once the ballroom of the old manor. The drugged-out or drunk German kids, the ones who’d been dumped on the school since time immemorial, were shuffling across the faded parquet dancing each in a world of their own.
The American kids, still fresh with that American brand of bright optimism, were hopping around the dance floor gleefully, oblivious to the sad undercurrent in the room playing like a bass rhythm to the spacey music.
The recent Lithuanian immigrants, ambitious as immigrants always are, stood stiffly along the plaster walls primly gazing onto the weird scene. A disco ball hanging in the center of the dance floor — the year was 1982 — provided the only illumination in the room except for the muted glow of street lights that came through the nineteenth century floor to ceiling windows.
I was leaning up against the wall, observing the scene with a wry smile. I must have been a writer even then — I preferred observation over participation. Darius, who struck me as very 15, came up to me and asked, “Would you like to dance?”
We danced awkwardly. At the time I was a head taller than him. The song finished and we quickly retreated to the safety of the plaster wall. It was easier to watch than to dance. I was struck by the distinct lack of sexual energy between us, but even at 17, with an overbearing father and a strict Catholic upbringing, I hadn’t had the opportunity to so much as converse with a boy, unless he was one of my four brothers, so what did I know?
Yet, somehow, intuitively, without even knowing what homosexuality was in that isolated conservative Lithuanian émigré community I’d been brought up in, I sensed that Darius was off-limits. And I because he was off-limits, I knew we could be friends.
Fortunately for me, I did not make the mistake other girls made of stubbornly pursuing a disinterested Darius. He was very cute, after all, with his curly brown hair, perfect features, and blue eyes. Darius, paralyzed by his émigré upbringing and his active participation in Lithuanian politics and community, did not admit his homosexuality to himself until he was 27 and on the brink of depression as a result of the repression he put himself through.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they dance,” I said to Darius, as we stood watching arms and legs thrashing around to the Rolling Stones, the disco ball casting glow-in-the-dark reds and greens onto bare flesh, long hair whipping around.
“What?” Darius sneered with just a tinge of adolescent sarcasm.
From that moment on we were the best of friends. Of course, Darius never let me live that first line down.
Over the years we have lived through many stages of our lives together, coming back to each other as a touchstone.
Before Darius was even able to carry his suitcase inside, he and I plunged into a flurry of catching-up, chain-smoking, rushing my daughter, Saulė, around to her piano lessons and choir practice.
“You are just going to have to accept that while Darius is here staying with us we are both going to regress into being teenagers again,” I said to my sons, half apologetically.
After Darius had first gotten on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, and from there on a plane to Brussels, and from there on a plane to Vilnius, Lithuania, the Vilnius Administrative Court had placed a ban on the parade in response to a request by General Prosecutor Raimondas Petrauskas and the Kaunas politician Stanislovas Buškevičius.
Petrauskas claimed that his request was made with only one objective in mind: public security.
Lithuanian intelligence had reported that there was a serious threat of bodily harm and even death to citizens planning to participate in the march. Meanwhile, Buškevičius claimed the parade could not happen because it was an affront to the majority of Lithuanian citizens, who he claimed were family-oriented Catholics.
While Darius was still up in the air, the situation looked hopeless: the appeal process usually took two months. The Vilnius police chief assured the press that there would be adequate protection provided for marchers and foreign diplomats and guests. President Dalia Grybauskaitė criticized the ban on the parade, saying one branch of government didn’t know what the other was doing.
Foreigners, planning to march, continued to fly into the capital. If the march were to remain called off, there was the danger that people would march anyway, but without police protection. At the moment this scenario seemed the most likely, and the most frightening.
It could potentially turn into a blood bath and no one could be held accountable: “We told you so! We canceled the march for safety reasons!” the powers that be would shout.
Violence against homosexuals and non-whites happened in Lithuania on a regular day, never mind when gays decide to come forward and show their faces in daylight. There were rumors that a small army of skinheads from Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Panevėžys were preparing to descend upon Vilnius that weekend. Lithuanian Internet newspapers and web pages were swamped with threats and hate messages.
Darius and I were in the car, driving to Antakalnis, still not knowing the outcome, when I decided to call the Dutch ambassador, Joep Wijnands, and ask him if he knew the latest news. Ambassador Wijnands was an attractive, dynamic, and idealistic young diplomat with three elementary school-age children. He was deeply committed to fostering tolerance in Lithuania and was involved in organizing the march and defending the legal process to allow it to happen. After he had given an interview for the Lithuanian press, in which he stated that as a member of the European Union, Lithuania has no choice but to become a tolerant society, he received death threats.
“The latest news is that the march is on,” Joep said into my cell phone.
Darius almost leaped out of the passenger seat with joy. Now our task was to go to the headquarters of the Tolerant Youth Association and procure permits to march. The problem was that only a limited 350 permits were available. We agreed that I would leave Darius at our apartment to take a shower while waiting for Saule to finish choir rehearsal and then we would set out in search of passes.
After I dropped off Darius at home, my cell phone rang. One of my son’s friends had forgotten a thermos in our apartment. We agreed that he come over that evening to pick it up. About an hour later I was marching up the stairs to our apartment with Saule when the flustered young man ran past us down the stairs, gripping the thermos tightly in his hands.
I stepped inside our apartment. Darius greeted me wearing only a bath towel.
“Laima,” Darius said nervously, “I think I just terrified that boy.”
“Well, I was in the shower, singing to myself when I heard the doorbell ring. Since I had the house keys, I assumed it was one of your sons who needed to get in. So, I wrapped a towel around my waist and went downstairs and flung open the door. I’d taken out my contacts, so I was half-blind. I could make out a tall boy with blond hair, so I thought, “Oh, it’s Aurimas.” I greeted him and invited him inside, chatting away in English, all the time thinking it was your son. The boy pulled back, lunged past me into the kitchen, snatched the thermos, and bolted out the door.”
“Oh my God, Darius,” I said. “You could not have picked a worse person for this misunderstanding to happen.”
I told Darius about how this boy came from a large Catholic family. His parents were amazing people: both PhDs and creative, loving, compassionate parents. Our families often got together and played music, talked, sang. They were supportive of me and my children and in a word when other people were not tolerant of me as a single mother. However, there was one point of contention between us.
My friends were strongly against proposed educational programs in the Lithuanian schools to teach about homosexuality. They thought that if their sons were introduced to homosexual ideas, they would become gay. They refused to believe the argument that homosexuality is biological; they believed it to be a sexual perversion and a matter of choice. And now, my gay friend, who’d been all over the Lithuanian media promoting openness regarding homosexuality, clad only in a wet towel, had turned up on my doorstep. I worried they would misinterpret what was a friendly greeting.
“But Laima,” Darius said, “you don’t know how many years of therapy its taken for me to finally be free enough with my body to be able to open a door in a towel.”
I began to laugh. I know its cruel, but I couldn’t help it. I’m like my grandfather in that way. He was always laughing at the most serious things and that is how he survived.
But Darius began to worry. “I’m so sorry, Laima, I’ve caused you trouble.”
“Oh no, no, no,” I said, “you did nothing wrong. What people obsessively fear the most is bound to happen to them sooner or later. My homophobic friends, though I love and respect them dearly, have now experienced their worst nightmare — a gay man in a bath towel!”
“Oh Laima,” Darius moaned.
“Never mind,” I said, “it’s just a misunderstanding.”
And we both laughed. Of all people, why did this boy from this family come to our door at just this minute?
And then I thought, this is what happens when young people lack education about uncomfortable topics, like homosexuality, and are taught intolerance from those whom they love best, their parents. An innocent blunder, a simple greeting that was too friendly towards a stranger under the circumstances, could be perceived as just that feared advance gay men allegedly make towards adolescents and one more reason why gays should not be tolerated in a “Catholic” society and one more reason why the gay pride march should be banned and one more reason why openly gay Lithuanian men like Darius should be banished from their homeland.
Darius, the son of Lithuanian exiles, who gave up a career in America and in 1990 came to Lithuania under blockade conditions to work as a volunteer for newly independent Lithuania’s government, was now himself an exile, though of a different sort — a sexual exile.
Back in Lithuania for the march, we seriously had to worry about his safety every time he went out. An old friend of his from his parliament days had kindly invited him to stay with him, but Darius had refused the invitation, explaining his very real fear that if the media found out a gay man were staying with him, he would be exposed and it would destroy his political career. My apartment was Darius’s bunker where he could come and hide out from the media, relax, vent, and just be himself in the company of me and my children.
I bustled around the kitchen preparing a quick dinner before we headed out. From the corner of my eye, I could see the happy swarthy Darius who’d just arrived from Brazil full of tropical adventure stories, growing worried, his old repressions hemming in on him.
Darius had come to Lithuania in 1988 to study at Vilnius University and later returned from 1990-91 to work in the parliament. From late 1991 to 1995 he worked for Lithuania’s mission to the United Nations. In the eighties he became involved with dissident groups that opposed the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Ironically, Darius had done quite a lot of work to help free the former dissident, Petras Gražulis, the same loose cannon parliamentarian who was at the forefront of opposing the gay pride march. It was not enough for Gražulis to be in opposition, he openly advocated violence against gays as a way of solving the “gay problem.” In other words, if we give them a good beating, they’ll stop being gay.
After dinner Darius and I headed to the Tolerant Youth Association on Jakšto Street. This small youth organization subsisted from European Union grants and fostered not only tolerance towards homosexuals, but also supported projects for refugees from Chechnya and worked for the well-being of other minority groups in Lithuania.
We arrived at the address on Jakšto Street, but could not find the office. After several failed attempts, we called Artūras Rudomanskis, head of the organization, and asked him to send someone outside to lead us to the office.
A pleasant-looking young man with dark glasses and tousled blond hair came outside to greet us. He introduced himself as Vaizdzius and led us inside the building and then through a labyrinth of hallways and stairs until we finally arrived at the tiny cramped office that served as headquarters for the Tolerant Youth Center . There were no signs along the way save for a cryptic small yellow sheet of construction paper with the acronym for the organization hanging on the wall behind the building’s reception counter.
“Do you hide yourselves like this on purpose?” I asked Vaizdzius.
“No, we took this office because we can’t afford to rent anything better, though it is convenient for our safety that we are hard to find,” he said.
I thought of the hidden bunkers of the post-war era. Why is it that generation after generation of Lithuanians who stand for freedom and tolerance and democracy must of necessity operate from the underground? When will we ever reach the point when all Lithuanian citizens can live a free and open life without compromising on their principles?
Inside the cramped office a young woman was hunched over a lap top watching last night’s televised debate on whether the march should be allowed or not. Petras Gražulis’ ugly face reared across the screen, spewing his hateful arguments. He was red with anger and practically foaming at the mouth. A running text on the bottom of the screen provided an update on a call-in question: “Do you think the Baltic Pride March should take place?”
At that moment the numbers indicated that 526 supported the march and 5,432 were against it. Another poll of 1,000 random Lithuanians indicated that only 10 percent were tolerant of the Baltic Pride march.
A young man with fair hair was busy answering phone calls. Tolerance posters covered the walls. There was very little standing room between the three desks that dominated the room, each covered in papers and documents.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I asked Vaizdzius.
“Not at all,” he answered.
“How do you feel about the march tomorrow,” I asked.
“This is a historic moment,” Vaizdzius said with sincerity and idealism. “We’ve had 20 years of independence and this is our first gay pride march. It has taken a long time to get to this point.”
“Why are you marching tomorrow?”
“We are marching because we want to show Lithuanian people our faces. We want them to see us and to see that we are no different from their sons and daughters and neighbors; that we are not a criminal element. You see, during the Soviet era homosexuality was a crime. You could go to jail for being gay. That idea that gays are criminals is still rooted in people’s minds.”
“Have you received threats?”
“We have received threats of bodily injury from skinheads. We fear for our safety whenever we’re out on the street. We have no idea what to expect tomorrow. There will be 800 police guarding the parade. They are there to protect the ambassadors marching with us.”
“But what about your own protection?” I asked. “Don’t you deserve protection too?”
Vaizdzius shrugged as though it never occurred to him that anyone would bother protecting him.
Indeed, this is sadly true. Every time he went out on the street or appeared anywhere in public, since puberty, this young man has been at risk of a beating in the worst case scenario and silent scorn or open humiliation as his daily bread. I knew he was not being cynical when he’d said the police would be there tomorrow to protect the foreign ambassadors and guests. After tomorrow, there would be no more police protection for him or any Lithuanian or Russian gays or lesbians.
“This won’t be a big party like Gay Pride in the West. It will be a rather solemn march. We want to be seen and acknowledged,” Vaizdzius continued. “We have the support of the Embassy of the Netherlands and of the northern European countries.”
“What about Russia, Belarus,” I asked.
Vaizdzius laughed. He paused, as though thinking whether it was even worth it to answer such a stupid question. “Obviously, no support,” he said finally.
I’d asked that question for the record. Russia was one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, even worse than the Baltic States, which still had a modicum of tolerance.
From the Tolerant Youth Center Darius and I took a taxi to the hotel where passes were being distributed. We arrive there only to find all the passes had already been given out. Along with this disappointing news, came the excitement members of the Lithuanian Gay League expressed when they told us about the legal documentation that has been drafted in defense of tomorrow’s march: the document was historical in that the language of the argument underscored human rights.
A young woman from the organization promised to get us passes and got to work on her cell phone. Meanwhile, we were told to wait at the bar. Darius and I ordered ourselves beers and sat and chatted and waited. The restaurant was filled with gay couples — Eurogays, Darius called them. Many of them had flown in on the same flight with him from Brussels that afternoon. They would be marching in support of Baltic gays tomorrow.
After an hour the young woman on the cell phone brought us the news: there was only one pass remaining. Obviously, that pass must go to Darius. I decide to call Joep and Carmen.
“Yes, of course,” Carmen said, “you can come in the diplomatic car with us.”
“Oh,” Darius teased, “while I’m exposing myself to bodily injury, you will be going to the march in your protective diplomatic bubble.”
“I hadn’t planned it that way,” I said.
But it was true. Tomorrow morning Darius would board a bus with the other marchers, pass through the police barricades, then exit the bus, and who knew what would happen after that.
From the hotel, Darius and I headed for the gay club, SoHo, named for the wonderfully free liberal artist neighborhood in New York City. I came of age in New York City, basking in a liberal and open society that formed me as a person, that was my birthright. What the hell was I doing here living in this intolerant repressive society? Was I a masochist? Or a revolutionary? Or a reverse missionary of sorts?
As it was a lovely spring evening, we decided to walk. We headed up to Švitrigailos Street, squinting to make out the small house numbers in the darkness.
“It’s hard to find,” Darius warned. “I couldn’t find it the last time I was here.”
“Do you feel safer walking with me?” I asked Darius, teasing him just a little. “You know, everyone sees us and thinks we’re a couple, which isn’t so bad for me — I like being seen with a good-looking man beside me.”
“You’re a fag hag,” Darius said, lighting himself a cigarette, then laughing at the look on my face. “It’s a mean, awful term, but I’m just using it to be funny.”
“A fag hag, a straight woman who hangs out with gay men. I just thought I’d familiarize you with the terminology.”
Darius did have a point. Many of my close friends were gays and lesbians. I did not categorize people; this is just how things worked out. Perhaps, as an artist and a writer, I was never able to feel comfortable in my own skin. I never learned how to play by the rules of what was “normal.” I never learned the games and manipulations of heterosexual relationships and that was why I was eternally single. I didn’t date. That seemed too complicated for me. I had no idea how to even begin such a complicated and subtle process. My intense personality frightened away anyone who showed the slightest interest in me. And so, yes, I was a fag-hag, happy to be around people who could just let me be who I was.
Eventually, we found the sub-basement that was the SoHo Club. A bouncer let us inside after making us stand outside a few minutes. As we stood there, a few lesbian girls came up and asked why we couldn’t go in.
“Oh, it’s a club thing,” Darius explained to them, “they make you wait a few minutes outside the door, so that you feel its a real big deal to be let inside.”
“Ah,” the girls said and nodded their heads and giggled. This was obviously a first time for them too.
Inside the club was cozy. There was a good selection of music playing, a nice bar, a pole in the center of the dance floor where a couple of young men were dancing. In the other room, men and women danced in same-sex couples on a large dance floor. Older couples sat tucked in the booths, talking quietly over drinks. People were just being “in their own skin.” A young woman with her hair slicked back into a severe ponytail and dressed in a white dress shirt, pants and tie was flirting with a girly-girl in a black mini-skirt dress and black pumps. They looked to be in their early 20s: probably local students. Here, we saw no Eurogays, just local Lithuanians having fun. Everyone we met was friendly and open with us. There is a certain relief for a straight woman in a gay club. You are not bombarded with the usual male/female sexual energy and the vacuum that lack of tension provides allows you to be able to talk to people more openly.
Darius explained to me that a gay man experiences a sense of relief in a gay club: everyone in the room shares a similar story and therefore it is community. Obviously, this is very true in a place where gays are oppressed.
“Though,” Darius continued, “sometimes in New York a gay club feels like a meat market. Just like the New York gay pride parade has become so commercialized. There is really something special about being here and seeing the very first Baltic gay pride movement begin. People are still so innocent here. So sincere.”
A tough-looking young woman with short cropped black hair and a biker’s jacket approached us at the bar.
“I’m Inga,” she said, thrusting her hand out at Darius and then at me. “Where you from?”
“Brazil,” Darius answered.
“Super!” Inga shouted out gleefully. I liked her. She reminded me a certain type of person you meet in small towns in America — the kind of genuine person who is just happy to meet someone new and strike up a conversation.
Inga told us she’s lived all over Western Europe. She had been away from Lithuania seven years and she’d just come back and feels stifled. She’d grown accustomed to being gay in London and now she can’t be who she is. She has to hide her true self. She works as a physical education teacher at school in a small town. No one knows about her and her girlfriend, with whom she meets secretly.
She told us when she opened up to her mother and admitted she was gay, her mother began to pray for her. She said to her, ‘My child, what will you do when you are old? Who will take care of you?’ When she told her sister, her sister said, ‘Just please don’t tell my husband. He’ll divorce me.’ ‘Divorce you,’ Inga had blurted out. ‘You hardly ever see me, but because of me your husband would leave you?’ It didn’t make sense.
We stood with Inga at the bar about an hour, talking. We talked about Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, who is rumored to be a lesbian and who has denied herself any private life in order to remain in public office.
“Grybauskaitė chose the closet over openness to make a career,” Inga said.
It seemed to me that Grybauskaitė was a symbol of homosexuality in Lithuania today: Hide yourself if you want to live and work. Otherwise, emigrate.
We were talking like this when Inga leaned over and asked me very sincerely, “What does it feel like to have a baby? What is it like to have this little person grow inside of you?”
Inga and I ended up dancing on the dance floor. Then Darius called me over to introduce me to a young academic who had been fired from his job as a professor at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas for writing a paper on sexual diversity. The man was practically bankrupt from paying legal fees, had no hope of getting another job in his field in Lithuania, but was still cheerful enough to hold up his end of a conversation.
Another man I spoke to told me the sad story of his failed marriage. He was from a conservative family and had been pressured into marrying. He explained that although he respected his wife and loved her as a friend, evenings were torture for him, making him physically sick.
“If anyone says that gays chose their fate,” this man said, “they are entirely wrong. Who in their right mind would choose such a terrible thing?”
The next morning I was groggily making us coffee in the kitchen when Darius pulled up the morning news on the Internet.
“Laima,” he called out, “last night the windows of the Tolerant Youth Assocition were broken and a few Molotov-cocktails were tossed inside. Luckily, they did not detonate. It happened at 3:30 in the morning.”
“Was anybody hurt?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Darius answered.
I remembered how difficult it had been for us to find that office tucked deep inside the labyrinth of the old Stalin-era building. But the skinheads had found it.
It would be a violent day. Already online in the newspapers there were photos of throngs of skinheads arriving, decked in pseudo-Nazi garb with Swatsika-like armbands, armed, and with obscene t-shirts depicting stick-figure men having anal sex. They also had large posters of naked men having sex. And now who was exposing the young to inappropriate imagery? I shooed my daughter away from the computer as Darius was pulling up images of the “good Catholic youth” who were in town to protect Catholic values.
Darius finished reading, shut down his computer, and said to me: “Here is my mother’s phone number and my partner’s phone number. Just in case. I don’t want you to have to worry about that if something happens to me today.”
At that moment the seriousness of the situation hit me. Nonetheless, Saturday morning chaos reigned in our house. I was hurrying to fry eggs before everyone had to rush out the door: Aurimas to a violin exam at the Dvarionis School of Music; Dainius to get on a bus to Kaunas; Saulė to a trip with her choir; and Darius to the meeting place to get on the bus to the march. After they all left, I had another hour before I would meet with Joep and Carmen and go with them to the march.
“We don’t know who the enemy is,” Darius said, “I feel just like I did in 1997 when I went to Bosnia to monitor the elections for the UN. You didn’t who the enemy was and where they’d get you. Back in the days of the singing revolution we knew very clearly who the enemy was and that made it easy.”
“It’s hard to go out there and expose yourself to the concentrated hate of hundreds of skinheads,” I said. “My instinct is to hide away, but I know that for moral reasons I must go.”
Darius and I said our goodbyes and he left. One by one my children made their way out the door. I fell into a frenzy of housekeeping, mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, as though this weird nesting instinct had been activated inside of me. This is how people must have felt before they went out the door to stand in the human chains before the television tower and the parliament on the night of January 12-13, 1991. I remember the words one of my girlfriends had written to me on that night in a letter she had little cause to believe would ever reach me: I washed my hair; I straightened out my things; I wrote down the time and date in my diary, so that if I did not come back it would be known that I had lived and those had been my last peaceful moments.
The phone rang, jerking me out of my thoughts: It was Carmen.
“Laima, wear old clothes that are easy to wash. We expect them to throw rotten eggs at us.”
Rotten eggs? That seemed like nothing compared to the rumors I’d heard — the list of projectiles ranging from Molotov cocktails to guns to excrement in paper bags to beatings once the parade dispersed.
I changed into old clothes, nonetheless, and headed across the park to the residence of the Embassy of Netherlands. I was just at the gates when my cell phone rang: It was Aurimas.
“Mom, I’ve thought about it, and I’d like to march too,” Aurimas said. “Is there room in that car for me?”
“I believe there is, but I’ll ask Carmen. Come over anyway.”
I was proud he would be supporting physically, and not just abstractly, something he believed in.
We seated ourselves in the diplomatic car: the green diplomatic plates our protection. The parade was to be held on a narrow strip of undeveloped grassy land on the opposite bank of the Neris from the Vilnius city center. The river acted as a natural barrier from part of the crowds, though these crowds appeared mild, mostly young families with children in strollers, the intellectuals, our supporters. Scattered among them were anti-gay groups.
“It’s too bad they won’t be able to see the marchers,” Joep commented. “That is the whole idea. To see the people in the march and to break down stereotypes.”
As we passed through one police barricade and then another, we saw that the other crowd that had gathered in closer proximity, on the same side of the river as the marchers, and was being held at bay behind police barricades, was a crowd of a different sort. These were the skinheads. This crowd extended up the cement stairs and spilled out into the mall area and grassy field behind the shopping center. They were angry, unruly, and carried placards with hate slogans. I was saddened to see young teenagers among them — kids who looked like they came from nice families.
Carmen said, “Look up on top of the buildings. Do you see the snipers?”
Indeed, pacing the tops of the shopping malls on the opposite side of the road that ran along the riverbank, there were sharp shooters with guns pointed in the direction of the skinhead crowd. A helicopter flew in a circular pattern above our heads. The press had reported that there would be 630 police present and 150 security personnel. Officially, 350 parade passes had been issued and 75 press passes. Adding up the numbers, roughly, there were more than two police for every one participant in the Baltic Pride March. On the other hand, the skinheads making the most noise immediately behind the barricade looked like they could keep the police busy all afternoon.
We had arrived just as the march was beginning. The foreign dignitaries assembled themselves at the front of the parade. Behind them various gay groups and tolerance groups marched, beating drums, carrying whimsical banners and flags, dressed in bright colors. Most of the Lithuanian marchers were students in their late teens and early twenties.
“I’d like to introduce you to Boris Dittrich, the advocacy director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program of Amnesty International,” Carmen said.
“May I ask you a few questions?” I asked.
“Certainly,” Mr. Dittrich answered.
“I’m here to support the march, but also as a journalist,” I explained. “What prompted you to come here?” I strained to hear Mr. Dittrich’s answer over the beating drums of the jubilant marchers behind us.
“This is my third time visiting Lithuania,” Dittrich began. “I used to be a member of the European parliament. My area of expertise is human rights. The Lithuanian Gay Rights League invited me to speak at the opening of the human rights seminar, and so I decided to come because I think it is very important that the first Baltic Pride take place here in Vilnius.”
“But it has taken 20 years of independence for this march to finally happen,” I said.
“It takes some time,” Dittrich said, “A society needs time. It is remarkable that people who were very much opposed to Soviet oppression can now be strongly opposed to freedoms for gay people in their country. When I talk to young gays here they tell me, ‘We are oppressed by the majority of people in Lithuania. They do not recognize that we are not second class citizens. We are just like everybody else. We want to be treated equally and we aren’t.’
“It is disturbing to notice that the majority of Lithuanian people are using the same methods of isolation as the Soviet Union did during those dark years of occupation. I think its very important that the court has lifted the ban on the march. And the court’s document also refers to human rights law, international law, and the EU law. Although it took 20 years after independence, I think we should celebrate this historical day for Lithuania.”
“What programs or initiatives can be taken in the future to better educate the public so that 20 years from now having a pride march won’t be an issue,” I asked.
“There is so much ignorance,” Dittrich said. “People here don’t know what homosexuality is. They expect naked men dancing in the street or men dressed up as women. That is their view on homosexuality. They don’t understand that members of parliament can be gay or your son or brother. I think it is important that people see homosexuals and see that we are not any different than anybody else.”
Dittrich paused a moment, then added, “It is troubling that this law was passed by the Lithuanian parliament allegedly for the protection of minors by making punishable all mention of homosexuality that is not condemning. As an advocate for human rights, we wrote public letters to the president and to the parliament. We explained that if Lithuania wants to be taken seriously in the European family it has to accept homosexuality as part of normal life. There is a lot of education needed here. Fifty-three members of the Lithuanian parliament have written an open letter against the gay pride march. That is an expression of that fear. To the outside world they appear to be taking the right steps, but in the dark corners Lithuanians are committing human rights abuses. Leadership is needed. The president said the general prosecutor is against the march while the police are okay with it. Lithuania must show it is an all-inclusive society.
“Lithuanians must understand that they cannot only take aid from the European Union, picking and choosing what they want and need, but must also be open to discussion on human rights. They knew what they were signing up for when they joined the European Union. As advocacy director for Human Rights Watch what I see in the international arena is that Lithuania is supporting many initiatives. They signed a document at the UN supporting marches like this. They agreed that marches are important to raise awareness. But here inside Lithuania you hear different stories. Of course, the most important thing is that Lithuanians themselves take the initiative. People from the outside should not come here and tell people what to do,” Dittrich concluded.
The drumming marchers behind us were gaining on us. The festive mood was growing despite the helicopter swooping above our heads and the glint of sun that was reflecting against the sniper’s rifle.
“Though,” Dittrich added reflectively, “I am confidant that in 10 years things will change.”
As our marchers drew closer to the police barricade, we could see throngs of desperado skinheads, jeering, shouting maniacally, shaking their fists, threatening violence. The police were doing a fine job of holding them back. Several police on horseback circled around, ready to delve into the skinhead crowd if needed.
“What do you think?” I asked, “Can anything be done to control the skinheads?”
Dittrich walked calmly, nonplussed by the violent crowd up ahead — a crowd that extended as far as the eye could see. All I could think of was the scene of the orcs from “The Lord of the Rings.”
“When I was a member of parliament in the Netherlands, we used to organize police and secret service to infiltrate those groups to connect with them and start a dialogue to make it easier to access what is going on in their minds. They are disturbed by issues; but they can be persuaded to change their ideas. Of course, a bad economy can worsen the situation. People drink alcohol when they are unemployed. But in blooming economies there are certain groups of people who identify themselves by using violence.”
The young Lithuanians behind us, dressed in bright colors, waving rainbow flags, were now playfully blowing bubbles. A love bubble — that’s what I was in — a love bubble. I felt good among the marchers. The mood was gentle, peaceful, happy, and oddly relaxed, perhaps relieved is more the word. They had come this far and they had done it. One young man was carrying a placard that read: “I am straight but not narrow.”
A cloud of smoke erupted in the area where the skinheads were congregating. The march came to a standstill. Mounted policemen rode over towards the barricades. I could not make out from where I was what was going on, but later learned that 40 burly skinheads had organized themselves into a group and in unison tried to storm the barricade. The police had turned on the electric fence and this repelled them. They then began tossing smoke bombs at the police. There was some shuffling and fighting and one policeman was injured.
I took the opportunity, while the marchers paused in nervous anticipation, to talk to a few more people. I walked over to a dark-haired young man.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“My name is Joachin Nogaroles and I am from Spain,” the young man said brightly in a lilting Spanish accent, “I came here with my boyfriend. We live in Belgium and work in the EU parliament. We came here to show to the Europeans that we are the same people in every part of Europe and we need the same rights. For example, marriage. We are part of an Italian organization that defends the right to marry. We think that is an important right to have. This is one of the things we came here to show to other Europeans.”
“Have you experienced any violence while being here?” I asked.
“No, no, no incidents. I think Lithuanians are very nice people and are like other Europeans. I am very happy to be here. Spain is also a very Catholic country. I was born when the dictator Franco died. Spain was in a dictatorship for 40 years, but now I see so many positive manifestations in our country. The law for gay marriage has done so much for us. We are happy. In Lithuania we might see such laws passed in ten years time. It is very important to show other people we are gay and that we do not mind if you are not gay. We are different people, but we are all the same.”
I approached three young very beautiful Lithuanian women in their early twenties. One had straight platinum blond hair down to her waist; the second looked like a baby doll with thick brown curls and dark curled eyelashes; and the third had short cropped red hair. They were waving paper flags and dancing around joyfully to the music.
“Why are you marching today?” I asked.
“We are for tolerance for minorities,” the blond answered.
“Do you feel stressed being here?”
“There’s a lot of police here,” the blond said nonchalantly, glancing over at the police barricades. She seemed to have made herself the spokeswoman of the little posse. The other two women stood beside her, giggling and nodding, swaying to the beat of the music, waving their rainbow flags.
“We feel an inner peace,” the blond continued, “that we are able to express our position today. That is something most Lithuanians are afraid to do. We feel that more Lithuanians could have participated today.
“But only 350 passes were available,” I said, playing devil’s advocate.
“We didn’t have a pass,” the blond said tartly, “if you wanted to get in here today, you could find a way. We got past the police barricades, but you see, we are so harmless.”
The other two girls began to giggle, covering their mouths daintily with their fists.
“Lithuanians are afraid,” the blond continued, “they are afraid to show openly who they are. Maybe in 20 years things will be different. Maybe then there will only be Lithuanians present at such a march. As a society, we’re not ready to be open yet.”
“Someone has to take the initiative,” I said.
“Certainly, and so we are,” the blond girl said and giggled.
I could sense her excitement over being at the march, at having been brave enough. I thanked the girls and turned towards the crowd. I spotted Rudomanskis. I asked him about the attack on the center’s office. He told me that they are working with the police, and that there is not much more they can do.
“Are you worried?” I asked him.
“It isn’t pleasant, but you can expect as much from radical groups. We are continuing our work regardless. These incidents only strengthen our resolve.”
I was walking closer to the small stage to listen to the speakers when I ran into Bernie ter Braak, owner of the popular restaurant, Cozy. Bernie was from the Nertherlands and has lived in Lithuania for almost ten years.
“Hey, Bernie, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m here to fight against the extreme homophobia that is going on here in Lithuania,” Bernie said.
“Have you experienced any incidents in your restaurant?” I asked.
“No, but when they passed this homophobic law we made an action for one week that same-sex couples were given a 50% discount on their bill.”
“How many discounts did you give out?”
“Not a lot actually. There were a lot of negative comments against us on the Internet, though.”
As we were talking, a group carrying the rainbow flag high above people’s heads, ran past us, catching us under the flag. Bernie is very tall and he had to duck. Darius was holding a corner of the flag. He was beaming. He had come full circle. I was happy for him.
“It’s unbelievable how many homophobic responses there were on Delfi this morning, almost 2,000. There is such a need for this,” Bernie continued. “Just look around you. See how many police are needed to do such a thing. These are very innocent looking people. It’s outrageous to think that these nice people need 800 armed police to be able to come out into the daylight. Hopefully the people will learn something from this.”
“Coming from an open society like the Netherlands do you find it difficult to accept what is happening in Lithuania?”
“Every country must go through its own development. Fifty years ago in Holland it wasn’t much different. The officials here are from foreign embassies. There’s not a single representative from the Lithuanian government except for Marija Pavilionienė. So typical,” Bernie sneered.
As we were chatting, two men wearing Lithuanian military uniforms rowed across the river in a bright yellow inflatable raft. They were waving offensive placards and screamed slurs at the crowd. We watched as they were towed away by a police boat.
“I caught them on video,” my son Aurimas showed me.
“If it wasn’t so ludicrous, you’d have to give it to them for their inventiveness,” I said.
And so there we were, trapped on a narrow strip of grass, waving happy rainbow flags, dancing, emitting peace and love while surrounded on all sides geographically by people who were only too happy to hunt us down and “give us a piece of their mind,” so to speak. But at the same time, mixed in among that crowd, there were supporters too, and that gave me hope.
“What are they so afraid of?” I said.
“Mom, don’t be so naïve,” Aurimas said. “They are ignorant and they are violent.”
I felt as though I were a character in a science fiction paperback: a person who, with the help of a time machine, has moved back into earlier times. In the 80s, when I was a student at Rutgers University, it seemed as though everyone was gay and who cares? The Gay and Lesbian Alliance was a huge and powerful organization. Now I had found myself on a grassy strip of land — an island, a natural barrier, standing with a handful of local gay people and foreign dignitaries — in anticipation of the slaughter. If that police barricade were penetrated, hundreds and hundreds of skinheads would bear down on us, and the only means of escape would be to swim over the river, where more skinheads were waiting. We could hear the skinheads singing patriotic songs. They had a guy on a megaphone shouting about how the Baltic Pride March threatened Lithuania’s freedom.
On March 11, the 20th anniversary of Lithuania’s independence, I was strolling across the Cathedral Square with a few women friends, friends from my generation, who had lived through the singing revolution. We had just seen the photography exhibit at the parliament and were lost in our reminiscences of those times when we had resisted violence with folk songs and speeches and flowers. Out of nowhere, marching in formation, a parade of young men with shaved heads, wearing camouflage pants and army boots, came tramping across the square. A terrible energy came from them. At first I did not understand who and what they were. Or rather, my brain would not let me understand. Even in my forties, a persistent idealism does not allow me to make my first approach towards anything from the position of cynicism and negativity. As my frightened girlfriends waited, I walked over to the marching men and asked them: “Who are you?”
“We are Nazis,” one of them answered simply. A few of his companions laughed sarcastically as they marched past. Nazis on independence day? Is this what the young men and women of my generation had stood down the tanks for on Jan. 13, 1991? How had this happened?
Of course, at the same time I know how it happened. Socialism and fascism operate hand in hand. Both are essentially the same. No real healing and re-education has taken place in the post-Soviet bloc. The same ignorance, greed, and corruption reign. Change must occur individual by individual.
As I stood there, lost in my thoughts, I saw a large wooden cross raised across the river. Around the cross, people were down on their knees chanting prayers. Was this really happening?
Later, back at home, Darius shared his diary entry with me:
The morning of the march, I walked alone to the hotel where the Baltic Pride conference and events were headquartered. Very much like in 1988, when I walked to my first anti-Soviet demonstration, almost along the same route I was walking twenty years later, I feared for what the day might bring, not entirely sure if I would return in the same shape that I had left. Police — everywhere. Riot gear, armored cars. Even the police horses wore helmets and knee pads. A helicopter flew overhead. All there, for us. To protect — us. Because just beyond the lines of police, on the horizon, we saw hundreds (thousands?) of faces — looking at us. Waiting. Were they friendly? Curious? Were there guns in those crowds? After all of the noise and hysteria of the past months, the mind could only imagine the worst. I worried a lot about a lone shooter, somewhere among those faces, or maybe in the apartment windows across the river. After all, a parliamentarian — an elected official! — had appeared on television only a month before, holding a hunting rifle, saying how he would go to the march to “greet the gays.”
The Baltic Pride March officially ended when hundreds of rainbow colored helium-filled balloons were released into the spring-time clouds above our heads. We stood there, on our grassy strip of land, heads cocked up towards the sky, enjoying the first warm sunlight of early spring, watching the balloons drift away on a light breeze.
And then it was over. People returned to their cars and buses. Only, it was not over for everyone. Parliamentarians Gražulis and Kazimieras Uoka, the worker-hero of the singing revolution, used their parliamentary ID passes to make it past the police barricade. While the last group of people were waiting to board their bus, they attacked them physically and verbally. Gražulis actually knocked a policeman to the ground. The next day, in the Lithuanian press, Gražulis claimed: “I was on my way to parliament to get some work done when I ran into the parade and had to get through.”
“Oh right,” I said to Darius, “and so he thought he’d just beat up a couple gays on his way to work.”
And we both laughed because in the toughest of times that is the only thing left to do: to laugh and at the same time to keep on fighting for what you believe is right.
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here.
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.