On December 12th 2013, Kristina Kunsteinaite (pictured above) will become the first LGBT Lithuanian woman to ‘come out’ via You Tube. With her Invisible People project, she reminds LGBT Lithuanians that it is not they who are perverse, but the social stigma against them – a stigma which demands a life lived in conflict, exile or the shadows. This remarkable story demands our attention, and our support.
The Plight of LGBT Lithuanians
(an example of the ‘welcome’ ads made up by opponents of LGBT Pride in Lithuania)
Lithuania sits North of Poland, south of its Baltic cousins Estonia and Latvia, and has a population of 3.3m people. Since declaring independence from the USSR in 1990, the nation was welcomed into both NATO and the EU in 2004.
Prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, gay and lesbian people faced transportation to a gulag for up to two years if discovered. Since then legal protections and equality legislation have been passed by Lithuania as a precondition of its membership of the EU. This has done nothing to alleviate the social and political hostility toward LGBT Lithuanians.
Despite notional legal protections, LGBT Lithuanians face tough choices. Live openly, in a precarious existence surrounded by hostility, or live invisible lives as exiles (in more hospitable environments or at home in secret).
And things are getting worse.
In 2010, Lithuania passed a law banning the ‘public dissemination’ of materials considered to promote homosexuality. The legislation ranked gay people alongside child abusers and rapists, creating a ban on “encouraging the sexual abuse of minors, sexual relations between minors and other sexual relations”.
Trans men and women in Lithuania, are not even recognised in the legal system. Transgender Lithuanians find it almost impossible to further their gender reassignment within the borders of their own country.
The figurehead of bigotry in Lithuania, is lawmaker Petras Grazulis. A brief summary of his recent interventions on the matter:
- In 2010, he put forward legislation stating that “public promotion of homosexual relations is to be punished by a fine from 2,000 to 10,000 litas [£480 to £2,400]”.
- In 2012, he gate crashed an LGBT event being held by senior officials to demand all LGBT people leave the country. “How are homosexuals better than necrophiliacs or paedophiles?” he exclaimed. “I’m ashamed that the rotten West, coming from the European Union that is morally corrupted, propagates this to Lithuania and tells us how we should treat homosexuals. Gays should leave Lithuania, not dictate their terms to us.”
- The country’s second Pride event took place this year, but was attacked by hundreds of violent protesters. These mobs were led by Grazulis, who baited the marchers over a bullhorn, while inciting his mob to attack the march, storm the stage and pelt eggs at a pro-equality member of Lithuanian parliament and an EU observer.
- Earlier this month, when he sent a disgusting ‘gift’ to an LGBT community centre. Workers at the centre opened the box to find a pair of jeans with an anal zip inside.
But the problems run far deeper than this one hysterical bigot. Five anti-LGBT pieces of legislation are moving through Lithuanian parliament, with popular support. They include:
- A total ban on gender reassignment
- Legal protection of ‘criticism of homosexuality’ – hate speech directed at LGBT people would be protected by law
- The criminalisation of “public denigration of constitutional moral values” – outlawing signs of affection between same sex couples in public
- A new law that “every child has the natural right to a father and a mother” – outlawing same sex parenting.
- A law which would make Pride march organisers pay for their own security
The first two have been opposed by the government, but the rest remain. A key concern is that the government’s motivation for opposing has more to do with maintaining EU relations than promoting equality. Lithuania currently holds the rotating EU presidency, but is about to pass the role on. At which time, it is anticipated that the anti-LGBT legislation will progress quickly.
Recent surveys found that only 23% of gay men are open about their sexuality, just 4% of the population support registration of same sex couples (equal marriage/civil partnerships etc.) and 62% of Lithuanians object to a Gay Pride being held in Lithuania.
It was the severity of these impending laws and the rising social and political hostility that had LGBT Lithuanian Kristina Kunsteinaite experience an urgency to act.
Support Invisible People
Kristina was a child of the 1980s, and grew up in Klaipeda, the third largest city in Lithuania: a port on the Baltic Sea. She describes what it felt like to grow up in a society that wanted to pretend she did not exist:
“I have a very personal experience of being gay in Lithuania because I am both: gay and Lithuanian. Every time I go back there, I feel like I am invisible and have no voice in society. It is difficult to let your true colours shine and share your personal life because the majority are against the very concept of gay people existing.”
Kristina relocated to the UK in 2005, and remembers:
“I only realised that I was gay when I came to the UK. I knew I was attracted to women but I completely suppressed that while living Lithuania. An option to be gay simply didn’t exist in that society for me…There were no openly gay women I could look up to and I did not know anyone who was gay. It really felt like there was something very wrong with me…I felt like I was invisible and there was no respectable place for me as a gay person in the society.”
She now lives with her partner Ceri, in Bristol. She is currently working within the NHS as a speech & language therapy assistant, supporting people who have lost their ability to speak following stroke. This is not the only way in which Kristina is seeking to help others find a voice.
Motivated by the simple idea that anyone can make a difference, she launched the Invisible People project. The art project aims to illustrate what it means to be LGBT in Lithuania today. On 12th December, Kristina will become the first gay Lithuanian to come out on YouTube, as the video is launched at a large event. Attendees will then be invited to come out to camera themselves, removing masks from their faces as they do so. The videos will be online in both Lithuanian and English, in hopes that LGBT Lithuanians living invisible lives will be able to see themselves reflected in the films. The event is open to all.
I asked her ‘why?’:
“I want to inspire, support and unite the LGBT community in Lithuania and around the world. By making myself “visible”, I will be that openly gay person for others that I did not have when I was going through a difficult time. It is also important to raise awareness of homophobia in Lithuania and make a link with other countries in the world where this problem exists such as Russia, Uganda, Iran and many others. I am passionate about equality for all, everywhere.”
No more Invisible People
What really excites me about this project is that it epitomises “Don’t get angry, get involved”. Despite having no history of political activism, Kristina simply rolled up her sleeves, inspired others to, and is going to make a profound difference in the lives of others.
As an LGBT person of a similar age, I remember how strange it was growing up in a society that seemed to wish I didn’t exist. Section 28 was brought in when I was 8, banning my teachers from engaging with me about my sexuality. There was no right to marry or have children with my future partner, so owning my sexuality was ending my dream of a wedding day and a family. Gay hate crimes were common place and the police seemed reluctant to prosecute.
Then, in 1994, television soap opera Brookside decided to air a story line in which Anna Friel (be still my beating heart!) played lesbian Beth Jordache, and the first ever lesbian kiss was shown on British Television. This kiss changed my life. I remember the build-up, weeks in advance; the thrill that suddenly, everyone was talking about ‘me’ without even knowing it. Suddenly, being Gay was not the death sentence of AIDS, or a life lived in the shadows. It was cool, and sexy, and came with the promise of happiness…with Beth Jordache!
It paved the way for me to come out fully, which I completed by the age of 16. I’ve been out and proud wherever I have been ever since. I married the love of my life in 2010, and we plan a family sometime in the not too distant future. Our families are ecstatic and support and nurture our relationship. And the first glimmer that any of that might be possible was that kiss, with Beth Jordache.
Right now, there are young (and old) Lithuanians feeling the weight of their own silence, and the oppressive judgement of their homeland. They feel that same aching loneliness and self-doubt ‘I wish I was normal. I don’t want to be like this’. But soon, that man or woman, boy or girl, will be able to see the masks fall from the faces of Kristina and others, and know they are not alone. Kristina is going to be some Lithuanian lesbian’s Beth Jordache! It brings to mind the famous words of LGBT American actress and producer Lily Tomlin:
“I said ‘Somebody should do something about that’. Then I realised I am somebody”
Don’t get angry, get involved!
Support Invisible People – Don’t just admire from a distance! Like the Facebook page for the project, express your support with a comment, share with your friends and attend on the 12th December if you can.
The Diverse Family Project seeks to promote equality for LGBT families in Lithuania
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