2020.09.30 08:00

LGBT rights in Lithuanian elections: backsliding or progressing? – opinion

Simonas Bartulis2020.09.30 08:00

Does the October general election hold any promise for Lithuania’s LGBTQ+ community? While some major parties have backslid on issues like legalising same-sex partnership, LGBTQ+ voters and allies have more choice than in any previous election, argues Simonas Bartulis.

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“Overall, there is no freedom for people in Lithuania. There is freedom only for homosexualists [sic], transvestites, and lesbians,” said Astra Astrasukaitė, a candidate with the Centre Party, during a recent televised election debate.

Read more: Who's who in Lithuania's 2020 parliamentary election – explainer

The quote illustrates a popular myth in Lithuania that LGBTQ+ rights have received disproportionate attention and their activists have thus far won all political battles. Often repeated by staunch conservatives and traditionalists, the myth serves to either deflect the issue – maintaining that LGBTQ+ rights are already enforced to the fullest – or attack them as a greedy, totalitarian plot.

This myth is as factually incorrect as it is prominent. The reality of much of the human rights politics in Lithuania, and especially topics that are more controversial, is that there has been little positive legislation for decades. The last effort to shore up the rights of Lithuania’s LGBTQ+ community was in 2004 when the parliament, Seimas, passed the Law on Equal Opportunities. Since then, marginal improvements came through the courts – local or European – but not through legislation.

Moving backward

However, courts alone are not a sustainable approach to securing rights for a minority, nor should it be the preferred way of convincing the society of the need to protect LGBTQ+ rights.

In terms of legislation, there has been some erosion of LGBTQ+ rights. In the last decade alone, the Seimas amended the Protection of Minors Law to censor information about the LGBTQ+ community. The law was used to that end just last year. In 2017, the Family Strengthening Law came into force, effectively excluding non-traditional households from being defined as family.

Given the erosion of LGBTQ+ rights in Lithuania, could the upcoming elections buck the trend?

Party positions

If you look at the conservative Homeland Union party (TS-LKD), which is leading in the polls, their presidential candidate last year was much braver in supporting same-sex partnership than she is now. In debates, Ingrida Šimonytė refuses to answer the question, saying the party has no unified position on the matter. Of course, presidential and party elections are different, and she had more leeway to give her personal take last year.

Read more: Moral panics, folk devils and elections in Eastern Europe

But even before the 2016 elections the party was more accommodating, with its leader Gabrielius Landsbergis voicing his support for legalising same-sex partnership in a debate. So the current evasive tactic the party takes is disappointing.

Internal shifts within the TS-LKD probably added to the regression on LGBTQ+ rights. As party chapters gave support to politicians like Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Paulius Saudargas in a recent internal vote, this inevitably entrenched more socially conservative positions within the campaign strategy and policy platforms.

The current ruling party, the Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS) which frequently polls a close second to the conservatives, has also consolidated an LGBTQ-hostile position. While there were hopes in 2016 that portions of the party would be supportive or neutral on issues like gender-neutral partnerships, those hopes are gone completely.

More progressive members of the LVŽS, like Dovilė Šakalienė, left the party, and PM Saulius Skvernelis, who was seen as moderate on social issues at the start of his term, yielded to the more conservative wing of the party represented by Ramūnas Karbauskis and Agnė Širinskienė.

Even as some continue to argue that the LVŽS has pro-LGBTQ+ politicians like Tomas Tomilinas, the party has consistently pushed for anti-LGBTQ+ laws, such as defining civil partnership as ties between business partners rather than family members.

Read more: Some 500 people rally for LGBT rights in Vilnius – photos

Push to the right

One reason for the relative backsliding of these parties can be competition. As both the TS-LKD and the LVŽS stand right of centre on social issues, they are bound to compete for voters with rather conservative views.

Moreover, the large centre-right parties possibly feel pressure from new smaller parties that campaign at their expense. For example, the National Alliance (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas) and the Christian Union (Krikščionių Sąjunga) are both directly attacking the TS-LKD for allegedly becoming too socially liberal.

As polls suggest, it is unlikely that any of the smaller right-wing parties will go past the 5-percent threshold and enter the Seimas. However, their strength comes from their ability to set the agenda on social issues like LGBTQ+ rights. For the TS-LKD and the LVŽS, it would make sense to maintain anti-LGBTQ+ positions in the new parliament to fend off their attacks.

More than just using the LGBTQ+ community to ramp up voter support, these parties have a consistent track record of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Kasčiūnas and his fellow conservatives happily engaged in debates on restricting the definition of family to opposite-sex marriage and even proposed legislation to ban gender confirmation surgery. The LVŽS, similarly, actively fought against efforts to introduce gender-neutral partnership, whereas many of the smaller new parties have even more conservative agendas.

Hopeful developments

As the TS-LKD and the LVŽS are predicted to win the biggest number of seats, it is difficult to conceive of a parliament that would advance any aspects of LGBTQ+ rights.

On the other hand, not all changes over the past four years have been so disheartening.

The Liberal Movement has maintained their pro-partnership positions, even if they remain relatively mum about it while campaigning. The new Freedom Party gives new hope for many LGBTQ+ voters.

With Tomas Raskevičius, an openly gay candidate, at the top of their list, the party probably has the most concentrated focus on LGBTQ+ rights. Their platform is uncompromising and includes proposals for marriage equality as well as trans rights. But while being a small party allows for a more radical campaign on controversial issues, some worry about their chances of crossing the 5-percent barrier.

Perhaps the most dramatic change for the better comes in the form of the Social Democrats (LSDP). As it stands, the LSDP supports most policy positions that LGBTQ+ activists demand, including ending anti-LGBTQ+ censorship, legislating gender-neutral partnership and trans rights. This is a huge step for a party whose former member and justice minister once said same-sex couples were “propaganda”.

As the LSDP consistently polls third, it could well become the largest ever pro-LGBTQ+ political force in the Lithuanian parliament. Many are also happy to see that the pro-LGBTQ+ change is facilitated by party leadership and Gintautas Paluckas.

However, some members of the queer community proceed with caution, and not just because of the party’s poor track record. As is true for most large parties in 2020, the LSDP has not been as active in advocating LGBTQ-friendly policies as, for example, Freedom Party, probably for fear of alienating its more moderate voters.

The worry among many in the queer community is thus whether the LSDP will be willing to expend political capital to energetically support their rights in the new Seimas.

Regardless, LGBTQ+ voters and allies for whom LGBTQ+ rights are important appear to be mostly split between Freedom Party (or the Liberal Movement) and the Social Democrats.

On the one hand, these voters have more choice than ever before, which is one sign of progress.

On the other hand, growing support for the LGBTQ+ community in several parties does not change the general trend: it is a myth that LGBTQ+ rights have been fully respected. Rather, the opposite is true.

Simonas Bartulis is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate of Yale-NUS College. He lives in Singapore, works as an education consultant and writes on human rights and LGBTQ+ issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.

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