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2021.02.22 08:00

The game is rigged against LGBT people, not their opponents – opinion

Simonas Bartulis2021.02.22 08:00

Reading top conservative authors discussing LGBTQ+ rights may lead one to believe that LGBTQ+ rights advocates have monopolised the world. News media (most notably LRT), courts, hospitals, and even your Netflix account appear to be all controlled by homosexuals.

For its omnipresent control, this mythical LGBTQ+ oppressor has been rather impotent. Since the passage of the Law on Equal Opportunities almost two decades ago, not a single pro-LGBTQ law was passed by the Seimas. On the other hand, one can name numerous successful attempts to curtail our rights, like defining the family as a heterosexual union or censoring LGBTQ+ content in mass media.

Keeping this in mind, it should not come as a shock to see public opinion on same-sex rights stagnating, and that initiatives such as the partnership laws are extremely difficult to pass.

Politics is rigged against us, not those that have conservative opinions about LGBTQ+ rights. We do not live in a world where LGBTQ+ rights are protected, let alone excessively enforced or “dominant”. The rules of the game are rigged in three main ways, yet anti-LGBTQ propaganda aims to hide that.

1. Silencing through social stigma

Stigmatising groups can come in many different forms, from simply disliking them to actively discriminating against them. The origins of stigmatisation are often broader than mere legal discrimination, encompassing moral values, history, or even economic conditions.

According to various surveys, LGBTQ+ people are still viewed negatively by the Lithuanian population. Pew reports that over 70 percent of Lithuanians agree that homosexuality should not be accepted – a broad and bold statement, not even directly related to marriage. Around 40 percent of Lithuanians do not want to live or work with homosexuals, which places the group amongst the most disliked in the country.

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

Stigma is an issue that is tricky to solve – people cannot be forced to love or respect others. That can only be accomplished over years of hard work and exposure to groups people fear. Prevailing stigmatising attitudes reveal a convincing counterargument to the LGBTQ takeover narrative so championed by some anti-LGBTQ activists: negative attitudes are not just an exception, but are indeed the rule in Lithuania.

It is important to note that the prevalence of negative attitudes towards a group does not mean the said group will be legally discriminated against in practice. However, it creates an environment where championing LGBTQ+ rights becomes a lot more difficult than arguing against them.

Any person speaking out in public in support of LGBTQ+ rights or coming out as LGBTQ+ is often harassed anonymously by vicious online commentators, up to a point where some may be making death threats. They risk being ostracised by their families or co-workers, since, given the numbers, it is fairly likely they hold negative views on homosexuality.

This results in a public sphere where few people are courageous enough to argue for their rights. Anti-LGBTQ activists might claim it is “no longer permitted to say anything bad about LGBTQ+ people,” but, in reality, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to lose their family and friends by speaking out in favour of their rights.

Read more: LGBT rights bare divide in Lithuania's liberal-conservative coalition

Stigma is a vicious cycle: more need to come forward with their experiences of inequality to convince the Lithuanian society that progress is needed, but few can due to prevailing attitudes.

2. Legal censorship by the government

Anti-LGBTQ activists often portray themselves as martyrs of free speech. They are allegedly silenced by LGBTQ+ people. In Lithuania, the reality could not be more different.

In 2009, several members of parliament introduced an amendment to the Protection of Minors from Negative Information law that prohibited public information that “promotes homosexual, bisexual or polygamous relations”. Newly elected President Dalia Grybauskaitė vetoed the amendment, which was later replaced with a more ambiguous wording that disallows promoting forms of marriage or family that are different from the one in the Lithuanian Constitution.

While the Constitution does not define the concept of family, marriage is clearly defined as heterosexual. Thus, legally, mentions of different types of unions in documentaries, news reports, ads or books can be removed.

And so they have been. In 2013, a book by Neringa Dangvydė was removed from distribution as it was considered homosexual propaganda. In the same year, an ad by the Lithuanian Gay League would not be aired during daytime, and most recently people petitioned LRT to remove a documentary that depicted gay parents. At this moment, LRT is being condemned for airing a show that teaches kids about LGBTQ+ history.

Apart from being a blatant violation of free speech that anti-LGBTQ activists claim to defend, the law creates an unequal playing field for political discussion. If the LGBTQ+ community is told time and time again to “slowly convince” the population they need equal rights, these types of laws actually prevent us from being able to even discuss our needs or arguments.

Moreover, it creates the illusion that fair debate is in fact happening, but that – “naturally” – the LGBTQ+ community is losing it, as shown by public opinion polls. This could not be further from the truth – anti-LGBTQ arguments that do not include hate speech are not hindered by any laws, while our stories are.

3. Unenforced laws, the perpetual punching bag

Of course, it is unfair to say that LGBTQ+ people in Lithuania enjoy no protections. The Law on Equal Opportunities protects LGBTQ+ people against unfair treatment in hiring and service provision.

The law also includes protections against incitement of violence and hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation. However, these protections are not properly enforced; in 2018, only seven hate crimes were officially registered; for comparison, almost 6,000 were reported in Sweden. If this statistic reflected the reality, Lithuania could be hailed as a beacon of tolerance not just in the Baltics, but in all of the EU. But experts warn against trusting the statistic and point to both the lack of reporting as well as minimal prosecution rates as the underlying reason for such small numbers of reported hate crimes.

Poor enforcement of existing laws creates several major issues for a fair political debate on LGBTQ+ issues in Lithuania.

First, it creates an unsafe environment for LGBTQ+ Lithuanians who want to speak about their experience of being queer in Lithuania. I myself have had my inbox filled with comments or threats and insults by those who are clearly unafraid of legal consequences. Even the most egregious violations, such as numerous death threats in the comments section under a picture of two Lithuanian men kissing are not prosecuted. Most would never speak out again; luckily Pijus Beizaras and Mangirdas Levickas took Lithuania to the European Court of Human Rights and won.

Read more: Tackling hate crime: what Lithuania can learn from Sweden and Ireland

There is a second, less visible, but just as dangerous way in which poor enforcement creates unequal grounds for political discussion. Laws such as protections against hate speech will always have critics claiming their free speech rights are violated. The status quo is such that the law brings few benefits to the community it aims to protect, yet is used to vilify LGBTQ+ people as oppressors.

To be perfectly clear, anti-hate speech laws have to exist in order to sustain public discourse and safety. But when unenforced, they simply become a constant punching bag with no effect.

How do we move on from here?

The LGBTQ+ community finds itself in a paradoxical situation. They are simultaneously oppressors with a huge amount of power, and at the same time, they are legally and socially silenced in Lithuania. The myth that LGBTQ+ people are all powerful feeds the narrative that more laws to protect them should not be introduced. The reality of censorship means that primarily the myth – not the reality of censorship – can be perpetuated in the public sphere.

Thus, it is unsurprising that no pro-LGBTQ laws were passed by the Seimas in almost two decades, and that current new and direly needed initiatives, like legalising civil partnership, are struggling to even be introduced.

We anxiously wait for the day when so-called free speech champions will support our right to speak and amend the Protection of Minors from Negative Information law to remove its discriminatory provisions. Alas, I fear that day will never come.

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.