Last year has offered ample opportunity to express solidarity with victims of terror. Lithuanians have joined others in saying “je suis Charlie”, they changed their Facebook profile pictures into the French blue- white-red following attacks in Paris last November and in the colours of the Belgian flag after bombers killed dozens in Brussels.
Last weekend’s attack in Orlando, Florida, claimed 49 lives and left some 50 more people heavily injured after a radicalised shooter with a machine gun burst into a gay bar.
The attack, targeting specifically the LGBT community, happened a week before Vilnius is hosting a pride march. LGBT rights is still a controversial topic in the country which is regularly ranked among the least gay-friendly in the European Union and where political leaders, if not openly hostile to LGBT equality, prefer to remain silent on the topic for fear of alienating their presumably homophobic electorate.
After the attack in Florida, the Lithuanian LGBT community and their supporters were doubly shock by some of the anonymous comments underneath reports from Orlando on Lithuania’s online media outlets.
Many comment posters, who can remain anonymous and have their ramblings appear in comment sections without passing any review process, cheered the Orlando attacker and intimated they would welcome violence at Baltic Pride events in Vilnius.
The homophobic comments have revealed that while the Lithuanian society may be becoming more open and Westernised, homophobia remains a giant elephant in the room.
Lukewarm reactions from politicians
Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius circulated his letter of condolences after one of the biggest shootings in the US in recent years as early as on Sunday. His press office issued a press release and displayed Butkevičius comments on the Orlando shooting prominently on the government’s web page.
Meanwhile President Dalia Grybauskaitė’s home page did not display any message of condolence to the victims of Orlando. The president was congratulating Queen Elizabeth II and announcing about her participation in the commemoration of Soviet deportations. The president’s press office assured, though, that Grybauskaitė had sent her letter to US President Barack Obama and that it was available in the special “condolences” section of her web page.
In most cases of tragic events around the globe, however, the President’s Office displays Grybauskaitė’s comments prominently on the home page and circulates a press release.
Lithuanian Parliament Speaker Loreta Graužinienė has not made any statement about Saturday’s shooting, even though her office usually circulates a press release with Graužinienė’s condolences after most high-profile tragic events.
On Monday, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius laid flowers outside the US Embassy in tribute of the victims at the Florida gay bar.
‘It is our duty to react’
The shooting in the US and anonymous online comments has encouraged some public figures in Lithuania to speak out for LGBT rights and against homophobia.
Philosopher Leonidas Donskis, professor at Vytautas Magnus University and former MEP, has expressed support for the Baltic Pride march this coming Saturday.
“I would definitely join it, if I could, but my schedule does not allow it. In general, I am not a fan of marches and mass rallies, but I think that recent events in the world make us realize that gay pride events are not something relevant only to a minority of people. It is everyone’s duty to react – we are talking about human dignity and how madmen in the world or hate groups are threatening us all,” Donskis said.
He adds that the Baltic Pride march is a gesture of solidarity with fellow citizens. Naturally, he says, people who do not hate groups of people who are different from themselves feel moral duty to march along. “I’d gladly do the same,” Donskis assures.
‘I was mistaken’
Journalist and opinion maker Andrius Tapinas has also expressed support for Baltic Pride and admitted he was mistaken in his earlier statements that tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community will come naturally.
“The Orlando events and reactions to them put things into perspective and do not allow for indifference. Admittedly, I was wrong in thinking that all it takes for tolerance to mature is time. Baltic Pride, I stand with you,” Tapinas posted on his Facebook page.
Asked if he was planning to join the march on Saturday, Tapinas told DELFI, however, that he would be working on his project “Mission Siberia”.
“After these events [in Orlando], I support the idea [of Baltic Pride]. I would not march myself, even if I could, because I don’t like parades in general. The March 11 [Independence Day] parade is probably the only one I join. I support the idea, when it is threatened,” Tapinas told DELFI.
He says he particularly abhors some reactions online to the Orlando shooting. “Those people who are simply inciting hatred, who cheer on and say that it was a happy day, that someone should do the same in Vilnius – these people should get a visit from police officers,” Tapinas said.
I an op-ed piece published last year, Tapinas argued that “same-sex marriage is not the most pressing problem in Lithuania” and that the LGBT community was not a top priority in Lithuania’s “pyramid of public interest”. Has Tapinas changed his mind after the shooting in Florida?
“This thing did change my perspective, I do not argue. I myself have to appreciate the true extent of the problem,” he said.
“In terms of the extent, we do have more pressing problems. But what happened has revealed that there are incredibly many people who are beyond intolerant and inhumane – and that does change one’s perspective on things.”
Duty to support human rights
The Lithuanian Gay League (LGL), the main organizer of Baltic Pride, says that Orlando events have changed the meaning of the march in Vilnius.
“The bloody attack in another continent shows that we, as a community, have to show solidarity with the entire LGBT community. This will consolidate our own society, I believe. There should not be people on the fence – people should genuinely support human rights and protest against events like that [in Orlando]. They must come on June 18 and express solidarity with those who are no longer with us,” said Vladimir Simonko, the chairman of the LGL.
Public events like the pride march shows that the LGBT community is strong, he says. He recalls how after terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels leaders of those countries joined huge rallies to show that their societies reject violence. “I hope for a similar march here, too,” according to Simonko.
He says he was saddened by some of the reactions to the Orlando shooting online. There are serious problems with respect for human rights in Lithuania, according to Simonko. “One would wish for more courageous commentators condemning such reactions.”
He believes that Lithuania is involved in a war of values and every citizen must choose a side. “I have no doubt that most are on the side of the civilized world, but if some think otherwise, well, it’s a little dangerous. I hope I am wrong,” he says.
Vilnius is hosting the Baltic Pride March for Equality for the third time this Saturday.