Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out
It’s midnight somewhere on the gray outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Undeterred, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we pass for anything funny.
Then I see them. A row of panels above the stairs to the basement bar; photos of blonde men with glistening six packs. It is – as it usually is – or a tribute to Leni Riefenstahl’s most homoerotic scenes. triumph of will or someone knowingly gay. And 99 out of 100 is the latter, this is no exception.
Soho Club is the most out of context gay place I’ve ever seen. It stands on a poorly lit street on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital, as if it had been taken out of the city center and dumped there.
Given the Catholic and ex-communist Baltic state’s troubled relationship with the LGBTQ community, this is not surprising.
According to A lonely planet Baltic guide for gay and lesbian travelers, “a little public display of affection can provoke ugly responses.”
Homosexuality was decriminalized here only in 1993. And, legislative victories aside, in 2009 The survey showed that the attitude of the population was almost the same as before 1993. Eight out of ten respondents considered homosexuality to be somewhere between perversion and disease.
Such a gay-friendly place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend on my birthday weekend. Then again, an itinerary like ours, which includes both a visit to the Genocide Museum and a Holocaust exhibit at the Jewish Museum, is hardly “gondola ride in Venice” or “Eiffel Tower at sunset.” It’s a bright, ex-Soviet, mostly rainy introduction to being gay outside the liberal London bubble. It means: dreamy.
In a word, the stone-paved old town of Vilnius is beautiful and, compared to other capitals of Eastern Europe, there are obviously fewer hen parties. It turns out that same-sex couples may be drawn to the city for other qualities besides its queer nightlife.
On the walk from Vilnius Central Train Station to our Airbnb, we passed a wall where Donald Trump smokes a spliff and gives gifts to Vladimir Putin. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between USSR’s Brezhnev and East Germany’s Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.
It was hard to say what that said about the neighborhood’s attitude toward queers, but it was on the side of a bar that was full of Black Lips and twenty-something Lithuanian hipsters. Say what you will about hipsters, they’re not known for gay-hating. It was hard to imagine that anyone there would be too angry about our sexuality.
One such Lithuanian hipster met us at Airbnb. She was about 20 years old and seemed a bit nervous talking to us, although her English was almost fluent.
The apartment – impeccably newly built – was decorated with Ikea classics. Like a bar with a homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, everywhere in Malm just radiates gay friendliness. Both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems or a free packet of lube.
Before politely saying goodbye, the host gave a short lesson on how to work in the apartment. We had just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. Turns out the host did a 180.
“One last thing,” she said, “do you need an extra blanket or are you… sharing a bed?”
Oh my God, I thought. That’s it. This is the kind of crap you read about. You never read about anything good.
“Yes, we share,” I said, feeling—I hate to say it—same-sex-shamed and same-sex-shamed.
“Okay. No questions!” The host said before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.
“No questions,” I repeated, “Um.”
To be clear, no, this was not a hate crime. I also don’t want to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for condemning us. And anyway, maybe “no questions” meant “no decision.” Who am I to judge?
We were in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the waters and hold hands on the street. Most of the time, we started to wonder if we are not xenophobic, thinking that Lithuanians are probably homophobes.
I think this is the point where bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately, almost at the moment we were holding hands, a group of… shaven heads that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom walked by, staring at us as if we had stopped in midair. – street fist.
I made brief eye contact with one of them when I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as quickly as a water bottle during airport security.
“Oh,” I told her when, as far as we knew, the only homophobes in Vilnius were at a safe distance. “Yes…” she said.
There are parts of the world—Uganda, Russia, and most recently Chechnya—where things are really getting worse for queer people, both socially and legally. But the overarching narrative is “it’s getting better.” Going anywhere that isn’t as gay-friendly as I’m used to feels like a step backwards.
It is interesting, when it comes to the reception of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in Vilnius in 2017. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And then, as far as I know, I wasn’t a particularly grumpy baby.
Thus began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked the cobbled streets of the old town, admired the baroque churches and wondered if we were allowed to be a couple near them.
With no hard and fast rules, every look from a stranger is open to interpretation. My interpretation is, “Let’s not make a scene, okay?” and my girlfriends, “Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares.”
In the evening, while sitting in a busy restaurant eating zepelins (extraordinarily dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships), we noticed – lo and behold – what we thought (homophobically?) might be another gay couple.
Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. They were gay in the 1980s. Dumpling bar in Vilnius, ten o’clock at night, who the hell knows? And more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has turned into a hand-to-hand fight due to weird invisibility, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.
“Are they…” I said.
“They must to be,” she said.
I’m not even sure what I asked “we should” do (talk to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?) or why I was shut down before I finished a sentence. Whatever we should have done or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.
But back to the Soho club. The car stops and we leave our bewildered and slightly overjoyed Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb in the light of a lamp, we walk down the stairs past the muscle panels.
Total silence – even uninterrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say zvimbi or… Soho. Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s definitely the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We, ready for a party with the best Lithuanian gays, stopped by a giant lead box. Also, we look around and realize we’ve wandered into the City of Murder.
On the way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow that has no explanation, and an illuminated poster that looks eerily like an advertisement for dead babies. The streets become wider and deserted until we find ourselves at a gas station, holding hands in pure fear. At least from my side. If this is the Vilnius gay scene, I would like to praise it at least for the fact that it is rather strongly reminiscent of a David Lynch film.
Somehow not to be cut into pieces and turned into an outsider’s art, the next day we find ourselves at the Vilnius airport again. While casually browsing the web on my phone, my girlfriend notices that our Airbnb host has rated us as guests.
“Leonora and her friend are very friendly people!” she wrote.
In fact, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone puts down my sexuality as a puddle of something that might be small, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And having “friends”.