2017 LGBT* Rights in Lithuania Overview: Challenges and Victories
As we begin another year of LGBT* human rights activism, it’s important to stop for a moment to assess what the LGBT* rights movement in Lithuania was able to achieve in 2017, and what political and social circumstances will continue to impact our community this year. 2016’s parliamentary elections, and the “peasants” and “social workers” coalitions formed in their wake, seemed to spell bad news for our community – looking out on 2017, it looked like the previous year’s political developments, when considered in a LGBT* human rights context, meant that legal progress would unfortunately remain a fantasy. Parliament proceeded to put new “leaders”, who seemed determined to further ensure the marginalization of the LGBT* community, at the forefront. If it was a challenge for us before to stand up to the rampant homophobia of parliament members like Petras Gražulis and Jonas Rimantas Dagys, last year’s efforts by Agnė Širinskienė, Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Paulius Saudargas to block any progress in the LGBT* human rights sphere further complicated things. But in a hostile political atmosphere where it’s practically impossible to constructively discuss the LGBT* community’s needs with the country’s politicians, new and unexpectedly effective strategies for activism have arisen. In 2017, with the help of national and international courts, we were able to celebrate several unexpected victories that will undoubtedly go down as historic moments in the Lithuanian LGBT* movement, giving reason to suspect that strategic litigation is becoming one of the most effective ways to secure LGBT* human rights progress in Lithuania.
In 2016, the international organization ILGA-Europe’s yearly LGBT* human rights overview placed Lithuania 38th out of 49 European countries. In 2017, the country sank to 39th place. This demotion was caused by politicians’ inaction on necessary legal acts that would secure the minimum required legal protections for the LGBT* community. During its 26th session following its Universal Periodic Review, the United Nations Court of Human Rights gave Lithuania 22 recommendations in the LGBT* human rights sphere. Unfortunately, in 2017, no legal initiatives were raised to improve circumstances for the LGBT* community. Legislators even sought to ensure that same-sex couples living in a de facto partnership would not be considered family. These efforts went as far as an attempt to change the country’s constitution to emphasize the principle of the “union between a man and a woman” in other legal acts. Procedures for legal gender change also remained unregulated during this period. Although national courts showed leadership in this area, administrative procedures for changing one’s identity documents as well as necessary healthcare services for transgender people remain inaccessible. Finally, law enforcement institutions showed marked systematic inaction in investigating reported hate speech and incidents of hate crime against LGBT* individuals. On the other hand, we can’t look at everything in black and white. Regardless of these negative trends, society’s views on LGBT* issues are becoming progressively more open, with questions related to the LGBT* community receiving increasing discussion in mass media and the public space. Openly homophobic statements and initiatives receive more critical attention than ever before – little by little, society is becoming more supportive.
Lack of legal recognition for same-sex couples’ family life
In recent years, legislators have not only refused to consider opportunities to legally protect same-sex couples’ family life, but have even taken direct action to eliminate them from the Lithuanian Constitution and other legal acts based on the definition of family. On June 28th 2016, Parliament held its first convention on a constitutional amendment that would ensure that “family is based on marriage”. Although procedures to amend the constitution were given the green light through voting, the amendment received no further vote in 2017. On June 15th, 2017, Parliament rejected a project proposing changes to the Civil Codex establishing the opportunity to enter a gender-neutral partnership, with registered partners gaining “family member” status. Although 59 members of parliament voted against the project, 29 were in support, a number LGL considered a victory in its own right.
On May 30th, legislators supported an initiative by the “peasants” and two conservatives to implement Civil Code amendments allowing persons living together or owning joint assets to enter into “joint activities” by contract. Although this proposition was publicly presented as an opportunity for same-sex couples to regulate their joint affairs, persons entering a “joint activities” contract would not be considered “family members”. Such a legal measure denying same-sex partners the opportunity to designate themselves “family members” would discriminate against same-sex couples in the fields of criminal justice (the right not to testify against one’s family member), patients’ rights (the right to receive information on a family member’s health condition), taxes (reduced taxes applied to family members) and other fields. Meanwhile, the definition of “family members” was narrowed through amendments to the Law on Equal Opportunity, as well as the Law on Strengthening Families. In the latter law, the “union between a man and a woman” is enshrined in the preamble as the “foundation of family”.
Right to legal gender identity recognition and medical gender reassignment
Although the obligation to regulate gender reassignment procedures was addressed with a 2001 amendment to the Civil Codex, Lithuania remains one of few European countries where transgender people’s right to change their personal identity documents and receive necessary healthcare services remains unlegislated. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights established in L. vs. Lithuania that the lack of a procedure for gender reassignment violated the right to protection of private life as established by the Convention. Over a decade later, Lithuania has still not taken action on the Strasbourg court’s orders.
In March 2017, the government instructed the Ministries of Healthcare and Justice to draft suitable legal projects in this area. A work group in the Ministry of Justice drafted a Law on Legal Gender Identity Recognition. The project defines administrative procedures for changing one’s identity documents (i.e. submitting a request to a civil registry institution). Meanwhile, a work group in the Ministry of Healthcare prepared an Overview of Gender Identity Disorder Diagnosis and Treatment, which defines conditions for obtaining specific healthcare services. Regardless of the projects’ progressive content, neither has been implemented so far.
In the spring of 2017, national courts made two historic decisions requiring civil registry institutions to grant two transgender individuals new personal documents with no surgical requirement. In one of these decisions, the court declared: “Since legislators still have not implemented legislation on procedures for gender reassignment, […] the court is eliminating this gap in the law […] by determining that the concept of ‘gender reassignment’ must not be associated only with irreversible surgical reassignment of the biological sex characteristics […].” During 2017, six transgender individuals had their personal documents changed with no surgical requirement by way of the court.
In November 2016, parliament members Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Paulius Saudargas registered a project to amend the Civil Codex to completely prohibit both legal and medical gender reassignment. Non-governmental organizations representing the interests of the transgender community have called this legal initiative an attempt to ignore “the scientific, legal and social reality of transgender people”.
Hate speech and crimes against LGBT* individuals
According to data collected by an anonymous survey carried out by LGL in September 2016, more than half (54%) of LGBT* people in Lithuania had faced hate crimes and/or expressions of hate speech in the last 12 months. Of these respondents, just 13% had reported the incidents to law enforcement institutions, giving the impression of an inherent “latency” to hate crimes and hate speech committed against members of the LGBT* community.
The following autumn, non-governmental organizations worked with a Lithuanian police school to educate over 160 officers on how to react to incidents of hatred perpetuated against LGBT* individuals. In September 2017, LGL presented the online platform and app “UNI-FORM” to encourage the LGBT* community to report potential criminal activity to law enforcement institutions.
In June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights informed the Lithuanian government that it would investigate the case Beizaras vs. Lithuania, which addresses law enforcement institutions’ inaction in investigating online expressions of homophobic hate speech. The complainants assert that prosecutors and national courts acted illegally by declining to conduct investigation into homophobic hate speech posted on Facebook, thus discriminating against the complainants for their sexual orientation. According to non-governmental organizations, this case could potentially expose systemic problems in state institutions’ ineffective response to hate crimes against LGBT* individuals.
Homophobic bullying in public schools
In summer of 2017, LGL carried out an anonymous survey, attracting responses from almost 600 LGBT* high school students between the ages of 14 and 18. In their survey responses, the students revealed what is taught in Lithuanian schools and what LGBT* adolescents still in the process of discovering their sexual orientation and/or gender identity face there.
“During an ethics lesson, the teacher said that gays are no different from child molesters. That children’s shelters are an appealing place for them to work, because, as she understood, they can abuse children there,” one respondent said. “Once, during a lesson, the teacher said that people of the other orientation are ill, and gave examples of how a person can recover from this,” another LGBT* teen recalled. “My school director was very vocal about her attitude toward LGBT* people. She said that we’re unnatural, and that we should be hiding,” one student complained. “Teachers shy away from LGBT* topics in lessons,” another said. These are only a small sample of the experiences reported by LGBT* students who participated in the survey.
Having assessed the critical shortage of science-based information on LGBT* topics for teachers and students, LGL appealed to the Education Development Center, suggesting that the EDC include the organization’s 2015 publication “Homophobic Bullying in Lithuanian Schools: Survey Results and Recommendations” in its list of teaching materials on its website. After an “expert” assessment of the suggested material, however, the EDC’s work group compiling the General Program for Health, Sexual Education and Family Planning concluded that they could not recommend “ideological publications” to teachers and that homophobic bullying should not be given priority over other forms of bullying.
Whatever the case, we must remember that, regardless of the ample obstacles to securing LGBT* human rights, positive change has taken place in Lithuania in the last year. In April, after word spread that students at Telšių Žemaitės Gymnasium were receiving degrading information about LGBT* individuals in religious education lessons, public debate arose, prompting more critical evaluation of curriculum materials related to sexual education. After widespread criticism from non-governmental organizations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in May that two LGBT* Chechens fleeing persecution in their home country had been granted asylum in Lithuania. A constitutional court was requested to clarify whether one’s spouse could be granted a permit to live in Lithuania on the grounds of a same-sex marriage conducted abroad. Overall, last year could be defined by growing visibility for LGBT* people in Lithuanian society. For instance, in May, Vilnius’ City Hall was illuminated in rainbow colors on the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). In November, as part of the social campaign #EU4LGBTI, the European Commission published a video about a young trans man named Tovaldas and the struggles that his community faces in Lithuania.
One could certainly also call 2017 a year highlighting the LGBT* community’s needs. Our community’s interests in the legislative sphere have remained stagnant for some time. This includes the repeal of the discriminatory Law on the Protection of Minors Against Harmful Effects of Public Information, which prohibits “homosexual propaganda”, recognition of same-sex couples’ family lives (by allowing same-sex partners to obtain “family member” status), and implementing effective regulation for gender reassignment procedures. Taking into account the political and social realities of the last year, one could get the impression that Lithuania is approaching an “overnight” reform in the LGBT* human rights sector. Such progress, however, will require a suitable political climate for changes to be implemented in such a short time. NGOs representing the LGBT* community’s interests, therefore, must be prepared to make constructive and concrete proposals in the legislative sphere as soon as the opportunity presents itself in order to improve the LGBT* human rights situation in Lithuania. While waiting for the right political moment, however, we must remain active. We must raise awareness, so that a larger part of society will favor LGBT*-friendly political initiatives. We also must improve various professional spheres’, such as law enforcement officials’, medical professionals’ and teachers’ competency when working with the LGBT* community. Finally, we must work with national and international courts’ progressive position to promote progress in the LGBT* rights sphere in Lithuania. Achieving such ambitious goals requires a focused and united community. Human rights are not a given – this is difficult work, the product of direct effort and contribution from every one of us. On behalf of national LGBT* rights organization LGL we express our wishes that this year will bring not just challenges, but necessary changes and strategic victories.
This article is produced and published under the framework of the NEDF Institutional Development Project No. (2017) NOBR-135, supported by the Ministry of Social Security and Labor of the Republic of Lithuania.