Police, Protesters Clash at First-ever Lithuanian Gay March

Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius on Saturday, as homosexual rights campaigners held their first-ever rally in the Baltic state.

Officers moved in to disperse around 2,000 counter demonstrators at the end of the Baltic Pride 2010 march, as they hurled stones, bottles and fire-crackers from behind security barriers and shouted “Down with Homonazis”. Nineteen protesters were arrested, police said.

Gay rights campaigners had Friday won an appeal against a court decision to ban their parade in this overwhelming Catholic and former communist EU nation of 3.3 million people, where homosexuality is largely taboo. “We’ve made a decisive step towards greater tolerance,” Vytautas Valentinavicius, one of the organizers, told AFP.

Around 300 people took part in the march, with a heavy police presence protecting them from the protesters.

“I feel like I’ve taken part in an historic event,” said Ieva, a medical student, marching with her partner Monika. “My friends know I’m a lesbian, but not my parents. The pressure of the traditional model is really strong. But they’ll see the photos and that we’re just ordinary people. I hope that it’ll be easier to tell them,” she said.

Participants marched under a huge rainbow banner — a global symbol of gay rights — and carried placards reading “Human Rights Are My Pride” and “Different Families, Same Love”.

Same-sex relations were decriminalized in Lithuania in 1993 — two years after the country won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, which had banned homosexuality.

But opposition remains entrenched.
“Homosexuality is not part of our traditional values. It’s something imported into our country. They should keep it to themselves and not flaunt it,” said mother of three Lina Saluckiene, as protesters prayed earlier outside Vilnius’ cathedral.

Opinion polls indicate that most Lithuanians consider homosexuality a perversion, and many gays in the Baltic state live a double life.

“I have several gay friends who hold senior posts,” said Ramune Zvirblyte, an administrator at Vilnius University.

“I’m here for them. They didn’t dare come here because they were afraid of being recognized. They were scared they’d face prejudice in their professional life,” she said.

Besides representatives of Lithuania’s gay community and local supporters, the rally drew foreign participants including members of the European Parliament and Birgitta Ohlsson, Sweden’s European affairs minister.

“I’m glad to be here. It’s important to support others,” said Stiofan McFadden, a campaigner from Scotland.

After the hour-and-a-half march near Vilnius city center, participants were escorted to waiting buses to avoid running into their opponents.

Lithuania’s gay rights record has regularly been faulted by local and international campaigners, the European Union and global watchdogs such as Amnesty International.

In 2007 and 2008, local authorities banned EU-sponsored anti-discrimination events — Lithuania joined the bloc in 2004 — and have also repeatedly barred local campaigners from holding public gatherings.

The story was nearly similar this year. On Wednesday, a court suspended Vilnius city hall’s approval of the march, after Lithuania’s chief prosecutor said he had evidence that hardline anti-gay groups were planning potentially violent protests.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite opposed the ban, saying there was a constitutional right to peaceful assembly and it was up to the authorities to ensure public order.

The ban also sparked international criticism. On Friday, Lithuania’s top appeals court overturned the ruling, citing the country’s obligations under European human rights law.

by Marielle Vitureau, Vilnius
Source – AFP