Will Lithuanian law on "family values" harm gay rights?

Editor's note: As part of our ongoing Rainbow Planet series chronicling the global fight for gay rights, correspondents look at eastern European countries whose traditional values clash with those of their western European partners. Below, David L. Stern examines a new Lithuanian law that could stigmatize gays and lesbians — or worse. In neighboring Poland, Jan Cienski reports that a decision by the European Court of Human Rights has angered conservatives.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — It may not be on the level of Uganda’s draconian anti-gay legislation, which applies the death penalty to some homosexual relations, but Lithuania this month enacted a law that observers are calling worryingly homophobic.

The “Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information” came into force on March 1 and restricts any public dissemination of information which affects the “mental health, physical, intellectual or moral development” of children under 18.

The legislation, in a word, is expansive. Among the myriad of topics deemed unfit for minors are:

  • “which promotes bad eating and hygiene habits and lack of physical exercise”
  • "which displays a mass hypnosis session aimed at affecting the mass media audience”
  • "which promotes property damage or destruction”
  • “which is of an erotic nature”
  • “which promotes sexual intercourse”
  • “which arouses fear or horror”
  • “which encourages gambling, encourages and suggests participation in the games of chance, lotteries and other games that imply easy win”

But the paragraph that has attracted the most controversy is one that prohibits information “which scorns family values and promotes the concept of marriage and family formation, other than stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania.”

The law prohibits, in other words, any portrayal of marriage as something other than the union of a man and a woman.

The reaction to the legislation has been swift and unequivocal. Lithuania became a member of the European Union in 2004 and signed on to EU codes for human rights, including those that forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation. Amnesty International, in a published statement, called the law “an anachronism.”

“It will stigmatize gay and lesbian people and exposes advocates for their rights to the risk of censorship and financial penalties,” said John Dalhuisen of the human rights organization.

The legislation’s supporters say that the bill is needed to combat society’s slow deterioration. “This law is necessary because we see a collapse of values that are necessary for any sort of family life,” said Mantas Adomenas, a representative for Vilnius’s old town from the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, parliament’s largest party.

Adomenas said that the law will not restrict the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) — just prevent them from depicting same-sex marriage in a positive light in places where children might have access. This includes schools, public spaces, the internet and in the media, for instance on television before 10 p.m.

The law does not restrict pro-gay demonstrations, Adomenas maintained. “But once [the demonstration] is on TV, it’s a question on how it is to be portrayed,” he added.

He gave the example of Erling Lae, Oslo’s openly gay mayor, who brought his spouse to a international mayoral conference in Vilnius last year.

“He can’t go on national television before 10 o’clock and [promote same sex marriage],” Adomenas said. “If it’s in a news report — sure. But he can’t put an ad on saying we Norwegians are so great because we have this type of marriage.”

The law, he continued, does not contradict European legal stipulations. “We have different notions of family,” he said. At the same time, it prevents Lithuanian youth from receiving “wrong guidance.”

“They grow up and then find out that they actually can’t marry like that,” Adomenas said.

Deputies in fact softened the law from an earlier version last year, which outlawed all materials “agitating for homosexual, bisexual and polygamous relations.” Members of the European Parliament’s intergroup on lesbian and gay rights wrote an open letter to the Lithuanian parliament, saying the legislation violated fundamental principles.

Nevertheless, the law’s new version causes concern. “The form of the law has changed significantly,” said Bruno Selun, the intergroup’s secretary. “However its substance is essentially homophobic because it refers to a traditional concept of family, and restricts and excludes all LGBT families.”

The issue, observers say, is how strictly the law is interpreted. The first test may come with a “Baltic Pride” festival, a two- day LGBT event planned for May, which will feature a conference, art exhibit and gay pride march.

According to Vladimir Simonko and Eduardas Platovas, leaders of the Lithuanian Gay League, the country remains a traditional society where the Catholic Church plays a leading role. The law, they fear, will deepen a general atmosphere where gays and lesbians do not feel comfortable, and the news media will fear reporting on LGBT issues.

“We feel the difference between Brussels and Amsterdam, and here” said Simonko. “There is this aggression on the streets — we always have to control ourselves.”

“If I see a couple of guys who might be aggressive, I cross to the other side,” he added.

But others see the legislation as a hiccup in a general progression from a Soviet society, with its inherent restrictions and prejudices, to an open, tolerant Western nation.

“We have a brand new generation here — there is a huge generation gap. There is the liberal youth, and then there’s an older generation raised in the Soviet past, who haven’t come entirely out of their stereotypes, and some are very bitter,” said Kestutis Sadauskas, head of the EU representation in Vilnius.

Nevertheless, the EU official said his commission would observe very closely how the law would be applied. “The protection of minorities is a sign of strength and maturity of a democracy — this is the litmus test.”