Civil partnerships and reproductive rights in Eastern Europe: an interview with Laima Vaige

rs21’s Leslie Cunningham interviews Dr. Laima Vaige, a feminist and LGBTQ activist from Lithuania.

Image shows an internal chamber of the Seimas, the seat of Lithuania's parliament in Vilnius, Lithuania.
An internal chamber of the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament based in Vilnius.

What do you think about the move to introduce same sex civil partnerships in Lithuania?

Laima: I think it is good news that this law is finally coming. It is going to be introduced in parliament soon. We’ve been discussing a partnership law for same sex couples in Lithuania for at least 20 years. So far, all the draft proposals have been stopped at one moment or another. So let’s see what happens. 

We have a coalition including the liberal Freedom Party, but also the Conservatives and the Christian Democrats. Meanwhile, any party that is on the left is in an extreme minority. At the moment, any left politician is quite happy to be in parliament at all.

So yes, we’ll see. The Freedom Party is a very new liberal party that was formed just a couple of years ago, and they are very fresh and have quite high ambitions, but their policies are clearly very liberal. They have nothing to do with socialism or left policies.

So it’s taken 20 years for same sex partnerships even to get to this stage and they have always been blocked? Do you think it’s actually going to go ahead and become law this time around?

LV: I’m not actually sure. It’s very difficult because every time that a parliament is formed, we have hopes that it’s going to be a reality. The previous parliament was actually quite close to passing a registered same sex partnership law.

In 2017, it was the liberals (which now have split into two parties, the Freedom Party and the older liberals in parliament as well) who came up with a project. This was blocked and, instead, the Farmers and Green Union – who were in charge of the Lithuanian parliament – suggested their own project for partnership at the same time, which was very strange. It was a partnership that could be registered between a number of people, and it wouldn’t be monogamous; it would basically be a commercial partnership for business purposes, and not related to family law. It does not reflect the needs of same sex couples at all. Their example for how it might be used was that a priest should be able to have some sort of partnership with their household, with the people who are living with them. It was not a family law institute, but it provided rights to succession. So, I think it was, from a legal point of view, very strange. It did not come to pass either. 

It’s interesting that you mentioned that the very small, genuinely left socialist parties and politicians in Lithuania are just very grateful to be in parliament at all. It strikes me that there’s a similarity between the position of these socialist politicians in Lithuania, and the LGBTQ people in Lithuania, because I think you said, on a previous occasion, that it’s really impossible for most people to be out. So, it’s almost like the socialists are similarly marginalised. Does that seem a reasonable comment?

LV: Yes, socialists are pushed into the closet as well as LGBTQ people. It is also often imagined that all LGBTQ are socialists. The Freedom Party are sometimes called Marxist simply because they support LGBTQ rights. 

Similar tendencies can be observed throughout Europe. But in a way, I think the historical context is unusual in Lithuania because it has a Communist past. Because of the Communist past, the Social Democrats, who came to power in newly independent Lithuania in the 90ies, were not like the socialists that you would imagine, for instance, in Western Europe or elsewhere. People would associate them with the Communist nomenklature.  They had a lot of privileges from the past, and they were culturally really conservative. 

The Social Democratic Party has tried to re-establish itself a couple of times, but it was very hard for it to get rid of that Communist label. And they had this problem that there were many members who were living quite well in the Communist times, and they have a number of privileges [that were] carried forward into current times. It’s very hard to make something fresh while living on dead legs.

Yes, I can definitely see that, because, with the kind of previous imperialist domination of Lithuania and other Baltic countries, ‘socialism’ has become a dirty word. It’s got this association with imperialist, colonialist domination. I can imagine that there’d be a lot of attraction for folk to have an almost romantic nationalism – maybe imagining a Lithuania that never really existed, but which people would like to have existed. And that can, unfortunately, tie in with some quite reactionary attitudes towards women, gender, and sexuality.

Is there anything else you’d like to say on this particular issue before we move on?

LV: A brilliant summary! Nationalism is clearly idealised and gender roles are closely tied to this imagined Lithuania. 

On the proposal of registered partnerships, the history is that, in the Civil Code adopted in 2000, they were already discussing registered partnership for same sex couples. It has now been more than 20 years since the Parliament adopted the Civil Code and, by 2001, committed the government to come up with a proposal on Registered Partnerships Act. That has never happened.  

The proposal that was suggested by the Freedom Party recently is ambitious, but it’s also limited in some ways – especially for women who live together as a couple. This proposal does not even mention co-parenting. It’s not possible to co-parent legally, and I don’t think that’s right. The politician who is the face for this draft is a gay man with a kid himself, raised together with a couple of women. He stressed, or was forced to stress, that under no circumstances would this draft regulate co-parenting and adoption. So, it’s much less ambitious than I thought it would be. I think we should start with children’s rights – partnerships are perhaps less important than protecting the children. But that is coming from me, as a lesbian mother. 

Yes, I can understand why you’re disappointed because that’s a very important aspect.  

Image from the protest No To Torturing Polish Women – protest against anti-abortion legislation at Polish embassy
No To Torturing Polish Women – protest against anti-abortion legislation at Polish embassy – supported by Razem London and KOD UK, London 9 April 2016. Photo credit: Steve Eason, Flickr.

I would like to ask you a bit about the situation in Poland regarding the women’s strike. Were there similar protests in support of the Polish women in Lithuania as well?

LV: Yes, Lithuanian women also protested in support of Polish women [and their right to abortion] – I think it was a global phenomenon. In Sweden, the Swedish government suggested that, if Poland actually prohibits abortion completely, as they wanted to do, they would invite Polish women to have abortions in Sweden for free. This had a historical context, because in the 70s, Swedish women were going to Poland to have abortions because it was not allowed in Sweden but allowed in Poland, so it was considered as a debt to Polish women to allow that possibility. But it didn’t come to that, because, after the protests, the decision was halted. Still, it’s very unstable. At any moment, the [Polish government] could decide whether or not [the anti-abortion legislation] actually comes into force. 

I think this is a problem. I mean, the protests were obviously incredibly effective, but it hasn’t actually got rid of this horrible piece of legislation. As far as I’m aware, it’s just kind of been put in suspended animation, as I understand it. 

LV: There were also problems with the way they attempted to get the legislation adopted. First the government tried to push that piece of legislation as a statutory act, and when they failed, when the parliament actually didn’t manage to pass the legislation, they sent the issue to the constitutional court. The constitutional court in Poland is not independent; it’s entirely dependent on the government. To try to pass it through the constitutional court is really low, because the constitutional court should be the final institution that protects the constitution and protects human rights. To pass it through that body means it’s going to stay – potentially – for a very long time, in contrast to if it was passed by enactments, which can be recalled.

Yes, but the protests were still very inspiring.  I mean, I remember thinking this is just what we need in the current situation, literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and not just women, turning out in defence of abortion rights. I just found it tremendous.  I was actually present at one of the protests outside the Scottish Parliament back in October, and it was pitch dark, pouring rain, freezing cold, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.  There must have been at least four or five hundred people there, and it was brilliant.  There were lots and lots of lovely Polish folk we have an Edinburgh, but not just Polish women, loads of Polish men, and lots of Scots, and people from other nationalities. It was brilliant, really cheered me up – so, solidarity!  Solidarność! 

Another thing I remember, which I found brilliant, was the generally male farmers, out in their big tractors driving through Warsaw.  I thought that was great because I suppose it gave the right wing parts of the Polish government a very nasty surprise. I expect they thought that these are the very folk that would be taking the so-called traditional values and listening to what the Church was telling them, but they didn’t.

LV: Yes, exactly. I’m really happy that people did go to the streets, but I’m just a bit mad that we had to do that. It’s just so ridiculous in the middle of the pandemic to [try to enact this legislation.  It’s just cynical, I think. I hope that now they are stopped for good. 

I certainly hope so.

So, talking about Covid-19, the pandemic. Basically, it’s obviously made life an awful lot more difficult for everybody, but I think, like a lot of other potentially marginalised groups, LGBTQ+ people have been particularly badly affected in some cases.

There’s been attempts to support people in Scotland, and in the UK in general.  I was just wondering how people have managed in Sweden, and in Lithuania, particularly given that so many people in Lithuania aren’t able to be out.  We know that the pandemic has forced a lot of folk to maybe have to return to families or friends that are, at best, unsympathetic and, at worst, downright homophobic or transphobic. So, what have people managed to do, if anything, to help themselves get through this incredibly difficult situation?

LV: I think the Lithuanian and the Swedish strategies were quite different because, in the case of Lithuania, they closed everything down in March when the pandemic was announced, even though there were only [a few] people sick in the entire of Lithuania. We understood that it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint – so, thinking about mental health is also equally important. Right now, people have been living in this environment since March. 

Whereas I think Sweden is probably well known for their extreme laxity [towards Covid], which went to the opposite extreme. Up until recently, Sweden hasn’t had any sort of strict rules, and they haven’t  quarantined until recently. People still go shopping, people still go to restaurants, and so on. Some places were closed, like cinemas, and big gatherings are not allowed. But, in general, life hasn’t changed that much, and people have been travelling quite a lot. For LGBTQ people, I think it was hard with both strategies. On the one hand, people are trapped in environments which are not necessarily safe. Families were not always safe for LGBTQ teenagers and youth, even prior to the pandemic. On the other hand, there is loneliness and the need to connect with the community. 

In Lithuania, we only started to speak about mental health last month. In February, the national broadcaster published an article raising the question of how Covid-19 is affecting mental health. But, again, they don’t really [go into detail about] vulnerable groups; they just say that it is particularly harsh on vulnerable groups. And previously, I think it was only a few weeks ago that a public debate was opened on poverty, and how Covid-19 especially affected poorer people. 

In Sweden, the strategy also revealed the problem of inequality, in my opinion. The strategy did not work in these areas where people had no choice but to live in overpopulated premises and work without protective measures, which employers were not obliged to provide. As a result, migrants and elderly were disproportionately affected. Migrants working in care were also often blamed for deaths of the elderly. I believe that the employers should not have been given a choice whether to provide masks and other protective measures, which they were given early in the pandemic. 

I guess people interpreted it in different ways, but I would say that it mostly affects not only LGBTQ people, but especially people in intersecting identity backgrounds, that can be both LGBTQ, but let’s say, poor or jobless, or, you know, raising kids. Women who are raising kids by themselves are actually amongst the poorest in Lithuania, and especially older women as well: they’re taking care of the elderly in the family, but also often children, and often work in those jobs where they will lose employment first.  I think the International Labour Organisation actually raised this question: that the majority of jobs that disappeared were from these sectors where mostly women are working.

Yes, and again, I expect it’s very much the same situation as in Scotland, and in the UK. As is usually the case, low paid jobs tend to be done by the more disadvantaged people, particularly women.  And, ironically, they are often the ones who are frontline workers, who have often been putting themselves and their families at risk by going out and doing jobs so the rest of us could keep going.  

LV: I think each and every one of us has been affected. I think in a way, I feel privileged.  In Sweden, we could pick and choose what was relevant, so I could, for instance, have the possibility to go out and walk in a park without a mask. Whereas, for instance, my partner’s mother is actually working in Lithuania in a hospital, so it was really hard on her mental and physical health, and then all the family did get Covid-19.  It was just before the vaccine arrived.

She’s back to work, but my partner’s grandmother actually died. She was over ninety.  Countries actually have very different ways of calculating these death rates – for example, depending on whether a death was from Covid or associated with another illness.  In Lithuania, we don’t actually calculate deaths associated with another illness as part of the pandemic. 

I would just like to ask you, Laima, what are your hopes for this year, and the future? 

LV: I think for this year, I really would like to see that registered partnership enactment finally moving in the Lithuanian parliament, and not being blocked.  

Another thing I really would like to see is the end of the enactment which prohibits any positive discussion about LGBTQ people in Lithuania. It’s kind of a milder version of the Russian homosexual propaganda law, which is still used to silence and censor LGBTQ voices in Lithuania. It has to be recalled.  It’s ridiculous. It’s against common sense, and it’s even against Lithuanian constitutional court jurisprudence because, by now, the constitutional court has agreed that same sex couples are families. So why are we still being censored? 

It’s also a very kind of personal thing, because a friend of mine has written a children’s book which was censored under this paragraph because there was a depiction of same sex couples in the book. They censored it because they think that any information, even in a fantasy book, has to be censored if it talks about same sex couples in a positive way.  I guess it is completely okay to speak in a negative way, because the way the paragraph is formulated is that it [specifies the problem as] trying to change the traditional concept of the family. So, you can speak in a negative way about homosexuality but you can’t speak in a positive way, because then you are challenging the norm.

Yes, we had exactly the same problem for far too long in the UK, thanks to Margaret Thatcher and Section 28 which basically made it impossible to supposedly promote homosexuality, so I thoroughly hope that this dreadful bit of legislation gets thrown out.

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