Saulius Baradinskas finished his first half marathon in Vilnius carrying the Pride flag. | Photo: Instagram/sauliusbaradinskas
Hundreds of Lithuanians are showing their support for the country’s LGBTI community after arsonists started a fire in a well-known filmmaker’s apartment building.
Arsonists started a fire outside Romas Zabarauskas’ apartment last week in what appeared to be an alleged hate crime because he flew a rainbow Pride flag from his balcony.
Zabarauskas and his boyfriend decided to fly the flag after arsonists set fire to the Lithuania Gay League’s office – a prominent LGBTI support group – in August.
‘I thought it was important not to give into fear. With my boyfriend, we bought a rainbow flag and unfurled it in our balcony. After the first fire in my apartment building, I told the policewoman that this could be related, and she gave me a shocking answer, telling me to simply take down the flag “before the whole house burns down”,’ the filmmaker told Gay Star News.
‘This goes against everything I believe in. Lithuania is a free country and no one can tell me or anyone else what to place in their private property. So I quickly realised we need to defend this freedom and instead of being afraid, show solidarity with the LGBT community.’
But it took a second fire in Zabarauskas’ building for police and officials to sit up and take notice.
‘A few days after the first fire in my apartment building, there was a second attack on another floor. This made the story even more visible in Lithuania: Vilnius’s City Mayor, the General Commissioner and others spoke out. Finally all the four cases received top police attention,’ he said.
Show your pride
The day after the fire he decided to order 500 Pride flags to hand out to people wanting to show their support of the LGBTI community. People in the capital Vilnius, were so eager that they ran out of flags within half an hour.
Rainbow flags are flying on balconies and in the streets across Vilnius with people posting photos on social media with the hashtag #lgbtdraugiškalietuva (LGBT Friendly Lithuania).
‘We were overwhelmed with positive reactions. People started to unfurl the rainbow flags immediately,’ Zabarauskas said.
‘However, it was quickly sold out where available, so we decided to make it more accessible. For that reason, the night after the first fire in my building, I emailed the sponsors of my previous work – films and outreach initiatives.
‘Next morning, I woke up with thousands euros already raised to buy and gift 500 flags. At the distribution event the following Friday, they were all gone within the first half an hour – except a hundred that we reserved and sent by post to people who live outside Vilnius.’
Solidarity means strength
Zabarauskas doesn’t consider himself an LGBTI activist but will never miss an opportunity to promote equality for the community. He said he’s not sure if he feels afraid after the two attacks and believes he is privileged.
‘I was never really afraid to be openly gay, express myself and create art in challenging ways,’ Zabarauskas said.
‘I come from middle class background and the current Lithuania is far safer than what people faced in the Stonewall era or during the HIV crisis, so I consider myself privileged.’
But that doesn’t mean the past week hasn’t been intense for the filmmaker and his boyfriend.
‘The whole week was intense mix of emotions: fear, joy, pride and stress,’ he said.
‘I’m certainly overwhelmed with all the support, and to be honest I think it’s quite amazing that we succeeded to turn this situation into something positive.’
Even though the filmmaker thinks he’s still in shock with everything that’s happened in the past week, he does believe a silver lining has emerged from the arson attacks.
‘I’m actually not sure what to think and how to feel about it – perhaps I’m still in shock,’ he said.
‘The whole solidarity initiative we organised does make me feel safer. For example, now three buildings surrounding mine have unfurled rainbow flags: we’re not alone anymore.’
Lithuania one of EU’s worst on LGBTI issues
Lithuania has been ranked one of the worst countries in the European Union on LGBTI rights.
In 2017, Lithuanian politicians voted against a proposal that would have recognized same-sex couples. The parliament voted on a proposal to amend Lithuania’s Civil Code to give legal status to all couple regardless of gender, but the majority of MPs voted against it.
But LGBTI advocates have said Lithuania is making slow progress on equality and Zabarauskas agreed.
‘Lithuania is on its’ way to progress and prosperity. The more LGBT people are becoming visible, the more we are accepted, so we’re on the right track,’ he said.
‘Sure, there should be even more and stronger reactions by politicians and top officials. And it’s still a long way before we achieve full equality and acceptance.
‘But there’s no “us” and “them” in this situation. LGBT community and supportive civic society are Lithuania, and I’m proud of how we defended our freedom here.’
What’s next for Zabarauskas?
Zabarauskas will continue to use his films to tell LGBTI stories. His new film The Lawyer comes out in 2020 and managed to receive unprecedented funding from the Lithuanian Film Center.
His current film the semi-autobiographical film, You Can’t Escape Lithuania, is currently touring film festivals around the world.
In the meantime, he will also continue to work on the Friendly Vilnius map which he launched in 2012.
The guide lists all the city’s LGBTI-friendly venues and last year received an official endorsement from the city.