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Sasha is gay. It was unsafe for him in his native Moscow, so he emigrated to Lithuania, where he now helps LGBTQ+ immigrants in Vilnius and participates in the organisation of Pride. Moreover, Sasha is very interested in the Belarusian agenda and speaks fluent Belarusian. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to the activist about the degree of “tightness” of the Baltic society, Kaunas activists and the main “traditional values” of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Everything happened against the backdrop of the Orthodox cathedral…”

I decided to come out when I was 17. It was very difficult and scary: after all, it’s Moscow, and you know how gays are treated in Russia. But I still confessed to my best friend that I liked men (by the way, it happened right in front of the Orthodox cathedral) – she replied that she accepted me for who I am. And we didn’t talk about it anymore.

A little later, a year later, I confessed my romantic feelings to a friend. I was doubly scared: what if it’s not mutual? And – miracle of miracles – it turned out that my friend was also gay. So began our relationship and a shared life of 2.5 years. During this time, we made friends from the LGBTQ+ community: urbanism played its part, it’s easier to be yourself in a big city. Now I don’t hide my orientation. The only ones who don’t know are my relatives (but I think they suspect).

Alexander, a photo from the hero’s personal archive

“Instead of “normal life” I chose emigration…”

During my studies at the history department, I became interested in the history of Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland. By the way, my childhood was spent in the Oryol region with my grandmother – which historically belonged to Lithuania (Vasily III) – perhaps that’s why I became interested in the history of these countries. So from the first year, I started learning Belarusian and now I speak it almost fluently. And then there was a Belarusian partner and admission to EHU – and there the Belarusian context completely captivated me.

By the way, about moving. The main reason was the notorious constitutional referendum “on the protection of the Russian language and culture” (it all happened in 2020). Firstly, everyone knows that in Russia people speak not only Russian: there are many national minorities here, and even Russian itself has many dialects (dying thanks to the Russian education system). Secondly, these amendments on the protection of the family and traditional culture… And the Constitution is a fundamental document, the basis for other laws. So I realised that I simply couldn’t live in such a country.

My friends, for the most part, did not realise the seriousness of it: they said that everything was just for show and to appease Putin, “you have a schizophrenia, we live normally, everything will be fine, the main thing is to keep your head down and stay active”.

And I wanted to stand out and be active. During the elections, I had the opportunity to work in the headquarters of independent candidates – many tried to dissuade me, saying, “Why do you need all this, go and get a normal job”. And instead of a “normal life”, I chose emigration (Lithuania – because of EHU and knowledge of Lithuanian).

Belarusians, compared to Russians, are more Europeanised, tolerant, and LGBTQ+ friendly – that’s the impression I got from communication in emigration.

However, speaking about the situation within the country (especially in the case of the older generation), the average temperature regarding homophobia in Belarus and Russia, as it seems to me, is not very different. But, again, everyone has different experiences, and much depends on the city. I remember kissing my ex in St. Petersburg at 7 in the morning in the metro car, and the old lady opposite didn’t care.

And in Russia, the situation is getting worse every day. Recently, there was a raid on a gay club. My boyfriend was unlucky to be there: the cops photographed him with documents.

And what about the notorious law recognising the LGBTQ+ community as an extremist organisation? Everyone thought it would only affect the most active ones – but no such luck. Soon after the law was passed, there was an explanation from the Constitutional Court of Russia: in short, now all LGBTQ+ individuals are potential extremists.

It’s even worse than in the USSR. Before, for “sodomy”, you could get a maximum of five years – but now for extremism, you can get up to 20! And yes, the use of femininity, a rainbow bookmark found during a search, a business card – these are now also “extremism”.

Alexander, a photo from the hero’s personal archive

In Russia, people are not yet scared.

My road to Russia is closed. I am an activist and participate in the Lithuanian LGBTQ+ organisation: I help LGBTQ+ refugees from Russia and Belarus adapt locally. In addition, my “track record” includes working with people living with HIV and women victims of domestic violence. How does it work? With the help of the Belarusian organisation “Dapamoga”, LGBTQ+ people can move from Belarus to Lithuania, where they are usually redirected to our “Association of Tolerant Youth”. 

In Lithuania, the level of support for the LGBTQ+ community is not as great as in France or Norway, but I feel freer here anyway. I haven’t encountered any prejudice about my orientation here – young people don’t really care (almost no interaction with the older generation).

I call Vilnius the LGBTQ+ capital of the Baltics.

There are plenty of organisations here, queer-friendly bars. Have you heard of the Baltic Pride? It takes place in different cities: last year, for example, it was in Tallinn, this year it will be in Riga. All LGBTQ+ organisations, activists, local residents gather here…  So, the most intense one takes place right here in Vilnius. I would even compare it to the one in Kiev in terms of scope and large numbers.

But there’s one nuance: Lithuania is not just Vilnius. Recently, our organisation, along with other initiatives and the leftist bloc, held a pride event in Kaunas. It was, to put it mildly, not easy: if in Vilnius you could at most encounter people with banners saying “Jesus didn’t create you for this,” here we had to negotiate with the police to set up barriers and block the streets. And still, the right-wingers came!

Then my friend was beaten up and fire was thrown into his hood. But the attackers were arrested and prosecuted: some were sent to the army, and some were sent to a penal colony for a year for misuse of pyrotechnics (plus a 200,000 euro fine!). And all this with the caveat that the crime was committed out of homophobia. Where else in the post-Soviet space can you imagine such a thing? Lithuania is the only country of the former USSR where such things are spelled out in legislation. Moreover, they are currently working on a law on civil partnerships (though the deadlines, truth be told, are still vague, and there are battles in the Seimas).

“The issue of transgender people passed by people…”

But it didn’t go without skeletons in the closet: Lithuania is one of the most transphobic countries in Europe. People simply don’t understand what a transgender person is and why it’s necessary, there’s simply no proper legislation on transgender people. Hormonal therapy is also in a bad state: in Vilnius and the Vilnius region, it’s only handled by the university hospital (and the queues there are accordingly long). On the positive side: although Lithuania has not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention, much of it de facto works here (for example, punishment for gender discrimination).

Still, the issue of transgender people in Lithuania is not fully addressed – so our “Association of Tolerant Youth” is doing its best to support transgender culture. In recent cases: on the one hand, a former Belarusian political prisoner refugee wanting to undergo hormonal therapy, on the other hand, a bunch of bureaucratic issues preventing her from doing so. But we don’t give up.

I teach Lithuanian, and during my work, I have encountered homophobic Belarusian students more than once. And yes, after studying with me (and I don’t hide my orientation), they start to defend the LGBTQ+ community. I’m glad that democratic society has taken a progressive step forward, glad for such Belarusians/Belarusianess. You don’t need to explain to them that having a gay couple in the next apartment is not scary.

Alexander, a photo from the hero’s personal archive

My views are not typical for the post-Soviet space: I’m a centrist.

As for legislative dreams: first and foremost, laws against any form of discrimination should be adopted. The next point is recognition of same-sex marriages. By the way, I really like the idea of Lithuanian liberal politicians to leave marriages to the church and introduce partnerships to simplify bureaucratic issues. And in general, I think the institution of marriage is morally outdated in the 21st century.

It’s also important to fight against hate speech. Yes, in the post-Soviet space, they say “freedom of speech ends where the freedom of speech of others begins” – but does that mean that insults and threats against other people are acceptable? I don’t think so. So, the education system also needs reform: it would be good to introduce a basic educational course to prevent hate speech, to talk about LGBTQ+ and other social issues in schools. And all this should be without exaggerations and manipulations, balance is needed.

The article was created within the framework of the scholarship program of the Free Belarus Center.