"Open your heart because we all deserve love and the same rights,” one demonstrator told Euronews.
The sun was shining, and so were people.
Lithuania’s annual Pride celebration took place on Saturday, drawing thousands to the capital, Vilnius.
The atmosphere during the march down Gediminas Avenue was jubilant and energetic, with techno blaring from a bus and a 10-piece drum band out in front.
“We’re here to celebrate pride, freedom and love,” said Migle Damaseviciute and Mindaugas Karalius, clad in pink fluffy outfits. “We need to protest for our rights.”
It was Damaseviciute’s third time at the parade, saying it was now a tradition for her. But for Karalius, it was his first.
Both hoped that by coming out onto the street, they could help encourage others to show themselves in the open, without fear of judgement or criticism.
“It's ok if you are not ready to go to the Pride,” Karalius told Euronews. “But we hope this demonstration is helpful for others who feel they should be hidden.”
‘The situation in Lithuania here is shitty’
The small Baltic state’s LGBT+ community still face serious problems.
Many report experiencing legal and social discrimination, with negative attitudes towards homosexuality firmly entrenched in the country’s majority Catholic population.
Lithuania is one of the only EU countries to not have legalised same-sex marriage or civil partnerships, and according to a 2022 study commissioned by the Free Society Institute, more than 70% of Lithuanians are against same-sex partnerships - one of the highest rates in Europe.
Sure enough, a small counter-demonstration was present on Saturday, with around two dozen, mostly older men, chanting “Lithuania, Lithuania, Lithuania”, and shouting insults at passersby.
Pride supporter Damaseviciute said it was essential for people to “raise their voice”, claiming those identifying as LGBT+ don't enjoy the same rights as others in Lithuania.
And it was not just Lithuanians at Vilnius Pride. Others from the Baltics and elsewhere in Europe joined the march.
“I am here because I think it is really important to support the pride principles,” British ambassador to Lithuania Brian Olley told Euronews.
He attended the rainbow-studded event with his daughter Juliette and embassy staff, believing “very strongly” it was vital to support the movement.
“We should have freedom of expression, to love who we want and equal opportunities. These are human rights,” he said.
The diplomat, appointed in 2019, contrasted the situation in Lithuania to that in nearby states.
“You just need to look around and see all these people who are celebrating in a way that in many other countries to the east they can't. I think it's really exciting.”
“In Russia, Belarus and many other countries around the world, unfortunately, people risk their lives for doing just what we're doing today,” he told Euronews.
President Vladimir Putin has cracked down hard on Russia’s LGBT+ community in recent years, casting these individuals as perverted agents of imposed Western values that supposedly clash with Russian cultural traditions.
But even if a comparison with Russia looks flattering, Lithuania is still lagging behind its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia, demonstrators Damaseviciute and Karalius claimed.
They thought a “Soviet mindset”, a hangover from Lithuania’s part in the USSR, was holding the country back from equality. “Older generations who lived through this system still aren't that open-minded,” Damaseviciute told Euronews.
Under the Soviet Union, homosexuality was considered illegal, with the state viewing it as contrary to a “healthy” socialist society. There was widespread prejudice and persecution towards those identifying as LGBT+.
“I encourage people to think a little bit differently and be more open-minded. Open your heart because we all deserve love and the same rights,” said Damaseviciute.
‘Slowly, slowly the situation is changing’
But it is not only the past playing a role in the present. Current actions by Lithuania’s government are not conducive to LGBT+ rights, claimed some protesters.
“The government could do more,” said Damaseviciute. “We need our leaders to support the LGBT community.”
Lithuanian lawmakers agreed to consider a same-sex partnership bill in May 2022, after voting down a similar bill the year before.
Three couples took the state to court in April, frustrated at its failure to bring about these legal changes.
Still, things were getting better – albeit at a slow pace, according to some.
“The situation in Britain is more progressive for LGBT rights,” said British diplomat Olley’s daughter Juliette. “But slowly and surely they’re getting a lot more support in Lithuania.”
“Bigger crowds tell us the situation is improving,” she added.
These comments were echoed by the ambassador.
“The government has made a lot of progress. I know there have been some concerns from people worried about change. But things are going in the right direction.”
He pointed to a recent letter signed by two dozen ambassadors based in Lithuania, calling on the authorities to ensure equal rights for the LGBT+ community.
“We can express our opinion, but it's up to the people of Lithuania to decide what they want to do,” he added.