Lithuania’s parliament found energy this month not only for budget cuts to keep a financial crisis at bay but also for a strong stand on family values which challenges the status quo in the European Union and has sparked an uproar in the international community. Lawmakers in the Baltic nation’s 141-member chamber on July 14 voted 89-6 to adopt a Law on the Protection of Minors, which limits the propagation of information that could be harmful to young people. Alongside examples like graphic violence, instructions on how to make explosives, presentation of drug use in a positive light and pornography, the law also restricts information “which promotes homosexual, bisexual, and polygamous relations.”
Accusations of “homophobia” and “human rights” violations were swift to arrive. Amnesty International rushed out a condemnation, saying the legislation was “part of a growing climate of intimidation and discrimination in Lithuania against lesbians, gay men and bisexual and transgender people” and “denies the right to freedom of expression and deprives students of access to the support and protection they may need.” Sweden, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency, also weighed in. Its ambassador raised the issue during the new Lithuanian president’s first meeting with the diplomatic community, lamenting that the law equated homosexuality with violence and drugs as social ills.
In fact, to pass the law the ruling coalition had to override a veto by the outgoing president, and the new one signed it reluctantly, noting the constitution gave her no choice. Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius insists the law does not violate anyone’s rights. To make that clearer, he proposes banning the promotion of any type of sexual relations among minors. While the local media has echoed outcries by gay rights groups, the Lithuanian public largely sides with Kubilius and his government on this matter. They resent the international pressures that go against their common sense.
A recent attempt to introduce a fairy tale about two princes falling in love into the curriculum for kindergartens sparked a national scandal that helped encourage the new legislation. Many in the nation of 3.3 million people, the majority of whom are Catholic, find the restrictions reasonable and balanced. After all, they also prohibit degrading or ridiculing people on the basis of their sexual orientation. As one witty blogger put it: “We’re more tolerant than most – we even tolerate those who don’t want to promote gays.”
The debate fits in well with the message embedded in the very title of Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate: charity, love of one’s neighbour, the desire to do him or her good, is only authentic when it seeks and accepts the truth of what really is good for one’s neighbour and for society at large. What goes by the name of “tolerance” so often is a misguided sort of “charity”, a desire to respect and do good to others, such as homosexual persons, without taking the trouble to study what truly could help them lead happy and fulfilled human lives. Perhaps the best thing we can do for them is to honestly warn that they seem to be on a dead-end road, or one that ends in a precipice, and recommend a change of course.
That is not saying “you’re bad”. Nor is it rejecting their freedom to disagree and keep living as they are. But it is very different than withholding judgment or even patting them on the back and presenting theirs as a lifestyle that’s just as good as any other. More often than not, such tolerance is not a form of charity but a form of indifference to the welfare of others, and to what can or can’t lead to human happiness and fulfilment. At best it is pessimism regarding human ability to understand reality. At worst, it is an easy way out, avoiding critical analysis and avoiding personal responsibility for the welfare of other people.
One Lithuanian psychiatrist, whose views a local news portal declined to publish, expressed frustration over the widespread inability or avoidance of rational public discussion on issues like homosexuality and abortion which have a scientific, objective side to them. Indeed, there are identifiable psychological, medical and social causes and effects for such behaviour, and there are also ways to mitigate them. Politicians often hide behind emotional ideological slogans, which the media repeats until it is taken as truth; if you don’t agree, you have no right to speak.
Lithuania also made the news in June 2008 when parliament passed legislation to define “family” as the married union of a man and a woman together with their children, adopted or biological. The point was key in terms of who gets the money the state earmarks to support families. Interestingly, that took place under a different ruling coalition. Politicians from a variety of parties here follow their electorate in stressing common sense over questionable ideologies on family-policy issues, particularly in light of current low birth rates and high emigration. They see a crucial need to support healthy, growing families that help keep their nation on the map, and cannot afford to give the scarce funds available to other types of unions.
The neighbouring state of Latvia has also confirmed that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Both small nations regained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s joined the European Union in 2004 and have repeatedly been criticised by EU peers for institutionalized homophobia, particularly when their cities ban gay pride parades or downplay EU programmes to foster tolerance for homosexuality.
The EU claims to be about shared values, and not just any values, but values which are worth valuing. Lithuania can be proud that it is raising such values issues in today’s Europe, much as it is proud of its political and military contributions to spreading democracy in places like Afghanistan, Georgia and Ukraine. The country is forcing its older EU peers, and others around the world, to give deeper thought and discussion to issues which are far from clear-cut and have an immense impact on society and individuals.
Bryan P. Bradley is an American-born freelance writer based in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he has lived and worked since 1994. He has reported on economic, political and cultural issues in the Baltic region for a number of international news agencies, including Bloomberg and Reuters.