Almost 200 participants are gathering 60 kilometers from Vilnius for Sapfo Fest, Lithuania’s third annual grassroots LBTQI (lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) festival meeting on the grounds of Šironija, a country homestead in Papiškiai, from 25 to 27 July.
© AFP/Scanpix

There, a usually quiet, restored farmhouse in a sunny clearing is buzzing with creative writing workshops, poetry readings, film screenings and lectures on the festival’s theme of identity.

Among the lecturers at the festival is Neringa Dangvydė, a poet, literary critic, and author of a controversial children’s book promoting tolerance of same-sex couples that was removed from Lithuanian bookstores in May 2014.

Dangvydė’s contested work, Amber Heart (Gintarinė širdis), is an anthology of traditional fairy tales retold to include characters of different ethnic backgrounds and skin colours, immigrants, characters with disabilities, same-sex couples, Roma, and other socially vulnerable groups. Dangvydė stressed that her anthology also included heterosexual couples, which she sought to portray equally with same-sex couples.

Dangvydė, through a translator, explained that her intent was “to write about all the communities that suffer from marginalization. I had been working a lot with children’s literature for a while and saw that these books did not exist. I also worked with a lot of different people like disabled children.”

The Lithuanian Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics cited Amber Heart for violating the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, to which Dangvydė said, “I think children should get information about different families and the reality that they exist as early as possible. People should inform children because later, when they realize about the diversity of the world, they will be confused, homophobic.”

The book’s presentation of same-sex couples was deemed unconstitutional for “encouraging the concept of entry into a marriage and creation of a family other than stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania.”

Currently, Amber Heart is only published digitally by Sapfo Fest sponsor, Mano Teisės.

Dangvydė remains optimistic about the future of her work. “I am trying to get this book back into the book stores. I think this situation should encourage lawmakers to think more about the law (for the protection of minors) that bans this literature. If this happens, I will be very happy.”

Dangvydė presented a lecture and a workshop at the festival, the third and largest LQTBI held in Lithuania, on the heels of PiLeFe 2012 and 2013.

Growing participation may reflect wider acceptance and visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said one of the festival’s ten organizers, Jūratė Juškaitė. “Things are relatively better with better representation in the public sphere, especially for gay men. When it comes to women, it is a different story. The lectures and exhibitions will focus more on the discrimination women feel and on women’s identities.”

Within this theme, the festival organizers will continue to promote their overarching aim “to create an empowered LGBT community. To be out and proud is the long-term goal,” said Juškaitė.

Progress towards this goal since Lithuanian independence and the ensuing decriminalization of homosexuality is reflected in festival attendance demographics. “Some of the older generations come to the festival but we don’t expect many of them. I think they feel more threatened. Not that many of them came out. In Soviet times, they grew up in a system that totally oppressed them. My parents lived in a period when homosexuality was a crime, when people were punished for being gay. In Soviet Lithuania, gay men were sent to prison and females were sent to be cured at mental hospitals,” said Juškaitė.

Still, Juškaitė continued, “lots of people who have come were actually scared to come and were asking if the pictures would expose them to the public and if there would be articles about them. This is a huge issue in the community and we want to promote the idea that we don’t have to hide, we don’t have to pretend.”

Participants at the festival can choose whether to enter or to avoid a clearly marked area where photography is allowed.

Sapfo Fest presenters include Goda Klumbytė and Rasa Navickaitė, editors of feminist journal, Dilgėlė, human rights activist Aušrinė Skirmantė, attorney Monika Žalnieriūtė, and Jūratė Bardless, formerly with The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York.

Creative writing workshops, poetry readings and film screenings will be led by Gabrielė Labanauskaitė, poet and playwright; Laima Kreivytė, poet and art critic; and Aistrė Gajauskaitė, art critic.

Sapho Fest is a grass roots effort created by a team of independent organizers. Funding of US$ 1,700 exceeded the organizers' $ 1,000 target. Contributions came from individual sponsors, including human rights activist Vytautas Juodis and novelist Ceri A. Lowe, as well as from NGOs and corporate sponsors, including the Lithuanian Gay League, Gayline.LT, Mano Teises, ILGA Europe, Goethe Institut, Asociacija In Corpore, and Off Stream.

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