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Gay Lithuania filmmaker uses work to advance LGBTQ, intersex rights

Romas Zabarauskas came out in 2011 at Vilnius Film Festival

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Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)

A gay filmmaker from Lithuania who describes himself as the “Baltic enfant terrible” uses his work to promote LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Romas Zabarauskas, 32, grew up in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

He told the Washington Blade during an interview in D.C. in August that he initially wanted to be an actor, but soon realized he wanted to direct films. 

Zabarauskas said the classic films — including John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” and Douglas Sirk’s “All that Heaven Allows” —he watched in a local library exposed him to “the diversity of the world.” He also said Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Gregg Araki and other LGBTQ and intersex filmmakers “inspired” him.

“I enjoyed the diversity of the world,” he said. “It wasn’t just in terms of sexuality and gender identity, but also in terms of diversity of styles and ways of expression. It was amazing because it made me feel accepted.”

“It all sounds kind of trivial, but it’s true,” added Zabarauskas. “Cinema captures stories from all across the world in such different ways. That’s kind of amazing. I was definitely inspired by that.”

Zabarauskas studied at Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis University from 2009-2011 and at City College of New York: Hunter College from 2011-2012.

Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)

Zabarauskas’ first film, “Porno Melodrama,” which details a gay man’s decision to make a pornographic movie with his ex-girlfriend in order to make enough money for him and his boyfriend to leave Lithuania, premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2011.

“There are many other films that have this kind of paranoia about gay villains, queer villains. I almost wanted to do something opposite,” Zabarauskas told the Blade while discussing the film. “It’s as though heterosexuality becomes this villain through the character of this villain, this ex-girlfriend. I wanted to play with that, allow myself that freedom to go very far. The title really hints more so, not to the erotic aspect of the film, because it’s not as explicit reality, but it’s more about the style of the film because it’s so out there.”

“Porno Melodrama” (Poster courtesy of Romas Zabarauskas)

Zabarauskas came out as gay during “Porno Melodrama”‘s premiere at the Vilnius Film Festival.

“Very few people were out (in Lithuania) then in 2011,” he noted. “I got a lot of media attention … I talked about what it means to be gay on TV, print and all kinds of media.”

“It was a double-edged sword,” added Zabarauskas. “I was happy to contribute with my openness and I continue to do so today. On the other hand, I got so much pressure … the direct homophobia is understandable and easy to dissect. You know what it is, but then there was a lot of gray zone. I feel like I was trapped. I went under this huge scrutiny.”

The Berlin Film Festival then screened “Porno Melodrama.” 

“I traveled the world, but then because I got so much media attention in Lithuania I was scrutinized by the critics and by film lovers and a lot of people (said) that I’m more of an activist,” said Zabarauskas. “I’m more of a public speaker than a filmmaker. The way I see it: Artists should be engaged or can be engaged, and it doesn’t contradict the art.”

The Lithuanian Film Center funded Zabarauskas’ third feature film, “The Lawyer,” which debuted in 2020.

“The Lawyer” highlights Marius, a gay corporate lawyer who forms what Zabarauskas describes as “an unexpected, human relationship” with Ali, Syrian refugee who is unable to leave Belgrade, Serbia, after his estranged father dies. Zabarauskas noted to the Blade that “The Lawyer” is the first Lithuanian film that portrays a male same-sex relationships and is one of the few made in Eastern Europe that shows LGBTQ and intersex refugees.

“I’m always interested in delving into very complicated political situations, but rather than to educate or send a direct message, I’m looking to find nuance and I’m looking to find interesting human drama,” he said. “I also don’t shy away from the kind of dialogue that they [Marius and Ali] have, in which they criticize [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. It’s so important not to forget that that was still ongoing and actually its fueled by Russia and by Putin.”

Lithuanian television showed “The Lawyer” for the first time on Nov. 11.

Lithuanian Shorts, in 2021 screened “Porno Melodrama,” which coincided with the film’s revival. Zabarauskas’ films have also been screened at the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival and at New York City Pride’s human rights conference.

“The Lawyer” (Flyer courtesy of Romas Zabarauskas)

Zabarauskas spoke with the Blade nearly six months after Russia began its war against Ukraine.

Lithuania borders the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, a year before it dissolved.

Zabarauskas noted then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė in 2014 labeled Russia a “terrorist state” after it annexed Crimea. Lithuanian MPs in May unanimously approved a resolution that described Russia’s war against Ukraine as an “act of genocide.”

“It’s the first time that I can be so proud of my country,” Zabarauskas told the Blade, referring to Lithuania’s posture towards Russia. “I’m actually very proud that Lithuania is right in terms of its foreign policy towards Russia and has been for a while.”

Zabarauskas acknowledged there is “fear” among Lithuanians about whether Russia will target their country, but he said, “that primal fear isn’t there anymore.” Zabarauskas also noted Lithuanians have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes.

“That’s been inspiring,” he said.

Gay U.S. ambassador ‘setting a personal example’

Lithuania bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and has lifted restrictions for male blood donors who have sex with men. Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for LGBTQ and intersex rights, is among the more than 15,000 people who attended Baltic Pride 2022 in Vilnius in June. 

Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, the country’s second openly gay MP, is running to become Vilnius’ next mayor in 2023. Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Audra Plepytė met with Zabarauskas when he was in D.C. 

“Us artists, we have this opportunity to build bridges, to make pressure,” said Zabarauskas. “We sometimes have more freedom than politicians in what we can say and what we can do. I always try to use that in meeting diplomats and politicians and reminding them that the Lithuania LGBT+ is a part of Lithuanian society and we should celebrate our rights and our lives and that’s important.”

Baltic Pride 2022 took place in Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 4, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius)

The Harvey Milk Foundation in 2021 honored Zabarauskas for his work. Zabarauskas noted this recognition to the Blade and applauded openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Bob Gilchrist’s “personal leadership” on LGBTQ and intersex rights.

“I appreciate his leadership and I appreciate that he’s setting a personal example,” said Zabarauskas. “He’s making some impactful speeches at different events.”

Lithuania is one of only six European Union member states that do not legally recognize same-sex couples.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky in August announced his support for a civil partnership law for same-sex couples. Zabarauskas told the Blade he hopes Lithuanian lawmakers will follow the Ukrainian president’s lead and back an identical measure that has been introduced in Parliament.

“It’s so huge and a lot of people are inspired by those words, including in Lithuania,” said Zabarauskas. “I think it will be impactful in terms of our chances to get the civil unions law passed because it’s going to be very difficult to twist those words.”

Zabarauskas also said he and his fiancé want to get married in Lithuania.

“We got engaged earlier this year and we don’t want to get married abroad because it wouldn’t change anything in Lithuania,” he said.

Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)
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European Union

Greek lawmakers approve marriage equality bill

Greece is first Christian Orthodox county to allow same-sex couples to marry

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(Bigstock photo)

Lawmakers in Greece on Thursday approved a bill that extends marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples.

The Associated Press reported 176 out of the 300 members of the Greek Parliament voted for the bill that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ center-right government wrote. Greece will become the first Orthodox Christian country to allow same-sex couples to legally marry, even though the Greek Church strongly opposed the bill. 

“This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today’s Greece — a progressive, and democratic country, passionately committed to European values,” said Mitsotakis in an X post.

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European Union

Gabriel Attal becomes first openly gay French prime minister

Former education minister, 34, succeeds Élisabeth Borne

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French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal (Screen capture via Le Huffington Post YouTube)

Gabriel Attal on Tuesday became France’s youngest and first openly gay prime minister.

President Emmanuel Macron appointed Attal to succeed Élisabeth Borne as he continues to reshuffle his government ahead of European elections that will take place in June. 

Attal, 34, was a government spokesperson before Macron appointed him the country’s education minister last year. Attal’s father is a Tunisian Jewish man.

“I know I can count on your energy and your commitment to implement the rearmament and regeneration project that I have announced,” said Macron on X.

Attal in his own X post thanked Macron for “your confidence.”

“I appreciate the honor given to me to be appointed prime minister,” said Attal.

“One goal: Keep control of our destiny, unleash French potential and rearm our country,” he added. “At work, with strength, humility and without taboos in the service of the French people.”  

LGBTQ+ Victory Institute President Annise Parker in a statement applauded Attal’s appointment.

“At a time when our rights are under attack across the globe, France is sending a powerful statement by appointing its first out LGBTQ+ prime minister — one of the highest-ranking positions held by an LGBTQ+ person anywhere in the world,” said Parker. “Democracies are stronger when LGBTQ+ people can participate at every level of government and Prime Minister Attal’s appointment will inspire even more LGBTQ+ people to consider public service.”

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Hungarian magazine places gay married couple with their baby on cover

Elle Hungary defended decision

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Elle Hungary has featured a gay marriedcouple and their daughter on its cover. (Photo courtesy of Elle Hungary)

The September issue of fashion and culture magazine Elle Hungary features a prominent gay married couple with their infant child on the cover. 

While seemingly innocuous, the photograph of Hungarian restaurateur Hubert Hlatky Schlichter and his neurosurgeon husband Laszlo Szegedi kissing their daughter Hannabel is in open defiance of the homophobic government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

On June 15, 2021, a Hungarian law purportedly aiming at taking stricter action against pedophile offenders and amending certain laws to protect children was adopted. Some of the new provisions target and limit the access of minors to content and advertisements that “promotes or portrays” the so-called “divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality.”

Orbán has been criticised by international human rights groups as discriminating against LGBTQ people with this law which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called a “disgrace.”

Orbán, who has publicly proclaimed that he is a “defender of traditional family Catholic values,” has been criticized by international human rights groups as discriminating against LGBTQ people.

Publishing the cover on its Instagram account Monday, Elle Hungary stated that the magazine’s intention was to “contribute to the acceptance of rainbow families” and help the publication to “campaign all over the country for love and all forms of family.”

(Translated from Hungarian):

Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, caring and supportive environment, and no one can prevent that because of their parents’ gender identity or sexual orientation.

On the cover of our latest issue, we present a Hungarian rainbow family: we can get to know the story of their becoming a family, their honest and loving everyday life with their little girl, Hannabell. Hubert Hlatky-Schlichter and Dr. László Szegedi confess honestly about the difficulties and prejudices they had to face as a gay couple at home and how fate-changing the arrival of their daughter was for them. With their story, we want to send a message to everyone who has felt that they or their loved ones have been attacked more recently: You are not alone, and there is a positive scenario!

We hope that with our current issue, even if on a small scale, we contribute to the acceptance of rainbow families, and manage to give inspiration, encouragement and support to the many thousands of readers who share the same values with us. The slogan of our cover page sums up our message beautifully: Born From Love, because families, regardless of their structure, are rooted in deep, unconditional love. Join the conversation by using the hashtag #BornFromLove to campaign for all forms of love and family across the country!

In the featured article written by Elle Hungary Editor-in-Chief Vivien Mádai that accompanies the cover, the couple discussed the division of parental roles, and candidly about discrimination they’ve faced in Hungary, particularly as they welcomed their infant daughter into the world.

PinkNewsUK noted that while a same-sex couple featured on a British or U.S.-based magazine would seem innocuous, in Hungary, it marks a landmark step for positive queer representation in the media.

On Instagram, the magazine’s comment section has been flooded with people celebrating the cover.

This past April, Hungarian President Katalin Novak vetoed a legislation that included a provision for citizens to anonymously report on same-sex couples who are raising children. In a rare departure from the policies of Orbán whom she generally supports, Novak returned the bill to Parliament telling lawmakers to strike that provision.

The country’s constitution states that the institution of marriage is “between one man and one woman,” and notes that “the mother is a woman, the father a man.”

This law’s passage and Novak’s veto came after the country’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling in February that will continue to block new applications from transgender people for legal gender recognition. The judgment effectively creates two categories of trans people in Hungary: those who applied early enough to pursue gender recognition and those who did not.

A spokesperson for the German government told the media earlier this year that Germany and France joined with other EU member states in the European Commission lawsuit over a Hungarian law which discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The move by Elle to feature the gay couple on its cover follows a July incident where Hungary’s second-largest bookstore chain was fined for violating the nation’s 2021 law that limits the access of minors to books, media content and advertisements that “promotes or portrays” the so-called “divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality.”

The chain was fined for selling copies of British author Alice Oseman’s LGBTQ graphic novel series “Heartstopper,” a global phenomena due to the runaway hit Netflix show based on her books in the series.

The Budapest Metropolitan Government Office fined Lira Konyv bookstore chain for placing the book series in its youth literature section, and for failing to place it in wrapped plastic packaging as required by the 2021 law.

The bookstore chain was fined 12 million forints ($33171.59.)

The French daily afternoon newspaper Le Monde reported that as a result, bookshops have decided that books deemed “sensitive” must be wrapped in plastic or moved them to the adult section, if they have not decided to refrain from selling them altogether.

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