Last November, Valdas Gedgaudas, an employee at the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture and an amateur art critic in his spare time, went to see a theatre performance directed by a fairly-known director Gintaras Varnas. Apparently, he didn’t like the show and wrote a damning review which was published in a respected cultural weekly, “Literatūra ir menas” (Literature and Art). While the play was probably intended to attract some controversy, it was the review that sparked a fierce (and not always dignified) debate on the limits of not so much art as art criticism and free speech.
Some background. Varnas, who is a prominent figure in the Lithuanian gay scene, has directed several gay-themed plays before (including “El público” by Federico García Lorca) and his present work is based on Michael MacLennan’s “Beat the Sunset,” a piece from 1993 about homosexuality and AIDS. Meanwhile Gedgaudas is no queer critic or activist (as his review, quoted below, makes more than plain) and does not care for issue plays.
His strongly-worded review – entitled “I’m a faggot, mom! And I’m proud of it!” – enraged Lithuanian left-wing and queer activists, who said it was spiteful, homophobic, and well beyond the limits of respectful criticism. Gedgaudas and his supporters defended the review citing freedom of speech, saying that art criticism is entitled to the same latitude that art is, and that he simply employed the same language that is used in the play (the title of the review is a line uttered by the main character).
Unconvinced, the activists would not leave it at that. One of them, Karolis Klimka, wrote a complaint to the European Social Fund (ESF) Agency, one of the financial sponsors of the weekly that ran the piece, saying that a publication supported by EU funds should be more socially responsible and avoid publishing homophobic articles. Unsurprisingly, the other side at once claimed victimhood and censorship, while the more radical wing found one more occasion to reiterate their oft-repeated mantra that Brussels was threatening to corrupt the morals of god-fearing Lithuanians.
The conclusion of the story seems to have come in January. Director of the European Social Fund Agency, which administers the ESF funds, turned to the Lithuanian Journalists and Publishers Ethics Commission and asked to determine whether or not Gedgaudas’s review breached publishers’ ethics code. The commission ruled: No, it did not.
It would be unfortunate if this was the last word in the story. Is Gedgaudas’s review homophobic? Let’s analyze it and decide (spoiler: oh yes!). Did it breach some formal regulations that are intentionally and justifiably lax so that only in cases when the limits are clearly crossed could a publication be threatened with state action? Who cares! In a perfect world, an editor who signs off on a piece like Gedgaudas’s would be flooded with angry letters from readers threatening to pull their subscriptions if the paper did not tighten up its editorial policies. But things being what they are, it is unfortunate that Lithuanian publishers equate social responsibility with censorship (“I write what I want and fuck you telling me that I can’t, you soviet commies!”).
Let’s turn to the review itself. Gedgaudas is clearly a bit of a purist and his main objection to Varnas’s show is that it is artistically unsatisfying – a fair criticism to make. Moreover, he might be justified in maintaining that issues that were topical in Canada in the early 1990s might have since lost their urgency,making the play seem dated today. But Gedgaudas dislikes the play not because the issues it raises (homosexuality, AIDS) have already been answered and are obvious and banal. On the contrary, he is annoyed that the issues are raised at all. He opens the review thus:
“Before his première of Michael Lewis MacLennan’s play “Beat the Sunset,” theatre director Gintaras Varnas, gay ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, special attaché of the theatrical homosexualist subculture in Lithuania, has proclaimed, in a Machiavellian manner, that homosexuality is still an uncharted topic in Lithuania, something not spoken about, shunned; that the play is of little relevance to Lithuania, speaks as it does about AIDS, which hardly exists here, and gay love, which is also almost non-existent, only the parades are.
“God knows if he’s right about those gay loves, but it would be hard to draw the line beyond which one could safely claim that yes, it is being spoken about. And has been spoken about for a long time and in many ways. Sometimes making one’s years hurt.”
Being a self-respecting moderate homophobe (i.e., one of those who think that if you don’t go about shooting gays dead, it means you are not a homophobe), Gedgaudas is positively repulsed that he should be made listen to things he thinks are non-issues. Homosexuality, he says, is a trite nuisance made big by people that can find no better ways to make themselves seem important.
By calling the director “gay ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, special attaché of the theatrical homosexualist subculture in Lithuania” Gedgaudas is implying that, first, Varnas is making a career out of being gay and, second, that the issue he raises is somehow forced upon the Lithuanian public from without.
The Ethics Commission that analyzed the review paid particular attention to this phrase, wondering if it could be construed as insulting to the director. It could not, the commission finally decided, because “Varnas has publicly stated that he sometimes sort of represents the sexual minorities,” as the commission chairman Linas Slušnys commented. Could it be that the commission completely missed the point? That they thought the potential insult lay not in the derogatory tone of the phrase but in the implication that Varnas could have something at all to do with gays? Here you have it: Being a gay advocate – let alone gay – is something scandalous.
But Gedgaudas is not always as subtle. How goes on to say that
“the protagonist Adam (played by Eimutis Kvoščiauskas), screams, unprompted by anyone, into the face of his mother (played by Dalia Overaitė): “I’m a faggot, mom! And I’m proud of it!” (faggot, I should assume, would be an offensive word if used by a person of different sexual orientation in reference to the radical faggot. In this piece, therefore, […] I will be using a gentler and more moderate term – simply pederast).”
When it comes to offensive language, Gedgaudas was “acquitted” on the basis that his vocabulary is no different from the one used in the play. And he seems to anticipate this charge being levied against him, which he precludes by suggesting it is hypocritical of homosexuals to resent straight people calling them “fags” when they themselves do it. Double standard, he cries, failing to acknowledge the interplay of contexts and words in the production of meaning (one would expect more from a man of letters). To give a well-worn analogy: What’s the difference between the n-word coming from a white person and from a black person? Huge does not even begin to cover it. And as for the proposed “gentler” alternative, “pederast” (pederasty: an erotic homosexual relationship between an adult male and an adolescent male), it is inaccurate, to say the least.
Gedgaudas’s annoyance with the play does not seem to be limited to its inherent artistic merits. The following passages clearly indicate that what he objects to is the main character (who is not just an individual but “represents an era” and his kind) speaking about his sexuality at all and, to add insult to injury, speaking about it without shame:
“Kvoščiauskas’s Adam represents a very concrete era of calamine jerking-off. He finds no difficulty in feeling and nurturing pride in simply being a pederast. It is a natural, innate state, because he probably thinks his sperm-clotted asshole is a national treasure, something to be glorified, celebrated, voted for, something to be prayed and given offerings to.
“Even though there seems little to be proud of here: Adam the pederast has an aggressive form of AIDS, lies in a hospital bed, and sports an oxygen mask – like some knight of the sad dick, as he himself puts it, an experienced blower – and whenever he wakes up, he starts blaming everyone: however well he’s cared for, everything is wrong, because, lo and behold, he doesn’t get enough understanding, support, love, sympathy. Because, following the inner pederast logic of the world, he has a greater claim to all those unmeasurable and ephemeral things relating to human spirituality and emotion. Because he is a pederast (listening all this dirty and delirious homosexual tantrum, one cannot help thinking that perhaps one should first make an effort to be a good person and only then choose whatever specifying sexual category one pleases: faggot, pederast, gay, zoophile, transvestite, lesbian, heterosexual, necrofiliac, or gerontophile; unfortunately, that’s not what “Beat the Sunset” is about).”
It is almost a platitude to point out – so many scholars and writers have done it before – that being simply “a good person” means being a white heterosexual able-bodied middle-class male (like Gedgaudas himself). In other words, sticking to the standards fashioned by and for white heterosexual middle-class males, according to which anyone who is not a white heterosexual middle-class male should be found lacking. It is exactly this oppressive standard that feminist, queer, Marxist criticism and art targets and… God, I’m boring even myself when I have to repeat the things that are known to everyone who even rudimentarily engages with modern criticism (engages, not necessarily agrees).
I also like the following passage, where Gedgaudas shows his utter failure to engage with characters who are unlike himself (I must admit that I haven’t seen the show myself and this failure could be due to bad acting or inept direction; I somehow doubt it, though):
“For almost three hours, these two birds [gay characters], chroniclers of their anuses, purr their copulative song of songs, recounting the sorrows of their love. Much too long, I should say. If promotional materials contained a disclaimer, in red block capitals, that the play was commissioned by the Lithuanian Blood Centre or the AIDS Centre, everything would have made much more sense.”
And in the end, to top it all, Gedgaudas concludes with the well-worn cliché of the “gay agenda”:
“After the performance, as I went out into the night of a November Friday, I felt relieved somewhat: the post office, the telegraph, the stations were in their proper places; everything that was supposed to work, did work, and what the regulations said had to rest, did rest. The queer revolution was not complete yet, the queer dictatorship was not fully established. At least not until Monday. Even though the echoes of parades were already sounding.”
Come to think of it, this review is not insulting to anyone but Gedgaudas himself. Not only is it homophobic – it is superficial, illiterate, and badly written. And it is a compendium of all the homophobic clichés that are currently circulating in the public discourse: “why should we care about gay issues?” “keep your bedroom matters out of my face” “shagging other men/women is nothing to be proud of” “homosexuality = paedophilia = zoophilia” “gays are trying to take over the world!” Clichés that are inexcusable to anyone and downright appalling to an art critic. Gedgaudas, though, puts a twist on the last one: try as they may to take over the world, they don’t stand a chance – it is against the natural order of things, as opposed to the “inner pederast logic of the world.”
On a lighter note, by no means does Gedgaudas represent the entire mainstream media of Lithuania. Soon after his review appeared in “Literatūra ir menas,” fellow writer for the same publication Neringa Mikalauskienė published a reply titled “I’m a lesbian, colleagues, and I’m proud of it.” Kornelijus Platelis, editor-in-chief of the weekly, distanced the publication from Gedgaudas’s views via a Facebook post:
“Dear readers, I understand your indignation about a review by our regular columnist Gedgaudas. In his review of “Beat the Sunset,” the author goes over the top with bitterness and sometimes sounds downright impolite.”
However, Platelis then goes on to invoke the freedom of speech clause and lashes at critics who think that there should not be any place for homophobia in a reputable and publicly-funded paper: “I am surprised by the commentators who long for censorship, who demand to ban things. I guess they are young people who have never experienced censorship first-hand. Wouldn’t it be preferable to write a second review or a response to Gedgaudas’s review? We would gladly run it.”
There will always be radical and spiteful homophobes, but what’s regrettable is that Lithuania’s mainstream media still thinks that giving platform to them equals hearing the other side of the story.