Keeping the heat on

Obama's success - like Bill Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and

Dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, Obama braved the cold rain falling in Pennsylvania today, and held his scheduled rally - outdoors. “A little bit of rain never hurt anybody,” he said to the thousands who showed up as he embraced the weather conditions.

“I just want all of you to know if we see this kind of dedication on election day – there is no way that we’re not going to bring change to America,” he said as the soggy crowd cheered.

Obama delivered his “closing argument” speech in full - even though his teleprompter seemed to give out midway due to the rain. Glancing down at a hard copy of the speech on the podium, he began the speech, summarising and contextualising the themes of his campaign since it began 21 months ago.

Obama’s remarks drive home one of the under-appreciated aspects of this amazing campaign: The similarities between Obama and Bill Clinton, and between their respective readings of the electorates each man sought to win over.

The speech showed, again, that Obama rivals (and perhaps surpasses) Clinton as one of the great public communicators of the last few decades. But their similarities run deeper. Obama's success - like Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and of what it's looking for in its next leader. Crucially, Clinton sensed that the electorate was looking for a clear signal from its next President on just how the nation would be moved from the 20th Century to the 21st at a time of rapid global change.

As his speech makes clear, Obama's reading of the electorate is in some way very similar today to Clinton’s 16 years ago. In the speech, Obama revisited his decision to run for President against tremendous odds, and alluded to the drift he sensed - as did Clinton - among voters.

"We weren't given much of a chance by the polls or the pundits, and we knew how steep our climb would be," Obama said. "But I also knew this. I knew that the size of our challenges had outgrown the smallness of our politics. I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas, new leadership, and a new kind of politics - one that favours common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals we hold in common as Americans."

"Twenty-one months later, my faith in the American people has been vindicated," Obama added.

If Obama should win he will have outworked McCain in a similar fashion to the way Clinton outmanoeuvred Bush Sr. Like Clinton, Obama has sensed that the electorate is looking for something larger than a set of policies or personal attributes. Unlike McCain, who has proven utterly incapable of grasping the public mood on so many levels, Obama has sensed that the electorate wants to know how we will remake our politics - domestic and international - for the next century.

Clinton famously envisaged his presidency as a "bridge" from the 20th to the 21st centuries in terms of keeping America at pace with globalisation. Obama is presenting his presidency as Act II in that drama - now that we've crossed Clinton's "bridge," he is promising to transform politics in kind. In essence, Obama is promising a true 21st Century politics.

"As I've said from the day we began this journey all those months ago, the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies," Obama said. "In this election, we cannot afford the same political games and tactics that are being used to pit us against one another and make us afraid of one another. The stakes are too high to divide us by class and region and background; by who we are or what we believe."

Obama has sensed this state of affairs for years. Today's message, really, hasn't changed much from the vision Obama articulated in his famous 2004 convention speech. It just took a while for Obama to come within real striking distance of implementing it.

In what is likely to be his final campaign event in Pennsylvania, Obama urged his supporters to be as resolute in the coming days as they were today, braving the elements and keeping their eyes firmly on the possibility of victory next week.

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

0800 7318496