Challenge for Gay Rights in Russia

Western Mainstream Media

A Terrible Time to Be Gay in Russia

By    August 1, 2013  published in The New Yorker


Most of St. Petersburg seems to have taken off for the dacha, but Monday afternoon found Manny de Guerre and Gulya Sultanova ensconced in their tiny office by the train station, rainbow-colored blinds drawn against the fabulously sunny day outside. The two women had plenty to do: on Friday, organizers of Side by Side, Russia’s first L.G.B.T. film festival, lost their appeal in a St. Petersburg district court. Under a law signed by Putin last year, the festival—which has been running since 2008—was fined four hundred thousand rubles for failing to register in Russia as a “foreign agent.”

The decision makes Side by Side one of the most harshly penalized nonprofits under the foreign-agents law, which requires N.G.O.s receiving international funding to formally identify themselves as something akin to spies. Never mind that—as the festival’s lawyers argued—the grant that Side by Side received last year from the Dutch consulate had been spent before the new law, which isn’t supposed to be retroactive, went into effect on November 21st. Or that the raid conducted in March on Side by Side, along with scores of N.G.O.s across the country, was rife with irregularities. Or that the foreign-agents law is of questionable constitutionality. Or that the so-called “political activity” the film festival failed to report consisted mainly of pamphlets dealing with issues like how to come out, L.G.B.T. history in Russia, and lists of suggested non-derogatory vocabulary for independent journalists to substitute for “blue boys,” “pink girls,” and “homosexualists” in their writing.

“The main problem,” said Sultanova, a slight woman with close-cropped hair and a ballerina’s posture who is the festival’s director, “is that the state can do anything it wants.” “We’ve got used to it,” said de Guerre, who founded the festival. “Unfortunately.”

De Guerre, who is British, first came to Russia in the mid-nineties to research her Ph.D. on the social significance of Russian rock music. Travelling around the country, she met a number of closeted men and women. “Being a lesbian myself, it was obviously interesting for me to get acquainted with people in the L.G.B.T. community,” she said. While homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1993, “there was a lot of homophobia, a lot of people living double lives.”

She moved to St. Petersburg permanently a few years later and, in 2007, decided to start the film festival with a friend. “It was an idea I had always had,” she said. “I saw these festivals in other places, and thought we should have one, too. I didn’t think it would be such a problem—I guess we were a little naïve.” Days before the first festival, in 2008, all the venues that had agreed to hold screenings were shut down for mysterious fire-code violations. The festival took place anyway, in last-minute locations whose addresses were communicated via text message. “People came from Moscow,” said de Guerre. “There was nothing like this in Russia.” After that, things in St. Petersburg ran smoothly for the next several years. While Side by Side was banned four more times as it expanded to the provinces, the film festival nonetheless found homes in far-flung places like Novosibirsk and Archangel.

De Guerre said that the event helps fill a void in Russian culture, which is still deeply homophobic and where, until recently, homosexuality was rarely discussed. “We get e-mails like, ‘I came to the festival and afterward, I went home and came out. It was a difficult coming out, but the festival gave me the strength,’ ” she said. “Thirty per cent of our audience is straight, and they say the festival is a really valuable source of information. Otherwise, there’s only state-run TV, which is full of rubbish stereotypes. It’s important to people to have other images of what it is to be lesbian or gay.”

This statement drew a nod of assent from Zhanna Yurieva. She’s twenty-five and had always loved women but didn’t realize same-sex relationships were possible before she found a lesbian community in her hometown of Nizhny Novgorod on the Internet. A bubbly legal assistant, Yurieva said she volunteers at the festival because she feels that a more open dialogue in Russia would open the minds of people like her girlfriend’s father, who believes his daughter is ill. “As a loving parent, he thinks he needs to protect her from herself,” she said, her bright smile dimming briefly. “I think he could change. But he needs help.”

By 2012, the festival was drawing more than two thousand people to St. Petersburg; some screenings were held in mainstream cinemas. “They even had our posters up outside,” de Guerre said, a little wistfully. Now, under the “gay-propaganda” law, which makes providing information about homosexuality to minors a punishable offense, the posters—and perhaps a good deal more—are a thing of the past. “We don’t know if our Web site will fall under the new law,” said de Guerre, noting that a Dutch documentary-film team who had visited the Side by Side office a few weeks earlier was detained by police in Murmansk shortly thereafter, and accused of violating the propaganda law.

Attendance at Side by Side’s third festival in the Siberian city of Tomsk, which coincided with the first day the propaganda law took effect, on June 30th, was also way down. “People were frightened,” said de Guerre, “There are the same biases here as there were in the U.K. or the U.S. in the nineteen-fifties or sixties.” “The difference is that we are living in a totalitarian country,” interjected Sultanova. “In other countries, you had the possibility to speak out. Maybe we will not have that possibility. At all.”

Thanks largely, but not exclusively, to international donations, it looks like Side by Side will be able to raise the funds to pay the foreign-agents fine. But the situation is dark. Taking a break from phone calls and e-mails, Sultanova and de Guerre rattled off a hair-raising list of recent events that they see as the result of the government’s new homophobic rhetoric and legislation, including a Siberian lawmaker’s proposal to allow Cossacks to conduct public whippings (one gay-rights activist joked that he thought that was fine, as long as corrupt deputies have their hands cut off), and a practice in which right-wing nationalists use the Internet to lure teen-age boys on dates, brutally “reëducate” them, and post videos of it online. “It’s getting more dangerous in the last three or four months, absolutely,” said Sultanova.

Nonetheless, she has no intention of giving up. “I grew up in the Soviet time,” said Sultanova, sitting back in her office chair. “When I was fifteen, I fell in love with a woman. It was a horror for me. Of course I couldn’t say anything to that person, or to my family. For me, it was like an illness. This was the early nineties, and there was absolutely no information about homosexuality. I had a very heavy inner homophobia.” While studying German, she came across literature that gave her a different perspective on homosexuality, and toward the end of the nineties, she had found an underground community. “I wanted to do something for people like me,” she said. “Other people said, ‘You can do nothing. It’s Russia. No one cares.’ ” Eventually, she met some like-minded activists, and was able to come out to her family. “I became an open person. It was very healthy, physically and psychologically.”

While many in her circle are thinking of emigrating, Sultanova said that would be the last recourse for her. “I think it’s important to hold on here until the end—when the danger of imprisonment is absolutely realistic. I don’t want to leave Russia. My family is here, and my friends. When all the active people leave Russia, there’s no chance.”

Gay-rights activists at a rally in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP.


Eastern and Alternative Views

Statement by the Patriarch, saying that same-sex marriage heralds the end of the world

July 22, 2013

Edict adopted by the Patriarch that links the legalization of same-sex marriage with the coming of the Apocalypse, is intended to distract the Russians from the problems in the country. This is the view expressed by journalists of the newspaper The New York Times. They believe that both the government and the Church target sexual minorities to distract Russians from serious problems in domestic politics, said the radio “Kommersant-FM” dedicated to the ROC Sunday sermon, which he delivered the day before in the Kazan Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow.

 Recall that Patriarch Kirill, addressing the faithful at the solemn divine service on the day of our Lady of Kazan icon, called “laws imposed by the minority … a very dangerous symptom of the apocalypse”. He urged listeners to do everything “to ensure that Holy Russia never sins and no such law ever gets approved by the State. Because it means that the people of such [laws and changes] step on the road to self-destruction. “

The word Patriarch came three weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a high-profile laws to protect the feelings of believers and the protection of children from gay propaganda. For propagation of fines can be as high as 1 million rubles, and on article for offending believers in prison can be up to three years.

But the Patriarch underlined that laws alone are not enough. “We know that any, even the most perfect law could not eradicate crime, corruption, evil, lying, confrontation-they can eliminate only the person who made the choice in favor of good,” said the head of the ROC.

Political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky, whose radio station Kommersant FM was asked to comment on the words of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has expressed disagreement with the Patriarch.

“It is a quite strange thing to say in the sense that there are no localized Apocalypse, humanity is one.  It seems strange to me to predict the Apocalypse coming only to a single country. But Cyril ‘knows better’. Just the actual point of view of humanity being threatened, what the Patriarch said is nonsense… and those people who are homosexual by nature, and they are such – recognize these marriages or do not recognize” – stated the radio station that Radzihovskogo leads.

However, the “Kommersant-FM” notes, the Primate of the Russian church is not the only religious leader who criticized gay marriage. Pope Benedict XVI on 2012 year that such unions threatened with euthanasia.

In some churches accept same-sex unions quietly. In November 2009, the Swedish Lutheran Church was the first to recognize same-sex marriages. It began conducting wedding ceremonies for same-sex partners. In the certificate of marriage the Church instead writes “name of the husband”,  and “wife” was written a “legitimate wife”. However, the church also takes the opinion of the clerics not supporting homosexual marriage into account, and gives the elders of the Church the right to refuse to perform this rite of passage.

At the end of 2010, the Church Council of Finland decided on the establishment of special prayers for entering into formal relationships of same-sex couples, but stressed that it should not contain indications of ecclesiastical rite.

Today, a number of Christian churches in the world do not consider sinful monogamous same-sex unions and allow rites of blessing of same-sex couples. Among them are the Evangelical Church in Germany, Denmark, and Iceland, a Lutheran Church in the United States and Canada.

Fighting the gay fight in Russia: How gay propaganda laws actually only help

Nikolay Alekseyev, President of GayRussia.Ru and Moscow Pride Organizing Committee in Russia Today August 24, 2013

I can hardly be called an admirer of the current Russian government, or a supporter of the recent political and social policy of the Russian authorities.

This comes as no surprise due to the fact that I was arrested many times for peaceful protests and held in dirty police cells. I was beaten in front of the cameras and without them. I have been denied every single application to hold a public event since I started to organize them in 2006. Nevertheless, for more than eight years I have dedicated my entire life to LGBT activism and human rights, trying by all means to avoid any politicizing of the Russian LGBT movement. But since 2005 times have changed.

Our methods originally turned out to be new and effective in this country. Not just protesting homophobia and fighting for LGBT rights at dozens of public events, including the annual banned Moscow Prides, we also found clear and transparent legal means to challenge human rights violations in Russia.

Thus, while the political opposition movement was just protesting on the streets, the Russian Human Rights Project, GayRussia.Ru and the Moscow Pride Organizing Committee sailed all the way through the Russian court system to win the first ever case on LGBT human rights violations in Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. On  October 23, 2010, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that the bans of Moscow Prides in 2006-2008 were contradictory to the European Convention. Surprisingly, this was also the first ECHR verdict on the violations of the right to freedom of assembly in Russia under the current legislation on assemblies. All other cases now pending before the ECHC, including the bans of the marches of fierce opponents of gay rights in Russia, are being tried through the precedent in the case of “Alekseyev v. Russia”.

Participants in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists next to the Yury Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Square in Moscow. The sign reads "Love is Stronger" (RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

Participants in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists next to the Yury Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Square in Moscow. The sign reads “Love is Stronger” (RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

However, that is not all, it was just the beginning. We have always shaped the future of human rights in Russia and our campaigns are aimed at bringing change in future years, even if these changes are a long time coming. But without actions today there is no future tomorrow.

[Read more…]

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