The pursuit of freedom by Russia’s LGBT community

(Photo credit: VK)

Homophobia is often a word that comes to mind when one speaks about Russia’s culture or standards. Violence, humiliation, omission, persecution, and even a governmental law that affects all the LGBT community are some of the reasons why the group feels, above all, fear of being who they are, and sometimes decide to leave their country for good

“I became a target for being me and for not hiding myself, I had to live in fear.” This confession is from Lyosha Gorshkova, 31, a Russian homosexual currently seeking asylum in the US after being persecuted and threatened in his home country. “I don’t plan to ever go back,” he admitted. Having lived in New York since 2014, Lyosha is now awaiting a decision from American authorities on his application for residency in the US.

After receiving a degree in political science, Lyosha worked as a college professor at Perm State National Research University where he helped organise a centre for gender studies back in 2010. He says he was one of the first who aimed to raise awareness on LGBT issues in the region of Perm where he lived at the time. But his work caught the attention of homophobic groups, and threats — already a part of his life — were becoming a reality. “I was chased on the streets several times, I received phone calls with death threats and my social networks were full of terrible messages.”

After moving out of his apartment and into hiding, Lyosha bought a ticket to visit a friend in the US and never came back. “I resigned from my job after I got to America because I feared I didn’t have much time left in Russia.” He now runs a support group for Russian citizens who seek asylum in the US.

Lyosha is one of many who have endured widespread hate and fear against the LGBT community, promoted by the Russian government’s anti-gay policies. As a result, Western governments and gays rights advocates have heavily criticised the country, especially after the implementation of a 2013 ‘anti-gay propaganda law’ — which forbids the promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors — was signed by president Vladimir Putin.

Lyosha Gorshkova sharing his story at the Unitarian Church of New York (2016)

According to the NGO LGBT Network and experts on LGBT causes, Russia has seen a rise in cases of violence after the law was passed. The country has witnessed an increase in attacks by vigilante groups and individuals against LGBT people and activists over the past two years. Homophobic groups have used the law as a justification to harass and intimidate teachers, and to resort to physical violence in common situations, particularly in public demonstrations.

According to Tanya Cooper, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Russia and Ukraine, levels of homophobia would not be so high if the government did not use it as a tool to consolidate a conservative support base. “They socially promote anti-LGBT feeling, unacceptance of their lifestyle and relations as a distraction to prevent people from looking at other issues, such as the social and economic problems,” the expert believes.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s tight grip over the media serves as an important ally in perpetuating homophobia. Even in 2016, large disparities remain in the level of access to the internet between Russia’s big cities and its rural areas, where people rely mostly on television. Even if some citizens have access to more information, they do not necessarily seek alternative sources because they rely too much on Russian media. “This homophobia is rather artificial; it started as an artificial sentiment, heavily disseminated in TV, press, everywhere. When you hear something a lot of times, you start believing it,” adds Tanya.

Licence to harm

In a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch on violence against Russia’s LGBT community, the group detailed the extent of the problem using dozens of detailed interviews with LGBT people and activists in 16 cities across the country. Most of the interviewees who claimed to have suffered from physical or psychological violence said that these problems have intensified since 2013.

The report exposed the many forms which violence against Russia’s LGBT community can take, with interviewees describing beatings, abductions, humiliation and verbal abuse, including being called ‘pedophiles’ or ‘perverts’, either by homophobic vigilante groups or by strangers on the subway. These attacks were said to occur on the street, at nightclubs, at cafes, and in one case, at a job interview.

Despite Russia’s laws against hate crimes, most victims do not report incidents out of fear of harassment by the police themselves. In the few cases where the victim actually registered a police report, they were accused of provoking the aggressor and the investigation never progressed. In other cases the crime was prosecuted not as a hate crime, but as common crime, such as hooliganism or assault and battery.

According to the report, only three of the 44 cases in which victims filed a police report led to a prosecution. At least two of the attackers in these cases were convicted but their sentences did not reflect the gravity of harm to their victims.

Religion also plays an active role on discrimination against LGBT people,with some leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church making publicly statements against homosexuals, reinforcing and fueling existing sentiments. Priests have often expressed that homosexuality should be banned at any cost. One example is the actor and priest Ivan Okhlobystin, who in 2013 notedly suggested that homosexuals should be burned alive.

Discrimination in the workplace

In 2013, Magnitogorsk public school teacher Olga Bakhaeva was forced to resign from her job after defending a homosexual man on social media. She claims to have suffered threats, defamation and prejudice from the school where she worked as well as from outsiders.

“It all started when someone made a post in this social network criticising the dismissal of a teacher after he came out as a homosexual and I made a comment supporting the teacher in question. Some random homophobic man saw on my profile that I was a teacher and started to send me messages telling to me quit my job.”

It wasn’t long before the matter hit the press. Journalists called the school looking for Olga to hear her side of the story. She says that was the moment when she really realised how serious it had become. “The situation got unbearable. I was suffering from every corner. [My employers] made me clean the bathrooms and publicly humiliated me, so I figured there was no way I could safely remain in the job and asked for my resignation.”

Olga decided to move to St Petersburg shortly after and now, at the age of 27, is one of the city’s most vocal LGBT activists. Although she admits the LGBT movement in Russia still faces a lot of challenges, she says she doesn’t regret her decision because now she can live freely. “Going back to teaching means going back to the closet, and that is not what I want for my life anymore.”

Olga Bakhaeva at the Rainbow Mayday March in St Petersburg (2015)

A history of violence

Persecution of LGBT people in Russia is neither new nor exclusive to the Putin administration. Russia’s homophobic roots date back to imperial Russia, where homosexuality was punishable by religious authorities or militias. Like most other Christian denominations at the time, the Eastern Orthodox Church used religious criteria to persecute gays and lesbians.

In 1716, Peter the Great banned homosexuality in the armed forces; 16 years later, Nicholas I added an outlawing sodomy with a sentence of up to five years in Siberia.

However, it was under Stalin’s rule that homosexuality was labeled as a disease in the name of protecting minors, preceding the Putin administration’s decree. Sex between men became a criminal offense in 1934 also punishable by up to five years of imprisonment.

The situation for the LGBT community improved during the 90s and 2000s — as a number of gay people were seen appearing in show business, gay clubs were created, homosexuality was formally removed from the list of Russian mental disorders, along with the founding of the Russian LGBT Network, the first and only interregional LGBT organisation in Russia.

The model of traditional family and a culture of strong-handed patriarchy, however, continues to hold a major place in modern Russian culture. Homosexuality or any lifestyles considered ‘unusual’ are perceived as a potential disruption to the system.

Where will it end?

Even with the barriers imposed by Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, it is still possible to find places and people willing to offer support and assistance for the LGBT community. St Petersburg is home to a number of brave organisations and support groups.

The Russian LGBT Network is a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting LGBT people with psychological and legal assistance. Created in 2006, the network provides a hotline and an online chat service for those who find themselves struggling and in need of professional help. The organisation also offers legal assistance in some cases.

According to the Network’s communications manager, Svetlana Zakharova, more people have sought assistance after the anti-gay propaganda law came into effect three years ago. “Psychological violence is widespread. We have an online survey in which we ask people if they suffered any kind of violence or discrimination last year and we can see the numbers are growing, hitting 60 percent of those surveyed,” says Zakharova.

So far, the Network has managed to help over 1,000 people, but not all cases are manageable, she adds. “There are many cases involving children and, even though most of them are sad, the cases are quite often helpless, because the child is under custody, so we cannot intervene. Sometimes we try to go to social services, but here (in Russia) they are not so effective.”

Many citizens also feel the need for more support groups in Russia. English teacher Aleksei Mazurov, 33, runs a leisure group called “Здесь хорошо” (Here is good) for LGBT teenagers and young adults who want to meet with others and engage in activities, like study languages, movies, cooking and poetry.

According to Aleksei, the goal is to offer a friendly and open environment for those who do not find support from relatives at home. “The participants develop their self-esteem, humour, ability to take initiative.”

“The police came to our last meeting, found some posters we had and took me to the police station, where I was kept for many hours, before being released. They told the owner of the place I was renting about the meetings we were making, that illicit activities took place in there, so we cannot meet there anymore. But even with so many setbacks, we will keep doing it.”

(Photo credit: Thiago Jacques)
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