If there’s no freedom of assembly for LGBT, there’s none for anyone else


“Enough is enough – Open your mouth!” Photograph by Marco Fieber.

by Ekaterina Fomina

Life isn’t easy for representatives of Russia’s LGBT community who don’t hide their sexual orientation. A 2013 law on “gay propaganda” has, in effect, legalised LGBT discrimination. Today, when Russian courts examine offences committed against LGBT people, they often do not even establish hate as a motivating factor.

As part of Open Democracy Russia’s series on Russian civic activists (check out other articles here and here), I spoke to Igor Yasin, one of the leaders of the Rainbow Association, an organiser of public meetings in support of LGBT and co-chair of the Union of Journalists, about attitudes towards LGBT in Russia’s regions, why the Russian opposition has a homophobia problem and how to speak about your rights and be heard.

How did you come to activism?

Igor Yasin: I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Egypt, at Cairo University, where I got interested in politics. I first took part in street protest in 2003, in anti-war demonstrations. When I returned to Russia, I decided to figure out what was happening here politically. At that point, I’d already realised left-wing views chimed with mine. I began searching online about organisations and found AKM [Avantgarde of Red Youth, the youth wing of Working Russia; its leader is Sergey Udaltsov – ed.], and spoke to a few of its activists. Later, I found Socialist Resistance, which was then renamed to the Committee for the Workers’ International. Back then, this was one of the few organisations that was organising in support of LGBT rights.

What did your activism consist of at the beginning?

IY: At first, I took part in demonstrations against Russian military actions in Chechnya, and later, against the monetisation of benefits in 2005. In autumn 2006, we organised an anti-fascist campaign against celebrating Unity Day, a new Russian public holiday which the ultra-right was using to its own ends. Public actions in support of LGBT rights started in 2006, and at that time the GayRussia organisation tried to hold its first pride event. This provoked a public discussion, including among Russian leftists. It turned out that not everyone in our society was a homophobe. That’s when I found out we had a lot in common and began to work together.

Was Russian society ready to discuss LGBT rights back then?

IY: People’s ideas about LGBT people were formed by the Russian tabloid press: they wrote about LGBT people as some kind of freaks, they wrote about sex, but not about rights or politics. We wanted to change this, to start a discussion about real problems. And it was hard. We had hopes that holding a pride event would help change the situation in Russia, but we were disillusioned fairly quickly. This was mostly due to personal circumstances, but everything played its own role — there was no escape from discussing LGBT rights.

In 2010, we started a campaign for a “March of Equality” — an attempt to unite various social groups in the fight for universal equality. At its base, the march was organised around LGBT and feminist ideas. That’s when Russia had the first attempts to pass a law banning propagandising homosexuality among underage children.

What’s wrong with pride events? Why didn’t it work out?

IY: The head of GayRussia, who was trying to organise the pride event, wasn’t planning to build a movement like Harvey Milk. There were a lot of arguments, discussions inside the community about whether was even worth going to public actions. This wasn’t a question for me. But the approach of the pride organisers led to a situation where people simply stopped seeing the reason for going out onto the street. Too many people were detained and beaten up. People began to perceive all of this activity as a provocation. Thankfully, now less and less people think that public LGBT actions are bad. But attitudes used to be quite negative.

When different Russian regions started passing laws against “homosexual propaganda” and LGBT communities, was there an understanding of what to do with this?

IY: Everything started with the Arkhangelsk regional assembly’s law on “protecting the morals and health of children” — this was in July 2011. In response, we went to picket the headquarters of Arkhangelsk regon in Moscow, and were pleasantly surprised how many people turned out. Before that, it seemed that we didn’t exist as a civic force in Russia. But by that time activism had already achieved something, although it was still at an early stage. In 2011, when the wave of protests against electoral falsification started, we went out to protest with everyone else, but a strong rainbow column had already formed.

In Russia, LGBT activists who aren’t afraid to go out onto the street are often attacked. Who are the attackers? Did you understand that you were taking a risk when you went out with a rainbow badge or banner?

IY: It’s mostly groups of young far-right people. We always prepared ourselves for this kind of aggression. Safety is a priority for us. It even got to the point where a group of comrades started going to self-defence courses. At big events, there were always people walking next to our column who were on the look-out safety-wise. But at big events there hasn’t been much in the way of attacks, it’s become safer.

Did you know who organised these attacks, the beating of activists on the streets?

IY: We don’t have any documentary evidence to suggest who’s directing these attacks. But the state and the authorities have created an atmosphere of impunity, whereby attacks and crimes against LGBT people aren’t investigated. They gave these aggressive groups carte-blanche to do what they want. At the start, it was some kind of fascist and football fan groups. Then the Orthodox groups turned out, “God’s Will”, for example. Then the “Occupy Paedophile” movement after the laws against homosexual propaganda were passed. Even if no one was directly managing the attacks, they still had the opportunity to hurt people without fear of investigation.

After all, apart from LGBT, foreign students and migrants have also been subject to attacks…

Given this atmosphere of hate, is a public conversation about LGBT rights even possible?

IY: The situation was worse before this. Before, we didn’t even exist in the public debate.

In April this year, an article in Novaya Gazeta stated that people in Chechnya had been subject to mass persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

IY: At the time, many activists didn’t even believe that this kind of thing was possible. It was so terrible, they said that it had to be overstated. We weren’t that familiar with the situation in Chechnya. But the reality is that in Chechnya, just like in other regions, there are men who are gay, and women who are lesbian. They didn’t talk about this publicly or openly, but then they had their private lives exposed, via their mobile phones, and repressions and purges were organised. This proved a sad fact: in Russia, you don’t even have to “do anything”, they’ll still come for you. After all, many people say that “If you don’t provoke us, you’ll be left alone.”

Former military offices in Argun, Chechnya, which was used as a secret prison to detain and torture gay men in February 2017. Image: Novaya Gazeta.In the beginning, we didn’t know how to react. The main thing was not to make it worse. We understand that people there [in Chechnya] were basically hostages. I spent a lot of time on a gay dating app, I used a fake GPS to create an account in the centre of Grozny. I tried to talk to people. Everyone there uses a pseudonym. In the end, I managed to start some conversations. People told me that they was no way out: “I can’t do anything with myself, but I understand I can’t live how I want to openly. I love my family and I understand them all-too well that they won’t accept this. There’s no way out — either a double-life or suicide.”

One person wrote that he’d rather take his own life, so that no one from his own family would have to do it and then have to go to prison. Several people thought: now all the Chechens will go to the west on the pretext that they’re being persecuted. This is rubbish: for them, to be openly gay is basically like suicide.

We created a petition in support of Chechnya’s LGBT community. We demanded a real investigation into the murders and torture. It got over 500,000 signatures, we didn’t think it would get that kind of reaction.

We were also afraid of getting stuck in the swamp of prejudice. We decided to emphasise the fact that gay people are just another social group who are persecuted in Chechnya. In the past, there were many people who were detained on the pretext of extremism: people who broke traffic laws, people who use recreational drugs, alcohol, women who don’t dress “properly”. We didn’t hide the fact that the campaign was in support of gay people, but stressed that this was a violation of an human’s main right — to life. We managed to make sure this aspect wasn’t lost. Sure, the problem hasn’t gone away. But it has become a little bit safer.

So, creating noise is the only way of guaranteeing safety for LGBT people right now?

IY: Human rights defenders told us: we’ve been fighting for years to attract attention to problems in Chechnya. And the LGBT community was successful.

What’s the situation like for LGBT people in other Russian regions today?

IY: Nowadays, there are really active groups in many cities: for example, Arkhangelsk, Tomsk, Omsk, Ekaterinburg. The North Caucasus is a different story. But the situation is worst in Chechnya. I’m sure that this isn’t connected so much to Chechen traditions, but rather the Kadyrov regime. Without Kadyrov, this kind of tragedy would never have happened. In Russia, the problem with LGBT rights isn’t that society is rude — although that, and people’s prejudices against LGBT aren’t going anywhere any time soon. But the Russian state’s policies only aid the growth and actions of marginal and aggressive conservative homophobes, who feel themselves to be outside the law. And people think that these groups communicate some kind of public mood. But that’s not the case. They just communicate the mood of their own marginal group.

On the whole, I think that the majority of people in Russia are indifferent towards LGBT people. If the authorities didn’t try and create confusion, an atmosphere of hate and didn’t hamper activism, then the situation inside the LGBT community would be different today.

But are there some positive signs in comparison with the early 2000s?

IY: Back then, there wasn’t even a serious discussion about LGBT rights, nor any open activism. Now Side-by-side, the LGBT film festival, brings together hundreds of people from across the country. The language around LGBT has even changed in official media — at least, you come across texts where there’s an attempt at covering LGBT communities neutrally. Russian media have learnt the LGBT abbreviation and use it widely — that’s already an achievement. We’ve got new allies, human rights defenders, who are ready to step up in order to defend out rights. In the past, the discussions among Russian liberals and leftists were rather embittered. But now these groups accept the fact that LGBT people exist, there’s no way of avoiding them. If the authorities didn’t interfere, then we could have got even bigger results. I’m not talking about legalising gay marriage, but at least limitations to discriminations in various spheres such as work or freedom of assembly. And we could show that you could hold pride events in Russia, and it wouldn’t be met with such disgust in society.

Another positive example: before, gay men were banned from giving blood in Russia. This was revoked a few years ago. Perhaps this wasn’t connected directly to activism. But we were against this discriminatory measure. And this is an indicator of what we can do.

How do you prepare to fight for your civil rights? For instance, to gain access to a partner who’s in hospital? What other rights are LGBT people deprived of in Russia?

IY: Russia has not developed any anti-discrimination legislation. It’s important not only to make sure laws are passed, but that they’re enforced, too. As to the law on homosexual propaganda, then we need to focus on getting it revoked. It’s also important to ensure that courts start taking into account homophobia as a motivating factor in violent crimes — this still doesn’t exist, because LGBT aren’t considered a social group. In my opinion, these changes are quite realistic. We’re fighting to set up crisis centres across the country and the possibility of opening access to victims of violence. Our position is this: to connect our demands with general civil society, to show that there’s no contradiction between them. If there’s no freedom of assembly for LGBT, then there’s no freedom of assembly for anyone else.

Why don’t prominent people — actors, directors and other cultural figures, as well as other high-placed people — speak about their attitude towards LGBT?

IY: They’re just afraid to lose their capital — both symbolic and financial. The situation won’t change when someone famous comes out publicly, but when the LGBT movement will achieve certain goals. It’s the same in the west: for instance, Ricky Martin came out very recently, in historical terms. Although I personally thought it would be a lot worse in Russia — several Russian celebrities behave well, they come out against homophobia.

What do you mean about people losing capital?

IY: It’s just about money. If they start openly supporting LGBT, certain doors will start closing for them in Russia.

In your opinion, how effective is the practice of forcing people to come out? When activists publish the names of high-placed public officials who are gay.

IY: It’s very dangerous, and it goes against our aims. Our goal is to fight prejudice. We can’t use homophobia against homophobes.

There’s a lot of homophobes in your circles, that is, leftists. Many leftists have split over attitudes towards LGBT, including anarchist groups.

IY: I’m confident that the real aim of leftists is to liberate people from any form of subjugation. This is why real leftists can’t be homophobes. But we live in a real society, and prejudices also affect people in leftist circles. Many leftists say: “If we’re going to support LGBT, then simple workers won’t understand us.” But that’s like saying 100 years ago: “We shouldn’t come out against anti-semitism and pogroms, because then the peasants and workers won’t understand us.”

The issue is also that LGBT people have become a favourite target for the Russian authorities. So when leftists or liberals come out against LGBT, then they place themselves on the side of the authorities. Over the past few years, the activities of LGBT people have given the Russian opposition a choice: either you’re on the side of the authorities in their policies against LGBT, or you’re on the side of LGBT.

Not everyone who found themselves in this situation quickly took the side of LGBT, but many were moved to rethinking their old positions. For some people, it’s enough just to find out more about what LGBT activists are really fighting for. Others have at least begun to doubt their prejudices — and that’s a good thing. You can sum LGBT activism up in the following phrase: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
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About the Author:

Ekaterina Fomina is a journalist at Novaya Gazeta.