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Gay and lesbian parents afraid to send kids to school in Russia

Bill to remove children from same-sex families still being reworked

None of the parents interviewed for this story would go anywhere near a camera, for fear of losing their children. Credit: Thinkstock

Yana and her five-year-old son march down St Petersburg’s central promenade, Nevsky, hand-in-hand behind a sea of rainbow flags. It is May 1 and Nevsky Street, usually packed with cars, public transport, cyclists and tourists, is blocked off for the democracy march in honour of May Day. Union members, activists and other groups have come out to demonstrate their views.

“My partner was against us coming here,” Yana says. “But I felt it was important for our son to be part of the rainbow delegation. He needs to grow up understanding that our family is part of the LGBT community.”

Yana and her son march, unflinching, past religious-right activists taunting the LGBT procession from the sidelines. An older lady screams, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” A younger woman in a turquoise hoodie photographs the mother and child, threatening to alert authorities to what she deems a violation of Russia’s infamous gay-propaganda law.

For Yana, bringing her son to an LGBT rally is a risk. Legislation banning children’s exposure to “gay propaganda” already means same-sex families have to be cautious about publicly declaring their orientation. Now, a proposed amendment to the Russian Federation’s Family Code that would allow government to revoke parental rights of individuals suspected of engaging in homosexual behaviour looms over the LGBT community as well.

Same-sex families are no strangers to risk — simple actions in their daily lives, such as going out as a family in a public space or posting photographs on social media, pose a threat. Even sending children to school can be nerve-wracking.

“We are afraid to send our son to a public school,” says Sasha, a 30-year-old mother and LGBT rights activist who works for Coming Out in St Petersburg. After spending a long day at work and rushing to bring her son home from school before meeting for this interview, the slim woman with closely cropped blonde curls has dark circles under her eyes.

“There is a lot of control over parents right now. Children are constantly asked about their family, and same-sex families are not considered legitimate. We would have had to lie to our child or be ready for constant conflict,” she explains.

Instead, the couple’s son attends an alternative school where the small, seven-children classes are composed of children from other minorities or with special needs. Although they have to work hard to cover tuition, Sasha says she and her partner feel it is the safest solution.

Same-sex families living in other parts of the country, or lacking resources for private schooling, are not so fortunate. Children from these families are also forced into a closeted lifestyle. “This is how most other families we know live,” Sasha explains. “As soon as their child becomes old enough to discuss the makeup of their family with peers, they have to explain that there are some private things that the child can never speak about.”

According to Sasha, the outlook for same-sex families was more promising earlier this decade. During the times of the Soviet Union, when homosexuality was a crime, LGBT people were forced to live closeted lives. Glasnost, in the late 1980s, brought more liberal laws and attitudes to Russia. By the early 2000s, life for gays and lesbians living in big cities had changed.

“We were able to create several strong LGBT rights organizations in St Petersburg,” Sasha says. “On a private level, people began to live openly and to feel comfortable starting a family. There was a short moment when we felt very strong, and we felt that equal rights were possible here.”

At that time, Sasha’s son attended a public nursery, and the couple was open about their orientation, even bringing their son to LGBT events.

“We took part in a rainbow flashmob as a family,” Sasha says. “Now, people shoot at the LGBT at these events, so of course, we would no longer take our child there.”

Today, Sasha and her partner continue to do their best to help their son understand the truth about their family and about the current political situation. “We discuss it in a language he can understand,” she explains. “Our child knows that I work at a human rights organization. He knows that in Russia bad laws, which are making people suffer, are being adopted. He knows that at my organization we do not want these laws to exist, so we try to explain to people that these laws are bad.”

In 2009, Sasha and a group of other same-sex parents came together to work on a research project through Coming Out. When their work started there were two goals: to help same-sex families find a community and to educate the general public.

Changes in the political climate have halted the project. “The idea of increasing visibility is no longer an option at all,” Sasha says. “Our first priority is simply safety.” Instead, Coming Out conducted research to learn about same-sex parents’ situations and to find out how the organization could help.

Findings from the survey, which polled 98 families in November 2013, revealed that 49 percent of same-sex families had changed their coming-out strategy after the gay-propaganda law was passed and now tend to be much more cautious about revealing their orientation.

When the first draft of the amendment that would allow children to be removed from same-sex families made it to the Duma in September 2013, Sasha says, Coming Out was flooded with requests from families looking to flee the country.

Now the panic has abated because actions around the law have stopped, and same-sex families are less anxious to leave. After the bill was returned to its author, Deputy Alexey Zhuravlev, for reworking — he was asked to explain how same-sex families would be identified — more pressing issues, such as dealing with the situation in Ukraine, took precedence for government.

Sasha believes that as soon as the more pressing issues are resolved, the law will resurface. “At this time, the best solution seems to be to close the door behind yourself and to pretend that you do not exist,” she says. “Then, maybe, you will not be noticed and you will be able to live in peace.”

Sasha speaks to members of same-sex families through her work at Coming Out, and she reports that the mood is heavy. “Many express suicidal thoughts because they cannot see any escape,” she says. “They do not see how their child can be happy in a country which has declared their family to be one of the greatest evils.”

While immigration, and perhaps political asylum, are options, they are far from ideal solutions. These families, who have survived discrimination and oppression, are hesitant to embark on yet another challenging journey. “Immigration is not about improving their situation, but about giving their children at least some kind of hope for happiness,” Sasha says.

Sasha says she hopes to stay in St Petersburg and to continue her work fighting for LGBT rights, but a current law project may force her to immigrate. Her son is HIV-positive and relies on medication from Canada. A proposed law to ban foreign medications in Russia means he would not be able to maintain his health. “If these drugs are changed to what is available in Russia, he will experience a lot of side effects,” Sasha says. “We did not have any desire to leave until this law was proposed. If it goes through, we may have to.”

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Some same-sex families remain hopeful that the situation will stabilize. Valentina and Masha, who took in a second child after the amendment to remove children from same-sex families was proposed, do not believe the law will be enforced if families keep a low profile.

“We wanted a second child for a long time,” Masha says. “When we read about the law we felt very uneasy, but we decided to do it anyway because we do not want our lives to depend on these types of initiatives.”

“This law is meant to scare activists who are fighting for equal rights,” Valentina says. “It will probably not be enforced in situations like ours. But even if it is not, it is very difficult for families like ours from a psychological perspective.”

The psychological pressure is palpable in the shabby, yet warm and sunny, apartment the two women share with their two children, six-year-old Kirill and three-year-old Davy. As the landlords are in the process of selling the property, frequent visitors infiltrate their home, and the women must be careful to keep their space from betraying their orientation.   

The care exercised during these visits is just one of many ruses the couple must incorporate into their daily lives. As same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt children, the women have legal guardianship of one child each. Officially, Masha is Davy’s legal guardian, and the two reside at her parents’ home.

“When the authorities come to check on her, I have to take our things and go to my parents’ place,” she explains. Although Masha’s parents are very supportive, living a double life is difficult. “Aside from the practical inconvenience of having to pack up at a moment’s notice, having to lie creates the sensation that our life only exists within our own consciousness,” Masha says.

Masha and Valentina choose to live a partially closed life in order to keep their family safe. Masha has not come out at work, and some of their friends are not aware of their orientation. Although the women have told Kirill that families can be composed of two mothers or two fathers, they have not discussed the implications of being a same-sex family.

“When it comes to talking to him about the fact that our family may face some kind of threat, I really do not know how to approach it,” Valentina says. “He thinks very linearly at this age, so it could be like a punch in the face.”

When Kirill brings home controversial ideas, the women do their best to set him straight and to teach him about equality. “He brought some idea home that [Slavic] Russian people are the best. I told him that neither of us are quite Russian,” Valentina explains.

The couple’s daughter, Davy, is Roma, so she belongs to another minority that is oppressed in Russia. “This is a more open issue, and it is easier to discuss with Kirill,” Valentina says. “We explain to him that not everyone likes people who look different, so someone might try to insult Davy. He says he will protect her.”

The couple also struggles with more practical obstacles to child-rearing that result from the current regime. When Kirill, who is often ill, was hospitalized, Masha was not allowed to visit. Once, when Masha took Kirill to a private clinic, she was scolded for coming in place of his mother. Due to Kirill’s poor health, and Masha’s inability to provide support in managing the situation, Valentina was forced to switch her full-time role as a psychologist on a crisis line to part-time work.

“There are a lot of little problems, but they add up, and you realize that they are not little problems but serious problems,” says Yury, a 33-year-old veterinarian who adopted Yaroslav with his partner two years ago and is the four-year-old’s legal guardian. “For example, when our child is sick, I am the only one who can take a sick day. Sometimes I cannot afford to do that because I make more money.”

As a male couple, Yury and his partner face more difficulties. “There are a lot of bureaucratic issues we face,” he says. It took two months to get Yaroslav a permit to leave the country — a process that normally takes two weeks. “It is because I have to come in as a single father, and the officials look at me differently,” Yury explains. 

The adoption process was especially challenging for his family. When the couple made the decision to adopt, eight years into their relationship, friends and family did not believe that they would succeed in passing the rigorous screening process. 

Yury had to pose as a single father. Even so, he faced discrimination. “I had to go through two training courses and three psychiatrists to prove that I was not a pedophile,” he says. While, according to Yury, an adoption typically takes three to four months, it took him a year to complete the process.

After Yury completed a month-long government parenting class that everyone interested in adopting is encouraged to take, he had to go see a psychologist. “It was a lot of psychological pressure,” he says. “There was a lot of focus on my past relationships with women. To keep my story straight, I substituted names of my female friends for names of my past lovers. When I got home from the first meeting, I vomited as soon as I got out of the car. Then I slept for 24 hours.”

Still, officials were not satisfied and referred Yury to a two-month private parenting course. “We all had to speak to psychologists and discuss various parenting scenarios,” he recalls. “One time I brought a female friend in to pose as my fiancĂ©. We pulled it off, and shockingly, the psychologists did not guess anything was off.”

When Yury arrived at the orphanage to select a child for adoption, he did not receive a warm reception from staff. “The director of the orphanage had looked me up on social media and had photographs of my partner and me on his desk,” he says. “When I assured him that my partner was just a close relative he seemed all right.”

Yury first met Yaroslav on April 12, the boy’s birthday, when he arrived at the orphanage with a toy car as a gift. “I was sitting on this worn out couch, and he was carried out in the shabby orphanage uniform — a nightgown and white leggings,” he recalls. “When he looked at me and smiled, I knew that he was the right choice.”

He had to wait six months before his case for adoption could be heard in court, then sit through three hearings. “There were all kinds of bureaucratic issues, but I think that they just set them up to watch me,” Yury says.

Two years later, the family has settled into a comfortable routine. Since Yury is the official guardian, Yaroslav is told to call him father and his partner godfather. “At first my partner was hurt, but he realizes that this is the way it has to be and has adjusted,” Yury says.

As for Yaroslav, he appears perfectly content. He is happy to be spending a Sunday with his father. Clad in matching cozy sweaters, the two cuddle up on a bench at a café, while Yaroslav slurps down a milkshake and Yury sips on fruit tea. Yaroslav says his godfather is at work but will join them later.

The couple plan to reveal the truth about their family to Yaroslav just before he hits his teens. “Psychologists say that the best time for these conversations is around 10 or 11,” Yury explains.

By then, the couple hope to be living in a friendlier place. “The government is creating an increasingly homophobic society, and I think that it will become more dangerous every year,” Yury says. “When kids are small they have a simpler relation to non-traditional families. But by 10 or 11, they develop an awareness of family roles. That is when the problems will start.”

Despite the challenges Yury and his partner have faced, they are certain that they made the right decision. “I hope that more LGBT people will consider adopting children,” he says. “It is a very big step in a relationship, and it is a really great step. It is much better than being on our own.”