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Russian gays on ‘brink of becoming active’

Spike in homophobia fuelling LGBT activism

Russian LGBT activists joined other groups for an anti-hate march in St Petersburg last year. Credit: Julia Lisnyak

On a recent Sunday evening in March, the basement community centre in downtown St Petersburg was bustling. Representatives of many of the city’s LGBT activist groups, donning pink-triangle pins and rainbow scarves, had gathered to drink coffee, play board games and discuss various projects at a weekly meeting sponsored by the safe-sex education group LaSky. The mood was bright and, according to veterans, there were many fresh faces.

“There are about three times the people that were here one month ago,” says Evgeny Jordan, an activist who has been fighting for LGBT rights for more than two years. Jordan attributes the increased number of attendees to Stop Hate, an initiative launched by Dmitriy Chizhevsky on Jan 8.

Stop Hate is a grassroots organization working to mobilize St Petersburg’s LGBT community to participate in demonstrations and to defend their rights. “We are trying to do something that no group has done since the decriminalization of homosexuality 20 years ago,” Chizhevsky says. “We are trying to learn how to inspire the community to act.”

Chizhevsky created the group after he was attacked at LaSky’s coffee gathering in November. Two masked men broke into the space and shot Chizhevsky, leaving him blind in one eye.

The group has spent the last two months canvassing people at clubs, and the results have been surprisingly positive.

“At first, everyone told us that people in clubs are not interested in activism,” Chizhevsky explains. “But we surveyed 310 people and got a lot of positive feedback.”

According to Stop Hate’s research, 232 of the 310 respondents have encountered homophobia, and 184 support LGBT activism.

“It turns out that the LGBT community is on the brink of becoming active,” Chizhevsky says. “They understand that what is happening is not right, and they are ready to go out onto the street and to stand up for their rights.”

Chizhevsky and his team have also collected 3,000 phone numbers to invite LGBT people to take part in the rainbow delegation of the annual International Workers’ Day parade, held in St Petersburg on May 1.

“We believe that homophobia in Russia is fuelled by the government,” Chizhevsky says. “The only way to stop it is to show the government that the harder they try to oppress us, the more we will rally and the more power we will have.”

Stop Hate collaborates with larger, established organizations in the city, including the LGBT Network and Coming Out, both of which provide psychological and legal support services.

LGBT activism in Russia a late bloomer

From the dawn of the Soviet period until 1993, homosexual intercourse was illegal in Russia, and LGBT community members kept their private lives a secret. According to Alexander Kondakov, researcher at the Centre for Independent Social Research in St Petersburg, the invasive nature of the Soviet government discouraged the community from fighting for its rights.

While social reform swept the Western world in the 1960s, with activists pushing issues from the private sphere to the public to demand protection against abuse and violence, Russians clung to what little privacy they had.

“What you were doing in your bed was already a concern of the state,” Kondakov says. “As a result, people did not want private issues to become political — they wanted to keep the private sphere for themselves — and on that ground a political movement was impossible.”

The first activist group appeared after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. That year Alexander Kukharsky, a professor of physical electronics who had lost his post for helping gay students avoid persecution, gathered 12 people in his St Petersburg apartment to form the Krilija (Wings) Centre. The group was registered as an official not-for-profit organization in December 1991 and continues to operate today.

In its heyday, Krilija members provided LGBT people with psychological support, legal help and any other support services they could offer. In 2006, Kukharsky helped organize the first Pride parade in St Petersburg. Today, members meet monthly to discuss pressing issues and organize lectures.

“Our mandate is to help LGBT community members at critical points in their lives,” Kukharsky explains. “We are volunteers, so we cannot provide the amount of support a larger, well-funded organization like the LGBT Network can offer. Still, we help anyone who asks.”

Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, smaller grassroots organizations popped up in Moscow and in St Petersburg. The most successful, Triangle, a Moscow-based group led by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, attempted to unite the initiatives. The group folded because of a lack of funding, as well as legal and social harassment.

Joining forces

According to Kondakov, two separate currents of activism appeared in the mid-2000s. In Moscow, a  movement focused on bringing people out into the streets to demand equality began to emerge. In St Petersburg, the LGBT Network began to work toward building a national support network, with small chapters in provincial towns, while Coming Out focused on local community-building initiatives.

Moscow’s activists, led by Nikolai Alexeyev, founder of Gay Russia, were more provocative. “For them, Pride was the most important idea,” Kondakov says. “They believed public actions like the gay pride parade they held in 2005 would result in more respect for human rights.”

In St Petersburg, organizations focused on providing LGBT people with support. “They wanted to first build strong, closed communities so that they could develop the idea of human rights internally,” Kondakov says. “Then, when they were ready, the community would go out on the streets as a whole.”

Recent anti-gay legislation, accompanied by an escalation in assault, has brought the two currents closer together and has stimulated the formation of more active groups.

“The state explicitly declared its position, and that position is violent and homophobic, so the LGBT movement is reacting with more resistance,” Kondakov explains.

In May 2012, former politician Natasha Tsymbalova created the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality. “After the anti-propaganda law came out, I realized I was spending all of my free time on LGBT activism,” she says. “I knew that public action, advocacy and education were needed to improve the situation and created the alliance.”

The Straight Alliance bridges gaps, both between other activist groups and the two currents of LGBT activism in the country. Tsymbalova’s group collaborates with local political groups, supporting protests against the Sochi Olympics and the war in Ukraine. Also, they do not shy away from making noise by organizing their own public actions and education campaigns.

“We are more aggressive than other organizations because we are not registered, so we do not need to be afraid of being closed down or fined,” she explains. “They are trying to back us into a corner, but we will not stay there. We will continue to come out and blister their eyes. It will be easier for the government to agree to treat the LGBT community with respect and to protect human rights because we will not let them forget that they exist.”

Although there is much work to be done before Russia’s LGBT community can hope for conditions to improve, many activists are cautiously optimistic about the future. “LGBT rights in the West are the result of many years of struggle,” says Roman Melnik, an activist and a photographer. “To have our rights, we must also pass through this phase.”

For Kondakov, collaboration is the key to success. “Of course, the most important thing we can do is change this government,” he says. “But that is no easy task. Political organizations need to redefine their agenda and seek allies. Trade unions, migrant workers, feminists and all those who feel deprived of their rights should unite around the same struggle because all of our aims are the same: we are all struggling against inequality, injustice.”