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Russian LGBT youth relaunch Children-404 hours after court ban

But anti-gay ruling shows LGBT Russians still in danger, say activists

One of the participants of Children-404 in 2013 holds a sign that reads: “I refuse to be invisible.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ivan Simochkin

Access to a popular Russian website for LGBT youth has been banned on the country’s largest social media network by a district court, which ordered its access cut off for violating the country’s anti-gay-propaganda law.

The ruling, issued Sept 21, 2015, by the Barnaul district court in Siberia, ordered the social media network VKontakte to block Children-404 for users in the Russian Federation. The decision comes in response to claims by Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, that the group’s content broke the law.

“Blocking the group is a continuation of Putin’s politics to strengthen control by pushing an increasingly conservative agenda,” says Justin Romanov, a gay youth who relied on the page for support before fleeing to Toronto in 2014, where he was granted refugee status. “Right now the lives and health of Russian LGBT are in big danger.”

Romanov says teens are most at risk as Russia’s anti-propaganda law — which prohibits exposing minors to “non-traditional sexual relations” — makes it difficult for them to seek support.

Children-404 helped fill the void, he says. The site was created by Russian journalist Lena Klimova in 2013 to allow Russian teens to anonymously discuss their experiences.

Despite the court ruling, organizers launched a new version of the group just hours after the original was blocked. Although all previous content was lost, members were transferred to the new community and administrators inaugurated the new page by posting Gloria Gaynor’s gay anthem “I will survive.”

“Lena and her team knew that this could happen and they were prepared,” explains Dmitry Musolin, an LGBT activist from St Petersburg.

Musolin says that although the group was restored, the ruling remains a big concern.

“It shows that the government is really planning to use this law to silence the voices of LGBT,” he says.

Since the latest court ruling and the attention it received from Russian media, membership in the new Children-404 jumped from 64,859 to 72,202 almost overnight.

Among the posts on the group’s wall are words of support from an ally. “I am hetero, but it hurts me to the depth of my soul, how our society treats women and men of homosexual orientation. The dreadful intolerance towards you is a symptom of an unhealthy society,” writes 26-year-old Anastasia K.

The September court ruling is just one of many attempts to quash Children-404.

According to Klimova’s lawyer, Dmitri Bartenev, the Barnaul court’s proceedings took place in tandem with an identical case making its way through St Petersburg’s district court.

“The case in St Petersburg was initiated in December of last year, and heard in March,” Bartenev explains. “Immediately after there was a judgement, we intervened and demanded to appeal as an interested third party.”

Bartenev reports that while the case in St Petersburg was held up, an identical file was quietly opened in Barnaul, a remote city in Siberia. “We did not intervene in time because we did not hear about it,” he adds.

Klimova is immersed in another ongoing legal battle, where she stands accused of personally violating the anti-propaganda law. After acquitting her in March 2014, Russia’s district court of Nizhny Tagil re-opened her case just eight months later. In July 2105, the court fined Klimova 50,000 Rubles ($1,000 CAD). She is filing an appeal. 

“The ultimate goal of authorities is to push discussion of LGBT rights entirely out of public discourse,” Bartenev says. “It’s a political tool for stigmatizing the LGBT.”

While Children-404 continues to grow despite legal pressure, it won’t be safe until the court decisions are overturned, he says.

“There is nothing in the law to protect this group,” Bartenev says. “It is very important that we . . . are able to demonstrate that those judgements are unlawful.”

Russian activists are optimistic the movement will survive. “It is now clear that . . . there will immediately be a third group, a fourth and so on. Somehow this initiative will go on,” Musolin says.