It may be the Day of Silence, but the two hundred or so people in Valery Sozaev’s office are anything but. There is a buzz of nervous excitement. We’re about to march down Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main street, with tape over our mouths, handing out flyers calling for an end to homophobia.
“It’s important to show people that activism exists,” says Irina, a marcher who didn’t give her last name. “But it’s a risk in Russia. I think people are very nervous.”
As it turns out, they have reason to be. Our rally permit has been denied, allegedly due to construction in our path.
“Cunning, very cunning,” mutters Anton Smolev, a social studies teacher.
“I’m not only here for queer people,” he says. “I’m here 50-50 for the rights of queer people and the rights of all simple people.”
“This is our first generation of kids with rights,” says Smolev, “and I’m trying to teach them how to use them.”
Our conversation is cut short when Sozaev, chair of St Petersburg’s largest gay and trans organization, Vyhod (“Exit”), calls for order.
Reading from the federal criminal code, he warns us not to make the demonstration look like a rally, because unauthorized rallies are punishable by heavy fines and even prison terms.
“Write that down,” says Smolev. “Our Russian laws.”
“If we break laws, the militia have the right to use force,” says Sozaev. “But we’re not planning to break any laws. There’s no law against walking down Nevsky on a nice sunny day with tape over our mouths.”
Sozaev warns us not to walk alone. “It’s easier for other people to pick you off that way, not only the militia but other unpleasant groups.” Two women pick up rainbow flags, but are told to leave them in the office. “That’s already a rally,” says Sozaev. “We can’t have that.”
Our not-rally is pleasantly uneventful. Every militiaman we pass is talking to someone else. Reactions to our flyers vary — there are snorts of derision and quite a few bewildered looks, but one group of passersby shouts, “Good for you!”
Vyhod has come a long way in a year.
“At our first Day of Silence last year, we had 25 people,” says Sozaev. “But we had big press. After that people got together.” Through the summer and fall, the volunteer-run organization held seminars and film screenings. “We went to Euro-Pride in Stockholm. In October,we had a big Coming Out Day seminar, about what coming out is and what people’s parental and work reactions could be.”
Sozaev knows firsthand what that’s like. He’s a teacher.
“My colleagues and I have a good relationship,” he says. “I did have a few parents complain to the headmaster, who asked for my resignation. I will resign, not because of him but because I have a lot of work here.”
Vyhod provides psychological support to members of the gay community, supports satellite organizations in other cities, and monitors reports of discrimination which, although forbidden by law, is a persistent problem.
“We have no legal defence like your Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he says. “Discrimination is forbidden in the constitution against racial, national and social groups, but not everyone considers [gay and trans people] a social group.”
Igor Pravdin is a tall and lanky brunette with big features and bangs that fall over his forehead. He’s part of the cadre of younger activists who keep the budding movement together. Being one of the more technically savvy gay activists, he runs an online information portal for St Petersburg gays.
“In Moscow and St Petersburg, open homophobia is very rare,” says Pravdin. “There’s more hidden discrimination. Our parades have been forbidden and there’s propaganda on television.”
Pravdin cautions, however, against painting too dark a picture of the situation.
“Ten years ago it was hard to be openly gay and talk about it, and even to dress brightly like you wanted. There was a lot of fear in the streets. Now that’s rare.”
The mood is changing, at least in Russia’s biggest cities, agrees Katherine Marsova, a lesbian journalist who is out at work.
“We have clubs,” says Marsova. “And there are communities where it is okay to be gay.”
In fact, on occasion the government has stuck up for the gay community. Earlier this year, according to Pravdin, two militiamen raided Bunker, a gay nightclub, while investigating a murder. They “overstepped their powers,” says Pravdin, confiscating computer equipment and not returning it. The club’s owner testified in court.
“The police asked him to take back his testimony,” Pravdin says, “but they were contacted by higher authorities from Moscow, and there was a big scandal.”
The owner never retracted his testimony, and the equipment was eventually returned.
“That was very brave of him,” Pravdin says. “From our side, it was a big success; for the first time in the history of modern Russia, the government stood up for the gay community.”
Sozaev and Pravdin admit they are fortunate to live in St Petersburg, Russia’s “gay capital.” While there is no official Gay Pride, regional governor Valentina Matvienko has shown diplomacy, relatively speaking, in dealings with the gay community.
In 2006, the gay nightclub Central Station organized street-level events during City Day, a civic festival that promotes local history and culture. The club’s stage was set up on Nevsky Prospect.
“They staged a classic drag show and the citizens really liked it,” Pravdin says. “But, all the same, it was a scandal because the stage was right across from the Catholic church, and some Catholics complained. Nothing was done about that; Matvienko just wrote the [organizers] and told them to be more correct about choosing a spot next time.”
What’s more, queer culture has started to go mainstream, especially among the young. Heterosexual students sometimes go to gay clubs for the great parties. A recent showing of queer-themed short films at the German cultural centre off Nevsky Prospect was packed to the gills.
St Petersburg may be more embracing of gay life than it was 10 years ago, but that’s not true everywhere in Russia — not even in Moscow, the country’s largest city. There, Pride festivals have been attempted, but they were vigorously opposed by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
“Luzhkov doesn’t give anything to a [queer] organization,” says former Moscow resident Nuar Nechaev. “The climate in Moscow depends on public opinion.”
Nechaev founded a queer rights organization, Nasiliu Net (“No Violence”), after he lost his job because he was in gender transition.
He says the main reason Russian queers are threatened is because his community is poorly understood. He draws parallels to his own gender transition period, when he went six months without work because “people were confused” about his gender.
“As a transgendered person in Russia, you may exist,” he says. “They can do the operation, but people need money and a lot of moral support. Not a lot of people understand that.”
One of the first and most difficult things he had to do as part of his transition, after undergoing two psychological evaluations, was change the gender designations on all his official documents — an ordeal in ultra-bureaucratic Russia.
“You get no support from the state because people know nothing about it,” he says. “My body doesn’t go with my consciousness. Russians don’t know any people like that.”
Nechaev and fellow organizers try to run seminars to educate people, but safety concerns mean they have no fixed address. “It’s hard when we don’t have our own office; our first priority is safety of people because we have had uninvited guests on street actions.”
“Our only resource is our experience,” he says.
Nonetheless, those experiences are proving powerful, and Moscow’s activists can already claim some impressive successes.
“We are slowly changing attitudes,” he says. He points to the landmark reversal of blood donation rules that excluded gay men.
“We had a street action at the health ministry,” he says. “The ministry was very rude, but now gays can donate blood like everyone else.”
However, even in Russia’s metropolises, queer activists still have a lot of work to do.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the continuation of Nuar Nechaev’s story. This past summer — he is not sure how — a neo-Nazi group got hold of his address. After calling the police, he was subjected to over-the-phone harassment by militia members. Miraculously, he escaped actual physical harm.
“I was lucky,” he says.
Nechaev and his girlfriend have left to seek asylum in the United States. “If that doesn’t work,” he says, “we’ll try in Canada.”
Even in St Petersburg, where overt threats may be fewer, the situation is difficult.
“We don’t have a high enough level of organization to tell [the general public] why we need gay marriage, why we can raise children normally,” Marsova says. “The first argument is always, ‘Nobody forbids you to fuck each other, what other rights do you want?’ They don’t understand that we want rights like other people, rights to marriage and children.”
Sozaev believes that changing public opinion could take 20 years or longer: homosexuality was criminalized until 1993 under the Soviet and Russian regimes, and the influence of the mainstream Russian Orthodox church is strong despite the emergence of some queer-friendly Christian organizations.
All agree that gay marriage is a long way away; two Moscow lesbians who had been trying to get their marriage recognized for years finally did so this year — in Toronto. “No one would recognize that in Russia,” says Sozaev.
One way of increasing that visibility has been through the internet.
Russian queers are steadily increasing their internet presence, largely thanks to a website called VKontakte (“In Touch”), known by students as Russian Facebook.
“Anyone can start a VKontakte group,” says Pravdin, who operates Russia’s longest-running queer web portal, xsgay.ru. “There are also blogs where people can go to get information.
“When I started in 1992, the internet was practically inoperative in Russia; only two to three percent of the population was connected.”
Now, Pravdin says, 60 percent of St Petersburg residents have internet access. Increasingly, the internet is connecting gays in Russia’s smaller cities, as well.
“In the provinces, there are practically no resources,” says Pravdin, “but there are a few message boards.”
“The connection is expensive and the standard of living is low [in the provinces],” says Sozaev. “But where there is a network, there is something starting.”