Russian LGBT activists battle teenage isolation

Young people discovering their sexuality have been denied access to information or acceptance in the five years since the so-called gay propaganda law was passed. Barney Cullum reports from Saint Petersburg

A rainbow colour ribbon tied to a crucifix is seen next to a Russian flag fluttering atop the State Hermitage Museum during the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community rally in central St. Petersburg, Russia 4 August 2018. REUTERS/Sergey Konkov

The month of Pride came and went this past June without celebration in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s unofficial LGBT capital. It should not have been this way. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the repeal of legislation that had seen men imprisoned for having sex with other men.

Russian women were detained in psychiatric clinics if they expressed attraction towards other women during the six dark decades during which Article 121 of the criminal code was in statute. The practice continued for two years after the break up the Soviet Union and founding of modern Russia on Christmas Day in 1991.

Gulya Sultanova was one of those who suppressed her feelings. ‘I was 15 when I first understood that I was attracted to women,’ she recalls. ‘I grew up in Soviet times and I felt like I was ill. I felt like there was something wrong with my feelings; my personality. There was a psychological battle.’

Things didn’t change as Gulya entered adulthood. She was 18 when Article 121 was finally overturned in 1993. She remained in denial about her sexuality into her mid-twenties. The association between homosexuality and perceived mental illness had been in place so long that it persisted, even among many individuals who identified as LGBT.

Gulya Sultanova hid her sexuality for ten years.
She now showcases 'films about love in a climate of hate'.

‘I couldn’t express my feelings to anyone because I had this fear that I would be rejected. By my family. Even by my best friends. There was no homophobic campaign then like there is now, but I couldn’t find anyone to express my feelings to. The hardest thing was that there was no information. This [risk of isolation] is relevant to every society: if you have organizations, if you have information, people can liberate themselves more quickly.’

Information is something that young Russians are again now being denied. Five years have passed since the so-called gay propaganda law was signed into statute by President Vladimir Putin. ‘The Russian Federal Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’ is its full name. The 2013 amendment outlawed ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.’ Restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to information both go against the Russian Constitution. The shifts coincided with the resurgence of the Orthodox Church following the fall of Communism, which had silenced it.

Children-404, an online service providing psychological support, advice, and a safe community for LGBT children, recently became the eighth organization to be censored under the propaganda law, according to Human Rights Watch. Young Russians have been cut adrift once more. Those that turn 18 this year will have experienced isolation throughout all their teenage years. Though there has been little for the local LGBT community to celebrate recently, Saint Petersburg – unlike the state capital Moscow – has staged Pride demos fairly regularly. Not this year.

‘We try to organize marches,’ says Gulya, a city native. ‘Sometimes it’s allowed; sometimes not. We had a demonstration in 2017 but people were so tired this year. To make something, you have to organize it yourself. Sometimes people are burning out.’ LGBT activism is most visible in Russia’s second city, which has four large organizations to Moscow’s one, but it demands stamina. A Saint Petersburg based ‘diversity house’ for LGBT football fans (and others) was delayed, opened, closed, moved and reopened all within days of the Russia World Cup starting. Stalling tactics are familiar and wearying.

Hate crimes – including those that are sexually violent in nature – have made a widely documented return also. In Soviet times gay men would be the most common targets of rape in prison, Gulya says. Now, empowered homophobes openly target LGBT people on the street or online.

Overcoming hostility

Ilya Ershov manages Open Space, a safe-space hub for activists of all causes, in central Saint Petersburg. ‘LGBT rights are the most controversial topic in Russia today,’ he says. ‘More than Ukraine or Crimea; more than any other topic.’ Open Space has been operating for six years. It has had a handful of incidents of intimidation. The worst coincided with an LGBT film screening held at the venue. Timur Bulatov, one of Russia’s most high-profile anti-LGBT trolls, tried to gain entry and later made online threats of sexual violence against attendees, Ilya says.

Ilya Ershov manages Open Space, a safe-space hub
for activists of all causes, in central Saint Petersburg.
'LGBT rights are the most controversial topic in Russia today,' he says.

The film screening was not open to under-18s. Furthermore, due to the small capacity of the building, it did not need approval from the Ministry of Culture to show its choice of movies. It was legal. Nonetheless, Ilya admits it’s an activity that could provoke police or city officials to ‘find’ an offence should they choose to. ‘They can always “put something in my pocket” if they want to, I know that,’ says Ilya, who worked as an electoral observer when Putin won his third term in 2011. ‘I don’t want to live in a cell. That’s not a comfortable place for anyone. But nor do I want to spend my time anywhere other than Open Space. It’s a place where I can be around other people I feel safe with.’

Gulya has common ground with Ilya in that she also plays with fire through co-ordinating the screening of LGBT films in Saint Petersburg and indeed across wider Russia. The 43-year-old is one of a small team that has been running Side by Side, a film festival showcasing ‘films about love in a climate of hate’, for 10 years.

‘I decided to do something for me and for other people like me,’ she says. ‘It is difficult to (directly) support teenagers because we are not allowed to sell tickets to them. We also have to have passport control checks because of provocations from homophobic people and we have to defend ourselves.’

The impact is energizing, however. ‘Handsome Devil was a film we showed at the last festival. Made by an Irish production company, it was about bullying in schools in Russia. After that showing, we had very good discussions about LGBT teenagers in Russia and the propaganda law. We could talk about a lot of topics that are very real and relevant in Russia: “What is bullying?” “What can start and stop bullying?”’

Side by Side’s marketing is all branded 18+. The company, backed by overseas human rights organizations, has also sacrificed the tax breaks of being an NGO in order to avoid the sanctions now imposed on ‘foreign agents’ who go off-message. ‘If someone wants to put us away tomorrow they will find a way to do it,’ she smiles, pragmatically. ‘But we are committed because we have teachers and psychologists who have to learn more, to know more, to read more and to understand more how to help. Even if it’s dangerous for them, it is important teenagers are not left isolated.’