On 21 April 2022, a St Petersburg district court issued a decision to shut down the LGBT+ rights organisation that I run, Charitable Foundation Sphere.
CF Sphere had provided direct assistance to LGBT+ people in Russia, supported regional initiatives and led advocacy efforts to raise awareness about discrimination for more than a decade.
The Russian Ministry of Justice said the foundation’s activity went against state policy because “all the actual activities of the organisation are aimed at supporting the LGBT movement in Russia” and therefore Sphere was aiming to “change the legislation and moral foundations in the Russian Federation”. Such a court ruling, based on ideology rather than law, sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of LGBT+ initiatives in the country.
When we at Sphere learned about the ruling to liquidate the organisation, we were not particularly surprised – we had been expecting such a decision for months. Last October, when representatives of the Ministry of Justice came to the foundation for an unscheduled inspection, we suspected it marked the end of our work as we knew it.
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We were asked to present more than 5,000 pages of documentation, covering three years, in the space of a week. After that, for a while, there was silence from the government – but the inspection was a clear message that we had a target on our backs.
Then the founder of Sphere, Igor Kotchetkov, and a separate umbrella group called the Russian LGBT Network, whose projects Sphere had worked on, were designated “foreign agents”.
The same fate followed for a number of other organisations associated with Sphere. In fact, the entire list of so-called “unregistered public associations that are recognised as foreign agents” currently consists of seven entities, five of which are initiatives helping LGBT+ people.
In the course of the last month, three people who were public about their work with LGBT+ organisations became “foreign agents” too. Being named a “foreign agent” is a mark of quality in the human rights community these days, but it necessitates significant extra accountability to government bodies, and brings diminished credibility in the eyes of the general public.
It started seeming more and more like full-fledged persecution. The Russian Ministry of Justice took Sphere to court in February, with a bid to liquidate the foundation based on the results of the unscheduled inspection. It was as if the government was hoping that putting an end to Sphere’s activity would ‘cut off the dragon’s head’ – suffocate the rest of the LGBT+ movement, or at least make an example out of us and scare others into staying out of sight.
LGBT+ people in Russia are more vulnerable than ever
The Russian government’s desire to suffocate the human rights movement and independent media as a whole isn’t particularly shocking. Activists and journalists are being fined, investigated and arrested in droves, and just about any action can be interpreted as a wrong, “illegal” move. Presenting an opinion that differs from the official course, or protecting human rights and democratic freedoms, is seen as a threat to the regime. No wonder that thousands of people – or, perhaps, tens of thousands (there is no exact data), have recently left the country.
Nonetheless, it seems that the existing regime has a special vendetta against LGBT+ people. After all, state homophobia was legitimised as far back as 2013, with the adoption of the law against “gay propaganda”. Through the years, the law was used to curb the LGBT+ movement by fining queer activists, blocking online sources and shutting down events, on top of increasing stigma and creating conditions of social hostility.
Lately, MPs have been discussing the adoption of new bills. One of them would be used to prevent the spreading of “toxic content”. Such content would, among other things, include topics related to LGBT+ people and feminism.
The second bill would see the adoption of “Fundamentals of the State Policy for the Preservation and Strengthening of Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values”, which, most likely, would further cement patriarchal societal norms.
Being LGBT+ is being used by the government in an ideological confrontation with the West. In other words, “non-traditional” sexual orientation or gender identity is being framed in state rhetoric as a product of external “foreign” influence.
This means LGBT+ people are in an exceedingly vulnerable position, now more than ever, as Russia is visibly escalating its efforts to push back against anything that is deemed as not being “inherently Russian”.
That is why it does not really matter what Sphere is called in government registers. As far as we are concerned, there are only two things that really matter.
First, there are people in Russia, an entire social group, who are being muzzled and demonised as if their identities are not real but the result of foreign influence. These people still need help and a platform to give them a voice.
Second, we still have our team, experts who have been learning to adapt to an uncertain and even dangerous environment for years, and have persevered. The outcome of the legal battle to liquidate the foundation, then, is simple. Certainly, it is now going to be that much more complicated to do our job. But Sphere as a group of those who are not ready to give up on human rights is not going anywhere.