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Russia’s global war on LGBTIQ people won’t stop me from marching with pride

I lived most of my adult life a closeted lesbian in Russia. Even in New York, I can feel its ‘traditional values’ ideological weapon. This is what I’m protesting today.

Olga Baranova
30 June 2019
LGBTIQ rights protest in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany 2018.
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Omer Messinger/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

It's Pride month and, across the world, LGBTIQ rights movements have organised numerous public events to loudly and clearly demand equality and celebrate diversity. As a lesbian woman from Russia, this month is also, inevitably, a period of personal reflection – about my identity, my activism and my pride.

Russia has gained worldwide notoriety for its staunch protection of so-called 'traditional values,' and its corresponding demonisation of LGBTIQ people – not only for living outside of these values, but for supposedly threatening society at large. In Russia today, pride for LGBTIQ people is a challenging concept, to say the least.

It’s no wonder, then, that I spent most of my adult life a closeted lesbian in Russia. I simply lived my life; while my closest friends knew about my sexuality, no one else needed to. I had a partner of many years: at work, we said that we were cousins.

“It’s no wonder that I spent most of my adult life a closeted lesbian in Russia”

Once our baby was born, I realised I was not ready to lie to him. It was crucial for me that he perceive us as a genuine, loving family, worthy of the same rights as any other. I wanted my son to know that people are diverse, and that characteristics like skin colour or sexual orientation do not determine whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

It’s these thoughts that drove me to search for other families like ours – to engage more with the local LGBTIQ community in Russia, and with activism. When my son was just two years old, he took part in his first civic activity; we brought him with us as we handed out flowers and notes against homophobia to passersby on the streets.

At that time, it was not against the law to bring a child to such events. Then, in 2013, the infamous federal law prohibiting the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” was passed. Being LGBTIQ, loud and proud, became more difficult.

This law targets our freedom of speech, and in essence bans any communication about the existence of LGBTIQ people, or LGBTIQ issues, to children. It has been used to prevent many LGBTIQ rights events, to shut down LGBTIQ websites, and even to prosecute people for sharing LGBTIQ content on their private social media accounts.

This law made it illegal for me to take my son to these events. In fact, the very relationship between my son’s two mothers, in his presence, had been criminalised.

“The very relationship between my son’s two mothers, in his presence, had been criminalised”

Since then, the situation has only worsened. This law, positioning us as threats to children, gave a ‘green light’ to violence and harassment against LGBTIQ people targeted by a vicious smear campaign in the name of so-called ‘traditional values’.

This is a useful ideology for those in high office: aligning the president with the Orthodox church, thus giving him almost divine-like status, and increasing his power.

But hate crime and hate speech against LGBTIQ people has risen, culminating in reports of mass persecution, illegal detention, torture and even murders in the Chechen republic, carried out with seemingly complete impunity. Lawmakers in Russia have also discussed steps to remove children from families like ours, though this did not pass.

Against the odds, we continued our activism in Russia as long as we could. Organising with the Moscow LGBT community centre, we were on the frontline helping those fleeing Chechnya to get to safety. Yet, life as lesbian parents was increasingly tough.

I was determined to keep fighting, but I feared the repercussions this could have on my family. I lived in constant fear that the state would tear us apart. We left Russia in 2018.

We now live in New York, freely and publicly as a lesbian couple without fear of persecution, imprisonment, or the forcible break up of our family. Though, even here, the impact of Russia’s ideological weapon – these so-called ‘traditional values’ – is felt.

“Russia uses ‘traditional values’ to gain international power too”

Russian politicians use this weapon not only to solidify their domestic power, but also to gain international power via alliances with other conservative states.

These alliances have launched campaigns at the UN, for example, to rollback the rights of LGBTIQ people via the international system. Recently I researched these campaigns for a report published this month by the NGO OutRight Action International.

I’ve been looking forward to joining the 2019 World Pride march in New York City, today. With my family, I will march freely and with pride and a Russian flag – celebrating the world’s incredible diversity, and exactly who I am.

I will march with pride against the odds, protesting the far-reaching and extremely dangerous backlash against the rights of LGBTIQ people, women, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the ‘traditional family’ that Russia has weoponised locally, and globally.

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