Aggressive homophobia, harassment and public incomprehension – these are the conditions under which members of Samara’s LGBT community live. In this city of 1.5m, homosexual, bisexual and transgender people are trying to unite to confront the problems they face in today’s Russia.
Pederasts and paedophiles
For the general public, the words ‘pederast’ and ‘paedophile’ mean exactly the same thing.
The main issue mentioned by representatives of Samara’s LGBT community is a complete lack of tolerance towards homosexuals – typical for provincial towns in Russia ‘Many Samaran residents are ignorant of what it means to be homosexual, bisexual and transgender, believing that members of the LGBT community are all paedophiles. Official propaganda is much to blame for that – state television channels often show documentary films in which it is said that homosexuality is a perversion alien to Russians, which was invented by the West. Homosexuals in these films are called ‘pederasts.’ For the general public, the words ‘pederast’ and ‘paedophile’ mean exactly the same thing,’ says 22-year-old Vladimir Solovyov. He has been in a stable relationship with his partner – whom he calls his boyfriend – for five years. Now that Vladimir has finished his university studies it is easier for him to demonstrate his right to love a man.
On the 11th of April, on the initiative of Avers, a picket and flashmob took place in Samara, the ‘Day of Silence.’
‘When I was a student, my parents supported me financially. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment and live together with my boyfriend as a family. Now I am independent. I took a job working as a programmer in one of the major IT firms. My colleagues know of my sexual orientation but do not judge me for it; and my heterosexual friends also respect my choice. At the start of my relationship with Igor, several people tried to judge and criticise me, and I broke off my relations with them, as I do not want anything to do with intolerant people. Age makes no difference, 20 year olds and 60 year olds can be intolerant towards LGBT people; the issue is a lack of education. People perceive gays and lesbians as perverts, just as they did 30 years ago under Soviet rule. Many say that LGBT people need to be treated in psychiatric hospitals. That’s awful. That is a violation of the human right to a free choice of sexual orientation. But what can be done, if Russia returns to a Stalinist model of society? Igor and I are now trying to improve our knowledge of English so that we can emigrate,’ says Solovyov.
My parents are people with a Soviet upbringing. For them, gays may as well be aliens.
My other interviewee is Viktor. He is the same age as Vladimir and is also gay. His parents, like so many, did not approve of his sexual orientation. ‘When I was 19, I opened up to my mother. I told her that I was gay and that I was seeing a guy. My mother and I used to get along well, but after she found out that I was gay she raised a scandal. She told my father everything. My parents began to follow my every move. I was forbidden from going to nightclubs. My older brother is 25 and married, though they live separately and he brings up his daughter. A month after my coming out, he ceased all contact with me. I suspect that my parents had told him about my orientation. Several times there were noisy rows with my parents at home. They tried to break my computer. They wouldn’t even let me walk in the courtyard. In their opinion, I became gay because I spend a lot of time behind a computer, on the internet. My parents are people with a Soviet upbringing. For them, gays may as well be aliens. I tried to show my parents the film Prayers for Bobby. I had hoped that they would understand that I cannot become a homosexual. I suggested to them that we visit a psychologist together. My parents said that they did not need a psychologist, and that they would take me to a psychiatrist. According to them, gays are mentally ill people who need treatment. My father provoked me into conflict several times and tried to beat me so that I would stop thinking about guys. My disgust towards my parents increased, and when I finished my studies at university, I left them to stay with my boyfriend. I left for my parents my university diploma and a note explaining that I have no obligations to them, and that it is my right to live my life how I want. I cannot go home – my parents do not allow me – and have also told my relatives not to communicate with me. I studied to be an economist, but do not work in my field. However I live with the man I love, and I am happy.’
Activists taped their mouths shut to portray the silence around problems faced by the LGBT community.
According to the sociology section of the Open Society human rights organisation, members of Samara’s LGBT community are attacked every month. One attack took place on the evening of the 19th of June, 2013. Two young men were assaulted by homophobes near the Aeroplane shopping centre. One of them was Artyom Fokin, at the time, leader of the Samara branch of the Libertarian Party of Russia. 21 year old Artyom and his friend arrived to meet an acquaintance. This man – a friend of Artyom’s – had earlier expressed his dislike of him. Arriving at the meeting place, they saw two men of strong physique who pushed them to the ground and began to kick them. In the scuffle, one of them received concussion, multiple bruises and soft tissue injuries to the head and body; another – a fractured arm with bone displacement and numerous bruises to the head and body. One of them was hospitalised.
Last year, when several members of Samara’s LGBT community went missing, the police did nothing to search for them.
In numerous cases, gays and lesbians fall into the hands of homophobes who have specially created profiles on dating sites, set up as traps. LGBT teenagers are often persecuted by their classmates at school. Last year, when several members of Samara’s LGBT community went missing, the police did nothing to search for them.
Few victims of homophobic attacks make statements to the police. People do not believe that the police can defend them from homophobes. ‘I was robbed during a meeting with a guy whom I got to know on a dating site – he took my mobile phone and money,’ wrote Danny on Samara’s LGBT community website. ‘He threatened me, saying that if I made a statement to the police, he would tell everybody that I was gay. When I went to the police, they advised me to withdraw my statement, saying that they ‘did not have time to deal with gay issues.”’
Samara’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are trying to unite to confront the problems they face. The community organisation Avers unites Samara’s LGBT people. It has a membership of over 200 people, and its community page on the VKontakte social network has 924 subscribers. Mikhail Tumasov, the leader of Avers, says that the movement’s chief task is to defend the rights and freedoms of LGBT people. Avers conducts educational and human rights advocacy seminars, holds discussions on topics of LGBT interest, and offers legal counsel. Avers has its own security service as well, which publishes information about aggressive homophobes on the organisation’s website and VKontakte page.
On the 11th of April, on the initiative of Avers, a picket and flashmob took place in Samara, the ‘Day of Silence.’ The event was held in the framework of the ‘month against homophobia and transphobia in Samara and Tolyatti.’ On the 8th of April, Oksana Berezovskaya, one of the leaders of Avers, sent prior notice of the picket to the authorities. The following day, the police telephoned to inform her that the picket was not permitted. Berezovskaya decided to hold it anyway – the Russian Constitution permits public events of up to a hundred people to be held without prior notification to the authorities.
On Samara’s Pushkin Square, on the 11th of April, five representatives of the LGBT movement, Alina Alieva, Denis Badov, Vera Bochkareva, Aleksandra Korneyeva and Anastasiya Ostapenko held the picket against persecution of LGBT people in Russia. All five participants’ mouths were taped shut. This was how the youths portrayed the silence around problems for the LGBT community. At the end of the event they removed the tape, showing that they no longer wanted to keep quiet about the situation of LGBT activists in Russia.
The official reaction
The picket lasted about an hour, and was observed by 15 uniformed officers, and seven plainclothes. The police expressed an interest in the protesters, and the reasons for their picket. They then recorded the passport details of the activists. It was a deceptive calm.
Denis Badov was summoned to the district military office, for immediate conscription.
On the 18th of April, a district police officer arrived at the home of Aleksandra Korneyeva, one of the participants of the picket, and asked her to come to the police station for questioning. There she was asked to provide a written explanation for her participation in the events of the 11th of April. Denis Badov was summoned to the district military office, for immediate conscription. When police arrived at the home of the third participant, they had an educational talk with the parents, declaring that their child was wanted for participating in an unsanctioned rally. At the end of April, the police issued administrative proceedings against Aleksandra Korneyeva. She was accused of participating in an unsanctioned event (article 20.2, part 5 of the Administrative Offences Code of Russia) with the use of masks (as the police termed the sticking tape over the mouths of the LGBT activists). Korneyeva was also accused of distributing propaganda materials and failing to comply with repeated police requests to terminate the public event.
The Leninsky District court in Samara held a hearing on the administrative case against Aleksandra Korneyeva on the 5th of May. The trial lasted about an hour. Independent observers noted several violations of the judicial process. No mention of the case against Korneyeva was made in the official lists of proceedings being held, which should have been publically available at the courthouse’s information stand. Representatives of the press, observers and spectators were not permitted to attend, though the case was to be held in public. Korneyeva’s public advocate was not admitted to the proceedings.
The original founder of the organisation, Mikhail Tumasov, moved to Samara to live with his boyfriend.
In an anonymous survey, 70% of members of Samara’s LGBT community expressed a desire to emigrate from Russia.
The case was ajdourned. Avers intends to lodge a formal complaint to the prosecutor’s office against the illegal actions of police officers and the military recruiting office. In the opinion of Avers, the police are attempting to put pressure on civic activists. LGBT activists have appealed to Irina Skupova, the Samara Region Commissioner for Human Rights, with a request to investigate pressure from the police, and to take measures to protect their rights.
Members of Samara’s LGBT community do not consider themselves people of a ‘non-traditional orientation.’ They say that they are just the same as anybody else. Yet Samara, unfortunately, is not Moscow and not St Petersburg, and its residents are still a long way from the tolerance of the capital and cultural capital. Perhaps that is why, in an anonymous survey, 70% of members of Samara’s LGBT community expressed a desire to emigrate from Russia.
The cases against Alieva, Badov and Ostapenko have been postponed until 18 June.
All photos: c Valery Pavlukevich
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