Making May 17 count in Russia


May 17 is the International Day against Homophobia. It’s a particularly pertinent day for Russia, where life is rapidly becoming unsafe for LGBT children and adults.

Tanya Cooper
15 May 2015

May 17 is the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It’s a particularly pertinent day for Russia, where life is rapidly becoming unsafe for LGBT children and adults.

‘I’m sad that there is so much hatred in the world toward gays,’ 15-year-old Dima wrote. ‘We are also people! I want to tell everyone [about myself], but it’s the physical pain that scares me, not the psychological pain. I live in a […] small town with many homophobic thugs.’

Dima was writing on social network group, Children 404 (Deti 404), created by a journalist, Elena Klimova, after she had written a series of articles about Russia’s federal ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013. Soon after she began receiving letters from children in which they shared their stories of loneliness and abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Children 404 tells the stories of how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children are treated in Russia in their own words and offers suicide prevention counseling. Klimova has received death threats because of her work, she told me.

‘Protecting’ children

President Vladimir Putin likes to boast that in Russia they don’t send gays to prison, as opposed to Uganda, Iran or the former Soviet Union, where sex between men was punishable by five years of hard labour. But Russia is a country where it is illegal to tell a child that there is nothing wrong with a same sex relationship, or that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender is normal. Do it and you’ll be fined or deported, if you’re a foreigner. We must protect children, we are told.

President Vladimir Putin likes to boast that in Russia they don’t send gays to prison.

The government says it doesn’t restrict LGBT people’s right to freedom of expression, but Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law makes the right to express oneself freely ‘dangerous’ for Russia’s children.

In December President Putin said that protecting the ‘traditional family’ […] shouldn’t be seen as if we plan to persecute people of non-traditional sexual orientation.’ It might be news to Russian officials, but denying the existence of discrimination and raging homophobia in the country does not magically make it go away. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of attacks and other types of abuse against LGBT people. Not a single case we documented between 2012 and 2014 was investigated or prosecuted as a hate crime.

Russian officials say the ‘gay propaganda’ law, which makes it an administrative offence to discuss homosexuality with children, was adopted to protect children. President Putin pointed out that a ‘society that cannot protect its children doesn’t have a future.’ So let’s talk about Russia’s children.

Children 404

Klimova receives letters like Dima’s every day from children, who have been called ‘abnormal,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘pedophiles,’ ‘mentally-ill,’ and other hateful and hurtful insults by their parents, siblings, teachers, classmates. From several thousands of stories posted on Children 404, it’s clear that LGBT children are struggling to find a safe space to understand their sexual and physiological development and to be themselves.

They write to Children 404, where they can find a sympathetic ear and not feel judged and rejected. The government provides no similar support for them, despite alarming rates of suicide among teenagers and younger children in Russia. According to the state consumer rights agency, in 2013 Russia had the highest number of child suicides in Europe.

Instead, Russian authorities want to get rid of Children 404. Klimova has been taken to court twice in the last year for violating the federal ‘gay propaganda’ law. While the first case against her was dismissed in February 2014, she is awaiting a retrial in a second case. Simultaneously, St Petersburg authorities are seeking to block the online group from public access in Russia because it contains ‘propaganda.’

Klimova has reported death threats that she receives online almost as often as letters from LGBT children, but she gets no protection from the police. Men, women, children send her messages filled with obscenities and threats because of her work with Children 404. Klimova told me that after repeated visits to the local police to report these threats, police officers told her that they did not take online death threats seriously, and she gave up. She did however publish on her Facebook account some of these messages and they shock by their vile language and unadulterated hatred. These people say they hate Klimova and want to see her in prison or hurt or kill her because she is a lesbian and ‘propagandising homosexuality’ to children.

Klimova has reported death threats that she receives online almost as often as letters from LGBT children.

May 17

May 17 is the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, when the world remembers and commemorates victims of homophobic and transphobic violence -- violence that can be prevented and stopped with some political will. Instead, the Russian government puts many Russian citizens in danger by ignoring anti-LGBT violence and allowing it to take place with impunity.

Russia is rapidly becoming unsafe for LGBT children and adults. If Russian authorities really want to protect children, they need to condemn homophobia and prosecute homophobic violence. May 17 would be a great day to start. Then there might be an answer to the questions Dima wrote on Children 404:

‘What should I do? How to find love if you have to hide?’

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Most countries closed their borders over the pandemic, but for asylum seekers, deportation continued all over the world. More and more often, they are returned to the same life-threatening conditions that they fled.

To mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, and the launch of our multimedia project 'Parallel Journeys', join us as we explore returns without reintegration.

Hear from:

  • Nassim Majidi, Co-Founder of Samuel Hall where she leads research and policy development on migration and displacement. She also teaches a graduate course on Refugees & Migration as part of Sciences Po Lille’s Conflict and Development Programme.
  • Claudio Formisano, an international affairs expert with 15 years of experience in designing and managing multi-sectoral programmes to address human trafficking, the smuggling of migrants and in fostering human rights compliance.
  • Léa Yammine, Deputy Director at Lebanon Support, an independent research centre based in Lebanon and multi-disciplinary space creating synergies and bridges between the scientific, practitioner, and policy spheres.
  • Chair, Preethi Nallu, an independent journalist, writer and film-maker focused on migration and displacement. She is founding editor at Refugees Deeply, a multimedia journalist at openDemocracy and a media collaborations specialist at International Media Support.
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