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Meet Illuminator, the online project making space for discussing LGBT issues in Russia

The Illuminator project showcases the human targets of Russia’s conservative turn. RU

An LGBT pride parade in St Petersburg, 2014. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Maria Komarova / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 2014, Russian directors Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov made Children-404, a film about young LGBT people in Russia and the harassment they face. In 2017, Pavel Loparev set up an educational project called Illuminator. This initiative, aimed at parents, uses video lectures by experts and short documentary films to explain the nature of their child’s sexual orientation and suggests how they should react to their coming-out.

I spoke to Loparev about the beginnings of Illuminator and where it’s going now, why he moved his husband from New York to Siberia and why coming out in Russia is necessary, but risky.

How did the idea for the project come to you?

I spent several years worrying about how I could come out to my own parents. I was open enough about my sexuality with my friends and colleagues, but I couldn’t get round to talking to them. We lived in different cities (Pavel’s parents live in Tyumen, in Siberia, but he was based in Moscow before moving to New York), although we spoke to one another almost every day. But there were deeply personal things we just couldn’t talk about. We were in a “grey zone”, where my parents just didn’t ask questions about my private life.

I couldn’t get round to coming out with them, but knew I had to do it, and this situation provided the spark I needed to get involved in LGBT-connected projects. Askold Kurov and I made Children-404 about a support group for LGBT teens, for example. But even that didn’t get me talking to my parents. I realised that coming out wouldn’t really mean a break with them, but I was somehow scared of being rejected, or of messing up their lives. I had hardly ever encountered homophobia in my own life, but my parents still might not have been ready for it. So I had this rather egotistic idea – I would set up an educational project that would help my mum and dad accept me.

How did you develop the format?

I had, and still have, an animation studio where we made social education films: on HIV, hepatitis, “butterfly children”. Before that I was a journalist, and did a degree at the Moscow Documentary Film School. So I realised that I could bring all my knowledge and skills together in one project. There would be a module with interviews with experts and a documentary module, based on film and animation skills, that would take a light-hearted, jokey look at sexual orientation and gender identity. After that, the concept came together quite quickly.

“I refuse to be invisible”. Photo of one of the participants of the project “Children 404”. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Ivan Simochkin / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.I then had a chat with my producer colleague Ira Khodereva, and she immediately changed from a listener into an ally and team-mate. That was in June 2015. But everything went very slowly after that.

Why?

I went off to the USA and she stayed in Moscow. We phoned each other several times a week, talked a lot about the aims of the project and each modified our position on it. Eight or nine months went by like that, and then we looked for other people to join our team. It was really great that our colleagues in the project weren’t themselves part of the LGBT community. I mean, it’s one thing that gay people are fighting for their rights, but having people from outside the community as well gives you a whole new level of consciousness and maturity. At the same time, there are just two people, Ira and myself, at the core of the team. We hire someone to record interviews with experts, and then someone else works with the sound, someone with the lighting, and so on. We had a team of 20 people over the duration of the project.

How did you go about finding expert contributors and how did you select them? It doesn’t seem like it would be simple to find the right people in Russia.    

We started by contacting Resource, a Moscow-based LGBT organisation. We told them about our idea and admitted that we didn’t even know if there would be a demand for the project in the target audience. The awareness level on sexual orientation and gender identity issues is not great in Russia. But do the kids’ parents need this? Resource confirmed these thoughts of ours and helped us make first contact with potential speakers.

We wanted to position the project as something that was independent of LGBT organisations

We had pretty clear criteria for selecting them. In the first place, they shouldn’t be LGBT activists…

Why not?

We wanted to position the project as something that was independent of LGBT organisations. Because if a young person comes out, their parents might find the term unacceptable, and we wanted to break down that barrier straight away. The second criterion was that the experts should have some authority in their field. And in the third place, they had to live and work in Russia – and of course have some charisma and experience in public speaking.

Did you make some effort to understand the potential audience’s needs?  

Yes, in parallel with looking for experts, we carried out surveys and polls among parents. We made contact with parents’ organisations (although they barely exist in Russia), and in the end we talked to parents both here and in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. We asked them to list the 10 main fears and questions that were running through their heads after their child came out, and we used these surveys as a basis when we were compiling questions for parents to answer.

What happened next?

We spent a couple of months in Moscow and St Petersburg, recording interviews with contributors. Then we edited them together and set up our website, and rolled it all out over two or three months. We also had small focus groups that we sent the interviews to, asking them to comment on them and also the layout of the site. Their members included LGBT activists and non LGBT people – those were the parents. I also took advantage of my own professional status and before the site went live I came out to my parents. My mother was cool with it, and I asked her to be an expert assessor. So she took pen and paper and reviewed all 60 interviews. We kept in touch on the phone, held planning meetings and discussed the pros and cons of the various modules and speakers – which really helped us to get closer to one another.

It was important for us to show a variety of levels of parental acceptance – to film people who were just going through their child’s coming-out process

Other parents shared their recommendations on video, and we ended up with a huge document where we systematically recorded every comment on the project’s content, design and so on. And we used that to rework the site quite drastically before its official launch.

How did you shoot the films about the parents? I noticed that Russian media outlet Meduza posted it on its site. The footage is very intimate – it must have been difficult to persuade people to share their stories.

Yes, it wasn’t easy, but there’s a kind of magic in documentary cinema. We knew straight away how we wanted to shoot the films. Our approach – honest, intimate, “in your face” – was the only one possible. It was also clear that they had to be shot by somebody from the film school where I did my degree. And I was so happy when I found Inna Omelchenko and Olya Privolnova.

It was also difficult to find people to take part in the films. We looked for mothers in activist parents’ associations, forums and LGBT organisations and among our friends and acquaintances. At first, no one came forward to be filmed, but then we found several people at once. And in fact, finding parents of gay teenagers was easiest of all, followed by lesbians’ mothers and bisexual girls. The most difficult people to find were the parents of transgender young people.

It was important for us to show a variety of levels of parental acceptance – to film people who were just going through their child’s coming-out process, for example. And for Natasha, one of the mothers, it was the very first time she had talked to anyone about the issue. And the first time she had been filmed: “I’ve never talked to anyone about it,” she said.

What did you discover for yourself while you were filming Illuminator?

For me, the best part of the experience was the cooperation within the group. It’s one thing when you come together for a commercial project: there’s a clear financial element involved and a strict hierarchy. But our team had no such hierarchy, no one who would bang the table – all our decisions were taken as a collective. We had to learn how to do things differently as a team. Plus, one of the potential problems is burnout. You need to find a balance between how much you give to the project and how much you need to put aside for yourself, to recover. Personally, I see Illuminator as a voluntary project. I don’t get paid for 90% of my time.

What do you see now as the project’s main aim?

I see it as an alternative means of providing serious information for adults about sexual orientation and gender identity, so that they can better understand their children. I think that parents sometimes find it difficult to identify with their own situation as mothers and fathers of LGBT young people, so it’s important to offer them useful information. And the entire project is designed for those who are looking for answers to their questions.

We won’t change homophobes’ minds, but we’ll help people who are already asking questions to understand their child.

Let’s assume that there are people in Moscow and St Petersburg who are more or less au fait with LGBT issues. But how will you talk to parents about their children somewhere in Tula, for example?    

Yes, there is problem with reaching a wider audience. A parent of an LGBT teenager is basically the parent of a teenager. There can be an LGBT young person in any family, whatever their education or background. That’s why we had to find an idiom for the project that would be not too simple and not too complex.

People hate gay people in the abstract, so individuals coming out makes a real difference

When we launched our channel on YouTube, we had all kinds of feedback. One person would write, “This is an insult to your audience. They’re talking to us as though we were in nursery school!” while another would say, “It’s some kind of gobble-de-gook: I can’t understand it. It’s too remote for me.” So we can just hope that it has all balanced out.

How would you like to develop Illuminator further?

We still haven’t done the animation part of the project. We’d like to do a series of interviews on inter-sex issues and complete the section on bisexuality. We’ve created social media and are trying to tell people about ourselves through them.

In 2016, you got married in New York and now live there. How wide is the gap between the US and Siberia in terms of gay people being accepted?

In New York (which is also a totally untypical “bubble” within America), people pay no attention to any kind of “otherness”. That is still very different in Russia. The most clichéd but real example is to ask yourself if you can imagine a gay couple walking hand in hand along a street, even in Moscow…

Last summer, my husband and I flew to Tyumen to meet my parents. Before we left New York he said, “I want to avoid any kind of provocation, so let’s try to control ourselves when we’re in Russia”. I was thinking, “I have to be careful not to touch him. Or I could just touch him as I would a friend, not a partner”… That thought was constantly in my mind and was a bit of a downer on the trip. And that feeling of normality in New York and abnormality in Russia is something you can feel on your skin.

I agree with one of the experts who contributed to the project, that the attitude to LGBT in Russia is like its internal and external politics. People, their health and quality of life become hostages to those to use this “LGBT-card” to incite others to aggression. And I can’t see any big improvements on the way.

I think that some things might change at a personal level, but Illuminator can’t bring that about on its own. Asya Kazantseva, one of our experts, has said that people hate gay people in the abstract, so individuals coming out makes a real difference. The more openly gay, lesbian and transgender people are around, the better. But while their situation in Russia is so stressful, they can’t be open about themselves – it’s too dangerous. So you’re left in a vicious circle.

 


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