In honour of National Coming Out Day, after seeing this Pulitzer-grant-winning series on the impact of official homophobia on GLBT people in provincial Russian cities, I decided to repost this old story from 2012. It’s a continuation of this story, which I wrote when I was in St. Petersburg.
No country in the world is larger than Russia, and no distances are greater than Russian distances. This is particularly evident in the country’s growing queer movement. St. Petersburg, the city’s self-described “gay capital” , where Day of Silence marchers distributed flyers unmolested, and Moscow, the capital, where activists successfully fought to allow gay men to donate blood, are an eight-hour train ride apart in the northwestern part of the country. East of Moscow, the country stretches onward for ten time zones, and the landscape is often less optimistic than in the two metropolises.
The forums of gayvladivostok.ru are most likely lit up while the rest of Russia is sleeping—when it’s three in the morning in Moscow, it’s 10 a.m. in this city on the Pacific. “Unfortunately, the distance of Vladivostok from the capital cities influences the intensity of gay events in our city,” said the site’s administrator, who gave only his first name, Evgeny. “There’s no discussion at all about prides, and not only because of the unreadiness of the general public to handle these events, but because of the unpreparedness of gays and lesbians themselves to show their own orientation.”
“We don’t have a lot of events,” seconds Tatyana Lapushkina, who coordinated Day of Silence observations in Ivanovo, a city of 400,000 about 500 kilometers northeast of Moscow. “People aren’t really looking to participate in events because they’re afraid of being found out. And in our city there are no spots for gays, not even a bar.”
Additionally, says Valery Sozaev of the St. Peterburg-based GLBT group Vyhod (Exit), the standard of living is lower in the provinces and an Internet connection is a large expense. Many resources for Russian gays are found online, but Sozaev says that in the smaller cities “not everyone can afford a computer.”
“It wasn’t very long ago that the Internet appeared here [in Ivanovo].” Lapushkina says. “Because of that even now many people don’t have the chance to read” the information on the pan-Russian queer websites.
The small size of the provincial cities makes resources harder to come by. “As far as official organizations go, there is not a single one here,” says Lapushkina. “No psychologists, no lawyers, no public organizations. Our resources are the sites of LGBT organizations in other cities.”
“In the whole Far East there are no public or legal organizations addressing the concerns of the GLBT community,” says Evgeny.
As a result, support networks in larger cities have expanded to take in much larger regions. Evgeny says his web portal has expanded to provide resources to gays throughout the Russian Far East.
Vyhod and the Petersburg-based pan-Russian organization LGBTSet do what they can to help far-flung provincial groups. “We give support so organizations can work in those regions,” says Sozaev. “Psychological support, logistical support and financial help when possible.”
“I would like to see people in other cities live like they do in Petersburg and Moscow,” says Igor Pravdin, who runs a St. Petersburg-based gay web portal. He says a “problem of mentality and tradition” exists in the rest of the country. “The Orthodox Church has a big influence even though [Russia] is a secular state.“ Pravdin notes that during Soviet times homosexuality was illegal in Russia. “The gay community was like a closed conspiracy,” he says, “and in a few cities it’s still like that.”
In many provincial cities, the situation for queers is dire. “The governor of Tambov [southeast of Moscow] said, ‘Gays need to be ripped into pieces and thrown into the garbage,” said Sozaev , ripping paper apart as he spoke. “Killed! And he is still governor.”
Pravdin says gay-bashing is rare in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but activists in provincial cities tell quite a different tale. Lapushkina and Evgeny from Vladivostok report that events have been interrupted by skinheads. The first Vladivostok Gay Awards, reports Evgeny, “were darkened by the attack of a group of skinheads, who broke the entrance door of the club and threw smoke bombs.”
The attendees at that awards ceremony, however, got off easy compared to two Ivanovo schoolgirls. “Last year two teenage girls were very badly beaten,” says Lapushkina. “Their faces were mutilated and they needed a long time to recover.”
Evgeny Manolov, a gay organizer in the town of Yaroslavl near Moscow, says matter-of-factly: “They could beat you if you forget and start showing your orientation. For young men, they’d best not hold hands in the street.”
Most of the violence comes from self-described skinhead groups, Lapushkina says, who “think that by killing gays, they can make a better world.”
Homosexuality has been decriminalized in Russia for 15 years, but Lapushkina says people are often too unaware of their rights to stand up for themselves. “We have a general problem in Russia, a low level of social and political activism of people,” Lapushkina says. “People don’t understand that someone is violating their rights. People don’t even know what rights they have.”
“Not long ago an acquaintance of mine was fired from work,” Lapushkina says, “because she was a lesbian, and this became known to her boss. This kind of firing is illegal, but my acquaintance doesn’t want to fight for her rights. She thinks that on some level this is normal.”
“Gays themselves think that being gay is bad and shameful,” she says. “And that’s where I see our biggest problem.”
Due to this mentality and also to safety concerns, coming out can be dangerous, and therefore not everyone is brave enough to do it. “Our biggest difficulty is with gays and lesbians themselves,” says Lapushkina. “We have so few out LGBT people; there are practically none of us in the city. “
Manolov says one of his group’s biggest obstacles is the “absolutely justified fear of the majority of the gay population to show its orientation to the public.”
“It even takes preparation to tell your friends about your orientation, and not all of them will stay your friends after you tell them about it.”
There is a consensus that coming out is far easier for women than men, Sozaev says. “Russia has patriarchal foundations, and masculinity is the opposite of femininity and homosexuality. The emotional closeness of women is more positively seen.”
As a result, there is a notable predominance of women at GLBT events. “From time to time we have group meetings…we get together about 30 people and I’m the only guy,” Manolov says.
At Day of Silence, we were 16 girls and one male-to-female transsexual,” Lapushkina says. “People relate much worse to gay males than to lesbians here, and therefore it’s dangerous for gay men to go to these events.”
Likewise, Manolov says that when the Yaroslavl group has held events, only “a few lesbians” felt safe enough to make their orientation obvious, and even then “not in the streets, only in the café or wherever else we were gathering.”
Consequently, the visibility of LGBT people in these cities is low. “The city government ignores us,” says Lapushkina. “Most people know nothing about us, thar is, we practically don’t exist. People prefer not to notice what they find unpleasant or what they don’t understand; when they see our events in the streets, they…walk past.”
“The city government pretends we don’t exist,” says Manolov. “If we try to show something about ourselves openly, it destroys all traces of our organization. The general public is very conservative, and the government doesn’t go against this conservatism.”
Despite numerous difficulties, the Vladivostok and Ivanovo groups have held encouraging events. “This year in Vladivostok we had one of the most interesting events in gay life,” Evgeny says. Queers descended on one of that city’s three gay bars for the first “Gay Awards Vladivostok 2009”, organized by a group called the Transdonna Project. The show went on despite an incursion by skinheads earlier in the show.
“A few times we’ve distributed flyers in the streets, put together flash mobs, put together LGBT parties,” says Lapushkina. “Day of Silence went very well…Now we’re trying to organize showings of films about LGBT people. Incidentally today [December 30] will be the first of these showings.”
In Yaroslavl, however, the picture is less encouraging. While ten people participated in the city’s first Day of Silence in 2008, in 2009 “we were two people who distributed some flyers and then split,” says Manolov. He says participants were discouraged by the “cold and not well-wishing” attitude of passersby.
Mangolov says he would like to “start doing personal, nonpolitical meetings, increase the numbers of the activist community. To explain to the inactive LGBT community that there’s no need to be scared. And finally, to try to get equal rights for us.”
“But that’s all very hard to believe,” he says. “It’s all dreams. “
Manolov sees no reason to be optimistic. “I see the senselessness of what I’m doing, although I keep doing it for the sake of other LGBT people. I completely recognize my own powerlessness.”
Lapushkina, for her part, says she hopes for the best. “When I tried to hold the first LGBT event in the city, I thought no one would come, but people came,” she says.
“I would like it if gays and lesbians in our city were more open and fought for their rights,” Lapushkina says. “I’m an out lesbian, but I was able to find a good job, I was able to keep good relations with my parents and heterosexual friends,” she says. “That is, in our city it’s possible to do that, to live freely. That’s exactly why I’m trying to explain this to other homosexual people.”