By Catherine Owen
Saturday 7th July 2012 was World Pride Day, an annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The aims of these events are to promote equal rights for the LGBT community, to increase awareness and visibility of alternative genders and sexualities, and to encourage a sense of positive affirmation, rather than shame and stigma, among gay, bisexual and trans people. Rallies, parades and concerts were held in cities around the world, from Paris to Cologne, London to Istanbul, with many more locations hosting events later on in the summer.
St. Petersburg is no exception: the city’s Third Annual Pride was also held on that day. What is different, however, is that Pride and other public LGBT events in Russia’s second city (as well as a further five cities and regions in the Federation) have recently been made illegal under a new law that came into force in March, banning ‘the promotion of homosexual and paedophilic propaganda to minors.’ As such, few activists dared to attend Saturday’s event, and most of those that did were arrested. At the site of the rally, Poliustrovsky Park, a good bus ride outside of the city centre, truckloads of OMON special police forces, numerous regular police officers, FSB agents ensconced in sleek black cars, a huge gaggle of journalists and a handful of wry onlookers outnumbered the activists by at least ten to one.
The huge police presence could perhaps be explained by the regular violence between the LGBT activists and Orthodox and fascist groups who often come to ‘police’ such events themselves. Almost
immediately, the organisers were detained, and the rally itself was over in a matter of minutes. City officials had initially given the event the go-ahead, but revoked permission at the last minute, claiming that they had received a large number of complaints from residents. Thus, the intended purpose of St. Petersburg Pride seemed more to highlight these repressive conditions to the international community, a sacrificial demonstration of the extent to which Russian authorities will go to in order to suppress non-conformist sexualities, than the celebration of diversity that was occurring simultaneously elsewhere. In St. Petersburg, attending Pride is a dangerous act of civil disobedience: the personal is not just political, it’s criminal.
Nonetheless, St. Petersburg is home to a creative and courageous LGBT community. Gulya Sultanova is director of Bok-o-Bok, which organises St.Petersburg’s annual LGBT film festival. Founded in 2007, the event got off to a difficult start when authorities closed its venue hours before the festival was due to open its doors, claiming that the buildings violated fire regulations. The festival went ahead anyway, but at a smaller, secret location. Since then, however, the organisers have developed a self-preservation strategy. First, they began to collaborate with other sympathetic organisations and institutions in Russia who helped to publicise the event locally, as well as with film festivals in other countries, making it politically much more difficult for the St. Petersburg festival to be closed down. ‘In this way we became a respectable festival’, says Gulya. ‘We showed decent films, facilitated debates – and the authorities realised it was not going to be easy to stop us.’ Secondly, Gulya and her colleagues spread the following year’s festival out over 9 different venues in the city. ‘Sure, it was difficult to organise. Normally such events just have one or two venues, so nine – can you imagine? Crazy! But our strategy worked: since that first incident our festival has not suffered any more repressions in St. Petersburg.’
The theme of last year’s festival was homosexuality in history, with films about LGBT campaigners from the past, discussions about life as a homosexual in the Soviet Union – and a total of more than 2,000 visitors. This year, the aim is to show that LGBT movements do not only exist in Russia, and will showcase activism in other ‘difficult’ parts of the world such as India, China, Latin America and Africa. Gulya is hoping to invite activists from these places to share experience and tactics with one another in a series of round-table events, and expects that even more people will attend.
‘The greatest difficulty for us is that the authorities really don’t see us,’ says Gulya. ‘In fact, they totally ignore us. There is a state-run programme called ‘Tolerance’, but LGBT people aren’t even mentioned in it. Of course the ethnic tensions addressed by the programme are also a big problem, but so is homophobia and we have to work with the state in order to
resolve it. We’re not just talking about ignoring gender issues, but total censorship of them –there’s a list of subjects that are prohibited in mainstream media publications, such as Chechnya, criticism of the state of all kinds, LGBT affairs, women’s rights and so on. For example, about a year and a half ago, a friend of mine was working at the state-run Radio Russia and was tasked with a very small report about our film festival. When she interviewed me, she had to ask me not to use the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality” – could I please describe the festival without using these words?! Sometime later she did a big report about the festival which did in fact use those words and, as a result, her supervisor was fired. Eventually, she was also forced to leave. Now she works with us!’
There are four active LGBT organisations in St. Petersburg. Besides Bok-o-Bok and Ravnopravie, the organisers of Gay Pride, Coming Out provides support programmes for transgender people, counselling services for LGBT people, discussion groups for relatives of LGBT children, and runs a community centre, serving up to six thousand people. The Russian LGBT-Network is a structure linking LGBT organisations in 14 regions across Russia. Among many other activities, it holds yearly inter-regional conferences, provides mutual support for local organisations and activists, and runs a hotline for emergency consultations.Russia’s oldest LGBT organisation, Krilija, was also founded in St. Petersburg in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and winds of change were blowing fresh perspectives into the country. It held round-table discussions and conferences on LGBT rights, provided legal support to gay prisoners, worked against the spread of AIDS and promotes gay tourism in Russia, before being overtaken by the other, contemporary groups. It thus came as a shock that officials in Russia’s most liberal city, the birthplace of the country’s LGBT movement, could implement such a draconian, homophobic law.
None of the LGBT organisations receive financial support from the Russian government, and so are forced to look for funding from foreign donors such as the European Union, the Soros Foundation and various national governments. However, on 6th July a new federal law passed its first reading which requires NGOs funded from abroad to declare themselves “foreign agents”, a term that critics say is nearly synonymous with “spy” and will discredit the NGOs work in the eyes of the Russian public. Gulya is livid. ‘Its complete idiocy,’ she says. ‘These organisations aren’t “foreign agents”; they implement services for and protect the rights of Russian people. It’s a politically motivated law which will be used in the fight against NGOs that are dangerous for the Kremlin. I really hope that we at Bok-o-Bok aren’t seen as dangerous like this - I think this law is mostly aimed at political NGOs. But of course, any of our critics could easily use it against us.’
Russia has a history of intolerance of homosexuality. After a brief period of legality after the 1917 Revolution, male homosexuality was re-criminalised under Stalin, while female homosexuality was considered a mental illness. It was finally decriminalised in 1993 and removed from the list of psychological disorders in 1999. But there are still no current laws that protect LGBT individuals from discrimination and same sex couples may not enter into any kind of legally recognised union. With the recent steps to further marginalise the LGBT community as well as the broader intimidation of NGOs by the Russian state, it would be easy to be cynical about prospects for greater understanding of alternative sexualities in the Russian mainstream. In such an environment, the work of Bok-o-Bok, Ravnopravie, Coming Out and the Russian LGBT-Network have become even more important. What can people living outside Russia do to help the St. Petersburg LGBT community? ‘Solidarity actions’, says Gulya firmly. ‘This is the best way to raise international attention, put pressure on the Russian state, and to motivate those of us who are living and working here. And of course any donations are welcome too!’
The next Bok-o-Bok film festival will take place in St. Petersburg at the end of October 2012.
Thanks to Vitaly Glukhov for help with the interview transcription.
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