“They threw me to the floor and beat me. They beat my chest and my face with their feet, and they hit my head against the floor,” recounts a man, only known as I.J. in a report published at the end of July by Russian LGBT Network, documenting the persecution of gay men in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya. The testimonies of 33 men, collected over a period of four months, recall beatings, detention, torture, and electric shocks as part of an “unprecedented act ofmass violence towards LGBTQ people.”
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denies such acts are taking place and insisted in a July interview with HBO that “we don’t have any gays” in Chechnya. If for some reason, any are found, they should be transported to Canada. “Take them far from us, so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood,” he clarified.
In the rest of Russia, LGBTQ people still experience hostility, but relative to the Chechen republic, it is mild. Since June 2013, when the State Duma unanimously passed a federal law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”among minors, the situation appears to have deteriorated. However, as authorities cracked down on the issue, and threats became more virulent, there is, according to community members, more discussion about LGBTQ issues and community efforts have increased.
“Since the summer of 2013, when the anti-gay propaganda legislation was implemented at a federal level, things have kind of shifted,” a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT network tells INTO by phone. They preferred to remain anonymous on account of the sensitive nature of the recent report. “Not necessarily drastically, but LGBTQ community [members] have, according to our sources, been becoming more and more vulnerable.”
Manny de Guerre, whofounded Russia’s Side by Side LGBT International Film Festival along with Gulya Sultanova in 2007 also recognizes this shift. “From 2009 – 2011 the political situation, the climate was more open, easier to work in, and over that period we were able to develop the festival,” she tells INTO. “More people were coming each year. We had screenings in cinema halls. The LGBTQ community as a whole was becoming more visible, more vocal.”
The initial success was met with a backlash, and the federal 2013 law saw the advent of a more difficult era, according to de Guerre. “That period was very difficult for the festival, for the LGBTQ community, there was more violence,” she says, recollecting five bomb threats in 2013 in St. Petersburg. “Last year, in Moscow, we also had three bomb threats during the festival,” she adds. “Moscow, this year, the festival went off without any problems.”
“In general, it is worse,” says artist and feminist activist Mikaela (Mika Plutitskaya), in comments emailed to INTO. “More fear, more suspicions, more threats. A lot of public LGBTQ activity was stopped or closed.”
She adds that pro-LGBTQ rhetoric is often equated with ideas of liberalism and the west “in the public imagination,” to the benefit of the authorities “who are not interested in open and free society.”
The Russian LGBT Network spokesperson agrees. “There has been a lot of propaganda related to this,” they said. “Homosexuality is a western liberal value that’s foreign to the Russian authentic.”
However, on a low level, many identify advances. “In big cities, I think it improves on a private level,” Mikaela adds. “Small cities mean more community control, I think. It is harder to be anonymous in a small townin big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, it is more or less ok. There are clubs and parties,” she said.
“Everywhere has its ups and downs and there are cases where LGBTQ people were able to live their lives happily in the regions,” says the Russian LGBT Network spokesperson. “In terms of visibility – I can’t really talk about acceptance – Moscow and St. Petersburg have proven themselves to be tolerant. Neutral, let’s say, not tolerant. While in the regions it’s definitely a slightly different situation.”
The network offers psychological and legal support to those in these areas and is working to find allies – not necessarily LGBTQ – but those with “democratic values” and potential allies in civil society. The network expressed a little optimism about heightened media coverage. “During the last couple of years I’ve witnessed – a lot of media outlets started being more pro-LGBTQ, using pro-LGBTQ rhetoric. These are definitely labeled as the liberal media, not the state media. This is already an improvement because a couple of years ago there was hardly any coverage of LGBTQ-related issues.
De Guerre cited greater grassroots cohesion. “The transgender community is slowly coming together, becoming more vocal, becoming more visible, a great deal of activism both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow,” she says, citing trans project T-Action established in 2014 which works with doctors and psychologists, providing a lot of counseling for transgender persons.
While bigger cinemas and theatres won’t host the festival because “they work closely with the state or they’re afraid,” there are alternative spaces that will help. “Loft spaces are very popular,” she says.
The state’s actions can fluctuate, and it has rejected some pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation. But the overall attitude manifested in the 2013 law is key. The law is regarded as tacit support for homophobia at a federal level. In 2014, Human Rights Watch termed it a “License to Harm” in a report documenting violence against LGBTQ people. “Instead of publicly denouncing anti-LGBTQ violence and rhetoric, Russia’s leadership has remained silent. In some cases public officials have engaged in explicit anti-LGBTQ hate speech,” the report pointed out. “Russian law enforcement agencies do not treat even the most blatantly homophobic violence as hate crimes.”
There are also varying attitudes toward men and women, although both experience hostility. In October 2015, two Communist Party MPs drafted a bill banning “public expression of non-traditional sexual relations, proposing fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles ($53-$66).” One of its authors, Ivan Nikitchuk, later stated in comments to radio station “Govorit Moskva” it would only apply to men. “Women are more intelligent people and more emotionally guided,” he said, adding that a display of unconventional sexual orientation by men “disgusts” Communist Party voters.
The Russian State Duma rejected the bill in January 2016. On top of that, there have been numerous stories of attackers that have been using gay dating apps and social media to catfish potential victims in the country, with some groups, such as “Occupy Pedophilia” exclusively targeting gay men up until the leader’s arrest in 2014, and the arrest of others in October 2015. Last year, more than 100,000 people signed a petition urging Grindr and Hornet to protect their Russian users. In Chechnya women are “completely invisible” and treated “as men’s property,” the LGBT network spokesperson says. They can be forced into marriage, while it is gay and bisexual men who are being tortured and imprisoned.
HIV is also a growing issue. “Gay and heterosexual HIV cases are on the increase. There are limited public awareness campaigns,” says de Guerre. The country has the largest HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to international HIV and AIDS charity AVERT. “InRussia, the number of people newly diagnosed with HIV has risen by 149% since 2006,” it said, citing a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report.
While a key difference between Chechnya and Russia as a whole is recognition of any LGBTQ population at all, Russia’s ongoing silence in the face of persecutions in Chechnya is an extension of this “License to Harm.” The Russian LGBT Network spokesperson says that the 2013 law indicated a recognition of the issue on a level unseen in Chechnya. “The LGBTQ community was made into visibility through this law,” they say. “The state has first acknowledged that LGBTQ people ARE there in Russia, the problem is they don’t really want to do anything with them and they want to silence them.”
Yet, in the face of the horrific persecutions occurring in Chechnya, Russia is continuing its tradition of tacit approval of the violence, the spokesperson said, in a way that is “completely unprofessional and inhumane.”
“They chose to remain silent on this, they chose to disappear from the scene, they chose not to do anything. No response is already a response to this situation.”