A Russian LGBTQ group had to cancel a conference on families in Moscow in early November due to threats and an attack, Human Rights Watch has reported.
The annual LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference, organized in part by Resource LGBTQIA Moscow, had been planned for Nov. 9-11, 2018 to provide a safe space for LGBTQ families to gather and discuss their experiences in Russia, a country often criticized for its LGBTQ rights record.
“Police should conduct a thorough and effective investigation capable of identifying and holding those responsible accountable,” the human rights watchdog said.
Leading up to the conference, the director of Resource LGBTQIA Moscow, Yulia Malygina, was quoted by The Advocate as saying, “LGBT families are among the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQIA community. They have nowhere to turn for help and support. Our Conference is an attempt to give LGBTQIA families access to psychological support.”
Malygina told HRW that she began getting text messages and calls from people threatening her with homophobic abuse related to the planned conference only days before it was set to begin. Similar messages began to pop up on VKontakte, a Russian social media site.
On the first day of the conference, the location of the conference was leaked on the site and taken up by anti-LGBTQ groups. The organizers had kept the venue a secret to protect the participants and volunteers.
Malygina tried to file a police complaint, however, she couldn’t submit it because of a tech issue, according to HRW.
The venue then told the organizers in the afternoon before it started that because of the threats against the event they couldn’t host it anymore. Malygina told HRW that it wasn’t easy for the venue.
“It was clear how difficult this decision was for the management,” Malygina reportedly said.
Malygina and her team contacted participants that the conference couldn’t go ahead. While some volunteers were leaving the area around 7 pm, an attacker sprayed the group with pepper spray.
A couple of the victims had to go to the hospital but were discharged several hours later, HRW reported.
“After the attack, the organizers received threats through calls and [text messages] saying they should ‘die’ and ‘burn in hell’ and saying, ‘How did you like our present? Last year was only the beginning,’” one of the organizers, Nadezhda Aronchik, told Pink News. The threats were in reference to a similar attack at the previous year’s conference.
The organizers shortly contacted police when the volunteers were sprayed. However, when they came they refused to help the group saying it wasn’t their precinct.
Those officers got to the venue in 40 minutes. The next took over two hours to get there. Eventually, the police took some of the volunteers to file a complaint.
The next day, the event organizers started a live stream of the conference and then secured a new place to hold the event.
“We managed to provide video seminars on Saturday [Nov. 10] and tried to provide workshops on Sunday. But unfortunately the address got out again and we received direct threats regarding further attacks. Thus we decided to cancel the afternoon sessions for the security of our participants and volunteers,” Aronchik reportedly said.
In response to the attack on volunteers and subsequent cancellation of the conference, Graeme Reid, HRW’s director of its LGBTQ rights program, said: “It is totally unacceptable for activists to face threats and attacks simply for holding a conference.“
“The Russian authorities need to do more to ensure that these threats and attacks stop,” Reid continued. “The attack on ‘Vth LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference’ is yet another example of how the anti-gay propaganda law has emboldened hate groups.”
The cancellation comes after an attack last year where several people assaulted the conference’s volunteers.
Four young men attacked Aronchik and fellow LGBTQ activist Zoya Matisova during that conference. The assailants had sprayed a substance in Matisova’s eyes and punched Aronchik in the face, HRW reported at the time.
“My eyes were burning and the pain was just hellish,” Matisova told the organization.
When the police were called they did not try to find the assailants. However, authorities eventually arrested two of the suspects this past August and authorities acknowledged that Matisova and Aronchik were targeted for their sexuality.
Aronchik tells Pink News that the group will continue working to organize these conferences regardless of the last two years. “They won’t win because we don’t give up. We know we are in the right here, so we won’t stop fighting,” she told the outlet.
“We’ve decided that we will never hold closed events,” said Malygina, according to HRW. “Instead, we will make them open. We don’t want to hide anymore.”
Image via Human Rights Watch