Being LGBT in Russia
By Gleb Latnik, Russian LGBT Activist
I was born in a small town in the Ural region of Russia. I realized I was gay as a teen, but it took years for me to accept myself because of the lack of information about LGBT life in Russia. I even attempted a relationship with a woman.
When the Russian Parliament considered a law that would ban so-called “propaganda of homosexuality,” I started seeking out information about LGBT life in Russia. After President Putin signed the bill, I was shocked and horrified by the climate of hate and violence against LGBT people that it encouraged. I realized that I couldn’t stay silent anymore. I had to stand up for LGBT human rights. My resolve was sealed when last year on May 10th criminals murdered Vladislav Tornovoy in Volgograd simply for being gay.
Just two weeks later I arrived in Moscow to participate in a campaign against violence and discrimination against LGBT people. During this public event I was illegally detained.
Despite the detention, I continued organizing public events in my hometown and in nearby Yekaterinburg. These events were successful, but I couldn’t find a single word about them in the local newspaper. Later I came to know that journalists and the media were “strongly advised” not to cover LGBT events.
I decided to hold a protest performance during a high profile event for LGBT human rights, the 2013 Innoprom International Exhibition. My preparations finally landed me on the Russian security forces radar.
My mother started calling me constantly, concerned about my safety. Strangers came to my apartment asking when I would arrive home. I knew they were members of the security forces, although they never showed identification badges nor left any subpoenas. I decided not to return home until the beginning of the Innoprom Exhibition.
Right before it began, I was kidnapped at a cafe by Russian Security Forces on Extremism (FSB-Centre E). My capture was in violation of the law, as they didn’t show me any identification during the eight hours I was held against my will. The purpose of my abduction was clear: they were trying to frighten me out of any public events during the exhibition.
Even so, I remained undeterred and proceeded as planned. My partners in the protest, however, backed out and I was forced to adapt. My performance became a one-man show.
After the protest, life for me in my hometown became very dangerous. I was lucky to avoid several attempted assaults, but my luck couldn’t hold forever and I was eventually attacked. Concerned for my welfare, a LGBT activist named Alexei Davydov offered me a safe place stay in Moscow. I immediately moved.
I found it very difficult to find and keep a job in Moscow, because employers monitor people’s private lives via the Internet. I was considered a problem employee because of my involvement in protests, so they would fire me. I went from job to job.
I was arrested at my last protest activity in Russia. Along with several activists, I planned to sing the national anthem of the Russia Federation in Red Square during the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. We were inspired by Swedish LGBT activists who flew pride flags and sang the Russian national anthem to show their solidarity with the Russian LGBT community.
Before the protest, my fellow activists and I gathered at a café in the Red Square. Russian Police began gathering outside the café and we realized we were in danger. They knew what we were planning to carry out, as they bug phones, monitor text messages, and perform surveillance on social networks.
When we exited the café, we were arrested. After being detained at the police station for four hours, they handcuffed and kicked us. I was punched, beaten and grabbed by my hair. One of the activists was strangled. A Russian police officer spat in the face of one of my fellow activists, Elena Kostyuchenko. One of the officers said, “We will burn you all.” We never saw a badge. The police officers confiscated our phones and combed through all our information. Despite multiple requests we were not allowed to meet with the Public Defender.
In the arrest record, the police wrote that we had “sang a song to the tune of the anthem of the Russian Federation with different words.” This was not true. My fellow protest activists and I sang the anthem word for word.
After this incident, I was convinced that not only did the Russian Federation have no legal protection for me as a citizen of the country but also my life was in imminent danger from the security forces, police, and anti-gay criminals.
At that point, I realized I must leave Russia and seek political asylum in the United States.
My story is not unique—there are many like me who are still in Russia experiencing the same isolation, harassment, and illegal detention. Putin’s widespread admiration and the popularity of his anti-gay agenda mean that LGBT activists like me have few allies at home. And Russia’s neighbors are following his example, introducing anti-propaganda legislation that targets already vulnerable LGBT communities within their own borders. Homophobia is spreading.
To fight this tide of hate, we need a voice in the international community to speak out for us. I want to strongly encourage the United States to continue to pressure regimes like Russia’s even in the face of what feels like insurmountable homophobia.
Gleb will be speaking on the panel, “Progress and Backlash in the Global Struggle for LGBT Equality,” taking place at the Human Rights First Summit, from December 9-10, 2014.