Russia’s LGBT Community One Year Later: Q&A with Taria Polyakova
On June 30th, 2013 the Russian discriminatory anti-“propaganda” law went into effect, amidst widespread international condemnation. In the year since the Russian government enacted the vaguely worded law, Russian human rights activists and members of the LGBT community have faced harassment from government officials, threats of violence, and imprisonment for peaceful public demonstrations. Some have even chosen to leave Russia in search of safety and freedom. This month, Human Rights First will share the stories of some of the brave individual whost lives have been and continue to be affected by Russia’s crackdown on civil society.
Taria Polyakova is an independent journalist and a human rights defender currently working with the NGO Zona Prava,which was founded by former Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
How has the federal propaganda bill impacted your personal life in the year since it has gone into effect?/ What is life like for you since Putin signed the law?
Taria: My life changed significantly since the law passed. In a way, it encouraged me to be an activist because I realized that if the LGBTQ+ community continued being silent it would keep being oppressed and outlawed. I never thought I was going to be an activist before but when attitudes towards gay people changed so fast and so drastically,
even in my own family, I just couldn’t bear it.
Have you experienced harassment or persecution from government authorities or on the street since the law was passed? Please briefly describe what you have seen and experienced.
Taria: I have been detained during a peaceful demonstration and charged for carrying a rainbow flag and singing the national anthem. Next time I was detained during the flash mob dedicated to a celebration of the international day against homophobia (IDAHO) the most peaceful LGBTQ+ event of all. Normally on this day we would gather on one of the central squares in Moscow to throw multicolored balloons and give away leaflets with a little information about homosexuality and how it was excluded from a list of mental diseases by World Health Organization in 1991.
This year there were about 60 of us. My friend and I were detained after the flashmob when we were already on our way to the underground station, for no reason at all. At first the policeman said that he saw me giving away leaflets (in fact I just gave them to my friend, and even if I was giving them away, since when is that illegal?), I tried to argue and said that I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but he stated clearly that if I were to keep talking he would think of something more serious to arrest me for, so I’d better shut up and let him detain me. At the police station a woman officer came up to me and said “you know what your paper says is wrong, right? I want you to acknowledge that” – she meant of course the text of the leaflet, which stated that homosexuality is not a sin or disease, but one of the normal kinds of sexual orientation. That was basically it – a so called “preventive conversation” which Russian police will do when they detain you with no legal reason.
On May 31, I participated in an authorized demonstration against clerical propaganda among minors and domestic violence. One activist was detained because of the rainbow wristband that she was wearing — in the police’s opinion rainbow colored accessories are also “propaganda.” Another girl was detained after she drew a beard on her face with a black pen in support for Conchita Wurst – winner of Eurovision 2014. Shortly after the demonstration has begun, some radical orthodox activists came and screamed that we are ourselves a propaganda and children that are walking by might see us and be somehow “affected.” In fact, they did us a huge favor, because they were drawing so much attention to themselves that eventually all passersby stopped to see what they were shouting about and ended up listening to our speakers and the very important issues they brought up (such as homophobic violence against LGBTQ+ teenagers, issues you might face when adopting a child in Russia, and clerical propaganda in schools). Most of the viewers, by the way, ended up taking our side instead of listening to hate speech from some crazy men. It was unexpected and funny – they came to discredit us, instead they made fools of themselves by acting rude and inappropriate. Some time later some other guys showed up, presumably they were not from that radical orthodox communities as the first ones were, but from nationalist groups. They were acting in a much more dangerous manner. They were throwing rotten eggs and glass bottles from the bridge above. Glass bottles were smashing right next to us, we were very lucky not to get injured. Police did literally nothing to stop them, so after a few minutes those guys just walked away to the tube station. Instead of protecting us and arresting the attackers, policemen detained an activist who actually organized the event.
How has the international community supported you? In what ways can the international community do more?
Taria: We received a lot of support from international LGBT organizations, western media and politicians throughout the past year and we are truly grateful for this.
Several demonstrations took place all over the world on the 9th of February – two days after the Olympic Games opening. Activists from London, Brighton, Melbourne, Dublin, New York and other cities participated. We were very surprised, pleasantly of course, by the amount of attention paid to us by international supporters.
My friends and I were very touched by the video made by Swedish LGBTQ+ , where a lot of people gathered on a stadium singing Russian national anthem under waving rainbow flags. We actually decided to do the same sort of thing on the 7th of February – the day of Sochi Olympics opening.
We gathered on the Red Square, seven of us, and began to sing Russian anthem and wave rainbow flag at the same time. We were of course detained in less than a minute and then horribly harassed and threatened by police officers at the station.
I guess the best thing the international community could do is to continue to speak out against discrimination in Russia publicly by organizing demonstrations and bringing up these issues in local media.
The feeling of strong international attention would be a great support, especially for those who are still closeted and too scared to come out because of the fear of losing the support of their family, or because of the fear to being harassed or attacked.
Also, regular protests and demonstrations might be a good way to encourage western politicians to speak out against Russian discriminative policy. We hope that the USA and Europe will continue offering help for LGBTQ+ people from all countries with homophobic and discriminative laws. We also hope that the USA and Europe will continue to provide political asylum for those who are in danger in their own countries.
I’d like to mention one blog, which many people probably heard of – “Children-404” created by journalist Lena Klimova for LGBTQ+ teenagers. This is a kind of safe place for teenagers to share their stories and to receive support and advice. Most of these stories are written by teenagers who live in small cities, in very homophobic families, or are being bullied and threatened in schools. They receive no support from their families whatsoever, or even get more aggressive threats from their own parents. Many of them are seriously depressed, some have suicidal thoughts because they see no future for themselves. If someone feels like helping but would rather not participate in a demonstration or do not have that option, here is a great thing to do – write a letter of support to Children-404, it will be translated to Russian and published in the blog so all the members would see it and would know there are caring people around the world who believe in them and support them.
One year later, are you seeing people’s attitudes toward LGBT people changing for better or worse? Have there been any positive steps toward fighting back against discrimination?
Taria: I’d say state propaganda definitely works. Television is still the most popular and accessible source of news and information for most of the citizens and it is under government’s total control. There is of course independent press and media, but even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg it is quite scarce and inaccessible. Needless to say, some of the citizens in small towns and villages don’t know it exists.
On one side, I could say that yes, attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Russia have worsened. By passing the “anti-gay” law government practically declared – there are normal people and there are some perverts whom we don’t really mind until they show their faces on the streets and, god forbid, hold hands publicly. This law gave a green light to homophobes who are now not afraid to express their hatred publicly or attack LGBTQ+ people on the streets in front of the police, who normally don’t even bother to detain attackers. There are now some criminal groups run by neo-nazis, who practically hunt gay teenagers, humiliate them in different ways in front of the camera (beating them, forcing them to swill urine, shaving their heads, spitting in their faces) and upload these videos online. Still, police seem to be more interested in arresting people who gather for a peaceful demonstration, than in preventing horrifying consequences of neo-nazi groups’ criminal activities.
On the other side, homosexuality, as well as all the moral and legal issues related to it, was never discussed so widely as it is being discussed now. We have a chance to use this opportunity and communicate to people. Those who are capable of thinking critically do agree that the law banning “gay-propaganda” is at the very least meaningless and of course discriminative. Ironically, there are plenty of people around screaming that homosexual propaganda must be banned, but ask them if they would turn gay because of someone’s propagandistic influence and they would immediately assure you that this is not possible.