One day a young man in Murmansk – a seaport city in Arctic Russia – got on a bus. Some people he knew from town climbed on after him. “Then they started shouting, ‘Ladies and gentlemen – do you know you are on a bus with a…with a…’.”
My translator, Maria, trails off. “We have…a fancy word for ‘gay guy’ in Russian,” she explains, hesitating, trying to find the English equivalent for me.
“Faggot,” says a woman in a black checked shirt wearing a yin and yang necklace.
“Faggot,” repeats a second woman dressed completely in grey with a grimace.
But that’s actually the polite translation.
“Pederast” is one of the most offensive words in Russian to use when talking about the LGBT community.
If you trace back its roots, the exact English translation is child rapist.
The House of Equality
The room where the four of us are sitting is tucked away in a corner of Murmansk, away from homophobic slurs and the inevitable prejudice that comes with being openly gay in Russia.
It is a safe space in town – perhaps the only one – where any pro-LGBT person can visit for psychological services, legal advice, or just to play a game of table tennis with friends. It’s called the House of Equality.
Sergey Alexeenko is one of the people sitting in the vibrant purple, green and yellow painted room. He is the head of the non-governmental organization that runs the house.
Sergey founded the LGBT-friendly NGO in 2009 and called it Maximum, “because everything I do is to the maximum.”
In those days it was a little easier to have an LGBT organization in Russia. Now, between funding cuts, information bans and vandals defecating on and damaging the doorway to the House, its survival is constantly under threat.
Same-sex marriage and relationships in Russia were decriminalized in 1993 and transgender Russians were allowed to legally alter their genders on official documents since 1997. Homosexuality was also de-classified as a mental illness.
In 2000, with the LGBT community becoming more visible and vocal the government began to crack down again and the year became a turning point in Russia’s LGBT attitude. Pride marches were cancelled, LGBT rights were taken away and some international experts speculated that then-newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, was trying to court the religious vote with the rapid policy reversals.
In 2006 regional municipalities started passing laws aimed at banning “gay propaganda”. But it was the federal anti-LGBT propaganda law passed on the eve of the Sochi Olympic Games that really caught international attention outside LGBT niche communities.
“Sochi helped in a way,” says Svetlana, the 32-year-old woman in the black checked shirt who is the manager and “hostess” for the House. “The policy – the homophobia policy – led to the LGBT community being stronger.”
Rather than succeeding in suppressing the so-called “enemies of the state”, the whispers of the LGBT communities and organizations across Russia turned into a defiant roar.
“There are so many organizations over 25 counties that became bigger and stronger because of this,” says Sergey, a wry smile on his face. “It’s been the opposite of what they wanted.”
But the issue now is getting word out that the community exists to the public and specifically youth who, confronted with disapproval and humiliation, are becoming isolated and slip into drugs, alcohol and mental crises. It’s a bit easier being gay in a large city like Moscow or St. Petersburg where one can get lost in the crowd, Sergey explains. In a small town like Murmansk where everyone knows each other, there is no escaping the persecution.
As we discuss these issues and the urgent need for psychiatric support for LGBT youth there is a knock on the door and everyone tenses. Svetlana approaches the hallway. “Alexey?” she asks. “Da,” comes the disembodied reply. The bolt is scraped back, the heavy door squeals open and a young boy walks into the room.
For 18 years Alexey thought he was the only male in his town with “these feelings.” Growing up in a 50, 000-person town in Arctic Russia cut Alexey off from many LGBT-friendly services or support groups. He was lonely and confused, after all, it wasn’t as though he could ask anyone about what he was going through.
Then he found Maximum on the Internet. Shocked to find such a place existed, he eventually met a member and, finally, arrived on the doorstep himself. “The first thing I wanted to know was that I was not alone,” he says.
Now 19 years old with a mop of light brown hair and large headphones slung around his neck, Alexey is still described as “shy” by Sergey who says with a note of pride that Alexey is also one of their most passionate volunteers organizing conferences, attending pride marches and spreading the word to other people looking for support.
“It’s not different from any other community,” says Alexey. “The largest problem is the reaction from other communities.”
Since coming out Alexey has been threatened with beatings, shouted at in streets and lost friends. His parents are still hoping this is just a teenage phase their son will outgrow.
Alexey was the boy who was screamed at on the bus in Murmansk. Public humiliations are a preferred tactic of anti-LGBT nationalists and can take place anywhere from buses to streets to online.
They even appear in the media in the form of widely disseminated inflammatory speeches. The most recent anti-gay vitriol came from St. Petersburg MP Vitaly Milonov, who went on a tirade against Apple CEO Tim Cook after he revealed his sexuality. The insults hurled at Cook included accusations that he carried diseases, (“what could he bring us? The Ebola virus, AIDs, gonorrhea.”) and is promiscuous. Milonov also called Cook a “pederast”. The speech ended with a suggestion that Russia should “ban him for life.”
Despite the obstacles, both public and private, Alexey has also had friends whose support helped him to come out in the first place. He’s been able to make new friends and found a community where he’s safe and can truly be himself.
“I live openly now,” Alexey says.
“How do I immigrate?”
The woman in grey is the quietest person in the room, but she’s constantly moving.
Violetta hums with energy doing everything from making coffee to pulling faces while listening to her colleague’s stories of persecution and triumph.
Asked about her role in the community her answer is succinct: “I’m an activist.”
There is, perhaps, no word that strikes more fear into the hearts of Russia’s politicians. Empowered civilians working to topple and redefine the status quo are not well received by authorities, which is why an organization like Maximum is seen as a direct threat to the stability of Russia.
In their quest to weed out LGBT activists the Russian spy agency FSB has infiltrated Maximum-organized conferences to scout attendees, they have deported foreigners affiliate with LGBT activities and there have been frequent reports of death threats.
But the group continues to meet, hold table tennis tournaments and offer support services. Though, Sergey says, their mandate has had to change from primarily raising awareness to protecting LGBT community members. The more they can reach and bring them into the fold, the safer they will all be.
Like Alexey, Violetta grew up in a small military town thinking she was the only lesbian. Isolation bred a sense of hopelessness, but she eventually left.
“I realized I’m not alone and that I’m full of enthusiasm and I want to help,” she says.
Now Violetta, almost 25, lives in Murmansk with her partner. But it’s her toddler who serves as constant inspiration for her work.
“I don’t want my son to hear those words: that I’m not a human being that I don’t have a future,” she says, unapologetic for raising a child in a relationship that is officially condemned.
Violetta, originally a psychology major in school, has taken on the legal side of LGBT issues at Maximum.
She has gone to court to fight hate speech and advocate for members of the LGBT community dealing with labour and living disputes. Coming out can mean losing a job, and living with a partner can get an LGBT person evicted. Violetta also patrols the Internet looking to quash bigotry and homophobia. But some of her most fruitful work happens outside the courtroom. One of the most common requests she receives at the House is “how do I immigrate?”
“I started to think it’s not safe to stay in this city.”
In Murmansk there are about 100 random acts of violence between members of the LGBT community and anti-gay nationalists per year, Sergey estimates. If you factor in the fights that occur outside of clubs when LGBT people are walking home and get jumped by nationalists laying in wait along side streets, well, he says, that number could jump to over 700.
As with many other cities LGBT people could make up to five per cent of the population of Murmansk. Alexey, Violetta, Svetlana and Sergey agree that probably less than one per cent ever comes out.
“We live in a society that doesn’t want to protect its people,” says Sergey. He says speaking out today could lead to him being arrested tomorrow either for promoting LGBT activity or for nothing at all.
“Tomorrow I could find drugs in my car, planted, and the police would arrest me,” he says. “It’s difficult to care about safety. The danger is everywhere and every day.”
With the threat of harassment, injury, arrest or worse always looming it is understandable why some Russians never admit their sexuality or, if they do, why they flee the country after.
“I’m a 29-year-old citizen of Russia and I’m gay,” says Alexander Bergan, his voice crackling a little bit over the phone line.
“I live in the U.S. with my spouse…we got married last year and we have been together for seven years.”
It’s just after 10pm in Brooklyn, New York where Alexander is now a world away from Russia and Murmansk, where he lived up until 2013.
“I don’t know why, but I wanted to tell people I’m gay and that’s OK,” says Alexander of his announcement, made on Twitter. “I wanted to show others that people will still love me.”
At the time he was working as a popular photographer and believed that, at the peak of his career, people would accept him and his sexuality wouldn’t matter. What actually happened shocked Alexander.
It started out with friends turning their backs on him and hate mail online. Comments about Alexander on the website Bloger51 give a glimpse into the vicious backlash:
“you’re not the same person, you pidarast [sic]. You are not able to give happiness a woman to raise a child, to protect the homeland. You freak, corrupting young people, finding new partners and leading them from active normal life!” says one anonymous user.
“You’re a freak!” succinctly states another.
Then, a few weeks after coming out, Alexander was attacked by two men just around the corner from the home he shared with his boyfriend. He was asked two questions: “What’s your name?” and, “Are you gay?”
“He hit me to my stomach and he pushed me and I fell down,” says Alexander recounting his attack that only stopped when the men saw another person coming down the street. “I started to think it’s not safe to stay in this city.”
Fearing his arm was broken Alexander went to the hospital and told the doctor he had been attacked. He was sent home, but the doctor called the police, who showed up on Alexander’s doorstep to ask what had happened.
“I told him everything including that I am gay,” recalls Alexander. “The police officer…he looked at me like I’m sick or something.”
The police told Alexander it was his fault. As far as he knows, they did not investigate.
Fearing the deteriorating LGBT-rights situation in Russia and finding websites that were giving tips on how to hunt and hurt gays, Alexander and his then-boyfriend, Ivan, made a plan to leave. Alexander sold his car; Ivan sold his apartment and after going to St. Petersburg to secure visas the two left for the U.S.
“I was scared because everyone in Murmansk knew I was gay,” says Alexander. “I decided to move anywhere – as far away as possible from Murmansk.”
Immigrating to the United States was the “impossible country” Alexander and Ivan dreamed of one day living in. One of the best ways to seek political asylum is to prove persecution in the home country.
Alexander and Ivan were married last October and applied for asylum in February.
“It’s fantastic – it’s a dream. You can be yourself everywhere; on the subway, at work, at home, at the bar,” says Alexander not bothering to contain his euphoria.
Working as a graphic designer and living in the Russian part of town, Alexander is still soaking up the novelty of being able to “be whoever you want to be” in New York. Of course he keeps an eye on Russia and the situation there, but it’s not usually an experience that makes him happy.
“The situation with gay rights in Russia is getting worse. I don’t know what’s going on or why they think gays are enemies,” he says.
“For gays…I would recommend to move out of Russia as soon as possible.”
“Be yourself and don’t be afraid of anything.”
Today, an LGBT person who is sick in Murmansk and goes to the hospital does not tell the doctor he or she is gay for fear of not being treated.
Today, an LGBT person attacked in Murmansk who goes to report the crime does not tell the police they were targeted because they are gay.
It is still incredibly difficult to find statistics or accurate official information about the LGBT community in Russia. Most of what is known about in the community itself is anecdotal. A member of an organization hears through a series of friends that an openly gay man was beaten in an alley in a particular part of town, they pass that information around and people are warned to avoid that area. Those who aren’t already plugged into the network live in near isolation.
Maximum is working to partner with international organizations to get information and resources. Their funding has been cut off by the municipal government who say, according to Sergey, “the service is not useful to very many people.”
But the Murmansk LGBT community, especially, is lucky, being in “a favourable neighbourhood with Norway, Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia,” explains Sergey.
In 2015 Maximum will start rolling out programs co-sponsored by Norwegian LGBT organizations that focus on three primary areas: health, legal aid and mental support.
If they can get more sponsorships Maximum is considering buying security cameras for the House of Equality.
The most pressing need is for psychiatrists and doctors who are specially trained to help struggling LGBT youth who have grown up in a decade where “homosexual connections [are] seen as animal connections,” says Sergey. “They are lonely people.”
There are very few individuals, save for some open-minded peers, whom a gay teen might encounter at home who could help them understand and cope with their feelings. Their teachers are forbidden to discuss LGBT issues, school nurses are forbidden from attending LGBT health conferences and parents, who were raised in a different generation and time, are bombarded with anti-gay information from the state.
The group in the House talks about legal gay marriage in Russia – you mean Copenhagen jokes Sergey. No, I want it in Russia, insists Svetlana.
“It’s tough to dream because I know that in my life…it won’t be enough to get there,” says Sergey, reaching for his coat. But the legacy he hopes to live and leave for the next generation of LGBT Russians who may face better or worse times is simple.
“I would tell them to be yourself and don’t be afraid of anything.”
Special thanks to Vitaly, Maria and Trude for their careful and patient translations. Interview subjects and translators who are identified by only their first names have been done so for safety reasons.