Human Rights

Fighting the rainbow: The LGBTI+ community leaves Russia

DIMA BARCHENKOV**

Among those who left Russia as a result of Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine are many LGBTI+ people. One of the most crucial points to note is that alongside famous regime critics, LGBTI+ persons have been under great pressure in the country for a very long time, if not always. 

Yet, the pressure on the LGBTI+ community has increased even further in recent years through several steps taken by the government. On June 11, 2013, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, passed the so-called “gay propaganda law”, banning the dissemination of information on non-traditional sexual relations among minors. This law was the first of a series of restrictions against the LGBTI+ movement in Russia. After that date, the use of the label “+18” became mandatory in media content, art works and trainings touching upon LGBTI+ issues or relationships outside the heteronormative framework. With this rule, the target audience of contents produced on the mentioned subjects was narrowed down significantly. In such an environment, holding the Pride Parade was out of the question. 

With the legislative changes, the threats against LGBTI+s increased as the conservative sections of society, whose reactionary thoughts were marginal before, started to feel backed by the state apparatus. Although in Russia, which has a population of 144 million, the number of LGBTI+ people is not very high, intolerance towards them has been growing in some parts of the society. LGBTI+ persons have virtually become “unwelcome” persons. While on paper, they enjoy the same rights as all other citizens, they have been restricted to talk about themselves openly and even some people’s right to life has begun to be threatened. 

Beyond that, it has become impossible to talk about the LGBTI+ issue in public, even in situations directly related to LGBTI+ individuals. For example, as an LGBTI+ person, I could not talk openly about my different identity around Moscow, which brought along many problems related to socialization. I was able to have my first relationships when I reached the age of maturity. On screens or in my surroundings, I rarely saw people like me. And then think of those who live in places further away from Moscow, in the countryside! All the hardships that we have been going through are because of that terrible “gay propaganda” law! 

As time progressed, the screws were tightened even more. Government propagandists frequently insulted LGBTI+ people in their speeches and used this as a tool in their ideological battle against the West: “What happens in the U.S. is a nightmare: Men can marry men; trans women can get women’s passports.” Through such hate speech, the government has been infusing those people who already sided with the government against LGBTI+ individuals. 

The debate on trans persons has reached an unimaginable level. If we evaluate him according to his speeches to the public, we can see that Vladimir Putin has not the slightest idea about gender and queer theory. He became aware of the existence of trans people in 2019 when he gave a speech at the G20 summit in Osaka, in which he confused them with the “transformers” from the Hollywood movies. People who “have a progressive mindset,” Putin stated, “made up five, six identities.” It seems that President Putin, who had not specifically expressed his opinion on those topics before, eventually established a language of hostility that he shares with his supporters.

In this regard, Putin grotesquely and relentlessly compared the “canceling” efforts against Russia with the “canceling” of author J. K. Rowling. Putin made such a statement about Rowling, who is known for her transphobic rhetoric on social media platforms, in a speech he gave last month. Against this backdrop, it should also be mentioned that discussions about transgender people are held in many different tones within Russia’s LGBTI+ movement. While many Russian feminists with radical leanings do not include trans people in their narratives, some even make insulting comments in their Twitter posts.  

When attempting to generalize and systematize, it can be said that the last phase of this process of society becoming more conservative happened very recently, in 2020. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the government had a new excuse to not only suppress peaceful demonstrations against the regime, but also queer activists. This can be illustrated by what happened to the only LGBTI+ cinema festival “Side by Side.” Since the first year in which the festival took place, there have been various attempts to prevent it, such as raids of the cinema by the police and detentions of the festivals’ organizers. However, in recent years, the carelenessness of the government has reached a new level, crossing all borders. There were cyber attacks against the festival, which was canceled due to the pandemic and consequently held entirely online last year. 

Yet, the biggest blow was dealt with the constitutional amendments in 2020. In the constitution, which is the foundation of the state, marriage has been defined exclusively as “the union between man and woman.” Thus, LGBTI+ persons have been deprived of their rights. What’s more, tragic incidents happened to people showing solidarity or trying to help them. The marketing campaign of the supermarket chain “VkusVill” is an illustrative example for this. In the framework of the campaign, photos of happy Russian families were published, among which was the photo of a smiling LGBTI+ woman with her family. VkusVill and Yuma, one of the women in the picture, were asked to remove the content immediately and apologize to the people of Russia. And they did. Following this, the women in the photo were faced with a massive wave of hatred, resulting in physical threats. The family was forced to leave Russia swiftly. 

In a similar manner, thousands of LGBTI+ individuals are leaving the country nowadays. Their rights have been violated for decades, but it was only the war against Ukraine that brought people to take the step of emigration; in other words, the general inhumanity of Putin’s rule. And of course, there is also the ongoing suppression of almost all activists, and no longer only the most well-known ones. With the start of the war, the government intensified its war against all opposition. To give an example, there is hardly anyone left in my circle whose house has not been raided or who has not been detained by the police. Despite everything, it is not easy to leave Russia. Most activists are not wealthy. Therefore, the only hope left for LGBTI+ persons and for those leaving the country are human rights organizations providing support for building a new life outside of Russia. At present, LGBTI+ individuals fleeing Russia have no one. 

*Translation from Russian by E. Barış Altıtnaş

** Dima Barchenkov, is a culture and arts journalist and filmmaker. He left Russia at the beginning of March and came to Istanbul.