Living on the rim of a volcano

LGBT-persons are increasingly being cast as “enemies of society” in contemporary Russia. But as the activist Svetlana Zakharova writes, the new law prohibiting “propaganda of homosexuality” has also had the effect of making the ongoing persecution of LGBT issues more visible.

December 16 2014 Text: Svetlana Zakharova Translation from Russian: Amanda Love Darragh

People from other countries often ask: doesn’t it ever worry me, being involved in LGBT activism in Russia? Don’t I find it frightening? The truth is, I’m probably more worried about walking alone down an unlit street. Doing what I do every day is normal and natural. You can’t live your life in fear. You get used to it. You get used to receiving insulting and threatening mail. You get used to the risk of being attacked at events or on the way to events, to the risk of having eggs thrown at you, and sometimes stones. Participants at the opening of QueerFest in September this year were even poisoned with gas. And because it is all endorsed and condoned by the state authorities, there is absolutely no retribution whatsoever.

I sometimes look at anti-gay websites, and those who persecute lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people believe that what they are doing is normal too. I would go so far as to say that they genuinely believe they are safeguarding morality, traditional family values, children, and society in general, even Russia’s national identity. And the “gay propaganda law”, passed in 2013, serves to convince them that they are fighting for a just cause. It enables them to say: “There is no anti-LGBT discrimination. Just stay at home, out of sight, don’t distribute propaganda or flaunt your perversions, and you'll be fine.” Or: “You deserve to be burned – you’re agents of the West and a crime against nature.” Even our politicians make comments like this, and again, they are not held to account. Of course not: they’re merely upholding the law.

Naturally, this law has provoked unprecedented debate around the issue of LGBT rights – even my grandmother now has a reasonable understanding of the concept of homosexuality. It has also forced many to acknowledge that discrimination does exist, and a number of people have since spoken out openly in support of LGBT rights. But the law has also generated a new wave of violence, aggression and hatred, and activists are not the only targets. In Saint Petersburg in April this year, two girls were assaulted by a drunk man in the metro – simply because he didn’t like the way they looked. They weren’t feminine enough, apparently. A similar incident took place in October, also in the metro, although this time the attack was carried out by two men. Or rather, one man attacked the girls while the other filmed the attack. Again, it’s all down to the law. Well, that and the systematic persecution of the LGBT community in the media. I try not to watch anything relating to LGBT issues on Russian television, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. LGBT people are rarely given the chance to speak for themselves; instead they are referred to as perverts and accused of sexual exploitation. According to the media, there is a direct correlation between homosexuality and paedophilia.

So, does it frighten me? I’m almost used to the fact that state prosecutors might turn up at any moment and order us to suspend all activity. To the fact that we might be identified as foreign agents, since this label can now be applied to any organisation engaged in “political activity” and in receipt of foreign funding. I’m almost used to the fact that on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia I call my friends in other parts of Russia not to congratulate them, but to make sure that everyone’s all right, that no one has been beaten up or arrested for releasing their balloons. I’m almost used to the fact that organising an event is like walking on the edge of a volcano: crossing your fingers, you wonder whether it will all come off, whether another venue will be found, whether there will be enough room for everyone, whether anti-gay protestors will turn up with eggs, stones, sticks, gas or religious icons. I’m almost used to the fact that a range of television programmes, newspapers and magazines regularly refer to me as a pervert, and to my relationship of eight years as socially inferior. I’m even used to the idea that our movement could cease to exist altogether.

What I feel in response to all this is not fear. Or if I'm totally honest, it's not only fear. I know that many are consumed by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, that many leave the country – and I don’t blame them. Living outside the norm in today’s Russia is hard, very hard. But what this makes me feel is resistance, a desire to oppose the entire system. I don’t want to leave. I want this country to change. I want to walk hand in hand with the person I love, without being afraid. I want a family and children. I want to be respected. I want the right to speak openly about the things that are important to me without fear of being arrested or attacked. I want to do what I love without being accused of complicity with that mythical enemy – “the West”. And I am prepared to fight for this.

I know that nothing is going to change overnight. I probably won’t ever stop looking around nervously when I walk down an unlit street, and my family won’t ever be equal in terms of social welfare rights or gain the approval – even the indifference – of society. I understand all the risks, I’m not stupid, but I still intend to rock this boat. Sometimes I’m terribly afraid, but it's just something I have to do. As the Russian saying goes: “no risk, no champagne.”