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Putin’s War on Russia’s LGBTIQ Community Continues

As a new anti-LGBTIQ is passed by Parliament, activists fight back by retelling their history in the country

Russian riot police stands between participants in Gay Pride and a group of five nationalists. Photo: Francesca Visser

Putin’s War on Russia’s LGBTIQ Community Continues

As a new anti-LGBTIQ is passed by Parliament, activists fight back by retelling their history in the country

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Russia’s Parliament last month unanimously supported a controversial law banning the promotion of LGBTIQ ‘propaganda’. It will, in practice, erase the existence of LGBTIQ people from Russian media, including film and literature. 

Pyotr Voskresensky – a St. Petersburg-based LGBTIQ activist and a historian – has recently taken his last chance to fulfil a dream he has been working on for years. In defiance of state-sanctioned homophobia and repression, he opened his very own queer museum.

“The Government likes to talk about a golden age when gay people did not exist – and my exhibition shows that the Government is lying,” Voskresensky told Byline Times

An intensive care specialist by profession and a historian by passion, Voskresensky grew up in a family of artists and always had an eye for queer art. He was first inspired to develop the ground-breaking exhibition after a visit to the house museum of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the great Russian composer whose sexuality has been subject of great disputes.

It’s taken two years but now his collection comprises more than 30 artefacts from the 19th and 20th Centuries that celebrate Russia’s queer history. 

Voskresensky opened the doors to visitors just three days after the Russian Parliament announced its new anti-LGBTIQ legislation.

“Of course the opening of the museum is a political gesture,” he says. As the Government has increasingly weaponised history to justify its draconian laws, Voskresensky decided to fight back, using the same weapon to show the world the rich history of LGBTIQ society in Russia. 

He knows the museum will have to close its doors when the new law comes into force. “A museum should not be kept in a closet,” Voskresensky observes – who hopes to soon establish a “Queer museum in exile”. 

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War Against the LGBTIQ Community

LGBTIQ content in Russia was first restricted to an adult audience following a 2013 ban allegedly meant to protect children from “gay propaganda”. However, the impact of the legislation went beyond online and offline content. 

Alexander Kondakov, an assistant professor at University College Dublin and author of the book Violent Affections: Queer Sexuality, Techniques Of Power, And Law In Russia, studied the influence of the so-called “gay propaganda” law on violence against LGBTIQ people in Russia. He found an increase in attacks against the community in the aftermath of the legislation.  

“This violence is still ongoing and it never goes down to the numbers before the introduction of the first gay propaganda law,” Kondakov told Byline Times.

While there were ways for media providers and young people to circumvent the 2013 ban, this new law will result in the complete erasure of a part of the society from the public eye. 

“It is a big deal,” says Kondakov. “As of now, LGBTIQ organisations were not welcome, sometimes not registered, and had a lot of troubles with the law. But they existed and did their thing. That’s all gone.”

Many LGBTIQ activists in the country have not waited for the onset of the new law before making plans for a future in an increasingly repressive state – they have fled. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was enough of a sign that internal repression was also on the way. 

Ten days after the invasion this year, Manny de Guerre, the British founder of Russia’s only LGBTIQ festival Side by Side, packed her belongings and left the country.

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“We understood that this was something very different and that the situation in Russia was going to get worse,” she says from her new home in Tallinn, Estonia, where she has relocated along with her festival. 

After 14 years of activity in Russia, de Guerre has experienced firsthand the tightening measures against LGBTIQ rights in the country.    

“The last two years have been extremely difficult”, she says. As the pandemic took over the country, authorities increasingly took advantage of restrictions to stop undesired public events, including the festival. In November 2020, after some relaxation of the pandemic restrictions, Side by Side’s organisers tried to implement a hybrid festival, by having screenings and discussion both online and offline. 

“After so much isolation it was important to try and bring people together,” de Guerre says. However, the festival was raided by the police for allegedly not observing COVID-19 regulations, an accusation de Guerre firmly denies. 

The following year, de Guerre relaunched the festival online. This time, the entire website was blocked after just three days of screenings, with the authorities unfairly claiming the website did not feature the 18+ sign and was therefore not complying with the 2013 propaganda law. 

“There are a lot of people in Russia who are tolerant, who are open-minded and, of course, the state does not like this and we have seen that there is this backlash and a crackdown on all these sorts of initiatives promoting an alternative view of what it is to be Russian, what is Russia,” says de Guerre.  

According to de Guerre, the initial goals that Side by Side set out to achieve became even more relevant as more pressure was put on the festival. “The mission of the festival was always to create a safe space, to create a dialogue with the broader society, emancipate and empower the LGBTIQ community,” she says. 

Side by Side’s work still continues today outside of Russia, with online events and webinars, and the distribution of articles and podcasts to discuss issues close to the LGBTQ+ society. 

“We became part of the history of Russia, of civil society, of human rights, of the history of Russian LGBTIQ, and that can’t be taken away – it will always be there, it will always exist,” says de Guerre. 

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