For an American living in Russia, many things are funny. The laughter never stops, really. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually only here to collect amusing stories that I can tell at cocktail parties to impress girls. I like to think of it as an investment for the future. Among these delights are watching straight club-goers sing and dance unironically – in unison – to "YMCA," listening to Will Smith’s "Getting’ Jiggy wit It" while waiting on line at the grocery store, and getting kicked off a bus for not having exact change. (All of these things happened to me in the span of one week, by the way.) When I sat down to write this article about the anti-gay bill that was almost passed in St. Petersburg last month, though, I couldn’t think of a single comical thing.
The truth is that sometimes being queer in Russia is terrifying. Russian society, although mostly secular, is overwhelmingly homophobic – even in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Maybe you read about the anti-gay bill that majority party United Russia nearly passed last month. During the last two weeks of November, United Russia (the party of Prime Minster Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev) introduced a bill that would make "propaganda of homosexuality" – whatever that means – illegal in St. Petersburg. Thanks to the efforts of activists in this city and pressure from the international community, the bill was not voted on a second time. It’s possible that this legislation may come up again in St. Petersburg, especially since laws like this are already in place in two other Russian cities. As of last week, the city Kostroma (500 miles outside of Moscow) might be the latest to join the ranks in introducing an anti-gay bill with dangerous implications.
Manny de Guerre, the founder of Russia’s only LGBT film festival, thinks that the bill in St. Petersburg was a response to increased visibility that the queer community has seen in the last few years. I asked her a few questions about the protests that were organized in response to the bill, and about the Russian state of the gay in general.
Rachel: Were you surprised to hear about the bill? In your opinion, is it a response to anything in particular? Why now?
Manny: A similar law has been in place in Ryazan since 2006. In September of this year the same law was brought into force in Archangelsk. It came therefore as no surprise that there has been an attempt to introduce this law in St. Petersburg.
The bill was initiated by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov and it has been perceived by many as a pre-election stunt in order to gain the conservative vote and boost popularity for United Russia, whose ratings have been flagging in recent months. This is one possible interpretation.
In the last four years the St. Petersburg LGBT community has become more visible.
In 2007-8 Side by Side was founded, the organization Coming Out came into existence, and LGBT Network became based in St. Petersburg. During this four-year period these different organizations have been working on different fronts, pushing for openness, bringing LGBT rights and issues to the fore. We have been successful in creating a public space for the discussion and increasing the visibility of [the LGBT community]. This of course provokes a reaction from oppositional voices – particularly within the government, the orthodox church, the far right, and ultra-national groups who through a range of repressive and threatening measures attempt to hinder the progress of our work – this proposed law [is] their reaction to our success.
R: How did the idea for the flash mobs come about? Have the demonstrations been successful so far?
M: In Russia it is very difficult to organize mass demonstrations or meetings. All meetings have to be sanctioned by the authorities and this process takes about ten days. More often than not the request to have a demonstration or meeting is rejected by the administration. We have been taking the issue to the streets by organizing one-person pickets and flash mobs. One-person pickets are permitted by the law and it is not necessary to have approval from the authorities. A flash mob is an alternative form of street protest and at present it does not fall under any description under Russian law, making it possible to use this method. These methods are not new and have been used by LGBT activists and others in recent years.
These demonstrations have been very successful. They have generated mass interest in the press and media bringing LGBT issues to the public on a level that has never been seen before. The press is usually indifferent to LGBT and if they do cover [gay issues] they tend to focus on the scandalous side of things. This time, however, there has been much more positive reporting, real analysis of the situation, and journalists seeing the absurdity of the law and communicating it to their readers.
R: Do you think the general attitude toward the LGBT community in St. Petersburg has changed in the last 15 years?
M: Russian society is still incredibly homophobic. These recent statistics clearly show that. Even though these statistics are very negative, people’s attitudes are beginning to change. Since October 2008 when Side by Side attempted our first festival, 10,300 people have attended our events and we have distributed over 18,000 information brochures on a range of topics including coming out, homophobia, transgender identities, LGBT parenthood, and religion. 25% of our audience is non-LGBT.
Things are changing towards LGBT and people are gradually being won over but there is an incredible amount of work to do. The State is constantly hindering our work, though –by closing down venues where we have festivals, or by introducing laws like this. It slows down the process incredibly and it will be many years and much work before people are tolerant toward the LGBT community in Russia.
R: How would you describe the LGBT movement in Russia generally? Where do you see it headed?
M: In the early 1990’s there was quite a lot of LGBT activism going on, but it turned out not to be very effective. After article 121 [which criminalized gay sex] was abolished, it all fizzled out quite quickly. There was a lull period, and then in 2005 Nikolai Alexeyev attempted to start Gay Pride in Moscow. For a few years that was what characterized the LGBT movement. [Pride parades are] seen by many to be counterproductive – year after year only a handful of activists [are] going out on the Moscow streets, and the movement [is] not growing, and attitudes towards [are] LGBT staying the same.
Now the movement is more varied, with different organizations doing different kinds of work – not just in St. Petersburg but throughout the whole of Russia. The LGBT movement is strong in St. Petersburg. Organizations work effectively and have good grassroots support. This experience needs to be passed on to [smaller cities], which is what the festival tries to do – we also work in Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Archangel.
In the present climate it is difficult to say how it is going to turn out. Reading Putin’s comments [in which he talks about "protecting Russia’s sovereignty" from foreign influence], it seems that things are going to start moving backward fast – not just for the LGBT movement, but for the whole of Russian society. I hope that the opposite case is true!
Friends at home are asking me what’s going on with all the protests – both for the bill last month and the more widespread demonstrations in response to the general election this month. I never know what to say. Trying to read through the news and make sense of it all, though, I can say this. I find it encouraging that huge numbers of people are protesting the party that introduced this bill. Obviously, not all of these protesters are queer activists. Most of them, it seems, are just angry and tired of being lied to by an unpopular administration. But if older and younger generations of Russians can come together against United Russia and Putin, isn’t that a step in the right direction?