Russian LGBT rights advocates say rates of harassment and violence have increased over the last year since a law banning so-called gay propaganda to minors took effect.
Polina Andrianova of Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based advocacy group, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a Skype interview that she has been verbally accosted twice since President Vladimir Putin on June 29, 2013, signed the propaganda bill.
Andrianova said she is now afraid to hold her girlfriend’s hand in public.
“People just look at you differently,” she said. “Now they know that gays and lesbians exist, but unfortunately they also know that we are a danger to children and we’re a danger to traditional Russian values.”
Andrianova told the Blade that her organization installed security cameras in its offices last November after two masked men with air guns and baseball bats attacked gay and bisexual men who were attending a meeting at the St. Petersburg office of a Russian HIV/AIDS service organization. Bomb threats disrupted an LGBT film festival in the city a few weeks later that gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black attended.
Andrianova said people who were “clearly not members of the LGBT community” began to attend support group meetings and other events at Coming Out’s office after the attack at the HIV/AIDS group. She told the Blade they took pictures and videos and acted in “a weird way.”
“We are pretty sure that they were going to plan some provocations,” said Andrianova.
Andrianova said local authorities have also continued to target Coming Out for violating a 2012 law that requires groups that receive funding from outside Russia to register as a “foreign agent,” even though a St. Petersburg appellate judge last July overturned a lower court’s ruling that fined her organization more than $15,000.
“That has been taking a lot of our emotional, administrative, human resources to fight these court battles,” she said. “We might actually have to close down.”
Arrests of LGBT advocates persist after Olympics
Putin signed the propaganda law slightly more than six months before the 2014 Winter Olympics took place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
Police in Moscow and St. Petersburg arrested more than a dozen activists who tried to stage two pro-LGBT protests hours before the opening ceremony. Elena Kostynchenko, one of the advocates who was arrested in Moscow, told the Blade during a telephone interview after her release that officers threatened to sexually assault her and another women while they were in custody.
Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender former Italian parliamentarian, twice during the Sochi games after she protested the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record.
This harassment has continued since the Olympics ended.
Venues that abruptly cancelled scheduled competitions and bomb threats disrupted the Russian Open Games that drew more than 300 LGBT athletes from Russia and other countries to Moscow a few weeks after the Sochi games.
Authorities on May 31 detained several people who took part in two LGBT rights demonstrations in Moscow. A four-day camp the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, which sponsored the Russian Open Games, took place outside the capital last month without incident.
Konstantin Yablotskiy, co-organizer of the Russian Open Games, told the Blade on Monday during a Skype interview from his Moscow apartment that the principal of the school where he teaches asked him to resign twice in April.
Yablotskiy refused, but he said that administrators continue to harass him.
“They probably think that just my personal example is showing the example of non-traditional family values,” Yablotskiy told the Blade. “I don’t see how my working duties are somehow devoted with my public activity.”
Administrators of an Arkangelsk university last month fired a lecturer who is a local LGBT rights advocate after he traveled to the U.S. last fall to discuss the Kremlin’s gay rights record. Yablotskiy told the Blade that a gay man who taught at a Vladivostok university recently resigned.
“He clearly understood that there would be no chance to prolong this contract,” he said.
LGBT Russians seek asylum in U.S.
The Kremlin’s ongoing LGBT rights crackdown has prompted many gay Russians to leave the country.
The former manager of a gay nightclub in Moscow that had been attacked several times late last year told the Blade during an interview in D.C. in January that he does not want to return to Russia because he feels his life will be threatened. George Budny, a gay doctor from St. Petersburg who also fled his homeland, said his mother told him to stay in the U.S. because of the propaganda law.
Vlad, a 17-year-old gay teenager from Sochi, arrived in New York on June 23.
He said before marching in New York’s annual Pride parade with a group of LGBT Russians that authorities are now targeting his friend, who is a gay rights advocate and supported a proposed boycott of the Olympics. Vlad — who told the Blade he plans to seek asylum in the U.S. — said officials are trying to force his friend into a mental hospital.
“Russia became more homophobic after the Olympic games,” he said.
Ivan and Aleksandr, a gay couple from Murmansk who has been together for seven years, moved to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., last July. They applied for asylum in February with assistance from Immigration Equality.
Ivan told the Blade during an interview in Manhattan on Friday that Aleksandr was a well-known photographer in Murmansk when he came out on Twitter in February 2013. He said Aleksandr was attacked outside of their apartment after his message was reposted and screenshots of it appeared in local media.
Someone vandalized their car in May — and a burned vehicle was left in their parking space outside their apartment building two weeks later. The couple was also afraid to hold hands or kiss each other in public before they left Murmansk.
Ivan, who married Aleksandr at New York City Hall last October, said someone in Murmansk took pictures of their wedding that his husband posted onto Facebook and wrote a blog post about it. He said there were a lot of “bad comments” under the article.
“People were not friendly towards us and towards our relatives,” said Ivan. “We were scared not for ourselves because we were in a safe place at that moment here. We were scared for our families.”
Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist and prominent LGBT rights advocate, in December moved to New York with her family after a lawmaker proposed a bill that would allow the government to take children away from their gay and lesbian parents.
She told the Blade last week during a telephone interview that she did not allow her two oldest children to ride the Moscow subway alone before they left the country.
“We didn’t think that there was a very high risk of their being harassed or attacked, but there was a risk,” said Gessen. “When you’re talking about kids, that’s a totally unacceptable level of risk.”
Gessen criticizes advocates who ‘did nothing’ during Olympics
President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other American and European officials have repeatedly criticized Putin for signing the gay propaganda law over the last year.
The Kremlin’s LGBT rights record was among the factors that prompted Obama to cancel a meeting with Putin that had been scheduled to take place last September before the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. The White House in March announced the Russian lawmaker who introduced gay propaganda bill is among the seven officials who will face sanctions for their role in the escalating tensions between Moscow and Ukraine that include the annexation of Crimea.
David Pichler, a gay U.S. diver who competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics and 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney, and two staffers from Human Rights First met with Russian LGBT rights advocates in St. Petersburg and Sochi in February. Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, highlighted efforts in support of adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter’s anti-discrimination clause, while he was in the Black Sea resort city during the games.
The Human Rights Campaign has thus far contributed $140,000 to a fund designed to support Russian LGBT advocacy groups since Putin signed the propaganda law. The organization also continues to work with the Russian LGBT Network.
Singer Elton John last December blasted the propaganda law during a Moscow concert that he dedicated to a man whom authorities said two men tortured and killed near Volgograd in May 2013 after he came out to them. Gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts echoed John’s criticisms during a series of interviews before co-hosting the Miss Universe 2013 pageant that took place in the Russian capital last November.
Neither he nor co-host Mel B discussed the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the event’s broadcast.
Gessen, who spoke at last month’s Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies’ annual Pride event at the State Department, was more critical of activists who went to the Olympics and “did nothing” to highlight the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record than Roberts, whom she said “made his presence count.”
“Getting deported for being disruptive of Sochi would have been making your presence count,” she said. “Issuing a couple of press statements among the thousands of press statements that the press corps got there is a waste of money and time.”
Gessen said during the GLIFAA Pride event that she would like to see the U.S. impose sanctions against those in Russia and other countries who violate LGBT rights — similar to the travel bans against Ugandan officials the White House announced on June 20 as part of its response to the draconian anti-gay law that President Yoweri Museveni signed earlier this year. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.); gay journalist Jamie Kirchick and Larry Poltavtsev of Spectrum Human Rights, a group that advocates on behalf of LGBT Russians, are among those who have urged Obama to use a 2012 law that freezes the assets of Russian citizens and officials directly responsible for human rights violations to punish those behind the Kremlin’s ongoing LGBT rights crackdown.
Gessen told the Blade that multinational companies that do not offer the same benefits to their LGBT employees in Russia and other countries that their U.S. counterparts receive should not “be landing” on the HRC Corporate Equality Index.
“It can make the difference between life and death for their LGBT employees in other countries,” she told the Blade. “HRC’s approach to measuring this is inadequate.”
Deena Fidas, director of the HRC Workplace Equality Program, told the Blade on Tuesday her organization in 2015 will evaluate “all businesses with global operations” based on whether LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies are consistent with their employees in the U.S. and abroad.
“We foster trusting relationships with major employees of all stripes, but do not rely on trust alone to validate our information,” she said.