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Russian lesbian athlete: ‘We are visible to our gov’t’

State Dept. brings leader of Moscow LGBT sports group to U.S.

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Vladimir Putin, Elvina Yuvakaeva, Russia, gay news, Washington Blade

Russian President Vladimir Putin is under fire for his anti-gay policies, but lesbian Russian athlete Elvina Yuvakaeva says the government recognizes her LGBT group, which is planning a first-ever LGBT sports competition in Moscow next year. (Photo of Putin courtesy of www.kremlin.ru; Photo of Yuvakaeva courtesy of Yuvakaeva)

In a little noticed development, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow last month selected one of the leaders of a Russian LGBT sports group to participate in a sports exchange program in the U.S. organized by the State Department.

Lesbian athlete Elvina Yuvakaeva, co-president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, arrived in Washington last week with a five-member delegation of Russians working on the 2014 Winter Olympics set to take place in Sochi, Russia Feb. 7-23.

Under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, Yuvakaeva and the Russian delegation will visit several cities to meet with professional U.S. sports teams and organizers of past Olympics games in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. The meetings are aimed at providing information helpful to the Russians’ effort to promote and carry out the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Yuvakaeva said she will also be meeting with U.S. organizers of the 2014 Gay Games, the quadrennial international LGBT sports competition scheduled to take place next summer in Cleveland. In addition, she said she will make use of her U.S. visit to promote a first-ever LGBT sports competition her organization is planning to hold in Moscow next March called the Open Games.

“Two years ago our organization was registered as an NGO [non-governmental organization] by our government,” Yuvakaeva told the Blade in a Sept. 15 interview. “And our small victory was in the papers,” she said, noting that the registration of organizations in Russia is considered a form of government recognition.

“In our papers the government saw that L means lesbian, G means gay, B means bisexual, and T means transgender,” she said. “So we understood that the government saw us and we are visible to our government and society.”

A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday declined to comment on the potential political significance of the selection of a lesbian sports activist for the U.S. exchange program.

Observers of the controversy surrounding calls by some LGBT activists in the U.S. and Europe for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in response to a recently passed Russian law that critics say subjects gays to persecution are likely to view Yuvakaeva’s selection as a signal of U.S. opposition to Russia’s policies on gays.

President Obama, who has expressed concern about Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, included Russian LGBT activists as part of a contingent of representatives of Russian civic organizations with whom he met during his recent participation in the G-20 international economic summit in St. Petersburg.

“Quite frankly, I’m not going to get into a political thing like that,” said Susan Pittman, director of media relations for the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.

“I would merely reiterate that these people are selected after their applications are in and they’re reviewed by the embassy and the consulates,” she told the Blade.

“These particular programs – we have a number of them throughout the year,” Pittman said. “They include emerging leaders in a variety of fields – in professions, in sports, in the arts, in culture. The whole idea is to bring these people here in order to be able to establish relationships with their American counterparts.”

Yuvakaeva said a U.S. Embassy official approached her and invited her to apply for the exchange program in August while she attended an embassy reception. The reception, to which she had been invited, was held at the embassy in honor of U.S. athletes participating in the 2013 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) track and field competition that took place Aug. 10-18 in Moscow.

Among those attending the reception, Yuvakaeva said, was American runner Nick Symmonds, who created a stir when he spoke out against the Russian law against gay propaganda after receiving a silver medal in the competition. Sports writers said Symmonds, who is gay, became the first international athlete to criticize the gay propaganda law while on Russian soil.

Yuvakaeva said the Russian LGBT Sport Federation was founded in 2010 as a non-political organization with the purpose of promoting and facilitating sports among Russia’s LGBT community. Among other things, it serves as a representative of the Russian LGBT community on the board of the International Federation of Gay Games.

She said Russian authorities have not sought to revoke the group’s registration following the approval earlier this year by the Russian parliament of the gay propaganda law, which Russian officials have said is aimed at protecting minors from homosexuality.

According to Yuvakaeva, authorities consider the Russia LGBT Sport Federation to be in compliance with both the propaganda law and a separate law banning certain organizations from receiving money from foreign groups or governments on grounds that the Russian sports group is non-political.

“The only thing is we couldn’t invite minors to our events and we wouldn’t spread some information among minors about our events because it’s outlawed,” she said in discussing the impact of the gay propaganda law on her group.

Athlete Ally, All Out, IOC, International Olympic Committee, Russia, Sochi, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of All Out and Athlete Ally last month presented a petition to the IOC that urges it to pressure Russia to end its anti-gay laws. (Photo courtesy of All Out)

Concerning the Sochi Olympics, Yuvakaeva said the Russian LGBT Sport Federation opposes calls for a boycott on grounds that it would have a negative impact on the athletes and the LGBT community.

“My position and our official position is that a boycott of Sochi is a bad idea because the Olympics is a big event which is held every four years,” she said. “So Olympic athletes are preparing for this event a minimum of four years and it means Olympic athletes cannot compete and don’t have an opportunity to win medals.”

She said her organization also believes a boycott would have a negative impact on public opinion of the LGBT community in Russia and elsewhere.

“Our suggestion is to ask athletes, for example, at the opening ceremony to hold hands,” she said. “Same-sex people can hold hands during the opening ceremony to support LGBT people in Russia and all people.”

Although she won’t use her U.S. visit to campaign against a boycott, she said she will make her views known on the subject when she meets with LGBT sports representatives in the various U.S. cities to which she will travel through this month.

Among her priorities during her U.S. visit will be to promote and possibly raise money for the upcoming Open Games next year in Moscow, Yuvakaeva said. In what could be another first, she said she will ask officials of the Coca-Cola Company to consider contributing money for the Open Games when she and the Russian delegation meet company officials during their visit this week to Atlanta.

The delegation was scheduled to meet the Coca-Cola officials in connection with the company’s role as a sponsor of the Sochi Olympics.

“I want to ask Coca-Cola about these funds because they can make a PR campaign that says, OK guys, we’re sponsors of the Sochi Olympics. And in the same situation we support LGBT athletes in Russia because we gave some money for the Russian Open Games,” she said.

“So I think it might be interesting for them,” Yuvakaeva said. “We’ll see.”

While Yuvakaeva visits various U.S. cities in her participation in the State Department’s exchange program, Konstantin Yablotski, the other co-chair of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, is in Los Angeles promoting the Open Games on the West Coast.

Yablotski, a figure skater who competed in the 2010 Gay Games in Germany, and Yuvakaeva, an avid snowboarder and badminton player, are each committed to advancing LGBT equality in Russia through sports, Yuvakaeva told the Blade.

She said the sports planned for the Open Games, for which both LGBT people and heterosexual athletes are invited, are track and field, basketball, volleyball, badminton, soccer, tennis, table tennis, swimming and cross-country skiing.

Yuvakaeva said that while foreign athletes would be welcome to participate in the Open Games, her organization was still deliberating over the extent to which foreign participation may be possible due to logistical limitations and security and safety issues.

“Our main goal is propaganda for a healthy sports lifestyle among the LGBT and society,” she said.

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South America

Peruvian government classifies transgender people as mentally ill

President Dina Boluarte signed decree on May 10

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Government Palace in Lima, Peru (Photo courtesy of the Peruvian government)

The Peruvian government on May 10 published a decree that classifies transgender people as mentally ill.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday noted the country’s Essential Health Insurance Plan that President Dina Boluarte, Health Minister César Vásquez and Economic and Finance Minister José Arista signed references “ego-dystonic sexual orientation.” The decree also notes, among other things, “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorder in childhood.

Human Rights Watch in its press release notes the Health Ministry subsequently said it does not view LGBTQ identities as “illnesses.” Peruvian LGBTQ advocacy groups, however, have sharply criticized the decree.

“This decision is an alarming setback in our fight for the human rights of trans people in Peru, and it represents a serious danger to our health and well-being,” said Miluska Luzquiños, a trans activist who works with the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Trans People, which is known by the Spanish acronym REDLACTRANS, on her Facebook page.

A lack of legal recognition and protections has left trans Peruvians vulnerable to discrimination and violence.

Luisa Revilla in 2014 became the first trans person elected in Peru when she won a seat on the local council in La Esperanza, a city in the northwestern part of the country. 

She left office in 2019. Revilla died from COVID-19 in 2021.

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Africa

Kenyan advocacy group offers safety tips to LGBTQ hookup app users

Blackmail, kidnappings and assaults are commonplace

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(Bigstock photo)

The growing cases of queer people in Africa becoming victims of blackmail, physical and sexual assault from online hook-ups have compelled a Kenyan LGBTQ rights group to work with the community to help it stay safe when using digital platforms.

Upinde Advocates for Inclusion held a 3-day training from May 11-14 to teach queer people about unsafe social media and dating app hook-up practices that suspected homophobes exploit.

The Mombasa-based group of which Lizzie Ngina is executive coordinator noted lesbian, bisexual and queer women, and gender non-conforming people are the most frequent targets online and on Grindr and other dating apps.

 “LBQ women and GNC persons confront major challenges in terms of digital security and data protection, freedom of expression, assembly, association, speech, privacy, protest and online organizing,” Upinde Advocates for Inclusion stated.

Although the digital platforms were seen as convenient meet-up places for LGBTQ people in overcoming physical anti-gay attacks, Upinde Advocates for Inclusion said anti-gay discrimination, marginalization, gender-based violence, misinformation, and disinformation limits LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people from accessing the social media services.    

Queer people while using dating apps and social media for hookups were, however, urged to first trust their intuition before deciding to have a physical meeting with people with whom they chat online.

“If it does not seem like someone you are messaging is using their true identity, they probably are not. In this case, do not agree to meet them in person,” Upinde Advocates for Inclusion warned. 

It asked LGBTQ users to ensure the first in-person meeting with someone they met online is in a public place that is queer-friendly and known to them. Upinde Advocates for Inclusion also advised queer people to inform their trusted friends or family about their meeting plans, the place, and how long they expect it will take place in order to ensure someone can intervene if something goes wrong.

“Organize your own means of transport to and from the meeting, and do not accept a free ride from a stranger,” the group warned. “Also, do not move to a secondary location if you feel unsure during the meeting.” 

Upinde Advocates for Inclusion also warned queer app users to remain sober during the meeting and cautioned against leaving their food or drinks unattended in order to avoid any potential risks associated with spiking.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Ishtar-MSM and other Kenyan LGBTQ advocacy groups that offer legal aid to queer people last year reported about 100 cases of blackmail, extortion, physical and sexual assault against their members by suspected homophobes they met on dating apps and social media.

The two organizations this month noted 10 of the cases are expected before courts soon, although they said most victims of anti-gay attacks don’t report them to the authorities because they fear further stigmatization and discrimination. Consensual same-sex sexual relations also remain criminalized in Kenya. 

Targeting the LGBTQ community on digital platforms and dating apps is not unique to Kenya.

The Washington Blade last month reported it is still risky for queer Nigerians to search for a partner or to use gay dating apps infiltrated by homophobes who lure them to meet in-person and then rob or assault them. South African authorities last year arrested four men in connection with the targeting of Grindr users.

LGBTQ Kenyans urged to protect themselves at protests

Upinde Advocates for Inclusion in their workshop taught participants about the signs that suspected homophobes or their associates have compromised their devices. They include unusual activities on their cell phones that include calls with untraced history, disappearing blank messages, blinking screens, high data consumption, devices that overheat when not in use and echo when picking calls and quick battery depletion with minimal use.

“If you suspect your device is compromised, do not format or reset it, log out all the accounts, find an alternative device to use, change the password for the accounts on the device, and do not connect the gadget to any other devices,” Upinde Advocates for Inclusion warned. 

The group also taught queer people about how they should conduct themselves when taking part in street protests amid anti-gay attacks. Upinde Advocates for Inclusion advised them to always to identify safe alternative routes to and from the protests, wear comfortable running shoes, and always carry a spare outfit that is not LGBTQ-specific.

“If you are in a group, always strategize on having a meeting point should there be any danger or should you get separated,” the group stated. “Also, try to split up responsibilities among the group so that one person can’t be targeted.”

Upinde Advocates for Inclusion also urged queer people to always leave a protest before it ends, to have an emergency contact on speed dial or memorize it for immediate help in case of danger and to always to keep in touch with a trusted contact who is familiar with the protest but not attending it. 

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European Union

Gay Ukrainian man struggles to rebuild life in Berlin

Dmytro Shapoval arrived in Germany in March 2022

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Dmytro Shapoval in Berlin on April 15, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was on assignment in Berlin from April 12-15.

BERLIN — A gay Ukrainian man with HIV who fled his war-torn country more than two years ago remains in Berlin.

Dmytro Shapoval first spoke with the Washington Blade in July 2022.

He was working at an IT company’s call center and studying web and UX design in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, when Russia launched its war against his country on Feb. 24, 2022. Shapoval less than a month later swam across a river with his cat Peach and entered Poland.

He arrived in the German capital on March 19, 2022.

“I feel very secure here,” said Shapoval when he first spoke with the Blade on July 22, 2022, during a reception that took place at the end of a two-day meeting with European activists the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration organized.

Shapoval again spoke with the Blade on April 15 while he was at ORAM’s offices near Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

He said he was sleeping on a mattress on the kitchen floor of a Ukrainian friend’s apartment in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood, while looking for a more permanent place to live. 

Shapoval had just finished an IT course at a private university, but told the Blade he “was not in that headspace to study” because of the depression from which he said he suffers. Shapoval also told the Blade the German government has postponed his residency permit for a year.

“It’s challenging,” he said.

Germany has granted temporary protection to nearly 1 million Ukrainians

The German government has granted temporary protection to more than 900,000 Ukrainians since the war began. (The U.N. Refugee Agency says there are 2.2 million refugees in Germany.)

Ukrainians are able to enter Germany without a visa.

The German government offers those who have registered for residency a “basic income” that helps them pay for housing, food and other basic needs. Ukrainian refugees can also access health care, language classes, job training programs and childcare. 

Shapoval and other single Ukrainian refugees receive €563 ($609.30) a month through the program.

Shapoval told the Blade it is difficult for him to find a job because his legal status remains uncertain. He also complained about German bureaucracy, which he described as “such a hell here.”

A memorial to Ukrainians who have died during Russia’s war against their country in Berlin on April 13, 2024. The memorial was across the street from the Russian Embassy. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Shapoval’s mother remains in Dnipro, a city on the Dnipro River that is roughly 300 miles southeast of Kyiv.

He said the first year of the war was “pretty quiet” in Dnipro because it is not as big as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and other Ukrainian cities. Shapoval said the situation in Dnipro changed last fall.

Shapoval told the Blade a Russian missile hit a nine-story civilian building in the city.

“I had the worst day of my life because I knew that my mom was going to Dnipro,” he said.

Shapoval said the building the missile hit struck was close to his grandmother’s home.

“I was so horrified,” he told the Blade. “I was trying to call her to get in touch. She was not answering at all.”

Shapoval said his grandmother called him several hours after the attack. She told him the missile strike damaged the city’s communications infrastructure.

“It’s pretty horrible,” said Shapoval.

Shapoval spoke with the Blade hours before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a controversial conscription law that seeks to replenish the country’s military. Zelensky last month also enacted a statute that lowers the minimum draft age from 27 to 25.

Shapoval said he does not want to go into the military, and has thoughts that he would die in the war. Shapoval also told the Blade he does not watch news reports about Ukraine because they exacerbate his depression.

“Just seeing these buildings destroyed and sometimes (at night when) people are sleeping there, or also (seeing) news about kids being stolen into Russia and then brainwashed there in these camps … is really bad,” he said.

Dmytro Shapoval in Berlin on July 22, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘You’re a white refugee, so everything’s fine’

Shapoval noted support for Ukrainian refugees in Germany has begun to wane.

He recalled a conversation he had at a queer bookstore in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood during which someone who he described as German asked him what its like to be a refugee.

“Without even letting me answer without any space, he’s like, ‘Oh, but you’re a white refugee, so everything’s fine,'” recalled Shapoval.

Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, launched a surprise attack against Israel. 

Shapoval said the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip has pushed the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the plight of Ukrainian refugees out of the headlines. He also recalled an exchange he had with a Syrian woman with whom he had become friends in Berlin after Oct. 7.

Shapoval said she wrote in an Instagram post that “one or two years of war in Ukraine, this amount of kids died and two months of war in Palestine, this amount of kids died.”

“I’m like, what the fuck is that?” he recalled. “It’s not a competition of dead babies.”

“The fact you put two in comparison already makes one side less valuable and one side more valuable, but it’s also different pain,” added Shapoval. “I know that it is also horrible there … it seems like people are not understanding that.”

Shapoval said he reached out to her and tried to explain his perspective.

“It’s a bit hard right now,” he told the Blade.  

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