MOSCOW, January 24 (Dan Peleschuk, RIA Novosti) – Pavel Samburov exudes confidence when he recalls the night in October, on International Coming Out Day, when a group of masked hoodlums stormed and ransacked a Moscow gay club.
“They worked as a team,” Samburov says nonchalantly, taking a drag from a cigarette, then snuffing it out. “It was an organized attack.”
Samburov, an outspoken gay activist, is unusual: He was one of five to file a police report after the incident, although about 80 patrons had been at the club when it happened.
“People are afraid,” says Samburov, co-head of the Rainbow Association, a gay rights group.
As Russia’s parliament prepares to consider a nationwide ban on vaguely defined “homosexual propaganda” on Friday, gay activists and ordinary gay Russians are feeling the obstacles to social acceptance, and even basic tolerance, grow ever more formidable.
Long plagued by social stigma, misinformation and, now, newly restrictive legislation, Russia’s gay community has increasingly felt pitted against an intolerant society and an unaccommodating state.
“The Russian reality is that it’s unacceptable to be gay,” says 27-year-old Sergei Gorbunov, an insurance agent and gay activist.
Society Sees Gays as Deviants
For most of the Soviet period, homosexuality was a crime. In 1933, under Joseph Stalin, it became punishable by up to five years in prison.
And even though it was finally decriminalized in 1993, the Soviet-era association with criminal deviance has left a lasting impact, sociologists and activists say.
“Everyone remembers when, earlier, it [homosexuality] was dirty, criminal, forbidden,” says Gorbunov, who volunteers in a campaign to raise safe-sex awareness. “A huge portion of people remain convinced it is extremely negative.”
According to a recent poll by the respected Levada Center, only 17 percent of Russians believe homosexuality is a natural sexual orientation, while 43 percent say it is a “bad habit.” Another 32 percent say it is a result of trauma or a disease.
Boris Dubin, a senior Levada Center researcher, points to Russians’ fear of homosexuality as part and parcel of a general sense of xenophobia in Russian society.
Gays “are perceived as clear ‘others’ – and unpleasant ‘others’ at that,” he says. “The majority of Russians wouldn’t want to live next door to them, wouldn’t want to expose their kids to them and, basically, don’t want any sort of relations with them.”
Those feelings, Dubin adds, are accompanied by stereotypes that have long since taken root in society.
Alexey Odintsov, a 30-year-old gay man from St. Petersburg, points to a lack of access to reliable, objective information as a key factor perpetuating these stereotypes. Many Russians – particularly the older generation – are caught in an insulated media environment, he says, in which images of gays as clownish freaks reach them through tabloid media.
“People just don’t see us,” says Odintsov, who works in Moscow as a manager at a telecoms company. “They think we all work in television or in show business.”
“But we’re everywhere – in a million different professions,” he adds. “If you could just put a light bulb over every gay person’s head, people would see just how well-lit their streets and cities are.”
Odintsov considers himself lucky.
He first realized he was gay when he was 13, but kept it quiet for more than a decade. Whenever his family asked why he never had a girlfriend, he would dodge the question.
One day several years ago, however, Odintsov decided he was through living what he says was a “double life.” He first came out to his older brother, who he feared was homophobic.
It was his brother’s birthday celebration, and Odintsov expected the worst.
“He got up from the table, moved toward me, leaned in and then hugged me tightly, saying ‘Thank you for telling me – I love you the way you are,’” he says.
For Odintsov it was an unexpected relief, enough for him to muster up the confidence to tell his mother. She, in turn, has learned to live with it – even though she still laments the idea that she’ll never have grandchildren.
But many of Odintsov’s gay friends and acquaintances stay in the closet.
“Some are afraid for their jobs, others for their parents’ health,” he says. “Some are already married and simply don’t want to ruin their families.”
Fears of consequences and backlashes, real or imagined, are what prevent many ordinary gay Russians – like those at the 7FreeDays club when it was attacked last fall – from living openly, much less sticking up for their interests.
According to Samburov, the Rainbow Association activist, many people felt discouraged from filing police reports then for fear of publicly revealing their orientation, and thereby inviting more trouble.
“Far from everyone can fight that battle,” he says.
Dealing With It
Nonetheless, efforts to battle the stereotypes, fear and misinformation haven’t been altogether absent.
A grassroots support group called Parents’ Meeting, for example, brings together parents and their gay children to exchange experiences and information.
St. Petersburg native Nina Sozaeva was compelled to start the group after her 33-year-old son, Valery, came out, much to her dismay: “For the longest time, I was looking for answers,” she says. “Where was I to blame in this? What did I do?”
Sozaeva eventually came to terms with her son’s sexual orientation, and the idea for the sessions soon followed. Since their start in St. Petersburg in 2010, the meetings have spread to Moscow, where they take place roughly once a month.
She says many people take part in the groups because they have few other trusted outlets to which they can turn.
“A person will feel that they are somehow not right, and because it’s hard enough for them to accept it for themselves, talking about it with others would otherwise never even cross their mind,” Sozaeva says.
At a recent meeting in Moscow, one participant willing to speak on the record was Yulia Malygina, a 35-year-old photographer and Yekaterinburg native.
After moving to Moscow about 10 years ago, she has grown comfortable enough in the gay community here to live openly. But back home, it’s a different story: Only her mother and a handful of close friends know she’s gay.
In the meeting, Malygina struggles to plan out how she’ll eventually come out to the rest of her family. Her elderly aunt, she worries, would surely never accept it. Her eyes nervously scan the faded, wood panel floor, as if searching for answers, while a sheepish smile plays on her lips.
Though neither of her parents has participated, Malygina says the meetings have helped her to “practice” coming out – and to stay open.
“It wasn’t enough for me to simply accept it [homosexuality],” she says. “I had many questions that only the group could help me answer.”
Fighting the State
Today, public anti-gay sentiment seems to be gaining momentum in Russian politics, as authorities have increasingly placed a premium on typically conservative values such as religion and patriotism, particularly under President Vladimir Putin.
Nikolai Alekseyev, a leading gay rights activist, says officials are banking on these values to consolidate popular support and distract people from a range of socio-economic problems. Those with non-mainstream views, like supporters of gay rights, can easily be turned into “scapegoats” against whom most Russians could conceivably rally.
Instead of educating people or promoting tolerance, the authorities are “trying to play with these very base stereotypes that the majority of the population has,” Alekseyev says.
Numerous analysts have pointed out that Russian officials have ramped up the rhetoric of “us” versus “them” since mass street protests, aimed largely at Putin, broke out in 2011 after allegations of election fraud. One of the main dividing lines has been between the liberal urbanites who formed the core of the protest movement and the less prosperous, more conservative masses in the provinces.
An official campaign against homosexuality seems to have revved up at about the same time.
Since February, St. Petersburg and at least six Russian regions have introduced laws banning “homosexual propaganda”: Kostroma, Magadan, Novosibirsk, Krasnodar, Samara and Bashkortostan. Lawmakers in the Kaliningrad Region passed their own law on Thursday.
Even Moscow, the heart of the liberal protest movement, has taken an aggressive stance: In 2012, the city’s highest court upheld a municipal government ban on gay pride parades for the next 100 years – passed after Alekseyev submitted about as many requests, in advance, the year before.
Prior to that, the city’s former longtime mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, had banned such parades numerous times, even calling them “satanic.”
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia had violated three articles of the European Convention of Human Rights by banning gay-pride parades in Moscow in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Now, the State Duma is set to consider legislation on a federal level, sending ripples of consternation throughout Russia’s gay community. The bill to be considered Friday could establish fines of up to $16,000 for the “promotion of homosexuality.”
While proponents say the law is aimed at protecting minors from harmful influences, such as gay pornography, critics allege it is a cover for cracking down on the gay community.
Vitaly Milonov, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party who authored St. Petersburg’s anti-propaganda legislation, maintains the law is only meant to protect minors, and doesn’t infringe on the private lives of homosexual adults.
“This is a law that simply leaves private life within the boundaries of private life,” he told RIA Novosti on Thursday.
But he added that, when it comes to legal definitions of marriage, non-traditional families “don’t count.”
All Russian citizens should have basic rights and freedoms, he conceded, but “any kind of extras – based upon matters of principle, such as their private family lives – are not included.”
The end result of the recent anti-gay measures, Alekseyev and many other critics agree, will be to perpetuate intolerance toward gays in Russia, enshrining in law that which previously existed de facto.
Their worries may not be unfounded. This year alone, grassroots anti-gay groups have staged numerous protests. Activists from some of them, like the conservative Narodny Sobor, have regularly shown up at pro-gay demonstrations, which have often ended in violent clashes and dozens of arrests.
The group’s St. Petersburg branch even protested against PepsiCo’s Russian dairy subsidiary, the Happy Milkman, in September because its logo features a smiling milkman in front of a rainbow, the international symbol for gay pride. The group claimed it violated the city’s anti-propaganda law.
Members of the group, which identifies itself with Russian Orthodox Christian values, also called in October for a ban on gay clubs in Moscow.
Sozaeva, the Parents’ Meeting founder, believes the laws are dangerous because they instill a sense of deep intolerance from an early age.
“Of course, a child will begin to feel as if he’s either a second-class citizen or some kind of outcast,” she says. “And then what is he left to do?”
Few Allies to Back Their Cause
When the anti-Kremlin protests of 2011-2012 were gaining steam, its leaders advocating broad civic rights, gay activists consistently felt left out, saying public figures back down when it comes to defending gay rights per se.
“Opposition leaders are afraid of losing support, insofar as this issue is an uncomfortable taboo for Russian society,” says Gorbunov, the insurance agent and activist.
Samburov, of the Rainbow Association, says scores of opposition figures have either turned down invitations to his organization’s events or failed to show up, though gay-rights activists have had a steady, if small, presence at the protest rallies.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, deny they are trying to dodge the issue, but concede it’s too sensitive to be tackled publicly at this point.
“We believe the rights of any kind of minorities should be defended,” says Ilya Ponomaryov, a key protest organizer and lawmaker with the left-wing A Just Russia party.
But given Russia’s pervasive conservatism, he adds, it is “counterproductive” for gay activists to push the issue to the top of the protest agenda, as their campaigning draws negative reactions from people otherwise sympathetic to the anti-Kremlin movement.
Gay activists remain less than hopeful.
“Unfortunately, many still don’t understand that there is only one kind of ‘freedom,’ and that it’s for everyone,” Samburov says.