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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Russia Tightens Grip on LGBTQ+ Rights Undercover

Russia had just recently declared the “international LGBT public movement” as extremist when a bar in central Moscow, where Vasili and his friends gathered for LGBTQ+ parties on Friday nights, was raided by masked police.

“Everything seemed normal on that Friday evening until the police stormed in,” recounted Vasili, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns.

Vasili and approximately 100 others were instructed to face a wall while the police conducted drug searches and passport checks. Despite the police claiming it was a drug raid, Vasili and others felt it was targeted at the LGBTQ+ community. “Standing against that wall, you realize how limited your rights are as a gay person in this country.”

On December 1, less than 48 hours after the top court’s landmark ruling banning the “global LGBTQ+ movement” as extremist, at least two other LGBTQ+-friendly venues in Moscow were raided.

While the LGBTQ+ community in Russia has faced historical social exclusion, the legal assault began in 2013 with the infamous law signed by Vladimir Putin, prohibiting the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. However, there were spaces for expression in major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg despite existing laws.

“Before the [Ukraine] war, there was an understanding that inside one’s home or at a queer party you could still be yourself,” said Karen Shainyan, a prominent Russian gay rights advocate and journalist. Shainyan, who launched an LGBTQ+-themed YouTube channel in 2019, noted that attitudes were seemingly improving until the war in Ukraine changed the landscape.

Also Read: Hexham Pride: Inaugural LGBTQ+ Festival Takes Place in Market Town

Putin’s push for “traditional values” after the Ukraine invasion made anti-gay rhetoric a key element of his political agenda. The Kremlin is linking the crackdown on LGBTQ+ expression with the war, framing it as a battle against perceived “satanic” Western liberal values.

Last year, Putin signed a law banning “LGBT propaganda” among adults, criminalizing any act promoting what Russia deems “non-traditional sexual relations.” Bookstores and cinemas subsequently removed content with LGBTQ+ themes.

The recent “extremist” label on the “international LGBT public movement” is yet to show its full impact. Activists fear it may be used broadly to persecute individuals or organizations associated with the movement. The ruling could also have less visible consequences, with institutional oppression affecting the mental health of the queer community.

“It is hard to comprehend the speed at which the crackdown is happening,” remarked Russian queer performance artist Gena Marvin. Known for challenging gender norms and homophobia through public performances, Marvin expressed concerns about a dark new era where some Russians are outlawed from birth.

Following the onset of the war, both Marvin and Shainyan left the country and now reside in Europe. On the day of the extremism ruling on November 30, Shainyan co-founded an LGBTQ+-focused media outlet called “I Just Got Lucky” to unite Russian queers and provide them with a support platform.

Many others from the queer community are also seeking ways to leave the country, according to Evelina Chaika, head of the NGO Equal Post, which assists queer Russians in relocation. Since the Supreme Court’s “extremist” ruling, Chaika’s group has experienced a sixfold increase in relocation requests, receiving an average of 12 requests per hour and more than 100 per day.

The journey is often uncertain and challenging for those choosing to relocate to the West. Harlem, who heads LGBTQ Asylum Support in the Netherlands, emphasized the difficulties faced by Russian LGBTQ+ members in the asylum process in Europe, which can take over a year. Harlem spoke at the funeral of Mikhail Zubchenko, a 24-year-old queer Russian who took his own life while waiting for asylum in a Dutch refugee camp. Zubchenko was the fourth Russian LGBTQ+ asylum seeker to die by suicide in the Netherlands last year, highlighting the vulnerable situation of sexual minorities in refugee camps.

Harlem pointed out that LGBTQ+ refugees are exceptionally vulnerable, having fled their country abruptly for safety reasons, leaving everything behind. The extended asylum process, harsh living conditions, and the worsening situation back home contribute to significant mental distress within the community.

Moscow’s recent extremism ruling adds further stress to those awaiting decisions from host countries. Dzam, who left a Muslim-majority region in Russia due to threats to his life, emphasized the crucial nature of asylum interviews. Failing the asylum process means not being able to return home, and there is no life for individuals like him there.

However, the majority of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community either cannot or are unwilling to leave their homes. Vasili, still emotionally recovering from the police raid, expressed his decision to stop attending queer events and only discuss his sexuality with close friends. Despite not supporting the war in Ukraine, many individuals in the country choose to remain silent to avoid trouble, and Vasili plans to adopt a similar approach to his sexuality, pretending not to be himself.

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