Gay, trans Russians visit SF
by Heather Cassell
The delegation arrived in Washington, D.C. November 2 as part of a State Department visitor program. They spent a week meeting with officials and LGBT leaders of organizations before coming to San Francisco for a few days to continue connecting with U.S. LGBTs.
The group included Aleksandr Berezekin, a professor's assistant in humanitarian sciences at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok; Gleb Latnik, an LGBT activist from Pervouralsk; Yuriy Maksimov, the leader and founder of Moscow-based Light of Universe and director of regional development of Russia LGBT Sport Federation; Andrey Obolenskiy, the head of the Rainbow Association, an LGBT rights group in Moscow; and Evgeny Pisemskiy, chairman of the board of Parni Plus, an HIV/AIDS treatment organization in Orel.
The Bay Area Reporter caught up with the group at its hotel in San Francisco on November 12.
Speaking with three of the delegates – Latnik, Maksimov, and Pisemskiy – with assistance from translator John Sciglaino, Russia's war on its LGBT community was discussed, including peoples' fear due to the anti-gay propaganda law, other laws in the works in Russia; and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Fear is strong in Russia where a majority of the LGBT population is deeply in the closet, but there is also a defiant spirit to stay and fight rather than flee their homeland.
"What I see is fear. LGBT people, most of them are very nervous about what happens next because there are a lot of laws being prepared and discussed," said Maksimov, a 33-year-old gay man who lives in Moscow. He said that an anti-LGBT parenting law that has been tabled recently will return after the Winter Olympics, along with other anti-gay laws, such as a ban on LGBTs donating blood.
"The purpose of our Duma, the parliament, is to make people to stay where they are and not to come out and speak out about the issues and what they are worried about," said Maksimov.
Russian organizations, LGBT or not, that don't go along with President Vladimir Putin's rule are experiencing a crackdown, the delegates said. The delegates spoke freely that they believe Putin is harnessing the public's fear and ignorance about LGBT people and scapegoating the community to distract from more serious issues.
"The Russian government is simply channeling popular anger and is creating an image of this enemy and they chose LGBT people because the Russian people are naturally afraid of what they don't know," said Latnik, a 30-year-old gay man.
Latnik became an LGBT rights activist when the anti-homosexuality propaganda bill was in the process of becoming law. Putin signed the bill in June.
"Previously, I was like everybody else, but when they started introducing these homophobic policies in Russia I realized you can't just sit in your closet," said Latnik, who lives in Pervouralsk in western Russia. "These laws are not okay."
Fight or flight
Right now there are members of the LGBT community that are waiting in limbo as they decide whether to stay or leave Russia.
"There will be certain people who have no other way but leaving the country," to protect themselves and their family, said Maksimov, who has friends who have suffered from violence in the streets and the attack on 7FreeDays Club, a Moscow gay bar, in October 2012.
Maksimov spoke with controlled anger about American evangelicals and right-wing conservatives' influence on Russian political and religious leaders during visits to the country.
"I would like to meet that bastard who supports this Family Research Institute. I want to ask him to apologize in front of the church for misinformation, lies, and insulting a lot of LGBT people," said Maksimov.
As a founder and one of the leaders of Light of the World, an LGBT Christian church, he openly challenged one priest in particular who preaches against homosexuality on a weekly basis simply by being present during services, he said.
He plans to use information gathered on this trip to discredit the lies fed to religious and political leaders from the Family Research Institute. He also plans on conducting more research on LGBT Russians to learn more about the community and to educate community leaders.
He was inspired by his visit to the U.S. and encouraged to continue his work for LGBT Russians.
"I have insurance that I have a lot of support from the U.S.," he said.
Like the U.S., Russia has many minority groups, he said, with which he plans to build alliances.
The Russian LGBT delegates perceive the pressure put on Putin being brought about by his administration's aggressive homophobic laws and the spotlight on the upcoming Winter Olympics as a positive, in spite of the violence against the community that has occurred.
"I see a positive side to these laws that have appeared. I compare it to the time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic started here in the U.S.," said Pisemskiy, 36, and the openly gay board chairman of Parni Plus.
"It was a very powerful catalyst for the community and people were seeing their loved ones and family members dying and facing death themselves – no other choice than to struggle. This sort of situation is starting to take shape in Russia," added Pisemskiy.
Maksimov also works as the director of regional development for the Russia Sport LGBT Federation, with 17 branches throughout Russia.
While discussion of human rights and LGBT issues in particular will not be tolerated during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, said Maksimov, silent but visible actions are being planned to occur during the ceremonies and following the Olympics, he said.
None of the LGBT Russian activists supported a boycott of the Olympics in Sochi.
The delegation next visits San Antonio, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; and will wrap up its trip in New York City before returning to Russia on November 24, said Sciglaino.
Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or firstname.lastname@example.org.