By Melanie Nathan, November 11, 2013.
I was privileged today to attend a meeting with the the group of LGBT Russians and organizers, at the San Francisco LGBT Center in the Castro, to discuss LGBT human rights in Russia. The group is visitng the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, as arranged by the Institute of International Education.
Two interpreters accompanied the team, all representing different organizations and interests from Russia. The group will be in the U.S.A. until November 22. The team included Mr. Aleksandr Viktorovich Berezekin, a Professor’s Assistant in Humanitarian Sciences from Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Mr. Gleb Yuzefovich Latnik an LGBT Activist from Pervouralsk, Mr. Yury Maksimov, the leader and founder of Light of Universe ( an LGBT organization based in Moscow), Mr. Andrey Obolenskiy, the head of Rainbow Association (LGBT rights group), Moscow and Evgeny Aleksandrovich Pisemskiy.
Mr. Berezkin is an influential LGBT activist in Primorskiy Kray. Despite outside pressure, he persists in working with other LGBT individuals to make their lives better and protect their rights. He founded a local LGBT NGO that works to promote tolerance and has participated in a project funded by the German government to monitor hate crimes and speech. He also organized a support group for LGBT people in the region and helps put LGBT people in touch with psychologists to get help they may need. He also has helped transgendered individuals get new identification documents, which is legal in Russia but often difficult, because those who work in registration offices often refuse to help. Mr. Berezkin helps people find lawyers who will advocate for them and file the correct paperwork. He has also worked with activists in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Mongolia to promote the rights of transgender people.
Mr. Latnik is one of very few LGBT activists in the Urals, where he is active in public protests and picketing in support of LGBT rights. He has described the primary goal of his activism as fighting discrimination by educating the public “that LGBT people are normal people.” Mr. Latnik was not involved in activism prior to this year, following the passage of “anti-homosexual propoganda” laws in Russia. He has since become active in a number of NGOs supporting LGBT rights in Russia. Mr. Latnik is affiliated with GayRussia and also the Moscow Helsinki Group. He is an independent businessman who ships consumer goods between different Urals towns and has recently announced his intention to become a candidate for mayor of Pervouralsk, an industrial city of 125,000 located approximately 30 miles west of Yekaterinburg.
Mr. Maximov is an economist and an active leader within Russia’s LGBT community. In 2009 he founded Light of the World, a Christian LGBT organization. Since 2009 he has also been an active member of the Rainbow Association, which he cofounded, and the organizing committee of the Forum of LGBT Christians in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Since 2010 he has been the Development Director for the LGBT Sports Federation of Russia and earlier this year he founded Blue Bird, an NGO that organizes and implements social and legal programs.
Mr. Andrey Obolenskiy is a prominent leader, entrepreneur, lawyer and activist in Russia’s LGBT community. In 2009 he helped to found the Rainbow Association, an LGBT rights group, and since then has served as the group’s director. He often works simultaneously as the Rainbow Association’s CEO, spokesman, legal counsel and fundraiser. For more than three years he has guided and inspired the organization through difficult times in the face of legal pressure, public prejudice and physical threats. Mr. Obolenskiy is also active in the broader human rights community, and has played a leadership role in the Youth Human Rights Movement and the European NGO UNITED for Intercultural Action. He is a featured speaker at their public conferences and works behind the scenes to integrate LGBT issues into the broader human rights agenda. He also runs an organization that provides psychological support and counseling to LGBT individuals.
Mr. Pisemskiy is an active LGBT activist and Chairman of Phoenix Plus, a regional NGO that raises awareness of AIDS and assists HIV-positive members of the community. He also is an editor-in-chief for many online publications dealing with AIDS, HIV and the sexual health of the LGBT community such as Parni PLUS, AIDS Infoshare and the Eurasian Coalition for Men’s Health. Additionally, he writes a blog hosted by Moskovskiy Komsomolets, the largest newspaper in Russia. Despite the worsening climate in Russia Mr. Pisemskiy has only increased his efforts to advocate for and provide assistance to the LGBT community and to educate and inform the LGBT community and public at large alike about sexual health and HIV/AIDS.
A lively discussion was facilitated by Rebecca Rolfe, The Executive Director of The San Francisco LGBT Center. Also in attendance was a group of people for The Jewish Federation, A Wider Bridge, Michael Adee from Horizons Foundation, Bill Wilson, San Francisco photographer activist, Michael Petrelis from Gays Without Borders, Robbie Sweeney, from Boycott Russian Vodka, and other locals.
The group spoke about the enormous hardship Russian LGBT people face, especially since the anti-propaganda law was signed by Valdimir Putin. They are ostracized by religious communities, families and government. The group noted that Putin is trying to impart that everything is alright in their country, but that is not the case. In the LGBT community very few people actually come out and so there is no real sense of community and hardly any visibility except in the privacy of clubs.
They expressed how difficult it is for young gay people to come out of the closet and how the law is exacerbating the difficulty in the outreach needed for young gays, to protect them against HIV infection and to provide medical services where necessary. The group noted how splintered the LGBT community is in Russia and how difficult it has been, in a milieu of government sanctioned discrimination, to form a cohesive community with fund raising and advocacy power.
One of the team members expressed how he would never leave his country, unless his life was in immediate danger, but that he had asylum questions to ask, on behalf of many members of the LGBT community in Russia, who would ask him these questions. We were able to explain how difficult getting asylum is for people who are not already on American soil. The team expressed how they had advocated to the U.S. State Department for a special program for LGBT Russians, similar to that put into place for Jews who had immigrated to the U.S.A. at the time of the former Soviet Union.
Unlike for the Jews who had Israel as an option too, there is no “Gay Country” and so the State Department should be doing much more to provide LGBT persecution VISAS to all gays from countries that criminalize homosexuality or that have instituted anti-gay legislation.
I was able to mention our new forming group, Private Courts International (PCIJUSTICE.com) which will launch early next year. The group is intent on advocating for special VISAS for LGBT people around the world. It is almost impossible for most who ought to be entitled to asylum, to make it as refugees into foreign countries, due to initial VISA constraints and lack of financing. Very few such asylum seekers can actually afford to make it abroad. And in many cases those who can afford it arrive on other types of visas, such as visitor’s visas and then have a year to apply for asylum. This is not an “honest” way to apply for something that one may be entitled to if their status was given a legitimate consideration by our process. Much work needs to be done on this front and I have yet to hear of any of our own organizations advocating for a change in the law.
While the groups questions centered mostly around issues of coming out and funding, and they wanted examples of how we had “done” things in the U.S.A. It became increasingly apparent to me, that there is very little we can do to help the Russian LGBT community other than to tell their stories, and provide a means of escape. But the real problem lies in the rampant state sponsored homophobia. There is no safety net for Russians to come out and be gay. They are severely stigmatized and anti-gay sentiment runs high. It seems that the work will be to change hearts and minds and it looks as if the Russians are decades behind us. So providing our U.S. based solutions, of how we did it, seems like a stretch.
One questioner mentioned the export of U.S. Evangelical Christian Extremist hate in the form of Scot Lively and his 7 visits to Moscow as adding to the problem and wondered to what extent the activists and community in Russia had been apprised on this problem. They were indeed aware.
The good news though lies in the fact that there are Russians who are willing to come out and to be heard, such Aleksandr, Gleb, Yury, Andrey, and Evgeny, speaking out for human rights in their country at the same time as seeking solutions to the problems the community faces. The dialogue has started ina way that seems different from past forms of leadership in the community and it has a momentum that could pave the way for a powerful international collaboration.