We closed the doors, but it didn’t help. LGBT people in Russia have become extremists

Yaroslav Rasputin, Parni PLUS (Guys PLUS)

Original: Global Equality Today. Photo: eanews.ru

There’s a scared young man inside the cage that holds defendants in the Russian courts. Soon, he will be replaced by a woman from the same bar, and then they will both be taken to their cells. This cage will likely witness the first case of its kind in Russia, when the organizers of a drag show will be imprisoned for extremism.

Orenburg is a Russian city near the Ural Mountains that separate Europe and Asia. The values here are distinctly Russian: people on TV talk about how soldiers defend Russia from LGBT Ukrainians even as gay and lesbian people are served cocktails in a small nearby bar that seeks anonymity by forgoing a sign. It is known for sure that there are 15 wigs in the club: some are worn by drag queens, some are in the dressing room.

Over the last 10 years of heightened persecution of LGBT people in Russia, visitors have become accustomed to a simple rule: “Do whatever you want behind the closed doors!” Russian politicians made this promise over and over again while still adopting more and more severe laws.

Russian gay club regulars don’t like those who carry the Pride flag outside the closed doors. But if you follow the rules, you can dance safely, can’t you?

No, you can’t. And it’s not me who’s answering; that’s the answer you get from a policeman’s boot. There are new people at the bar. They don’t have any wigs or fake breasts. They wear uniforms, some have weapons, others have the stripes of the Russian Community of Orenburg, the city’s nationalist organization. This is a raid. There is a Russian word for “raid,” but oddly enough, the opponents of Western values prefer the English word, using it as they crack down on LGBT Russians.

They say lying on the floor face down for several hours is no fun. Stripped down to your underwear is even less so — to the extent that you no longer think about such stupid inconveniences as the several smartphone cameras recording this humiliation. In one of the videos from this raid, a man is dragged along the floor and asked to straighten up. He covers his head with his hands and presses his knees to his chest to protect himself against the blows to the most vulnerable places.

The blows were not captured on the video.

On November 30, 2023, the Supreme Court of Russia declared the “International LGBT Social Movement” to be “extremist.” There isn’t and there has never been such an organization, of course, but the decision states that it has divisions, coordinators, and participants in Russia. They are not named but are calculated: 40 organizations, 80 internet resources, and 281 “cell leaders.” The court does not say who these people are or what they do. But they are now prohibited from doing that, whatever that is.

What should they do? The court does not give any answer. Only the boot does.

I am reading this news from a safe distance. You are probably as well. In countries that have expressed concern about the new Russian repression, it is generally difficult to imagine that you can actually lie under a policeman’s boot just because you are a guy who wanted to drink and dance with another guy to good music. I left Russia not so long ago and still remember this fear. I really don’t want you to share my feelings — I pray you never feel this way.

The lives of LGBT people in Russia are in danger. For many years, Putin’s power divided us. He and his people used to say, “We are not violating your rights, but…” A new violation of rights would inevitably come after this “but”: do not approach children, do not appear on TV during the daytime, do not hold festivals, do not open your websites. And they always added, “Just do whatever you want behind the closed doors!”

We saw a succession of such statements, one after another. Some of us wanted to demand our rights and reverse this spiral. Others wanted them to just let us be in the hope that it wouldn’t get any worse. We were fighting with each other.

But there were no winners in the end.

When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I felt really bad. The rallies I went to didn’t help anything or anybody. Nor did the antiwar graffiti and leaflets that I secretly made and distributed. But at least they were talked about. They were noticed and supported. I didn’t feel so lonely.

Almost immediately, Russian propagandists decided that Ukraine and LGBT people are basically the same thing. Finding Nazis in the occupied territories was difficult. Finding LGBT pamphlets was much easier. It turned out that Russian soldiers were fighting against the promotion of homosexuality and “transgenderism.”

Ukraine had no idea it was promoting anything like that. The Russian opposition was afraid of losing its audience and preferred to keep silent.

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For the enemy not to attack from the rear, Russian politicians banned the so-called “LGBT propaganda.” By that time, Ekaterina Mizulina, the head of the Safe Internet League, had already attacked me. She published my phone number on the Internet that she was supposed to be making safe and secure. This safety was obviously not for the benefit of people like me, so I fled the country. But Russia remained with me, in my head and in my news feed.

The following summer, they banned gender transition. They said, as always, it was about the worried parents. “Transgender people brainwash our children!” they declared on TV.

But we are your children, too.

To leave no doubt, they “caught” two people setting fire to military registration and enlistment offices. One of them said on camera that she was a transgender woman. With her, she had some documents allegedly signed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Free Russia Legion, fighting on the Ukraine side. And, for some reason, a butt plug. The second was a transgender man who, according to TV reports, worked for OVD-Info, a human rights organization that had already been persecuted by the authorities.

Human rights activists went looking for these people. OVD-Info also looked for the “employee” of theirs who they had never heard of before. With no luck. Nor were there any trials of these two individuals. The Russian government, which accuses the West of “fakes,” turned out to be a master of producing them itself.

But these stories served their purpose, as it later became clear. In the fall of 2023, the Ministry of Justice, having collected such “irrefutable” evidence, demanded that we all be recognized as extremists. The Supreme Court agreed.

The police raid on the Pose club in Orenburg was not the first. There were dozens of them throughout the country. Some clubs’ party photos were deemed to be “LGBT propaganda.” Some clubs closed down; others tried to pretend to be straight.

But putting the manager and the art director of an LGBT bar in prison for 10 years is a brand-new step in the history of Russia.

When I read news about how random people — and even people I know — are detained for connections with “extremists,” I feel bad. When I see these people in a cage who are about to be imprisoned for 10 years for working in a club and buying wigs for drag queens, I am horrified.

A Russian prison is a terrible place for anyone. But if the average prisoner is lucky enough to go unnoticed, it’s open season on those jailed for waving the rainbow flag. And the prison administration will never interfere with the rape and torture of those LGBT prisoners. I’m sick when I think about it, so forgive me, I won’t delve into this much.

Instead, I write to my friends still in Russia, asking, “Goodness, how are you?”

“It’s okay, we’re already getting used to it,” they answer.

And they keep on dancing.

The LGBT community can the toughest of times. We have seen this all through history: we survived medieval prisons, Nazi camps, and Soviet gulags. We liberated Christopher Street in the USA, lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, rescued those convicted of sodomy in Russia, and achieved equal rights in Orthodox Greece. We went through all this with unimaginable sacrifices, but after each blow, those of us who were able to rise joined their hands again and again.

The Russian LGBT community needs global help today more than ever. Please don’t turn your backs on us.


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