By: Stephanie Brown
If you followed the news this summer, you’re probably familiar with pictures like this:
The image above is one of many disturbing images taken at Gay Pride rallies and protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg this year. The demonstrations were held in defiance of local laws banning the “propaganda of homosexualism” to children. These laws forbid any public display or celebration of non-traditional sexual orientations and identities.
The brutal police crackdown on protesters, with the eager assistance of anti-gay rioters, wasn’t the beginning of anti-gay violence in Russia, and it won’t be the end. Russia has a long history of anti-LGBT sentiment. Russian leaders have equated homosexuality with pedophilia and, occasionally, Satanism.
This summer Russian President Vladimir Putin took anti-LGBT discrimination to the national level. In June, he approved a nation-wide law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” Propaganda refers to anything that makes homosexuality attractive, viable, or even equal to heterosexuality. The law makes it illegal for a gay or lesbian couple to tell their own children about their relationship. And it essentially legitimizes hate crimes, giving the mob permission to rule.
An alarming sign of how much power anti-gay attackers now have in Russia is the carelessness with which numerous Russian “vigilantes” have uploaded photos and videos of themselves gleefully torturing, abusing, and humiliating members of the Russian LGBT community. They have no fear of getting caught because there is no threat of punishment.
The one redeeming quality of this situation is that it has brought the violence in Russia to international attention. No one – besides the Russian government – can deny that crimes are occurring when the attackers incriminate themselves so readily. Concerns about the safety of LGBT athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi also helped to put the issue on the international agenda.
Just when it seemed that international leaders might be able to force a policy change, the Syrian government turned sarin gas on its own people. Human rights abuses in Russia became old news, buried under the threat of chemical weapons and the possibility of a US military strike.
But last month, Muff Magazine, a UK-based publication showcasing queer arts and culture, brought the plight of the Russian LGBT community back into focus with a series of photographs by Anastasia Ivanova. The series is called “From Russia With Love” and features Russian lesbian couples whose lives have been impacted by the new law. Each photo is followed by a brief interview.
The photos include women ages 20 to 54, all with different backgrounds and perspectives. Some say that they try to hide their relationships from the public for fear of violent retaliation. Others are determined to express themselves, despite the risks. One couple recalls how “somebody threw a stone while [they] were walking through the park hand-in-hand.”
Some share their hopes for a better future, but many of them state simply that “gay people don’t have any legal rights in Russia” and that they are trying to find ways to escape the country. A couple who served as human rights activists for the past 15 years remark that most of their achievements in Russia “have been wiped out in the last two.”
The honesty and emotion conveyed in these photos reminds us of the lives at stake as long as Russia’s anti-gay law remains on the books. Most telling is the weariness and despair evidenced by these women’s stories. Olga (32) and Ulia (28) told the magazine that fighting for LGBT rights in Russia now “feels like being involved in a criminal cabaret show” that they “don’t want any part of.”
“For now, we just want to live.”
(Photo of protester in St. Petersburg by Valya Egorshin; in the public domain.)
(Photo of Muff Magazine editors by David Long & Jana Astanov/Tatler Magazine.)
(Photos of couples Kate and Nina and Olga and Ulia by Anastasia Ivanova/Muff Magazine.)