Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth


Update: Great news! A district court in Nizhni Tagil acquitted Elena Klimova on charges of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, according to a report this morning from Deti-404.

In the court hearing, Klimova’s attorney, Maria Kozlovskaya, presented an expert opinion that Deti-404 does not contain information that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations,” and that in fact the site helps LGBTI teenagers cope with their feelings. Kozlovskaya, an attorney for the Russian LGBT Network, that the law contradicts “Russia’s international obligations and, as it was proved by the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, consolidates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and violates the freedom of speech.”

“. . . [S]ometimes common sense wins,” Klimova said, expressing her relief.

Vitali Milonov, the St. Petersburg deputy who called for Klimova to be charged under the law, announced on Twitter that he will appeal the court’s decision. In a statement on Facebook, the Deti-404 team responded: “The Deti-404 project will continue to work regardless of any attack on us. Only one reason can serve as a pretext for closing the project – complete overcoming of homophobia in Russia and the cessation of harassment of LGBT teens. We hope that such a time will surely come!”

Original post:

In 2010, in response to an alarming escalation in the number of students in the United States committing suicide after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage and his then-partner (now husband) Terry Miller created a YouTube video with a message of hope for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people facing harassment.

Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr
Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr

Savage and Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a way for supporters around the world to use social media to record and share video messages telling LGBTI youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.

LGBTI youth in all corners of the world can feel isolated and alone, lacking support from peers, teachers, and frequently even their own families. These young people can often find solace and support on the internet, whether by watching It Gets Better Project videos, joining Facebook support groups, tweeting about their experiences, or joining anonymous chat rooms where they can talk with other LGBTI youth.

Youth suicide in Russia is a chronic problem; rates are three times the world average, and Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe. Russia’s law banning gay propaganda strikes at the very heart of critical lifelines for vulnerable LGBTI youth.

From Sochi to Social Media: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Free Expression

Despite President Putin’s assurances that LGBTI visitors to the Olympics could “feel free,” on Sunday Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former member of the Italian Parliament, after she held up a sign in Olympic Park saying “Gay is Okay” in Russian. Upon her arrival in Sochi, she tweeted:

On Monday, Luxuria was again detained, this time as she attempted to enter an arena to watch an Olympic hockey game. She was wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and had been shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Four men who were not wearing identification surrounded her and shouted, “Take her away.” They placed her in a car with Olympic markings, stripped Luxuria of her Olympic spectator pass, and dumped her in the countryside about a 10-minute drive from the arena. She has since been asked to leave the country.

Luxuria’s detention and de facto deportation are particularly troubling in light of the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that it “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-LGBTI propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Luxuria’s case just the latest in a series of detentions and prosecutions under the new propaganda law:

  • In December, authorities in Arkhangelsk found Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko guilty of violating the law for holding up banners in front of a children’s library reading: “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” They were fined 4,000 rubles and their appeal was denied.
  • Russian LGBTI activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan and was fined 4,000 rubles in January after a teenager saw photos of Isakov’s protest online and filed a complaint.
  • In late January, a court in Khabarovsk fined newspaper editor Alexander Suturin 50,000 rubles for publishing an interview with an openly gay teacher.
  • In January, a government commission threatened to take a 14-year-old girl to court after she held a one-person picket in the town of Kyatkova to protest the propaganda law. The commission subsequently dropped the case, but the girl remains fearful that authorities will reinstate proceedings against her.
  • A juvenile court in the city of Bryansk found a 9th grade girl in violation of the law for admitting her sexual orientation in front of her classmates. She was reportedly hospitalized after suffering a severe head injury at the hands of her father.
  • On the day before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, ten LGBTI activists were arrested in Moscow after holding rainbow flags and singing the Russian national anthem. Four others were arrested for a similar demonstration the same day in St. Petersburg.
  • At the same time, however, police allowed an anti-gay demonstration in Sochi to proceed, despite a ban on demonstrations in the Olympic host city.
  • In January, police arrested a young man named Pavel Lebedev for waving a rainbow flag as the relay brought the Olympic torch through Voronezh.

Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Дети-404, Russia’s “It Gets Better Project”

Perhaps the most troubling investigation, however, is that of Elena Klimova, 25, founder of a social media support group for LGBTI teenagers called “Дети-404. ЛГБТ подростки. Мы есть!” (Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Klimova started Deti-404 last year after a 15-year-old lesbian named Nadya from a small town in Russia reached out to her. Klimova is a journalist, and she had posted a column to a news website expressing her dismay about the draft propaganda law. Nadya, who faced ruthless bullying at school and didn’t have support from her mother, contacted Klimova to thank her for the column, saying that it had helped keep her from committing suicide.

After speaking with Nadya, Klimova wondered why nobody was doing anything to help LGBTI youth in Russia: “Many of them close in on themselves, they don’t tell anyone. They are scared of parents and classmates. If they open up, parents sometimes beat them, insult them, throw them out, take away their phones, ban them from going on the internet and even lock them up in a psychiatric clinic.”

Klimova set up Deti-404 as an online support group for LGBTI youth. The name of the group is a play on the familiar internet message “Error 404, Page Not Found,” suggesting that LGBTI youth are unable to be visible in Russia.  On the Russian social networking site В Kонтакте (VK), Deti-404’s closed group for LGBTI youth had nearly 2,000 members as of last September, and the open group now has over 20,000 supporters. Deti-404’s parallel Facebook site has over 3,900 likes, and a supporter in the United Kingdom has started a blog posting English translations of Deti-404 posts.

"I refuse to be invisible" Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons
“I refuse to be invisible!”
Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons

Deti-404’s main approach is a photo campaign. LGBTI youth are invited to send in photographs, drawings, or other images, along with personal testimony about their experiences coming out, falling in love, or facing stigma and discrimination. To date, the site has published more than 1,000 letters from LGBTI youth. Klimova and her team also provide teenagers with contact information for LGBTI-friendly psychologists.

On January 31, 2014, Russian authorities launched proceedings against Klimova for violations of the propaganda law. Russian LGBTI teenagers turned to Deti-404 to express their support for Klimova and their fears that authorities would shut down Deti-404, including these posts:

Я только нашла эту группу (долго я искала=)), только нормально поверила, что смогу принять себя как человека, и тут такое… Без боя свой кусочек свободы не отдам!

I just found this group (I looked for a long time =)), and I just began to believe that I could accept myself as a person, and now this happens. . . I won’t give up my piece of freedom without a fight!

Если закроют и это место, где я впервые почувствовала себя хоть немного свободной – Капут. Как можно то… У меня не укладывается это в голове. Поддерживаю, бедная Лена…

If they shut down this site, where I for the first time felt a little free – kaput. How could they . . . I can’t wrap my head around it. I support you, poor Elena…

This post is the third in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo of a Rainbow Flashmob in St. Petersburg on the 2009 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, courtesy Воскресенский Пётр, Wikimedia Commons.

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