Young and gay in Russia: Inside the making of a documentary

Published: February 7, 2014

As a visitor, what was your sense of the mood about the issue in Russia among average Russians? Are they really behind some of the recent legislation?

I came to Moscow expecting that the law against promotion of non-traditional relationships towards minors – also known as the anti-gay “propaganda” law – would be met with resistance amongst the general population, maybe because my Russian friends are open-minded and tolerant.
However, already on the second night, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was at a birthday party for a Russian Newsweek correspondent and got into a long and tiring argument with a Russian blogger and yoga teacher who, at first, seemed like a clever and reasonable guy, but when he found out I was there to report on the homophobic law, his attitude shocked me. He was an avid supporter of the law because he didn’t want his children to become perverted by homosexuals. He was convinced they were all pedophiles, and he even showed me articles published on American Christian websites showing graphs “proving” that gay men molest children.
I tried to explain that homosexuality and pedophilia are absolutely unrelated and that these Christian sites are not reliable sources, and that the stats were not official and most likely made up. But he wouldn’t listen. He then went on to explaining that homosexuality is dangerous because young children can be influenced into it and that it’s a disease that can and must be cured.
I was stunned. Again, I tried to explain that homosexuality is a sexual orientation that you are born with and that it’s absolutely normal and common everywhere. Again, there was no willingness from his side to take in anything I was saying.
Throughout my stay, I was met with similar attitudes over and over again. There’s an example in the film where a man who looks like your average working dad calmly explains the importance of preserving conservative traditional values so that Russia doesn’t turn into Europe where he said, “they’re legalizing pedophilia. They’re legalizing zoophilia. They have zoo brothels.”
What worried me even more was the attitude amongst young people, whose replies to my questions about their view of homosexuality were bordering on aggressive. There is no education in schools about what homosexuality, is so the ignorance surrounding it isn’t surprising. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 79 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, and as you can imagine, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t condone homosexuality.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox values became the cornerstone of the new Russian identity, replacing the communist mindset. The LGBT activists’ theory is that Putin’s reason for passing the anti-gay “propaganda” law was to sway the Orthodox majority in order to extend his voter base. Unfortunately, when an attitude like homophobia becomes law, it further mobilizes people against the gay community, which has led to a spike in hate crimes. To curb the negative effects of the Kremlin’s tactics against the LGBT community, something drastic needs to happen to make Russian society more tolerant towards homosexuality. Unfortunately, the anti-gay propaganda law is making any such move illegal.
You got to talk to young gay Russians who had seen or experienced discrimination firsthand. Did they seem apprehensive about talking to the media about this issue?
The young gay Russians I spoke to were activists and already out in the open with their sexual orientation. They weren’t apprehensive; on the contrary, they were eager to raise awareness about the situation in Russia for young homosexuals. Young gay Russians are the most affected by the homophobic law, which forbids parents, teachers and even psychologists to tell young homosexuals that being gay is OK. According to the activists we met, there has been a rise in suicides amongst young members of the LGBT community since the anti-gay propaganda law was passed. They are also worried about their safety on the streets, as they told me more violence is directed towards them. Some LGBT activists organize LGBT self-defense classes. Others, like Nikita, a 17-year-old LGBT activist, use the internet to discuss LGBT issues and advise young homosexuals on how to protect themselves online, particularly against vigilante groups like the neo-Nazi Occupy Pedofilyaj that finds homosexuals on social media, tricks them to meet up, and then uploads YouTube clips of how they abuse them, sometimes to death.
Did you feel any tension or even danger reporting on this issue so directly while you were there?
Reporting on politically sensitive topics in Russia is a scary experience. It was a risky film to make, because the activists we spent time with were likely monitored by the secret services, FSB (the former KGB), and while we were there, four Dutch filmmakers were reportedly arrested for doing the same type of project we were doing.
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