Russia's gay community in fear as homophobic attacks increase

Gay activists in "march against hatred" in November 2014 in St PetersburgOne report cites a tenfold increase in homophobic attacks since Russia’s 2013 gay propaganda law

This year’s QueerFest in St Petersburg was the most controversial in the festival’s history.

At the opening show, a crowd turned up to intimidate and shout insults, spraying coloured antiseptic from syringes, in a kind of cleansing.

There were sudden bomb scares and protests, and venues cancelled events at the last minute. Anti-gay activists plastered places with stickers: “Say no to Sodom.”

“The atmosphere now is scary, we feel that it’s dangerous,” one of the organisers, Polina Andrianova, told the BBC, describing the harassment as the worst since the LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) festival began six years ago.

Man spraying coloured antiseptic at QueerFestAnti-gay protesters sprayed coloured antiseptic from syringes at QueerFest

Her experience is one of those recorded in a new report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch, which documents a rise in homophobic rhetoric, actions and violence in Russia. It blames a law passed last year banning the promotion of “non-traditional lifestyles” among minors.

“All people understand from this law is that something is wrong with gay people. That they are dangerous for children, and information about them is harmful,” Ms Andrianova argues.

Irina Shumilova and Alyona Fursova talk about their recent wedding

“It reinforces the view of gay people as second-class citizens and it gives a green light to more violence and more aggression,” she says.

It’s why there is extra security now at Coming Out, the LGBT support group where Polina works. A stark sign beside the new, reinforced metal door warns visitors that security cameras have been installed.

Anti-gay provocateurs have infiltrated discussion sessions here in the past and disrupted them.

Another group recorded over 300 homophobic attacks this year, a more than tenfold rise.

Russian security noticeA security notice warns of security cameras in the office at the Coming Out support group

“We were just having coffee, harming no-one, when men in masks broke-in,” Ivan Surok says of one incident, last November. At least one of the attackers was wielding a pellet gun and shot a man in the eye, blinding him; a girl was wounded in her back.

No-one has yet been prosecuted, part of what Human Rights Watch calls a culture of “widespread impunity”. In the cases it documented between 2012 and 2014 only three were brought to court and two led to convictions.

Since the attack he witnessed, Ivan has carried a pepper spray for protection but no longer feels safe.

“Homophobes feel like they have a legal basis for their hatred now,” Ivan says of the gay propaganda law. “They feel they can beat someone for being gay and they’re protected.”

The law – an amendment to child protection legislation – was introduced in several regions before being adopted nationwide.

Its chief sponsor in Russia’s second city is Vitaly Milonov, a local deputy whose office at the palatial City Hall is filled with religious paraphernalia. Russian icons cover the walls and shelves beside a black flag bearing a skull and cross-bones. Another black banner proclaims “Orthodoxy or Death” in Greek.

Mr Milonov justifies the law with reference to Russia’s traditional, Christian values. He insists that homosexuality is a sin and homosexuals an enemy within, backed by a perverted West.

giant iphoneThis giant iPhone was taken off the streets after Apple boss Tim Cook revealed he was gay

Homophobic attacks, he claims, are fabricated.

But Vitaly Milonov is no political extremist – he represents the United Russia party of President Vladimir Putin.

“I want to protect my kids and my family from this dirt going from the homosexuals,” the politician told the BBC.

“They can do whatever they want in their homes, in the special ‘garbage’ places called gay night clubs. They can kill themselves with their viruses as fast as possible. But they’re not allowed to do it in the streets. Because it is not polite and it’s uncomfortable for people.”

Such is the mood of intolerance that even a giant model iPhone was removed from the streets of St Petersburg after Apple boss Tim Cook revealed he was gay. A few trailing cables are all that remain at the spot the statue once occupied, in the yard of an IT university.

Vitaly Milonov claims he got rid of his own iPhone 6 following Tim Cook’s announcement, because it was “smelling with gay stuff”, although he still has a Mac laptop on his desk.

Vitaly MilonovVitaly Milonov introduced anti-gay measures in St Petersburg before national laws were passed

Human Rights Watch calls for an end to such hate-speech and for a new message of tolerance from Russia’s authorities. It urges the government to repeal the anti-gay law.

“It’s like the law has ignited fear,” says Alexey Zalensky, who’s worried that LGBT people in Russia, already nervous about revealing their sexuality, are now retreating into the closet.

Many couples are even scared to hold hands in public now, he says.

“They say we are sick, and need to be healed,” he explains, softly. “I feel that’s the position supported by the government and I don’t know how to live with it.”

Rising intolerance is emboldening some activists to fight harder for their rights. But there is an overwhelming sense that such a fight is futile. LGBT support groups say people are increasingly asking their advice on how to emigrate.

Both Alexey and Ivan are among them.

They’re joining the growing wave of Russians who no longer believe they can be themselves in their own country, and be safe.

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