Reggie Yates talks LGBT life in Russia for BBC show Gay & Under Attack
“It started to become incredibly difficult to listen…”
Russia is currently home to nearly 150 million people, ranking it one of the top 10 countries in the world based on population size.
Vladimir Putin, now into his third term as President, is facing growing sanctions from the West following his outspoken and controversial laws and views on self-expression.
A year after the introduction of the controversial anti-propaganda law, presenter Reggie Yates heads to Russia to discuss their many differing views on homosexuality, their support or objections to the LGBT community and the harsh reality facing young gay people living in the country.
Ahead of the show airing on BBC Three tonight, we caught up with the presenter to discuss the difficult world of 2015 Russia…
What was it about this show that appealed to you so much?
For me, I’m really passionate about finding areas where young people are living in tough parts of the world, and learning about those lives. Plus, I wanted to show people in the UK how different their lives are and just how fortunate they really are. And if someone can learn something off the back of it, then I’ve done a good job.
So why Russia and why now?
I think it’s down to timing. There’s a lot happening in Russia related to this, so it was a great time to act now, and that’s why this series is so poignant in this moment. It’s stripping it back and looking at the country and what’s happening to its young people. It’s about young people and the reality of their lives and to maybe even give people an idea, and possibly their parents too, as to what lives are really like there.
Before heading to Russia for the series – what were your ideas on the levels of homophobia in the country beforehand?
I was aware there was levels of homophobia in Russia before, but I had no idea the real extent. But I was shocked! I wasn’t expecting it to be as hard for young people. I didn’t think they’d be quite so far behind us here in the UK.
Do the levels of homophobia in the country cover the majority or minority or its citizens?
I’d hate to make a massively sweeping judgement based on my time there, as I didn’t speak to everyone. But, what I can say is that not everybody has the beliefs based on the homophobic people that we spoke to. This programme is called Extreme Russia for a reason, as these really are people with extreme views and I’m certain they don’t represent everybody. Their views are scary and it does make you wonder just exactly how extreme these views are.
So who did you meet?
Without giving too much away before the show goes live, I met people that have been attacked, victimised and also people that are doing everything in their power to change the situation by educating, but also by running events.
But on the other side to that, we did also meet the people who are the homophobes and the people that do have ridiculously shocking attitudes towards the LGBT community – and my priority was to show both sides of the coin and not go in judging anybody, as I wanted to try and understand both sides where possible. I wanted to know why these men and women felt the way that they did.
One of the people you met during your time was Dayra. Give us a preview of her story…
What happened to her was just awful. She was stabbed for being gay. She wasn’t helped or aided by the police and was essentially treated disgustingly by everyone. She was really made to feel like an outcast and that was just disgusting what had happened to her. But for me, it was important to reflect her story and get it out there. If you’re in the LGBT community in Russia, you’re in a dangerous position if you live your life out in the open.
It’s an unbelievable thing really in 2015, with people not able to be who they want to be in public because of fear of their own safety. That was the thing that scared me most.
You also met a young male couple that are together yet one pretends to have a girlfriend….
Yes I did. Their fear came from them being open and their world crumbling around them if it became public knowledge. Their business may be taken away from them from this anti-propaganda law and their family may disown them because of their religious beliefs as well. These guys are an amazing young couple, with a local business and doing brilliant things, yet they have to operate under this cloud of secrecy.
Once this story is broadcast tonight – do either couple have a fear of officials in Russia hearing their story now they’ve spoken out?
Everybody involved is aware that this show may end up online and people may see it in Russia, but that wasn’t the important thing for many. They wanted people on the other side of the world to see their story and know about it, and see just how tough things are in their world. That was their important message.
In one part of the show, you also ended up in a sauna…
Yeah, that was bizarre. There was a traditionalist that I met who ended up actually beating me with a stick. It was a pretty crazy thing to end up happening but you can see why on the show.
And finally, you also met with pressure group God’s Will – whose message is to stone members of the LGBT community to death. Couldn’t have been an easy chat?
No – not at all! With me, I like to let people from both sides put their message across so it’s fair and almost hang their own selves with the message they’re portraying. But, this message was just so offensive with the words being said that I couldn’t listen to it for that long. Eventually, I ended up just walking away from the conversation. It started to become incredibly difficult to listen to that message.
Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia: Gay & Under Attack airs on BBC Three tonight – 20 April – at 9pm.
More information can be found here.