MOSCOW, Russia — Tension hung thick in the air at a faux-Italian cafe at Sheremetyevo International Airport on a sunny February afternoon. Russia’s highly contentious and best-known gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev sent out a final round of press releases on his МacBook as he sipped beer and munched on pizza.
“Eat, try to look normal,” Alekseyev said to the three other activists with him, each nervously looking around. "There are police here.”
Alekseyev, clad in a blue polo shirt and a yellow tie, paid the bill, and then along with the other members of gay rights organization Gay Russia marched to the Aeroflot Russian Airlines counter and placed leaflets that read, "Rejected by gays."
With GlobalPost present they unrolled a banner in support of a gay flight attendant the airline allegedly threatened to fire if he did not marry a woman. In another few minutes they would all be arrested, another brief spectacle put down by Russian police as a nascent equality movement challenges an increasingly hostile climate for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBTs).
In Russia, demonstrations in favor of equal rights for LGBT people are simply not permitted. The February airport arrest was unique because it did not result in any injuries for the Gay Russia activists. Usually pro-gay demonstrators are beaten and arrested within seconds of hoisting rainbow flags or unfurling banners.
The city of Moscow has a longstanding ban on gay pride events and legislation recently passed in St. Petersburg would levy fines against “propaganda of homosexuality” in the presence of minors. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church is lobbying the Duma to make the law, which effectively bans public discussion of homosexuality, a national one.
As Vladimir Putin tightens his stranglehold on power in Russia, critics say the country is moving away from democratic ideals like free speech and back toward Soviet-era controls.
In February Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department called the situation for LGBT people in Russia “very difficult.”
Aleksyev and his comrades know this very well.
Before the airport demonstration, Alekseyev and the others laid out a banner in a nearby snowy field that read "EQUAL RIGHTS FOR AEROFLOT GAYS!”
They burned green and pink smoke and waved to landing planes as temperatures dipped below zero Fahrenheit. The group was ready for arrest each time a car turned onto a road near the field.
Of course Alekseyev would have preferred to demonstrate in front of the Aeroflot offices on central Arbat Street in Moscow, but his request for a permit was denied. So he came up with another plan.
“You realize the situation of LGBT rights in Russia when you have to run around in knee-deep snow in sub-zero weather,” Alekseyev said.
While gay marriage and anti-discrimination protections become a reality in an increasing number of places around the world, the LGBT struggle for equal rights in Russia is in its infancy.
Being openly gay in Russia’s patriarchal society remains a big risk. Homophobic attacks are common and assailants often go unpunished. Many gays stay in the closet, and even get married to the opposite sex, for fear of losing jobs, friends or family. Russian LGBTs say the message they are receiving from both the state and the Russian Orthodox Church is simple: Homosexuality may be legal, but stay out of public life.
No official statistics exist on discrimination or hate crimes against LGBT people because they are not considered a protected social group in Russia. But the Russian LGBT Network has independently compiled extensive research from across the country in recent years with help from USAID.
One poll covering 44 Russian regions in March 2010 reported that 43 percent of Russians condemned gays and lesbians while another 20 percent found it difficult to answer.
In April 2010, the International LGBT Film Festival “Side by Side” was conducted in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most populated city. A public opinion poll of the city’s inhabitants found that 22 percent regarded those with a “non-traditional sexual orientation” as “sick” while another 35 percent were indifferent providing that “they [LGBT people] do not make themselves known.”
The Russian LGBT Network also interviewed users of a Russian website for gay men and found that almost 80 percent hide their sexuality from their employers and colleagues. If a potential employee were to openly announce a gay sexual orientation at a job interview, said Yuri Virovets, the president of Moscow staffing agency HeadHunter, he or she would likely not get the job.
Russian gays and lesbians are also more likely to experience aggression from police than heterosexuals. The result is that gays and lesbians usually do not go to the police in case of a hate crime, one of the organization’s reports said.
In 2007 a man was stabbed to death outside of a gay club in Yekaterinburg, a city in Russia's Ural Mountains. The killers wrote "faggot" on the victim's chest in his blood. Police denied the homophobic details of the incident and the victim’s family was unable to get information about the case. The defendants were given minimal sentences with chance of parole for good behavior.
A small core of activists led by Alekseyev emerged in 2005 to try and reclaim a place in open society, but so far they are largely outmatched. In order for LGBTs to legally attend demonstrations, the event must be coordinated by non-gay organizations, with the request carefully worded to reveal nothing about their participation.
Last May, an unsanctioned gay pride demonstration near Moscow's Red Square, organized by Alekseyev, and attended by prominent international LGBT activists including Americans Lt. Dan Choi and Andy Thayer, was heavily marred by violent clashes with Orthodox Christians, neo-Nazis and police, drawing international attention.
A middle-aged man who claimed to be an Orthodox Christian punched journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko, 24, a petite lesbian who slightly resembles Natalie Portman, in the head. She suffered a concussion and hearing problems as a result, she said.
Her attacker, who was captured on film, has not yet been convicted.
In the past several years Russia’s LGBT community has faced pressure to stay underground from a number of sources, including the Russian Orthodox Church, an extremely homophobic institution that has grown politically prominent.
In a recent visit to Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery, the headquarters of the Church, prime minister Vladimir Putin promised the institution 3.5 billion rubles ($120 million) and said he would like to see more preaching on television. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill reciprocated by calling Putin's 12 years in power a "miracle of God."
Five regions with active gay communities have passed, or are in the process of passing, laws banning any type of gay public expression. On February 29, the city government of St. Petersburg — Russia’s second largest city and home of the country’s most prominent LGBT community — passed the “gay propaganda” law. Legislators in Moscow are considering a similar law that could become nationwide.
"They are bringing back a law from the stone age," independent activist Sergei Ilupin said.
The law equates the LGBT with pedophilia and is a huge blow to gay advocacy, activists said. Because there are no set definitions for propaganda, any action could be seen as illegal, significantly hampering activities of LGBT organizations working in its jurisdiction with fines, Ilupin said.
Activists worry that teenage suicides, which are rampant in Russia, will rise as a result of this law because gay adolescents will have even less information on what is happening to them as they come of age.
While no statistics exist on LGBT suicide in the country, Russia has the world's third-highest rate of teenage suicide. Nearly 1,500 young adults aged 15 to 19 take their own lives every year, according to UNICEF. Numerous international studies have found that suicide among LGBT teens is higher than among heterosexual teenagers.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the most vocal proponent of anti-gay legislation, and senior clergy members have repeatedly issued public statements warning that LGBT people have a corrupting influence on Russian children.
“They try to attract them [children] with the seemingly bright and happy life of these organizations,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, referring to the rainbow flag adopted by gay communities around the world.
And Russian television, a main form of media for the majority of Russians, portrays gays as hedonistic perverts, the journalist Kostyuchenko said.
“Gay parades are shown as carnivals, with feathers and g-strings,” she said. “But that’s not us. We want boring things like stamps in passports, government protection, family rights, equality in the workplace.” In a common example of recent anti-gay rhetoric, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak called promotion of homosexuality a “disgusting pastime” and in December 2011 urged passage of the “gay propaganda” law at the federal level.
Activists said that leaders from the dominant political party United Russia were trying to court the Church and avert the public’s attention from many ills plaguing the country, such as the poor state of the healthcare system and failing infrastructure before the presidential election that took place March 4.
The activist and lawyer Alekseyev, whose almost translucent eyebrows and boyish features make him look younger than his 34 years, is fighting back. Russia’s best known gay rights activist, he is as pugnacious as his campaigns are. He has been arrested 10 times and spent three days in jail.
He was pushed to activism as a law student, when Moscow State University refused his dissertation on the rights of sexual minorities. After three years of deliberation he decided the cause is worth the struggle. "It was an internal battle, I wanted to go public." Alekseyev said.
In 2005 Alekseyev met British activist Peter Tatchell at a London gay pride parade. Tatchell inspired Alekseyev to form Gay Russia, whose activism is based on direct action and fighting for judicial and constitutional rights for assembly, expression and association, he said.
"We started at zero, we had an empty field, empty space," Alekseyev said. He spends most of his time on LGBT activism, staging demonstrations, litigating in Russian and international courts, talking to media and maintaining his organization.
Alekseyev recently won a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights that fined the Moscow government 30,000 euros ($39,282) for unconstitutionally denying gay pride demonstrations for several years. However, despite the decision, Moscow continues to suppress any demonstrations for gay rights.
Alekseyev’s wild antics and PR savvy get him plenty of attention but he is seen as divisive even within the Russian LGBT activist community. Though he is regarded as a founding father of the gay rights movement in Russia, many see him as uncooperative, provocative and out of touch with the LGBT community. He has managed to get into a fight with almost every LGBT organization in Russia, activists said.
His slogans, such as “Queer Will Save the World” or “[Former Moscow Mayor Yury] Luzhkov is Gay,” have been criticized as insubstantial, sensationalist and absurd by other activists who employ more moderate tactics such as collecting signatures for petitions or offering counseling.
His relationship with a long-time partner who lives in Switzerland has also been a focus of criticism. Opponents say he is not serious about changing the situation of the LGBT in Russia because he can leave anytime. In turn, Alekseyev said other activists and organizations rose to prominence on his coattails and are now trying to eliminate him as competition.
"They say Alekseyev is a provocateur, then they try to follow me," Alekseyev said. "It’s cheap imitation."
This kind of political disunity, not uncommon within activist communities of all stripes, has recently begun to ease as independent activists and organizations rallied together in a series of anti-government mass protests that have swept Russia after alleged election fraud in the December 4 parliamentary election.
Perhaps most importantly, the protests gave LGBT advocates the opportunity to march with a much broader cross-section of the population, normalizing their status in the eyes of the people.
“We dispensed with the idea of leather pants usually associated with us,” Ilupin said. “We were united by common demands, common goals. We showed we are just ordinary people.”
LGBT activism in Russia is the work of individuals and organizations largely without political support, said Kirill Nepomnyaschiy, a Gay Russia member who participated in the demonstration against Aeroflot with Alekseyev.
Activists stay in close contact with their counterparts abroad through email, social networks, forums and blogs, taking strength and inspiration from their counterparts abroad. U.S. activist Choi’s assault at the hands of police at the fractured pride event in Moscow last spring brought more eyes from around the world onto Russia’s crackdown on LGBT rights.
Western political pressure is rising and activists say they believe their demands will be met eventually as Russia will rise on the wave of international acceptance of LGBTs.
For now, the picture looks much different.
"One of the things that really needs to be highlighted about laws that say you can't talk about homosexuality is that they're not just a limitation of speech for LGBT people, they're a limitation for all Russians or all citizens of any country,” the State Department’s Baer said of the anti-gay propaganda law. “They are a violation of international standards of free expression."
But Russian activists said American and European political involvement in the fight for Russia’s LGBT rights is nothing more than a series of verbal declarations. Russia is a resource-rich country, and natural resources like oil and gas trump gay rights in international politics, they believe. But that has not damaged their faith in their fellow Russians, Alekseyev said. Rather, he sees homophobia as imposed by the government and the Church.
“The Russians are capable of accepting gay rights,” he said. “If it [equal rights for LGBTs] would be made legal tomorrow, people would change their minds right away.”