When Lisa Androshina threw her first lesbian party in Moscow in 2017, she had low expectations.
“We just wanted to get together with our friends and just listen to some cool music,” Androshina, 34, told NBC News. “We weren’t planning on doing anything serious.”
She booked a bar which she said was often empty and invited her friends and a few DJs. After a few evenings, his event, called LVBZ, gained popularity.
Androshina, who lives in Moscow, said around 500 people now attend the quarterly LVBZ night dance, which features DJs from all over the world.
Despite the government’s anti-gay restrictions and the country’s conservative views on LGBTQ issues, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Russians, like Androshina, publicly share their identities and form a community, especially in larger cities. from the country. This has spawned a cultural change, albeit small and partially underground.
“We are not hiding,” Androshina said. “We talk openly about who we are now. ”
“Tired of being targeted”
In 2013, Russia passed a law banning the dissemination of information about LGBTQ issues and relationships to minors. Known as the “Gay Propaganda Act,” the law states that any act or event that authorities consider to encourage homosexuality among those under the age of 18 is an offense punishable by a fine.
The legislation has had a far more grim than financial impact: After its passage, anti-LGBTQ violence in the country increased, according to a 2018 report by international human rights group Human Rights Watch. A 2019 poll by the Russian LGBT Network, a Russian gay advocacy group, found that 56% of LGBTQ respondents said they had experienced psychological abuse, and worrying reports have emerged in recent years of sanctioned detention and torture. by the state of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region. Last year, a survey found that nearly one in five Russians said they wanted to “eliminate” gays and lesbians from society.
“I don’t think Russian society is homophobic per se,” said Svetlana Zakharova, board member of the Russian LGBT network based in St. Petersburg. “The law inspires homophobic hatred.
Zakharova said young residents trust the Russian government less and accept LGBTQ people more. She said that despite the “gay propaganda law,” more and more people across the country are attending public events focused on LGBTQ.
“A lot of people are tired of being constantly targeted and they want to change something,” she said.
Create “beautiful things” in the midst of fear
News articles, TV segments, and documentaries about LGBTQ life in Russia tend to relate the difficult and sometimes violent experiences of queer people who live there. This media account, while accurate, contributes to the difficulty of being LGBTQ in Russia, according to Nikita Andriyanov, who lives in Moscow and hosts a podcast, roughly translated into English as “wide open,” on life and life. LGBTQ culture in Russia.
“It’s not easy, and it’s not fun being a gay man here,” he said.
Andriyanov, however, is among those trying to change the narrative. He said smaller media like his are helping to shape Russia’s emerging LGBTQ community. To avoid “Gay Propaganda Law” fines, he said he added a warning to his podcast that said it is aimed at people over 18. And if the government fined him, despite the warning, he said, people in the LGBTQ community would help support him.
“Once you are ready to accept the fact [that you are LGBTQ] and try to fight it, you become an activist, ”Andriyanov said. “[There’s] this additional responsibility.
Sasha Kazantseva, a 34-year-old lesbian living in Moscow, is also trying to change the narrative and help build community through media. In 2018, she created a digital magazine on queer Russian culture called O-Zine. She said she wanted to publish the magazine, in part, to counter media coverage focused on the difficulty of being gay in Russia. The post features stories of queer art and culture, as well as positive articles about community members. She said she hopes O-Zine will help LGBTQ Russians feel proud of their identity.
“When you’re a queer person and you live in a very homophobic country,” she said, “it’s pretty hard to just feel a connection with other people.”
She’s trying to change that – and she said O-Zine has helped document the progress that has been made so far. When the post first launched, Kazantseva said, it was difficult to find openly LGBTQ people. Now, she added, Russians living in big cities are open and sometimes eager to share their stories.
“Paradoxically [the gay propaganda law] helps the process of self-reflection about who we are, how we live as a community, how we can be proud of who we are, ”Kazantseva said.
She said the willingness to fight government restrictions and access to social media has slowly strengthened the community in recent years.
Despite working with prominent Russian creators and celebrities, O-Zine has not been fined under the country’s propaganda law. The magazine avoided the problems because it is independent and is not an official media organization, according to Kazantseva.
“When you live under this risk on a daily basis, you start not to care,” said Kazantseva, who, like Zakharova, said that the younger generation is more progressive and open. “We can be arrested the next day, but let’s do whatever we want to do and create some nice things.”
She noted, however, that the situation is drastically different in small Russian towns, where she said it is nearly impossible – if not fatal – for gay people to form a community.
“In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the big cities, it is possible for us to have convivial spaces,” Kazantseva said. “For small towns [in] Russia is almost impossible, because people know each other and people are less tolerant.
Andriyanov, who moved from the vast Siberian province to Moscow after university, agreed.
“It’s not really dangerous for me to be openly gay as it would have been if I had grown up, if I had stayed [Siberia]”Said Andriyanov.” I don’t think it would have been possible for me to achieve this level of openness about my identity. ”
He said living in a big city had helped him come to terms with his sexuality, and added that he would likely be in danger if he stayed in his hometown and openly lived as a gay man.
Some films of Russian cinema also reflect this change. The 2019 film “Beanpole” is a drama about a romance between two women in ancient Leningrad set during World War II. Another 2019 film titled “Outlaw” is widely regarded as the first Russian film to feature a transgender character. “Outlaw” weaves the story of a gay teenager in today’s Moscow and a transgender dancer in the Soviet Union of the 1980s.
“‘Outlaw’ is about the impossible, about freedom – internal and external,” said Ksenia Ratushnaya, director and screenwriter of the film.
Ratushnaya, who lives in Moscow, said she believed the propaganda law would prevent her from projecting “Outlaw” in Russia. She was nevertheless able to obtain a government certificate to show the film in theaters, provided that she edited the swear words and a few seconds of a sex scene involving a priest. This scene was reported by government censors as violating another law prohibiting offenses against religious persons.
Although Ratushnaya was able to produce and release a film featuring LGBTQ characters without facing legal challenges, she said her film had not been widely released in Russia. According to Ratushnaya, only 10 theaters agreed to show it to the public, far fewer than most films. She said she thought many theater operators were just too afraid to show it.
“I want people to have access to all the information they want,” said Ratushnaya, who added that it’s a battle to navigate the laws and create art. “Freedom, to me, is extremely important.”
“You can move slowly towards the light”
Androshina said the cultural shift she saw, including the success of her lesbian night, gave her hope for the future. Currently, however, she is not without concerns, ranging from her inability to marry or adopt children to fear for her physical safety as a lesbian.
She also noted that because her party, LVBZ, is for people over 21, the event should be legal, but added that the propaganda law and its application are not entirely clear to her. She said she constantly balances potential threats, including legal ones, with her commitment to creating an open and festive space for LGBTQ Russians. But despite all the challenges, she stressed that her experience as an outsider in Russia might surprise some inside and outside her country.
“People think it’s a shame, and [we all] you really have to hide and do nothing. It’s not true, ”she said. “In fact, we are moving in the right direction.
“You may have concerns,” she added, of being openly LGBTQ in Russia. “At the same time, there is a tunnel. You can move slowly towards the light; you can make an impact.
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