Russian Lesbians Rising
The Gully: When and why did you begin to work as an activist within Russia's LGBT movement?
Nastya: How does anyone become an activist? There's no definite answer. People come together because of coincidences, or because they're lonely. Some people want to feel useful to society. It's the activity itself that unites them, as well as their belief that they can change society.
A lot of people can't sleep at night because there are so many injustices in our society. Besides sexual orientation, gay people work on environmental and racial problems, and health issues.
What was your first project?
Our first project was Queer Russia (2000-2001), an Internet site for Russian gays and lesbians. Updated daily, it primarily contained news. It didn't last very long because there just wasn't enough content. But that was the first step towards Lesbiru.com, our Russian lesbian portal, founded in 2002, which serves not only lesbians in Russia, but also Russian immigrants living in the former Soviet Union and abroad. Lesbiru.com contains all our previous projects like VolgaVolga (volga.lesbiru.com), Vdovya Contora (vdova.lesbiru.com), a Russian fan club for K D Lang, and Queer Russia.
Lesbiru.com is a non-profit site that offers information for and about lesbians, trying to raise awareness and address basic problems that lesbians encounter from the workplace to the home. The site also offers Russian and international news, including information about events, people, the arts, and health.
How is the LGBT movement developing in Russia today? Have you noticed any changes so far?
What we are observing nowadays is not so much the development as the birth of a movement. The mindset of the Russian people is still determined by the stereotypes and fears of the Soviet period. Freedom seems precarious. Politicians are still constantly promoting initiatives to recriminalize homosexuality. There are no protections at all for LGBT people.
Our biggest accomplishment so far is that we've managed to provide basic information about homosexuality to a number of people. Although there's no advertising, Lesbiru.com is visited daily by 1500 to 2000 people.
We also organize off-line activities like sporting events, picnics, and weekly lesbian parties in clubs. All this helps people to feel less isolated. Live contact is very important in our country where there are no crisis centers for lesbians (not a single one!), and lesbians have nowhere to turn for support and understanding.
It's also progress that opinions of Lesbiru.com editors now carry some weight. We discuss and analyze images of lesbians and gay men in the media and political arena. Frequently, publications like the men's magazine Maxim have had to apologize to us for publishing homophobic materials and have promised to stop their humiliating practices.
Journalists from leading papers and magazines, such as Arguments and Facts, SPEED-Info, and Marie-Claire (Russian version), as well as TV channels (NTV) sometimes ask for our advice or interview us.
Several years ago, we would never have imagined a "Queer Teens" issue of the most popular Russian paper, Moscow News, examining the subject seriously. Today, there's nothing unusual about this. We are happy that we've contributed to this.
What are your future plans for Lesbiru.com?
We are constantly moving forward and starting off-line activities. It's difficult because this requires more money. To publish an Internet magazine, for example, we need nothing but hope and diligence. To publish it off-line, we have to pay for paper, printing, distribution and other costs.
We've issued the first two print editions of a color illustrated magazine for lesbians, VolgaVolga, which is also self-financed. Our magazine is the first lifestyle Russian publication for lesbians anywhere in the former Soviet Union. It addresses many of the same topics as the website and aims to satisfy a diverse audience from young girls to older women, from those living in big cities to those in remote areas. We especially hope to reach women who don't have access to our site.
We are also trying to create a cultural center in Moscow. But all this depends on money, and we still can't afford to rent even a small room.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of LGBT organizing in Russia today?
In Russia, queer activism is far from being popular among LGBT people. In their eyes, gay activists are clowns. Everybody expects them to fail and disappear, or jump into a career in politics or show business.
The Russian LGBT movement doesn't get any help from the state or the private sector. On the other hand, homophobes working against gay people get plenty of support from both Russian society and our government. Afraid of ruining their images, closeted gay politicians refuse to do anything to improve the lives of LGBT people. The movement is not united, and it exists only due to the initiative of several lesbians and gay men with strong personalities that are able to energize a crowd. But if we don't give ordinary gay people more chances to express themselves and their own needs, we won't have any gay movement in the future.
Most Russian homosexuals still follow the principle of "I don't care" or "My sexual orientation is my own business" and really don't give a crap about the overall movement. Sure, they would be glad if the Russian legislature passed positive laws regarding homosexuality or legalized same-sex marriages, but they want these changes to fall from the sky without them lifting a finger. Participating in LGBT activism never even crosses their minds.
How did lesbian organizing begin?
The lesbian movement began as most do, from our desire to communicate with other women who like women. We didn't have a bar period like they did in the United States, for example, but there was an apartment period. Since homosexuality was regarded as a crime until 1993, with men being sent to prison, and women to mental institutions, it was suicidal to meet in public places. So people met in different apartments. One woman took her friend along. Another girl brought another, and so on. However, it was a rather limited circle of communication which was closed to unknown people. Strangers were a real threat.
Then perestroika came and people began to talk about homosexuality out loud, but, strange as it may seem, homosexuals were not in any hurry to come out of the closet. They continued to lead their usual "apartment lifestyle." They still felt too powerless and afraid to begin to change the situation.
In 1993, when homosexuality was decriminalized, a few gay activists did appear. Among them were Eugenia Debryanskaya and Roman Kalinin, who in 1989 founded the "Association of Sexual Minorities", the first Soviet gay organization, which included Vladislav Ortanov, Olga Juk, and Alexander Kucharsky were among the members.
In his 1998 book about gay Russia, "Masks of the Moonlight Love" Igor Kon accused some of these activists of self-promotion, especially abroad, where they rushed after the fall of the Iron Curtain to ask for foreign funds to "help poor Russian gays and lesbians." He said the funds mostly helped these people buy houses and cars, and go to international conferences and forums where they stayed in expensive hotels. The money was not directed to the needs of the LGBT movement.
For many years, the press offered negative portrayals of homosexuals, while smacking its lips over "gay scandals" and using them to sell papers in the new market economy the Russian government was trying to establish. Then, in the late 1990's, homoeroticism became very popular: we started to discuss it openly in press and on TV. Progressive youths sought to acquire a "gay look," and performers, like the singer Boris Moiseev, the first, and so far only, openly gay performer in Russia, or the scandal-seeking duet T.a.t.u., used pseudoqueer sexual imagery to launch their careers, reinforcing negative images of lesbians and gay men. No wonder it's so hard to get homophobes to try and change their attitudes.
It's also no surprise that Russian deputies continue to reintroduce the question of recriminalizing LGBT people, since society still widely regards homosexuals as mentally ill, perverted pedophiles. Any homophobe trying to isolate them can always count on the support of the Russian people. Even the legislation that outlaws the stirring of national or religious hatreds is silent about us.
The young generation will need a lot of time to begin speaking openly about their rights and finding the courage to come out.
What is helping the LGBT movement to develop? What are the obstacles?
Democracy, freedom of speech, press and education, people's efforts to get first-hand information, as well as improvements in social welfare, all help the LGBT movement. Improving economic conditions are important, because when people are poor and unemployed, they feel so far outside the mainstream they can barely think of LGBT issues. There are many retired people, young families with children, and others in Russia who are sentenced to poverty.
Open borders are also helping. Outside Russia people may take them for granted, but for Russians brought up in the Soviet era it's a huge and positive step forward. Access to international resources, publications and Internet connecting all countries and continents also makes a big difference.
As for obstacles, the first one that comes to mind is the Russian legislature. As a body, they aren't actively encouraging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but they don't condemn it either.
A related problem is instability. The constant threat that homosexuality will be recriminalized makes everybody think a thousand times before coming out. You won't do today what you may regret tomorrow. We all have families, parents and friends that we worry about.
Homophobia is most severe outside the big cities, where it's dangerous just to be homosexual.
As an activist, where do you look for role models?
Unfortunately, the Iron Curtain isolated Russian lesbians, not only from progressive Western countries, but also from other Russian lesbians. The situation is very unstable at the moment. We rely on our personal experience to endure, and hope that our successors won't face so many difficulties.
How do you envision the LGBT movement in Russia five or ten years from now?
Based on the best representatives of the LGBT community, who are well-educated, successful, and diligent, we can be enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Not only about LGBT issues, but about all the other problems of modern Russia.
Changing stereotypes about lesbians demands enormous efforts. The biggest priority is smashing the stereotypes lesbians have about themselves. We have to eliminate the ideas of perversion and depravity which were associated with us for so many years. We should be proud of ourselves!
The future of lesbians and gay men is tied up with that of Russia overall, since society can't speak about being free until it respects individual freedom.
I can promise you that in five or ten years, we will be able not only to breathe, but to love freely!