The scene evoked the standoff between David and Goliath.
Except that in Kirill Kalugin’s case, he was surrounded by around half a dozen towering foes – muscle-bound men dressed in Russian paratrooper regalia, who locked elbows and cornered him as they hurled verbal abuse and shoved him around. They made it clear they didn’t like him or his message.
The reason they set upon the slender, red-haired activist and university student is he dared to stand in St. Petersburg’s cobblestoned, neoclassical Palace Square and break one of Russia’s biggest social taboos.
You see, Kirill is gay. But, because of a law passed in June 2013, he’s not supposed to feel free to mention it in public. Or do anything, really, that might violate the incredibly vague offence of “promoting homosexuality”.
So, when he braved Palace Square on 2 August 2013 – during the annual paratroopers’ day celebrations – and unfurled a rainbow flag with the words “This is propagating tolerance” painted across the front, he knew he was likely to be putting himself in harm’s way.
Police separated Kirill from his attackers. But then they arrested him.
Unfazed, Kirill returned to the same square on 2 August this year, with another rainbow flag bearing the message “My freedom defends yours”. Again, he was promptly arrested.
‘Propaganda of homosexuality’
The June 2013 law – which is aimed at “protecting” children from “harmful influences” – breezed through the Duma, with only one lawmaker abstaining from voting.
But the so-called harmful influences are actually just ordinary Russians who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) – or individuals who work on related human rights issues.
“Propaganda of homosexuality” has no legal definition. What the law actually does in practice is punish people merely for expressing and being themselves.
“‘Propaganda of homosexuality’ isn’t a thing, so it’s very hard to know what it means. If you are gay and open about it, basically that’s considered ‘propaganda’,” Polina Andrianova, director of the St. Petersburg-based LGBT group “Coming Out”, told Amnesty International.
Police in Russia have struggled to implement the law, and it has led to relatively few prosecutions. But that’s not to say its impact hasn’t been felt.
“Out of the courts, the consequences of the law are the most serious,” cautioned Polina. “The gravest result is it justifies a homophobic attitude and gives a green light to homophobic violence.”
The law seems to give legs to a seething homophobia that was already alive and kicking in some quarters of Russian society.
“In Soviet times, it was taboo to speak about sexuality at all, and homosexuality was prohibited,” explained Gulya Sultanova, organizer of “Side by Side” (Bok o Bok), an international LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg.
The lingering effects of this historical taboo, coupled with the vague and sinister-sounding new law, has brought fresh stigma and fear for the LGBT community. Many are left questioning what activities or actions will be denounced as “propaganda” – forcing some people back into the closet even if they were previously open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Same-sex couples with children face a particularly hard time, as there has been public debate in Russia about separating such families – the warped logic being that children in such homes are constantly subjected to “propaganda” from their own parents.
For many in the LGBT community, there is the constant threat of assault or unrest. Angry mobs of counter-protesters often show up at LGBT gatherings and events, using the “propaganda” law as cover for disrupting the proceedings, sometimes violently.
Frequently, police stand by and do nothing. Sometimes they even detain the victims, rather than the perpetrators.
Seeking justice for discriminatory attacks is also difficult, since Russian hate crime legislation fails to cover crimes committed against people because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
The killing of an openly lesbian tango instructor in St. Petersburg last month illustrates the difficulties in seeking justice – police originally attempted to fob it off as a suicide, even though she was found with her throat slit in her car with the engine still running.
‘A fight for survival’
Faced with such ongoing homophobic attacks and the ineffective response from law enforcement, Polina describes her organization’s work as a “fight for survival”.
“Coming Out” activists recently spent months planning St. Petersburg’s QueerFest. Since 2008, this key annual event includes a 10-day series of talks, seminars and performances aimed at creating a safe, tolerant environment for debate and increasing visibility of the city’s small but active LGBT community.
When this year’s festival kicked off on 18 September, Polina had high hopes that it would not be marred by the threats and cancellations of the past. But sadly, from the opening night, it turned into a constant battle between the organizers on the one hand, and the police, homophobic mobs, and unreliable venues on the other.
A week into the festival, “Coming Out” issued a press release documenting a litany of attacks and attempts to shut QueerFest down. Festival-goers and others – including the regional Ombudsman’s office – filed 24 separate complaints with the police.
Two hours before the opening ceremony, the main venue pulled out, citing a safety hazard in the building. When the event was moved to a back-up location, it was attacked by around 20 right-wing activists accompanied by St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, a virulent homophobe who backed an earlier regional version of the “propaganda of homosexuality” law. They shouted homophobic slurs and sprayed a noxious green antiseptic liquid and an unidentified gas.
Another evening was curtailed by a bomb scare. And, in an Orwellian twist, police attempted to shut down a press conference titled “Who’s trying to shut down QueerFest?”
“In the six years of organizing the festival, there has never been such a consistent and organized attack on our freedom of assembly and expression. Instead of ensuring public order by providing protection, the police use it as a pretext to shut down events. Instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice, the authorities look the other way,” Polina said.
“Every means is used to push us into the ‘ghetto.’ Yet, the festival is about dialogue and being open in society, and our best defence right now is to stay visible.”
Defending LGBTI rights is a key and complementary part of defending wider human rights in Russia. All Russians should be free to be who they are and have loving, consensual relationships with the person of their choice, without fear of being attacked or accused of engaging in “propaganda”.
Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent. Take action and find out more on www.amnesty.org/Speak-Out-Russia