Ihar Tsikhanyuk is an openly gay man from Belarus who works as a drag artist. When he tried to set up a gay rights organization, the police beat him up. When he complained, they threatened to kill him.
Ihar wants justice for what happened, and the freedom to be himself without worrying about the consequences. He shared his story with Amnesty International.
‘While they get ready, I will die’ “When I see injustice, I start to fight it. I was raised like that – injustice equals horror for me.
“I went to a clothes shop in Minsk [the capital of Belarus] in August, holding hands with a boy. The manager kicked me out and they swore at us. I came back the next day and complained, and they apologised and said it wouldn’t happen again. I managed to convince them that they were wrong. That’s what standing up for your rights is. I didn’t steal anything and I didn’t kill anyone, I was just holding hands with my boyfriend.
“A boy and a girl can hold hands, so why can’t we? I don’t care what they think. I can’t sit and wait until they are ready. While they get ready, I will die. There’s only one life and we should live it as best we can.”
Being gay in Belarus “The media here portrays gays and lesbians as sick and crazy people, fools and savages. The President says our country isn’t ready to accept people like us, and that he isn’t ashamed of that. People see the President’s attitude and think the same.
“I am an openly gay man. I’m not embarrassed and I don’t hide it – I try to show that it’s normal. I dress like a woman when I perform as a drag artist in clubs. But it’s very difficult. You have to be prepared for negative situations all the time, attacks by young people, relatives, the political authorities.
“It’s normal for gay people in Belarus to hide their lives. If they’ve been beaten up or fired, they don’t know how to complain to the authorities. Many of my friends turn to me and ask for help.
“The LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] community here used to be very united. But government policy has become very homophobic recently – gay clubs have been shut down, it’s impossible to organize events, meetings, parties – so people have started to lose touch with each other.”
Kicked out of church “I am an Orthodox Christian. I used to like going to a monastery in Hrodna [in north-western Belarus] and knew an abbess there. Then I went to gay pride in Moscow in 2009, I gave a lot of interviews. The next time I went to Hrodna, the abbess kicked me out of church during the service in front of the whole parish. She pointed at me and said that ‘this boy, Ihar, he's gay, he likes men’. She told the congregation to spit at people like me, and to expel me if I came again, because I spoiled the reputation of the church.
“My mum is very conservative and religious, so when she saw me hugging and kissing a boy in my room one day she was shocked. She didn’t talk to me for about a month, and then she said she would take me to see a priest to confess, because I had a demon sitting inside me.
“Then I finished school and left home, and it calmed down. Nowadays she supports me, and even asks about my personal life and tells me to be careful with my health.”
Dragged from hospital “We tried to set up Lambda, a human rights organization that protects LGBTI people, in December 2012. The government started to fight us after we applied to the Ministry of Justice with enough signatures to register it [as required by law]. The police called the founding members in for questioning, asking why we had signed the application and pressurized us to write letters denouncing it.
“I was having hospital treatment for a stomach ulcer at the time. The police came to the hospital and dragged me to their car. They asked what I had been doing in Minsk with other gays. I refused to talk to them, so they started to punch my head and chest. They told me not to go to Minsk anymore and to not get involved with the organization.”
‘Everyone is equal in the Republic of Belarus’ After the attack, my family became scared of being attacked. I told them I’d protect them. Some of my friends expressed support and understanding, but others said I shouldn’t complain or I’d have more problems and could be killed.
“I wrote a complaint, and when I told the police officers they said: ‘Boy, aren’t you worried that you’ll end up with nine grams [a bullet] in your forehead?’. I couldn’t believe that they’d openly say that to me.
“I still feel humiliated and empty, because there’s nothing I can do. We don’t have enough ways to fight, or good enough legislation to protect LGBTI people in Belarus.
“It will mean a lot for us to get support from Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign. LGBTI people will feel braver and more hopeful. It will show that everyone is equal in the Republic of Belarus.”