A time to grieve and a time to dance

By Conor Fortune, News Writer at Amnesty International, who recently returned from St Petersburg

Ekaterina Khomenko’s throat was slit when a street cleaner found her in a car with the engine still running in St Petersburg earlier this month.

According to media reports, police initially suggested – somewhat incredibly – that she might have committed suicide. An investigation is now under way into the actual cause of the 29-year-old’s death. The authorities haven’t ruled out the possibility that she may have been attacked on the basis of her sexual orientation: she was openly lesbian and gave tango lessons to same-sex couples.

In the days before she died, a known extremist had posted hate speech and threats on a social media page she owned, in response to a photo she posted of two women embraced n the sensual Argentine dance in a St Petersburg Metro station.

Whatever the motive, Ekaterina’s death sent a shock wave through St Petersburg’s small but active network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations. When I met some of them this week, they were visibly shaken.

Sadly, they are used to homophobia that often boils over into aggression. And they are used to a lacklustre official response to violence against LGBT people in Russia. Crimes committed against people because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity are not covered by Russian hate crimes legislation.

But while LGBT activists reacted to this tragedy with horror and indignation, they are resolute about continuing the struggle to foster a more inclusive climate in St Petersburg, and around Russia. They want to bring about a climate where they are empowered to live, to love, to breathe freely as themselves.

That’s the motivation behind QueerFest, now a key annual event in St Petersburg, which kicks off today (18 September). In its sixth year, and taking place over 10 days, it will include numerous talks, seminars and performances in two venues in the city centre.

Or at least that’s what the planners are hoping.

Polina Andrianova and Anna Abramova of the Russian LGBTI organization “Coming Out”(« Выход ») in St Petersburg. © Amnesty International

Last year, around 40 different venues declined to take part before the organizers finally settled on locations on the city’s outskirts. Polina Andrianova, director of “Coming Out” – the organization behind the QueerFest – told me that this year she hopes they can retain at least one of the two current venues. While the agenda and speakers have been planned for some time, given the ongoing fear and threats faced by the LGBT community, the actual locations and other details were only announced at the last minute.

Problems lurk around every turn for the organizers of such events, and trouble often shows up uninvited.

No fewer than five bomb threats interrupted last November’s “Side by Side” (Bok o Bok), Russia’s largest international LGBT film festival. Organizer Gulya Sultanova told me the authorities would come, sometimes in the middle of a film screening, and evacuate the entire building to search for explosives after some unidentified individual had allegedly called in a complaint. Invariably, no bombs were found, and the films resumed an hour or two after the disruption.

“After the first time, we knew it was fake,” Gulya said.

And there were other clear attempts to derail the festival.

Gulya Sultanova (centre) and other organizers of the “Bok o Bok” (“Side by Side”) LGBT film festival in St Petersburg. © Amnesty International

Groups of young people would show up and try to gain entry, an apparent attempt to spark trouble. Participation by minors in LGBT rights-related events was among the things presumed to be outlawed in June 2013, when a “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” bill was adopted by the Duma and subsequently signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. “Presumed” to be, because nobody seems entirely sure how far such “propaganda” extends, and the law has rarely been implemented.

But its bark has been as bad as its bite. The new law has generated additional fears and pressures for LGBT people across the country. Organizers of events like “Side by Side” and QueerFest face a threat of having to pay stiff fines unless they print “18+” age restrictions on their promotional material and ensure that no minors take part.

According to Gulya, on one occasion, a group of young people managed to enter a screening during last year’s “Side by Side” festival, despite a passport check at the door. Once inside, they began shouting to journalists attending the screening that they were underage and were shocked by the information they were being exposed to. A vocally homophobic St Petersburg politician who was present chimed in, alleging that the LGBT organizations were forcing the youth to be there.

Russian LGBT organizations must use age restrictions under the repressive “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” law.

The bizarre scene soon dissipated, but some 15 minutes later, police announced a bomb threat had been called in and everyone had to be evacuated from the screening.

Such disturbances are what “Coming Out” members are hoping to avoid during QueerFest. They are doing their utmost to ensure everything is “suitable” despite increasingly restrictive laws. Festival organizers walk a tightrope between ensuring they don’t break the law, and not wanting to send a message to the LGBTI community that they agree with what it stands for.

“The gravest result of [the propaganda law] is it justifies a homophobic attitude and gives a green light to homophobic violence,” Polina told me.

This is a trend she and other LGBT activists are fighting to change.

“We are in Russia, we love our country and are working to improve it. Defence of human rights and LGBT rights helps to make Russian society better,” she said.

The goal: a society where a film festival can be screened without bomb threats. A society where anyone is free to talk about themselves, without having it labelled as “propaganda”. A society where anyone can dance a sensual tango, with a partner of their choosing, without the fear of being attacked or killed for it.

Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between October 6 and 12, 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.