Gay clubbing and stoic activism in Russia’s homophobic heartland

Coda Story report from the industrial city of Samara where the one remaining LGBT rights organisation provides invaluable support – discreetly

It is late in Samara, an industrial hub in central Russia and the city’s only gay nightclub is proving difficult to find. In a dark car park there are none of the telltale signs: no queue, no music, no crowds of smokers.

Andrei, the host for the night, approaches the solid metal door of the office-like building and rings the buzzer as a security camera eyes him from above.

A metal panel swings open and the thumping music momentarily spills out into the night.

Samara, a conservative heartland, is one of the most homophobic cities in Russia. In 2012, there were seven gay clubs, today this discreet venue is all there is left.

Security is tight – bags are meticulously searched and cameras left at the door. People have heard that gay clubs in Moscow and St Petersburg have been attacked and don’t want to take any chances.

Andrei, who only wants to give his first name, loves clubbing but says he doesn’t come here often and it’s not hard to see why: despite it being the last gay club in a city of more than 1 million people, it is half empty on a Saturday night.

“It’s just the same people every time,” he laments. Yet he knows everyone, including Obra Delis, a stocky, muscular transvestite.

“Sometimes I’d like to go out in public dressed up like this, but there’s no way I could,” Delis explains over the sound of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Situated on the banks of the river Volga, 600 miles south-east of Moscow, Samara was known for its intolerance long before the Kremlin started pushing its socially conservative agenda.

When a 22-year-old gay man was beaten to death in 2009, his attacker was reportedly sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison, the most lenient murder sentence possible under Russian law.

Two years later, an assembly of Cossacks called for gay people to be banned from working in education or state-owned media, although their proposals were never accepted.

Conservative heartlands
Ever since president Vladimir Putin signed a law in 2013 banning “gay propaganda” conditions have got worse for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Russia.

The law may be limited in scope but the homophobic rhetoric that surrounded it has led to an increase in violence against LGBT people, according to Human Rights Watch.

And it is in conservative heartlands such as Samara where the LGBT community is most at risk, with the activists standing up for them left overworked and overexposed.

In Samara, Oksana Berezovskaya is the first person to call if you are gay and find yourself at the police station in the middle of the night. As the legal coordinator for Avers, the city’s only LGBT rights organisation, her phone hardly stops ringing.

Born and raised here, Berezovskaya has long been open about her sexuality, but did not become an activist until the gay propaganda law was passed.

“That law set us back, now we are like the slaves in Ancient Rome. Second-class citizens,” she says.

Berezovskaya often works from the Volga centre, a community hub recently opened by Avers. Located in a deliberately nondescript building in a residential part of the city, it is one of the few safe spaces left.

The group has been forced to carry out its work discreetly since 2014 when it held a small protest on the International Day of Solidarity with LGBT youth.

The demonstration was legal, but the police arrived to break it up and sent the participants home – after taking their passport details.

“A month later, they began to hunt us,” says Berezovskaya. “We didn’t break any rules so they couldn’t just take us in for questioning. But the authorities still wanted to punish us.”

According to the protesters, the police showed up for no apparent reason at the mother of one activist’s house. And Sasha Kornieva, the co-founder of Avers, was questioned over a supposed irregularity with her car.

Another young man present at the rally was called up for military service despite being exempt on health grounds, Oksana says. She believes that “it was an agreement between the police and the conscription office to frighten him”.

A safe space
The Volga centre is a safe place to meet and also hosts counselling sessions, support groups for gay families and legal workshops.

One Sunday respected criminal lawyer Tamara Sarkisiyan leads a seminar on legal rights and what people should do if they become victims of a violent assault.

A transgender woman in the session flinches every time Sarkisiyan describes an attack on a gay client.

About 45 minutes in a loud bang on the door reminds everyone of the importance of such talks. Kornieva goes to investigate and opens the door to a woman who is taken in to a side room.

The woman, who only gave her name as Alexia, is transgender and says she was attacked by an armed gang a week earlier.

She and a group of transgender friends had built a small house on an island in the Volga river, which was only accessible by boat; a refuge until a mob suddenly descended on them.

One of the women was beaten so violently that she was placed in intensive care. Alexia’s nose was broken and she had two black eyes.

She says she went straight to the police station to report the attack, but was detained for nine hours before she was allowed to go to the hospital: “The police don’t believe we are normal people,” she said.

The authorities ignored multiple requests to comment on the case.

A version of this article first appeared on Coda Story. Read more from their investigation into the new east’s LGBT crisis here, or follow them on Twitter

by Amy Mackinnon in Samara for Coda Story
Source – The Guardian