Russian LGBT festival refuses to be silenced by ‘gay propaganda’ law

Bok o Bok’s opening night was ambushed by a screaming politician and visitors risked attack, but founders say they won’t be scared out of St Petersburg

Holding events for the LGBT community in a country that is clamping down on human rights is difficult. Staging them in the cradle of the “gay propaganda” law is even tougher.

But Manny de Guerre and Gulya Sultanova have been doing just that for more than eight years. They founded the Bok o Bok (Side by Side) film festival in St Petersburg in 2007, but say the threats have become more serious over time.

This year’s festival made headlines after Vitaly Milonov, a local MP and the author of the controversial law, crashed the opening night on 19 November and tried to break into the cinema. A video appears to show him shouting “underage children could be inside!” at a policeman trying to hold him back.

“We always have to have spare venues reserved for emergencies,” Sultanova says. “Spaces cancel on us because they get pressure from the above, or receive bomb threats, or just get scared of the consequences.”

Despite the heavy security and siege-like conditions, the atmosphere at the festival was serene. Visitors ordered drinks at the bar and sat on wooden benches in the improvised auditorium. The space, which normally functions as a club, welcomed the festival at the last minute after another venue cancelled.

For most people, attending Bok o Bok is both a defiant act and a demonstration of bravery. “I really didn’t expect to like the films but I did,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova, a local journalist. “It was the same a year ago – I was very surprised. People told me these films are political and they are only made to convey a message, but they are also just good films.”

Arseniy Vesnin, a journalist and member of Bok o Bok’s jury, said the festival is a way of educating St Petersburg audiences. “I hope that the spotlights, projectors and screens of the festival shine a light of enlightenment and kindness.

“Today we all have an opportunity to speak out and we must […] It’s not just the educated and the minorities who need respect, but also those who are ignorant and misled.”

Reporting attacks
Bok o Bok’s events focus on LGBT culture: films, public discussions and education. They also publish pamphlets for local journalists, explaining how to handle gay and transgender issues in a non-offensive way and without inadvertently promoting hate.

For the founders, the issue of reporting is particularly important: attacks on the LGBT community come as no surprise in St Petersburg, and rarely garner much media attention.

There are several examples of such attacks receiving more attention in the western media than in Russia’s. These include activists being dragged into vans by riot police during an attempt to stage a gay pride parade in Moscow. Another incident, captured on video, involved two men holding hands and receiving torrents of abuse as they walked in public.

The so-called gay propaganda ban was introduced in early 2012 in St Petersburg, and became federal law in 2013. It prohibits anything that could be considered promoting homosexuality to minors. Among the multiple criticisms the law attracted were those pointing out that since “propaganda” is not an exact legal term, the law could be applied to almost any communication with a child or a teen.

Several cultural events such as Kubana festival and the Artdocfest have recently moved out of Russia because of what they called “government pressure”. However, De Guerre says that Bok o Bok festival is not going anywhere. “No, the festival was founded here, it’s meant to help Russian people and the LGBT community here, and we can’t give up now.”

‘I like the fight’
For the founders, the changing attitude of the police force has been the most noticeable shift over the years. “On one side there is pressure and persecution from the city government, and on the other side is the local police, and they are protecting us,” Sultanova.

Sultanova suggests that this softer approach had been encouraged by the proactive approach of LGBT charities. “Every time someone is attacked at our events, we go to the police over and over, forcing them to start the case and investigate, and often they can’t charge the guilty ones as they are very public people. So now they try to avoid these situations by properly protecting our events,” she explains.

But for the organisers and audience members alike, the threat of attack remains real. Earlier this week Alexey, an LGBT activist, left the festival venue and says he was beaten up by a group of men in a street just next to the cinema.

Are the founders worried about their own safety? “No, I like the fight,” says De Guerre. Besides, they say that even though homophobic rhetoric is prevalent across much of the mainstream media in Russia, they are beginning to see the results of their campaign for acceptance, inspiring them to keep going.

“We see the positive results of our work. We have [a larger] audience, the LGBT community is getting stronger in the city, we see that people are less afraid, we see interest, the general public is now more often approaching us with an open mind, ready to learn,” says Sultanova.

“This situation in our country won’t change unless we have an active LGBT community. And we are getting there.”

by Sasha Raspopina in St Petersburg
Source – The Guardian