As life becomes increasingly dangerous for LGBT community, Meduza joins a support group coaching families to come to terms with homosexuality
The parents’ club has a few rules: you can only speak if you’re holding the navy dragon, a soft toy that has grown shabby in the club’s four-year existence; no interrupting is allowed; and phones must be switched off.
In an unassuming building in the centre of St Petersburg, families of Russian gay men and women gather each month, hoping for understanding and reconciliation.
Although the group is ostensibly for parents, they are far outnumbered by sons and daughters who have faced the difficulties of coming out in a homophobic country. Not one father is present.
“Mum fell seriously ill recently and she allowed me to care for her,” says Sergei. “At least she didn’t yell at me, like before: ‘Stop that, [you] gay, get away from me, don’t touch my things!’”
Seventeen people sit in the circle listening to him, wearing badges with handwritten names. “Now that mum is no longer rejecting me, it means that she [has started to] care again,” Sergei continues. For now though, he doesn’t speak to his mother often.
Nina, a club veteran, asks for the dragon. She believes that, whatever the circumstances, talking helps: “You have to explain to [your parents] that homosexuals are not the people they [are made out to be] on television. It will take them a long time to grasp what is going on. Everyone loves their kids, they will all understand.”
Others immediately pipe up, recounting stories of parents who drove their children out of the house and sent them to be “cured” of their sexuality. “Ok, not all, most,” Nina corrects herself.
At these meetings, parents are encouraged to ask questions. A few people recommend films on LGBT themes, others yet to come out to their families ask the mothers in the group how best to go about it, and whether, in fact, it is worth it.
Only towards the end of the meeting does the toy dragon arrive in the hands of Sasha, a new arrival in St Petersburg.
“I lived for a long time in a small village. There, the word ‘gay’ is horrific, you can be grabbed on the street and killed for it,” he said. “All my relatives are old-fashioned types. I fear that if I tell my mum, she will blame herself. Did you go through this?”
The group tells him that coming out in a small town is often more difficult.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union, but rights groups say the situation for Russia’s gay population has become more dangerous.
In 2014 Human Rights Watch released a report documenting a rise in homophobic rhetoric and violence in Russia. It blamed a law passed in 2013 banning the promotion of “non-traditional lifestyles” among minors.
It’s in this climate of fear that the mothers and their children meet. After two-and-a-half hours, they wrap up. One woman looks out of the window onto the street and says quietly: “I don’t want to go back out there.”
Elena: ‘It’s not a death sentence’
Elena became an activist out of the belief that the parents of LGBT children can find it helpful to talk to people who have been in the same boat.
Five years ago her son Dmitry came back from Japan, where he had been living for the past decade. She sensed instantly that he was troubled, but put it down to the difficulties of adapting to life back in Russia.
When Dmitry began his coming out talk with the words “I want you to listen to me but this might frighten you”, she says the possibility that her son might be gay had never occurred to her.
“After our conversation, it was horrible,” recalls Elena. “It seemed that I was the only mother this had happened to. I tried not to show him how upset I was.”
“But I was brought to my senses and comforted by something Dmitry said: ‘Now I feel much happier than when I was pretending’.”
Dmitry took her to a meeting of the parents’ club a year after coming out. She expected her son to lead her into a basement where “gays live”, she says, and “when I saw that no one was dancing in tights, just decent people sitting around, I was quite surprised,” she adds. Elena quickly became a club activist and she now helps other parents to accept their LGBT children.
“They usually come to us with horror in their eyes. They look as if a tragedy has befallen their family. We ask them to relax and take a look at us: do we look downtrodden? Being a parent of an LGBT child – it’s not a death sentence, you can live with it quite happily.”
Acceptance can take months, if not years, she says. But if parents keep coming to the club, they always make progress. “You see mothers picking themselves up, smiling, being prepared to discuss the situation – that is already a good sign.”
The mothers from the club believe that the problems with acceptance lie not with them, but with Russian society as a whole: if gay people are constantly being abused on television, why should someone suddenly believe a handful of people who take a different view?
Marina: ‘The shock lasted 10 days’
“After the coming out blows your mind, the world as it was crumbles away, together with your plans for your child’s future,” says Marina Melnik, the founder of parents’ club: her son Roman told her he was gay six years ago. Every parent in that position goes through five stages of acceptance, she explains. In her case “the shock lasted 10 days. Then came denial. That’s when you try to change their mind and prove that it’s all in their head.”
She says it was painful process: “I blamed myself for a long time. Did I not love him enough or did I love him too much? When he was a kid, maybe I bought him the wrong toy, an animal, not a car.”
Six months after her son’s admission, Marina became an activist. She founded the club with other mothers she met at an LGBT film festival, Side by Side. Four people came to the first meeting, she remembers, and none of them knew how to deal with their feelings of guilt.
“After talking to other mothers, it finally came to me,” Marina says. That’s when she went through the last stage, acceptance, followed by her own coming out of sorts: “I was scared to tell the people around me [that my son was gay],” she remembers. “It was like that for almost a year.”
Igor: ‘No one talked about gay people’
Igor finally managed to bring his mother to the club two years after coming out. Until then, talking to her about anything LGBT-related was difficult, he says.
“No one talked about ‘gay people’ in our family. Mum used the word ‘blues’ (Russian slang for homosexual) and dad, ‘fags’,” Igor recalls. He describes his parents as people with differing views: his dad is an orthodox patriot whose favourite political writer is Gregory Klimov, author of the aphorism: “If all is not right between the legs, all is not right between the ears.” His mother, on the other hand, isuninterested in politics and “more liberal, in a cultural sense”, he says.
“When I was little, I asked my mum what sexual orientation was. ‘Who’s blue and who’s not’, she replied.” At 11, he picked up from family conversations that “gays were perverts who practise anal sex.”
In September 2007, Igor left his native village in the Pskov region to go and study in St Petersburg and in October, he returned to visit his parents. “You’re nervous about something, have you fallen in love?” his mother asked him. “Yes” Igor answered, truthfully. “With a man or a woman?” she probed. With a man, as it turned out. Both of them cried but they soon calmed down and a week later, Igor went back to St Petersburg. It was not long before his father heard the news.
“Dad was breaking dishes, slamming doors,” Igor says.
Igor told a priest in confession that he was in love with a young man and was advised to “cure the sickness in his soul” and repent: but Igor argued back. “Officially, he absolved me of my sins but we were both clearly dissatisfied with the outcome. It was after this I lost faith in the church. That was my last communion and confession and I am feeling all right,” he laughs.
Igor is convinced that if his mother watched less television, lived with him in St Petersburg and talked to other parents from the club, she would soon accept him fully. No precise statistics exist, but the club’s activists believe that for every LGBT person accepted by their family, another five are rejected.
Dmitry: ‘Sorry mum, but I’m still gay’
Dmitry is one of these five. He first came out when he was 18. Assuming that everything would go smoothly, he didn’t prepare for the conversation. At first, his mother reacted calmly but a few hours later, she started to cry.
“She shouted about HIV and how I would never have children,” he remembers. From then on, Dmitry decided not to talk to his mother about his personal life. Gradually, she seemed to forget about her son’s sexuality and their relationship improved.
But Dmitry couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that his mother didn’t understand him. So three years later, he decided to try again. He prepared better this time, taking brochures from the LGBT group. But his opening gambit – “Sorry mum, but I’m still gay” – set off another argument.
Unsure of what to do next, he went to the parents’ club, where he was advised to show his mother the film Prayers for Bobby, about a gay man who kills himself because his religious parents refused to accept him.
“I watched it myself first and cried, it was so painful,” Dmitry says. “Then I watched it with mum but I didn’t understand her reaction. The parents lost their son, she said, because they didn’t believe in God or pray enough.”
Religious icons soon started appearing in their flat, together with images of the Virgin Mary, Orthodox magazines and brochures about monasteries. They hadn’t spoken to each other for a long time, Dmitry says, and it was clear his mother had decided the Church was the only way to save him.
“I arrived home one day and could already smell burning incense from the hallway,” he says. “What was the point, I asked her. In reply, she talked of evil influences, clouding of souls and false paths. Our flat started to resemble a church gift shop.” The arguments grew more frequent and after one such bust-up, his mother decided to move to a friend’s.
Dmitry will not try his luck a third time. He tells his mother that he has a girlfriend, despite seeing his partner Grigory for over two years now.
It takes a lot of energy to live a double life: when Dmitry’s mother calls him and asks him about his personal life, he answers truthfully – but substitutes the name Grigory with Irina.
“Parents’ club don’t approve of stories like mine. They suggested I bring my mother along but I’m scared of what her reaction would be,” says Dmitry. “If she believes that religion helped me, so be it. The main thing is that mum is happy.”
A version of this article first appeared on Meduza. Translation by Cameron Johnston
by Ilnur Sharafiyev for Meduza, part of the New East network
Source – The Guardian