ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—Dozens of young people were singing lyrics by a local band on Palace Square: “We’ll be together, like Sid and Nancy, we’ll never live long enough to be pensioners.”
The warm July night was young. In spite of the dark context of the song, people looked happy. The wind played with a young woman’s rainbow-dyed hair, while she was kissing her girlfriend. That scene was hardly unusual, even in Russia, where authorities ban what they call “gay propaganda,” same-sex marriage and even the rainbow itself.
Liza, who is 21, said she felt much happier once she dyed her hair in rainbow colors. “This is who I am, I am a lesbian,” she said. “I don’t think any banning makes sense—nobody could delete the rainbow symbol from the walls of kindergartens, or from every box of colored pencils. The rainbow will come over the Kremlin and make all these propagandists look stupid,” Liza said, laughing.
But the Russian repression machine is working full force. The leader of Russia’s Women’s Union, ex-senator Yekaterina Lakhova, recently complained to President Vladimir Putin about an ice cream ad “promoting homosexual behavior among minors” because it included a rainbow, signifying a multi-flavored ice cream.
“I am happy the rainbow is gone from the ice cream advert,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast last week, stressing that her main intention during her 30-year career in the Women’s Union was to “defend traditional family values, to increase demography.”
Together with dozens of pro-Kremlin organizations, the Women’s Union protested Russia’s ratification of the UN convention on elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. “The convention is aiming to squeeze in all sorts of rights for same-sex families,” Lakhova said.
The effort to ban the rainbow symbol, even from something as harmless as an ice cream ad, shows the extreme lengths Russian authorities have gone in fighting sexual minorities; every new effort is locked into legislation.
On July 1, Russians voted in a referendum for dozens of constitutional amendments allowing Putin to stay in power until 2036, defining “belief in God” as a Russian national value, and constitutionally banning same-sex marriage.
The amendments also allow Russia to ignore international courts’ rulings on cases of human rights violations. Lakhova was one of the amendments’ lobbyists. At a meeting earlier this month, Putin told Lakhova he needed a loyal network of organizations to keep an eye on any type of “gay propaganda” that might come up, since he alone “cannot follow everybody.”
The system is quickly reacting to the constitutional changes: Parliament came up with a package of laws aiming to “defend the marriage between a man and a woman.”
Many wonder how far Russian authorities will go now to interfere in the lives of same-sex families.
LGBTQ activists in Saint Petersburg fear the Kremlin will oblige all Russian transgender people to put their sex registered at birth in passports and other IDs. “All my friends are concerned about police investigating doctors, who are involved in surrogacy. Any threat for LGBTQ parents will cause a massive emigration,” Karèn Shainyan, the author of Straight Talk with Gay People blog told The Daily Beast.
Russian gay, lesbian, transgender or queer citizens will not disappear overnight, no matter how hard the legislators try. The more pressure is exerted, the deeper people seem to withdraw into underground life. For now, gay clubs are open both in St. Petersburg and Moscow, after almost four months of the COVID-19 shutdown.
About 100 happy passengers partied on Saturday night on a ship sailing down the Neva river—the party was organized by Central Station, one of the most popular gay clubs in Moscow.
But if the large cities have a fairly free environment, lives of LGBTQ people continue to be threatened in the Northern Caucauses. Police detained 22-year-old Amin, a Chechen dancer and hairdresser, and tortured him for several weeks in March, 2017. “My interrogators connected electricity to my fingers, and spun the handle until I could not breathe from pain,” Amin told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
Today, Amin is an activist with the Rainbow Railroad organization in Canada, helping other young LGBTQ people from homophobic countries overcome their fear.
“I was one of several dozen Chechen gay men to escape abroad,” Amin said. “I hope Russians make their country a different place, where parents do not have to say goodbye to their children for the sake of saving their lives, and where human rights and freedoms are respected.”