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September 15, 2015

Russian LGBT Activists Torn Between Two Worlds

There is a subterranean lair of sorts right off of a grand boulevard that bisects the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. The outside of the building that houses this underground den is nondescript except for one detail: a sign in English hanging above the door. It reads #blackclub.

There is a subterranean lair of sorts right off of a grand boulevard that bisects the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. The outside of the building that houses this underground den is nondescript except for one detail: a sign in English hanging above the door. It reads #blackclub.

It’s a Sunday night and about a half a dozen young Russians stand outside the club smoking off-brand American cigarettes. They’ve come for the weekly Rainbow Tea Party.

Olya Kamshilova is one of about 30 people at the event.

“We are in an LGBT club in St. Petersburg,” she said. “I came here because there are very nice people here, friendly atmosphere and because I support LGBT in Russia.”

The club is one of the few gay-friendly spaces in St. Petersburg where large groups can safely meet. They play board games, strum guitars and snack on free tea and cookies.

Here, there is strength in numbers. But it hasn’t always been safe.

In November 2013, anti-gay vigilantes barged into the Rainbow Tea Party. Activist Dmitry Chizhevsky was one of the people attending that night. He remembers men coming to the door where the event was being held and explaining that they were there to see a friend.

One of the organizers of the tea party asked the men who specifically they were there to see. Then one of the men, who was carrying a pellet gun, pushed her out of the way and started shooting.

A pellet hit Chizhevsky in his left eye. 

“I closed my eye and I tried to hide behind the corner,” he said. “But they yelled ‘Where are you going, faggot?’ And one of them reached me with a baseball bat and he hit me several times."

The pellet that entered Chizhevsky’s eye ended up coming to rest millimeters from his brain. Doctors said he was lucky. Still, he lost his sight in that eye.

A climate of violence

Chizhevsky is now 28 years old and living in Washington, D.C. The activist fled Russia after the attack and sought asylum here in January. He just got his work permit and he’s trying to find a job while his case moves through the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services.

He didn’t want to leave his country and the fight for LGBT equality, but he had to. It just wasn’t safe for him in Russia anymore.

A little history is important here to understand why thugs would storm a friendly meeting of queer Russians. Two months before the attack on Chizhevsky, the Russian legislature passed a law quote: “for the purpose of protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values.”

The law didn’t make it illegal to be gay in Russia — homosexuality has been legal in the country since 1993 — but it did forbid gay Russians from being open about their sexuality.

Earlier this year, Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the anti-gay propaganda law, explained his stance on same-sex relationships.

“Homosexuality is disgusting. Homophobia is beautiful and natural. Homophobia is a natural side of people’s lives,” he said.

Since 2013, violence against the LGBT community in Russia has increased as a result of this state-sanctioned discrimination. Human Rights Watch documented more than 300 anti-gay attacks in Russia the year after the law was passed. That’s a tenfold increase from the year before.

“There were no attacks like that in St. Petersburg before that, so people were not prepared for [the attack on me],” Chizhevsky said. 

In addition to blinding him in one eye, the attack forced Chizhevsky to make a decision about his future. Should he stay in Russia and fight the Milonovs of his country? Or should he seek asylum elsewhere?

“When I realized how many people think like that, I realized there is no possibility that I will be able to change this country,” he said. “And I don’t want to spend all my life to fight with this craziness.”

Chizhevsky isn’t the only activist who made the decision to leave Russia. Svetlana Zahkarova of the Russian LGBT Network — the country’s largest gay rights organization — has watched many compatriots flee.

“Right now a lot of activists are leaving and its very sad for us because people who really did a lot for the movement and who could do even more, they are leaving now,” she said. “And of course many of them, they continue their work. But it’s different if they’re doing something abroad or if they’re doing it here.”

And this is the debate — do you risk everything for safety and freedom? Or do you stay and work for a better future?

Comparing the climate for LGBT

At this Rainbow Tea Party, these are the questions people are grappling with.

About an hour into the event, the crowd gathers around a laptop set up by the bar. Chizhevsky and another LGBT activist now living in D.C., Andrew Nasonov, pop onto the screen. The organizers of the event have arranged a Skype chat with the two men.

Some have simple questions — how is the food, where do you live, are you sleeping well?

Then the questions turn more serious.

“Is that true that you can walk on the street holding your boyfriend’s hand and not get harassed?” one man asked.

Chizhevsky answers the question with a story from his own life: “When I found a boyfriend here, we had a small problem here because I was really scared showing that I’m gay, that I love him. And I was just afraid to hug him,” Chizhevsky said.

He goes on to explain how much safer he feels in the U.S.

“That feeling is actually one of the reasons why I don’t want to come back to Russia,” he said. “Because that feeling of safety and when you can hold hand of your boyfriend, it’s something that I really would not be able to get in Russia. And I really would not be able to act different now.”

The crowd applauds. But to people who think he abandoned the cause, Chizhevsky has one final thought.

“In the end, even if you decide to fight, you have to ask for what do you fight? And the answer will be ‘for a normal life.’ So this is just the shortest way to end that battle,” he said.

And with that, the Rainbow Tea Party bids goodbye to their activist friends in America. People go back to their board games and their cookies. Some like Alexey Mazurov reflect on what Chizhevsky said.

“You want to be heard, you want to be noticed, oh my gosh you want to be happy, you want to get married,” Mazurov said. “And if to make all this possible, you have to go abroad, you are very welcome to do it. You are very welcome.”

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