Young LGBT people from all over Russia explain what it’s like growing up gay under Putin
It would be inaccurate to say that the plight for young LGBT people growing up in Russia today is the worst it’s even been. Sure, a recent high-profile “LGBT propaganda law” passed by the Russian Parliament is an especially pernicious example of anti-gay hatred. But, realistically, growing up gay in Russia has always been tough. Russia is a strange, beautiful, historically rich country that also has a legacy of strongly held anti-gay attitudes, reinforced by the Orthodox Church and by society more generally.
When we reached out to LGBT teenagers and young adults to ask them if they’d like to be interviewed for this piece, we weren’t prepared for the response we received. Within a few hours of posting a Facebook message on Russian LGBT pages asking for people to tell us about their experiences, we were overwhelmed with emails from young people from all over the country wanting to share their stories. Heartbreaking; disturbing; occasionally uplifting – this is what it’s like to grow up gay in Russia today.
*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.
NADYA*, 18, FROM ST PETERSBURG
It’s dangerous for us. In the eyes of others, we are mistakes. We’re freaks. We’re sick. We’re killing our country, because we can’t have children – even though the laws do not allow us to adopt children. Gay people in Russia risk their lives organizing events for LGBT people or going out on pickets. Even straight people risk their lives standing up for the rights of LGBT people.
When I told my Mum I was bisexual she said she hates gay people. That gay people are sick people who rape children. That was the worst thing she’s ever said to me. Even when she used to hit me for my bad marks in school when I was little – that wasn’t as painful to me as her words. I don’t talk to my Dad anymore after he said that anyone who protects gay people is sick. I’m glad he doesn’t know I’m gay. I also feel scared. I’m scared I’m going to be alone until the end of my life. It’s painful.
INGA*, 14, FROM ST PETERSBURG
I haven’t ‘come out’. My Mum is very religious, and my stepfather is cruel about minorities. I don’t have friends, really. The only person who knows is my psychologist.
My Mum fired a colleague for being a lesbian. I know of another case, too, where a lesbian girl was kicked out of school for spreading ‘homosexual propaganda’.
ALENA, 17, FROM ST PETERSBURG
You should always try and hide being gay in Russia, wherever possible. But I’m lucky that I live in a big city. It’s much harder in the more rural areas.
I could probably hold hands with my girlfriend in public. People would think that we are just friends. I can’t decide whether I want to leave Russia. I love our nature; the language; the music. But people in Russia have a strange mentality, and there are many frightening laws.
ALEKSEY*, 21, FROM SARATOV
Everything’s hidden. It’s hard to find a soul mate when you’re gay. People aren’t tolerant. I’m out, and if someone asks me whether I’m gay I’ll say, ‘yes I am’. But it’s not always safe to do so. I often got insulted at school but it didn’t bother me. I only cared about the opinions of people I care about. And I always had the support of my friends.
DMITRI*, 17, FROM THE LENINGRAD REGION
It’s not so scary. It can be hard to find a partner in a small town and plan for the future though. My friends and classmates know I’m gay and they reacted positively to it, but I haven’t told my family. They grew up in the Soviet Union and the way they were educated means they don’t tolerate such things.
In Russia, there are people who call themselves patriots but think that gays are traitors of the country; enemies; paedophiles. I often think about leaving Russia, but not because of the homophobia but because of the politics. I want to live the way that Europeans do. It’s difficult living in the Russia of today.
Despite the anti-gay law passed by Parliament banning ‘gay propaganda’, I do think in general the situation is improving for gay people. The younger generation don’t observe that law, although at any time it may change.
ANNA*, 17, FROM MOSCOW
Being openly gay in Russia is not easy. I know people who are out and they face homophobia daily. Some of my LGBT friends are persecuted in school; blackmailed; beaten. Only a few of my best friends know I’m a lesbian. Sometimes I’ll be watching Troye Sivan videos with my friends and they’ll be talking about how much they love him and they won’t even know I’m gay. My family doesn’t know I’m a lesbian either. I know they won’t accept it, so I don’t tell them. I love them, so I put that part of me aside.
I love Russia and I don’t want to leave here. It’s obvious to me that being openly gay in Russia is unsafe. I’ve encountered homophobia on social networks, but never in person. I hate politicians like Milonov and Mizulina and I hate the fact that Putin said that gays in Russia have many rights. We don’t. It’s not true.
ALEX, 27, FROM BLAGOVESHCHENSK
I realised I liked boys when I was 12 or 13, but I tried to ‘make’ myself straight until I was 22. I know sexuality isn’t a phase, but I was really scared to talk to anyone about my sexuality. Being gay in Russia feels like you’re a second-class citizen.
I started coming out at 22, and I was lucky to keep most of my friends. I guess I have good friends. My family reacted differently, though. My father said I was under the influence of gay propaganda and my cousin said I wasn’t normal.
About a year ago, I decided I wanted to live my life openly, because I want to be happy and it’s impossible to be happy when you hide your sexuality. Now I live my life openly and even though it’s dangerous to do so in Russia, I’m so glad I don’t have to hide.
I don’t feel like I can hold hands with my partner or kiss him in public. I don’t want to hear all this homophobic bullshit. I don’t feel safe, being openly gay in Russia. I often think about leaving Russia. I want to live my life; I want to have my own family; I want to love and be loved and not feel scared all the time.
GRIGORIY, 17, FROM KRASNODAR
I’ve never lived anywhere other than Russia, so I don’t know if there’s a place on earth where people live differently. [Homophobia] is penetrated in my life so deeply that I don’t even feel it. My friends around me date each other in all possible combinations, while I get used to living with the idea that that life is just not for me. That love is not for me. And sometimes, I’m horrified to notice that I’m already okay with it. I know I’m not wrong or corrupted. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles in Russia. If you’re straight – you’ll be fine. Otherwise, shut up and suffer, or struggle and suffer. I’m not sure which is worse.
I came out to my Mum – if you can call it that – about a year ago. She walked in on me masturbating to gay porn. I was forced to tell my Dad and sisters. Most of my friends don’t know, but it’s not because I’m scared of being abused. No one really asks, actually. The hardest thing is actually finding someone to date, because there’s no one – almost no one – who’s out where I live. It’s not like I’m alone in the jungle. I’m alone in the desert.
I’ve thought about leaving Russia, and I’m putting a lot of effort into improving my English. But it’s almost impossible to move abroad and get a job. Russian education doesn’t count for much in Western countries, and foreign education is extremely expensive. Honestly, chances are that I’ll just rot here. I’m not as lucky as you. Please, don’t ever forget how lucky you are to be born where you were born. Sure, you have your troubles, but you have freedom and tolerance. You should make the most of the opportunities you have, out of respect for the people who don’t have them.