Last edited: November 21, 2004

Russian Lesbians Fight to Retain Freedom

The Navhind Times, September 24, 2004

Moscow, September 23 (AFP)—Since emerging from the shadow of the prudish Soviet Union a decade ago, sexual minorities have fought to gain a foothold in Russian society. But Russian lesbians now say they are facing growing pressure from authorities to return to the closet. “In the past year, I have felt increasing pressure in my work. My website is controlled, I am asked all sorts of questions when I travel to a conference,” says Ms Olga Suvorova, who runs the Moscow-based lesbian group Pinkstar.”Under (former president Boris) Yeltsin, it was much easier to organise lesbian events and to meet politicians,” laments Ms Suvorova, who, like many Russian homosexuals, brands the President Mr Vladimir Putin a “total homophobe”.

But Ms Suvorova says not only the government but also the Orthodox Church, which underwent a spectacular revival after Russia cast off its Soviet secularism, has launched a campaign to crack down on homosexuality.

“Lately I have been receiving threatening letters from the Orthodox Church. At first they just asked us to close our centre, but now they are threatening to resort to other means if we don’t cease our activities,” she says.

Male homosexuality in Russia was punishable by up to five years in prison while lesbians could be locked up in psychiatric institutions until May 1993, when then-president Mr Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code.

But Russian homosexuals are now voicing fears that homosexuality could be banned again under the current government.

In April, a group of deputies in the State Duma lower chamber of Parliament tabled an amendment reintroducing prison sentences for homosexuals as part of what they called a move to “strengthen social morals and the health of citizens.”

A similar draft law had been proposed at the Duma in 2002 but also voted down. Although it was viewed by many as a publicity stunt, Ms Suvorova says the amendment sparked jitters of fear across the lesbian community and does not exclude herself seeing homosexuals becoming outlaws again.

“Unfortunately everything is possible in our country,” she says with a sigh.

“It is unpleasant and frankly ridiculous at a time when European countries are allowing homosexual couples to marry, that we are returning to the stone ages.”

Moscow’s lesbians say they have no hope in the near future of gaining any of the legal rights their western counterparts are being granted such as the right to marry, adopt children or have parental rights over their partner’s child.

“Under the current regime, all human rights are being stifled. And there cannot be any talk about sexual minorities’ rights in an authoritarian regime,” says Ms Rita, a 21-year-old lesbian studying political science in Moscow.

The authorities’ reluctance to address homosexual issues has discouraged Russian homosexuals to follow in their western counterparts’ footsteps and try to sway the government into granting them more rights.

“If we want to have a family, have children, we will do it, we don’t need the state to give us authorisation,” says Ms Natasha, a 19-year-old advertising agent at a big Moscow publishing house.

Many lesbians are also still scared of coming out, Ms Suvorova comments, speculating that brandishing banners and flaunting one’s homosexuality in the long run would most likely result in getting beaten up.

Lesbians in Moscow are unanimous in saying that public opinion has significantly softened its stance on homosexuality over the past decade. But many say life as a homosexual woman in Russia is still fraught with fear and discrimination, forcing them to hide their sexual orientation from their families, friends and colleagues.

“People are scared. Women come to tell me they were fired from their job and openly told it was because of their sexual orientation. But they are scared to sue, although our centre offers legal assistance,” Ms Suvorova says.

Ms Inna, a 42-year-old space technology engineer, says she has yet to muster the courage to tell her colleagues that she is a lesbian, although her family has known for almost 20 years.

“The most difficult situations arise at work, where I am constantly asked when I’m finally going to marry and have children,” she says.

“But some of my colleagues talk of homosexuals as though they were some kind of perverts, and I just cannot bring myself to tell them.”

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