Last edited: February 14, 2005

Alternative-Sexuality Reps Stress Awareness

St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 2002
4 St. Isaac’s Square, St. Petersburg 190000 Russia
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By Claire Bigg, Staff Writer

While organizations representing Russia’s gays, lesbians and bisexuals say that the level of social awareness about their issues is on the rise, questions about their legal status, the levels of social acceptance and integration still remain.

These were a few of the issues that were discussed last weekend at a meeting organized by St. Petersburg’s Association HS—Gay-Straight Alliance at the conference room of the Yubileiny Stadium.

A number of local associations were represented at the event, as were European organizations.

Discussion at the event, officially titled "Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals: Legislation, Culture and Society", centered around the idea that, although the 1990s had seen a general climate of liberalization with regard to sexual practices, a large portion of the Russian population remains misinformed and, often, intolerant of alternative sexual orientations.

Until then-President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code in May 1993, sodomy, referred to as muzhelozhstvo—a man lying with another man—was punishable by up to five years in prison.

In May of 2002, however, a group of lawmakers introduced an amendment aimed at recriminalizing sodomy, saying that they had begun a campaign to restore traditional morals in Russia. The draft law, although it was viewed by most State Duma deputies and analysts as a publicity stunt, sparked an outcry among human-rights groups and the homosexual community.

The local associations present at the meeting therefore described their main goal as making Russian society better informed about gay, lesbian and bisexual issues.

"Our aim is to spread information about homosexuality in order to fight ignorance and intolerance," said HS President Ignat Fialkovsky.

A number of participants at the forum said that this lack of comprehension still created barriers with their own families.

"The private sphere plays a very important role in Russia, therefore it is crucial to provide families with information about homosexuality," said Nadezhda Nartova, a psychologist who works with the St. Petersburg lesbian organization Labris. "Private life is also traditionally discussed at the work-place, so it is important that people have access to such information."

According to HS information, anywhere from 10 to 22 percent of Russians are homosexual, but information and statistics are scarce, and little research on homosexual issues has been done here.

"There has been, as far as I am aware, no research work done on lesbianism. At any rate, nothing has been published," Nartova said.

While sexual orientation occupies a place in most human-rights discussions in European societies, Russian-based branches of international human-right groups have yet to introduce sexual-minorities issues to their agenda. Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that the majority of these local organizations were established relatively recently.

"We have so many other problems in Russia that we have yet to really address gay and lesbian issues," said Yury Vdovin, co-chairperson of the St. Petersburg branch of Citizen’s Watch.

The negative effects of the lack of information and social recognition is particularly strong with regard to lesbianism, which, for many, remains a shadowy notion.

"Many people in Russia still understand the word ‘homosexuality’ as being exclusively male homosexuality," said Fialkovsky. "Russian society is still very patriarchal and, as such, discriminates against women. Imagine how hard life can get for lesbians," he added.

A portion of the Russian population, men as well as women, are still unaware even of the existence of lesbianism.

"Some women can actually live three or four years without realizing that they are not the only lesbians on the planet," said Marina Balakina, the president of Labris, which is currently working on a Web site to foster more understanding and tolerance of lesbian lifestyles and culture. "They phone and are surprised to find out that there are other women who feel the same way."

For Balakina, however, the fact that lesbians are less visible than gays in Russia boils down to economics. Because the salary gap in Russia is so wide, in men’s favor, homosexual men have more money to spend than women, one of the explanations for the existence of a fairly well-developed gay scene relative to that available to lesbians in St. Petersburg. Balakina says only around 10 percent of her lesbian acquaintances in the city have what could be considered solid incomes.

"The owners of gay clubs are not necessarily gay themselves. Gay culture is also a market," she said. She also said that homosexual women tend to focus more on family and home than homosexual men and, therefore, spend less time in bars and clubs.

Participants at the meeting said that the lack of attention that homosexual issues receive has translated into a lack of legislative attention to the questions as well. Sexual minorities, therefore, do not benefit from any of the legal status or protection—such as the right to marry and adopt or have children—that they enjoy in many Western countries.

"Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples in Russia are granted neither legal status nor assistance in finding a flat, parental rights and child leave for the partner of a parent," said Nartova.

Pierre Noel, a member of the executive board of the Brussels branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association and also a Russian translator and specialist, says certain characteristics of the Russian mindset also hinder the acceptance of sexual minorities.

"Russians are rather ignorant not just about homosexuality, but about sex in general," he said, referring to the absence of real public debate related to sex under the Soviet regime. "The return of religion in Russia, and the fact that the Orthodox Church is hostile to homosexuality, also fosters homophobia," he said.

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