Alternative-Sexuality Reps Stress Awareness
Times, June 14, 2002
4 St. Isaac’s Square, St. Petersburg 190000 Russia
Fax: (7-812) 314-21-20
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
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Until then-President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal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
"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
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
"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
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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