Society

Travesty, Father Yakov and Gays From Murmansk: The Barents Pride: how it was

Kirkenes, a town near the Russian border, hosted the second Barents Pride on 27-30 September. An AIDS.CENTER reporter attended it and told us how the Russian LGBT people don't feel ashamed to be themselves on the other side of the border.

Barents Pride is a meeting of the LGBT community organised by Maximum, a Murmansk human rights group, together with Amnesty International and FRI, a Norwegian LGBT organisation. This year, the pride was held at the very end of September. Around 80 participants from Russia, together with activists from Europe and other countries, visited workshops, seminars, exhibitions, theatre plays, and movies, and marched around Kirkenes.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Sergey Markelov

Participants of the Barents Pride.

Faith

Rainbow flags fly near the city hall, the hotel, and the church in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes. The prayer service is held in the main parish church. Rune Rafaelsen, the Kirkenes mayor, and other parishioners are in the pews singing prayers along to the organ music. The voice of a priest, Torbjørn Brox Webber, can be heard from the high podium:

"God, thou, who created us differently, as colours in the rainbow," began the reverend father of a Lutheran church. "We pray for all - lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, who are living in fear - to obtain freedom. We pray for those homosexuals whose home is in Russia."

Torbjørn Brox Webber at the service in Kirkenes church. Photo: Sergey Markelov

The service is held in three languages (Lappish, Norwegian and Russian) during the Barents Pride. The topics of religion and LGBTs are also discussed here. Yakov Krotov is one of the few Russian priests who at least writes something or speaks on the topic of LGBTs in Russia, and he is the only Russian priest who left the Russian Orthodox Church. Moreover, his attitude is quite positive, unlike in other cases.

"I began to write about it because I have a very annoying habit of protecting the offended," says Mr. Krotov. "The thing is that a closed-off view and the psychology of aggression always works the same way: the people who hate sexual minorities hate the Jews and the intellectuals as well. They go hand in hand. Since I am a Jew and an intellectual, it made me think."

Priest Yakov Krotov in the middle, Sergey Alekseenko, president of the Council of Maximum, the LGBT activist group, and his husband, drag artist Meloni Long. Sergey Markelov

The stories of the Pride participants are filled with fear and pain. The theatrical performance based on "The Right Ear," a book by Alexander Borisov that takes place in Kirkenes, is gloomy and desperate. The exhibitions are devoted to attacks, support, and the lack of understanding. "Five Thousand Rubles," a movie by the Dutch director Kris van der Veen, which was also shown at Barents Pride, is about the hard life of LGBT people in Murmansk and Saint Petersburg - about rejection and state propaganda. During the performance you could hear some people crying.

"We conducted research in the Netherlands and realised that LGBT people think about suicide five to seven times more often," said Kris at the meeting with the participants of the Pride.

Response

"I am that very person from Murmansk!" exclaims Alexander "Bob" Borisov about a photo from one of nine photos at the exhibition called "The Obscene Word."

This is one of the two exhibitions held during the Pride on 28 September. The idea of "The Obscene Word" emerged last year. At that time, three participants of the pride were invited for a "talk" with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) when they were crossing the border. After that they started to receive threats on social networks: "I'll find you and carve your eyes out," "Just show me these people from Murmansk so that I can stop greeting them," etc.

The flag near a hotel in Kirkenes. Photo: Sergey Markelov

"We took screen shots and sent a complaint to the police. As usual, they did not consider it an offence and closed the case. All of us felt uneasy and wanted to respond somehow," says the photographer and the author of the exhibition Lia Estival (that's a pseudonym). "We wanted to say: We are not afraid of you! We are human beings. We do not just sit, type, and reply to your comments somewhere out there. We are saying that we are your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues, we are living human beings."

For every participant, Lia has chosen a specific important place to illustrate their message. They got nine photo responses to the hate speeches.

The second exhibition is called "The Bound Ones" by Alya Grach, a photographer from Petrozavodsk. It consists of several photos which show only hands of different people bound by red threads.

"We have decided to hold an exhibition devoted to the support of people," says the author. "It is not only about the LGBT community, but about people in general. We are all bound among ourselves, and we need to remember it. Through my work I want to say that people need positive emotions. A person shouldn't feel lonely. Even the smallest emotion might help another person become happy and stop being afraid to be themself. But not all people were ready to take part in the project, to become more open and to be in the pictures, even though we shot only hands."

Sergey Markelov

Sergey Markelov

"The Obscene Word" exhibition

Sergey Markelov

"The Bound Ones" exhibition

Sergey Markelov

Sergey Markelov

Sergey Markelov

Sergey Markelov

Sergey Markelov

"The Obscene Word" exhibition

The Murmansk journalist Alexander "Bob" Borisov collected the stories of Soviet gays during the previous Pride. In 2018, he published a book called "The Right Ear," which was presented here, at Barents Pride, on 28 September. When asked about the book's message, Mr. Borisov replied: "Human rights are the most important thing. That's it," he said and shrugged.

Fear

"How do I say in English that I am afraid of coming back to Russia?" asked 20-year-old Alexander (he asked to be called by this name) from Murmansk.

Together with other participants he marched on 29 September around Kirkenes in a parade organised by the Pride. The march was headed by the mayor of Kirkenes. Three drag queens marched alongside him. Everybody was smiling. The Norwegian police with rainbow flags accompanied the parade. Happy Norwegian military men were somewhere in the middle. The participants of the parade were singing and chanting: "Love is a human right!"

Rune Rafaelsen, mayor of Kirkenes (on the left). Sergey Markelov

"They dishonour Russia," grumbled a Russian woman, who was sitting on the bench, having her sandwich and watching the parade disapprovingly.

Norwegians, in contrast, sang and laughed. Passers-by came to the street and took pictures of the parade. Children on bicycles overtook the crowd.

Many Russian participants had "No photo" stickers on their clothes. People from an LGBT movement in Chechnya with rainbow masks on their faces were marching with posters saying: "Say NO to murders in Chechnya." One of them, who introduced herself as Masha, now lives in Norway. Aided by human rights activists, she managed to leave Chechnya.

"I was lucky because nobody started looking for me, as at the same time a famous gay was killed in Chechnya, and there was panic and fuss, and it was just pure luck," she said. "My family and relatives learned that I am a lesbian. Their reaction was horrible. There were beatings, threats, reproach and all that. A friend of mine helped me to run away from my family, but the situation continued, and I was found shortly after and taken back home. In Chechnya, if you are over 23, you always feel pressure to get married, and to start a family. If relatives suspect something, they will take you to a mullah, to the hospital, then to other places, and in extreme cases they will just kill you. It can happen in our community. According to our traditions, if a brother or a father kills their daughter or sister because of who they are, they will suffer no consequences. Everybody will just turn a blind eye."

Participants of the Pride. Photo: Sergey Markelov

In Kenya the situation is similar. Evans Onsare, the founder of the Kenyan LGBT organisation "Empowerment Initiative," says that in his home country you may get up to 14 years in prison for homosexuality. "The situation is difficult. Many LGBT organisations were closed because they feared prosecution," Onsare says. "We work only with the people we know. We are trying to create a space where people can come and tell their stories. Now there are 45 people in our organisation."

Only his sister knows that he is gay. Evans has been hiding his orientation for many years. He admits that he decided to change something only thanks to his inherent optimism - he created an organisation which helps other people: gays, lesbians and transgenders, like Alexander from Murmansk.

Evans Onsare, founder of the Kenyan LGBT organisation "Empowerment Initiative" . Sergey Markelov

Alexander admits that he is a woman who has been living in a male body since childhood. He spent most of his life in fear. Since he was 11 years old, he has been attacked by his family. In the streets he had to run from gangs. He plans to change his documents and have sex reassignment surgery. "Of course, I am afraid. It is such an important stage in my life, I have been preparing for it for so long, and I've been earning money," he says. "For many years I have lived in a vacuum. I was under pressure from society and my family. It still continues. And [the Pride] is a chance to be yourself at least for a couple of days without hiding who you really are. In the last ten years, these have been the best days of my life, when I feel free. I don't want to come back. I imagine how I will go to work, wearing 'the mask' again..." saying these words, Alexander leans against the wall and accidentally turns the light off. Turning off the lights symbolises the return to one's homeland where you need to hide your orientation from your friends and family and live a double life.

Living in a Cave

We spoke with Maxim from Petrozavodsk. He is gay. He compares life in Russia with "living in a cave."

"I wanted to get out of the cave where I have lived for many years and see another reality, to see what might happen in Russia and maybe in the rest of the world someday, and to become familiar with it. That is probably why I came here. In general, there is no persecution of gays in Russia as long as nobody knows that you are gay. If you continue living in this cave with others without saying that there is something else outside the cave, pretending to be a Neanderthal man, you'll be safe. But at some point, you realise that you are required to do the same things that everybody in this cave does. And you can't do it. That's why you need to get out of it. That's one of the reasons why I am here," says Maxim.

Photo: Sergey Markelov.

Alisa lives in Russia with constant anxiety. The self-preservation doesn't allow her to come out and openly say that she is bisexual. "People love rumours and gossiping about the lives of others. I don't understand it. If they get involved in the lives of others, doesn't it mean that they are not interested in their own lives? It's sad. I would like them to be more focused on themselves and say: "Look, you have a great family, take care of them, love your children and relatives, travel! Why do you need anything else? I don't understand," Alisa says. "Where I live and work, I can't openly talk about my orientation. I always need to make up a story to answer my colleagues' questions like: "Are you married or not?" I need to be evasive. I feel anxious. And this anxiety rises and falls like a wave. Again and again. Anxiety and uncertainty."

The situation in Russia is difficult because of the law on propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships. Valentina Likhoshva, coordinator of the Barents Pride, says that after 2015, Murmansk activists had to shut down all the street manifestations and start working on social networks. "In 2015 we had an activist attacked in the streets almost every month. Once, a boy with cerebral paralysis was attacked, and he couldn't respond. He was attacked because he was wearing a rainbow ribbon. Our office was attacked with gas, and at the same time a young woman with a child came to us to print out some paper. The gas came out and a 4-year old child suffered from it. The police didn't open a criminal case. We were blocked by big bald men with crosses and the Bibles - it was surreal," she says.

An LGBT movement parade for Russian participants can be organised only abroad. In Russia, the dream of free love for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders is only a dream.

Valentina Likhoshva, the Barents Pride coordinator. Photo: Sergey Markelov

"It is not illegal to be gay in Russia, but the law on propaganda creates many obstacles for many people," says Ole-Gunnar Solheim, a regional director of Amnesty International. "We are concerned about it. At the same time, I see a lot of brave people who are still ready to get together and speak."

On the way back from Kirkenes, the atmosphere in the bus was not so cheerful. People started comparing bright buildings of the Norwegian customs with the grey Russian border control zone.

"Welcome back to your homeland!" says somebody sadly.

"On the Russian side, you'd better remove this badge," one of the participants of the Pride, Elizaveta from Murmansk, tells me, pointing at my yellow, quite neutral badge from Amnesty International, showing a candle and barbed wire.

The next day, she published a post on Vkontakte, a Russian social network, in which she came out and wrote about the LGBT movement challenges in Russia. Liza is pansexual. At the Pride, she heard a lot of stories and realised that many people's lives are much worse than her own.

Policemen at the Pride. Sergey Markelov

"Tomorrow I will be operated on. If everything is fine, if I am alive and healthy, and happy, or at least just healthy, or at least just alive, I will write a couple more articles. I realised that people are afraid of the unknown. Many people in Murmansk know me in person or follow me and read my Vkontakte page. I understand that people pay attention to my opinion. If people who consider themselves normal, good, kind and sympathetic say that, among other things, this particularity exists as well, then it is likely that the attitude towards LGBT people will be much more relaxed. We are not monsters, we are ordinary people! Hello!' said Liza.

She specified that it will not be a sex reassignment surgery.

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