Interview: "The LGBT movement in Russia will grow even stronger"

On June 19 the St.Petersburg based LGTB organization Coming Out ("Yyhod”) was found guilty before the city's court of operating as a "foreign agent" according to the “Foreign Agent Law". The law, which the Russian government introduced in 2012, forces organizations that receive foreign funding and/or engage in "political activities" to register as “foreign agents”. As a result they have to undergo regular inspections and audits by Russian officials and are obliged to mark their publications and websites with a "foreign agent" label. 

Coming out is the second LGTB organization and the fourth Russion NGO that faces the sentence and was sentenced to a maximum fine of 500,000 Russian rubles (approximately 12,500 Euro). The verdict was followed by a second court decision a few days later, which found Coming Out director Anna Anisimova guilty of failing to register the organization as a "foreign agent". Anisimova was fined another 300,000 rubles (7,500 Euro).

In our interview Olga Lenkova, head of communications for Coming Out, talks about the consequences the verdict has for her organization and the strong social and legal oppression the Russian LGTB community is subjected to today.

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It would be nice if you could start with some words about Coming Out as an organization. What exactly do you do and who do you work with?

Olga Lenkova: Coming Out started in 2008 as an initiative group, and by now we are one of the largest grassroots LGBT organizations in Russia. We work in three major areas. The first one is consolidating and empowering LGBT community by providing psychological and legal counseling, as well as education on the issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Secondly, we work to raise awareness on these issues with larger society, mostly through informational campaigns and cultural events, such as QueerFest every September. And lastly we work with state agencies to promote LGBT rights and non-discrimination.

Coming Out has been sued as part of the prosecution under the new "Foreign Agent Law" and was found guilty of operating as a ‘foreign agent’. What were the accusations you were facing and the reasons for the judge’s decision?

The accusations were based on the information that the prosecutor's office gathered during the wave of inspections on Russian NGOs in March and April. It was claimed that we engaged in political activity and had foreign funding, but failed to enter the register as a 'foreign agent'. The second charge was that we published a brochure without stating that it was produced by an "NGO acting as a foreign agent".

Under the political activity was meant our engagement in a campaign against the federal draft law banning the so called 'gay propaganda'. So both in the wording of the law and in its application practice it is the criticism of the government that is punished. The reasons behind the judge's decision were obviously political. There were many both technical and substantial inconsistencies in the accusations, but the judge dismissed all of them and charged Coming Out with the maximum fine possible.

Did Coming Out ever consider to register as a “forein agent” NGO? And if not, why did you decide not to do it?

No. The very term 'foreign agent' is taken almost literary from the Soviet criminal code, where it served as an article for persecution of any free thinking. It is a principled position of the human rights organizations not to register. In addition, we do not consider ourselves as engaging in political activity. All our actions are in the interests of one of the most vulnerable groups in the Russian society. And it would be quite ridiculous to suppose that by defending the rights of Russian citizens we are aging in the interests of any foreign country.

Aside from the financial problems and the stigma of “spying” for other countries, what does this court decision mean for the future of Coming Out? Is the organization now officially illegal, or is there a way you can keep on working?

Of course we will appeal the court's decision. We do not plan to register even now, and that would probably mean that we will be under risk of new inspections and charges. It is not clear whether we will be able to keep the organization the way it exists now, but we will definitely continue our work in some way or other.

Additionally to the act of suing LGTB organizations for being “foreign agents”, the Russian government has just recently introduced the “homosexual propaganda” law - a law that makes it impossible to speak about homosexually in public in a positive way. How does the law change the work of LGTB organizations? Will they be able to exist at all?

We have a similar regional law in effect since March 30, 2012. This law doesn't prohibit LGBT organizations as such, but of course, it makes our functioning more complicated and we have to double check the risks every time. But in the same time we know that our work, especially with the LGBT people themselves, is ever more important as people are facing additional layers of psychological pressure and discrimination.

What we have also seen is that the very discussion and introduction of such laws mobilizes people to engage in activism. Those who were always apolitical start signing petitions and join street actions. More and more people feel like this has been the last drop and it is simply impossible to keep silent.

I believe that now the LGBT movement in Russia will grow even stronger and more solid, though it is hard to say whether LGBT organizations will be able to exist as registered NGOs.

Why is the Russian government so afraid of other forms of sexuality than heterosexuality? The LGTB community hsa already faced severe discrimination in Russia before these new laws. Why are these laws introduced in this moment in time and who do they serve?

It seems that the Russian government fears anything that doesn't conform into the standard. The LGBT community has shown that it can be a powerful force within the civil society, and the authorities are answering with repressions. It seems that the apperance of these laws at this very moment serves an attempt to consolidate the conservative support for the government, but also to distract public attention from the real problems facing our society.

What is the role of the Russian civil society? Are the current decisions of the government to ban homosexuality mirroring what is happening in society as a whole? Is the Russian society really becoming more conservative?

The civil society and especially the human rights community are clear on the fact that repressions against LGBT people reflect general political repressions. The governmantal decisions certainly mirror a lot of the prejudices and ignorance that are widespread in the Russian society. But to a large extent they are also fostering such prejudices and ignorance. None of these lawmakers take any scientific data into account, and their rhetoric is pure populism.

The society probably doesn't become more conservative than it used to be, it rather happens that people who had no opinion on homosexuality are more and more pushed to taking a stand. And it must be noted that fortunately not all of them go in the same direction as this rhetoric.

What can people from abroad do to help organizations like Coming Out? Does it help you if foreign politicians increase the pressure on the Russian government? Or does it bring you in an even more precarious situation?

Russian officials tend to be very defensive when confronted publicly on these issues, and it seems that quiet diplomacy is more effective. Additionally it is very important that the fight for equality continues in other contries as well. Human rights do not exist separately in every country, and it is globally that we need to work for them.

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The interview was conducted by Hanno Stecher

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