- Russia has stepped up anti-LGBTQ+ crackdown
- Some gay and trans Russians consider leaving the country
- Court ruling sparks fears of further hostile measures
By Hugo Greenhalgh and Lucy Middleton
LONDON, Dec 21 – Gay and transgender Russians say they fear further attacks on their rights following a Supreme Court ruling that designated LGBTQ+ activists as "extremists", with some in the community now debating whether to move abroad.
"It is clear that the Russian government has decided we are no longer welcome in our own country," said a 22-year-old gay student at Moscow's prestigious HSE University.
Like other LGBTQ+ people who spoke to Openly, he asked for his name not to be published.
"I am a patriot. I love my country. But my country has rejected me. When I graduate from university, I am sure I will move abroad where I can feel safe and free," he added.
The November Supreme Court ruling is part of a pattern of increasing restrictions on expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity, including laws outlawing the promotion of "non-traditional" sexual relations and banning legal or medical changes of gender.
Rights activists fear the ruling could open the door to arrests and prosecutions, not least because it lacks clarity around the court's definition of "LGBT movement".
President Vladimir Putin, expected shortly to announce that he will seek a new six-year term in March, has long sought to promote an image of Russia as a guardian of traditional moral values in contrast with a decadent West.
And while many gay and trans people are still open about their sexuality or gender identity in their daily lives, they fear a drift into intolerance and further crackdowns.
"I feel safe. I do not think I will be arrested just for liking men but I still feel restricted in what I can and cannot say," said one gay 27-year-old medical worker.
"I feel so disappointed in my country that it does not let us have freedom. I want to leave Russia as soon as possible."
Denis, who is also gay, said he was not sure how the ruling would affect his life since he was not an activist and did not plan to become one.
"But I do have lots of friends who are very scared and are considering moving abroad because of it," the 24-year-old post-graduate student said. "I think they are overreacting, but maybe I am naive."
LGBTQ+ activists said they had had seen the legal ruling as inevitable after a request by the justice ministry that the court ban what it called "the international LGBT social movement".
More than 100 groups are already banned in Russia as "extremist". Previous listings, for example of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious movement and organisations linked to jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, have served as a prelude to arrests.
Days after the November ruling, reports emerged of police raids of gay clubs across Moscow, although these were disputed by gay and trans people who spoke to Openly.
One said, in relation to the Moscow club Secret, supposedly one of the targets of the Dec. 1 raids: "I am a regular at Secret (and) I stayed there all night, got home around 6am, didn't see any police inside the club at all."
Of the four clubs named by the media as having been raided, three either put out statements disputing this, or regulars took to social media to say the police raid had not taken place.
The Moscow police authorities and Russia's ministry of the interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
LGBTQ+ activist Aleksei, whose surname is being withheld for personal security reasons, said the disinformation was deliberate and part of a wider campaign of intimidation.
"The … purpose is to scare LGBTQ+ people and drive them underground," he said.
"It's as if someone is erasing decades of life of the LGBTQ+ community and movement, its history, with a huge eraser," Aleksei added.
At the time of the court ruling, U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk urged Moscow to "repeal, immediately, laws that place improper restrictions on the work of human rights defenders or that discriminate against LGBT people".
Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office, said the LGBT community's situation in Russia was "just going from bad to worse", with its members fearing arrest and prosecution.
Yet despite these risks, some in Moscow's LGBTQ+ community say they are committed to staying put and attempting to change the system from the inside.
Danya said he had been living openly with his boyfriend for many years, was out to both families and had come to be accepted "after many years of struggles". He intends to stay in Russia, despite the increasingly hostile environment.
"Now I see that the government doesn't accept us and thinks we are extremists because we want rights," Danya said.
"I won't leave Russia and abandon my friends and the younger LGBT people who need support. If we all flee, nothing will ever change."
(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh (@hugo_greenhalgh) and Lucy Middleton; editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile. Please credit Openly, the LGBTQ+ news website from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.openlynews.com)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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