Russian President Vladimir Putin says the country's fierce anti-gay legislation, which stigmatizes homosexuality and was the subject of international criticism during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, was passed in order to protect the nation's children.
But the new laws have stoked an environment of fear and violence for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Russians in their home country, and young people are no exception to this institutionalized homophobia. So what do you do when you're one of the children Putin says he's protecting, but also LGBT?
Some young LGBT Russians have come together for support online, as part of a community called "Deti-404." The name means "Youth-404" in English, a reference to the common online error message "404 Page Not Found" and a comment on Russia's seeming denial of the existence of LGBT youth. The community serves as a social space for Russian-speaking LGBT young people, providing support and publishing anonymous letters from teens and 20-somethings who want to speak about their experiences.
On the group's Facebook page (in Russian), Deti-404 founder, Russian journalist and LGBT activist Lena Klimova, writes that LGBT youth saw their identities erased during the latest wave of legislation: "Our society believes that gay teenagers do not exist in nature, as if gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people arrive from Mars as adults ... Stop, people! Hear them! These are your children. Who knows: Maybe you’ll see the letter of your own child here?"
The community currently exists on two social networks: Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte. On Facebook, Deti-404 is a publicly accessible "group" page, populated with letters and photographs submitted by Russian-speaking LGBT youth to a community email account. On Vkontakte, Deti-404 has public and private aspects: The public face of Deti-404 on the network is identical its presentation on Facebook, but LGBT teens are also invited to a "private" Vkontakte-based group where they can speak to psychologists and other sympathetic adults.
But if conservative Russian lawmakers have their way, Deti-404 won't exist for much longer. In January, Russian politician and notable anti-homosexuality advocate Vitaly Milonov urged police to investigate Klimova's web presence: Klimova was subsequently charged under Russia's new laws, according to European site Pink News, for the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors." On Friday, a judge handed Klimova a respite -- he dismissed the case, citing "absence of violation of the law." Now Milonov says he will appeal.
Below, The Huffington Post has translated and reprinted four poignant letters from Deti-404. It's not possible to verify the accounts or the identities of the people who shared these stories, as the writers only offer their first names -- for obvious reasons. The first story is from a person who calls herself Ania, a 15-year-old from Russia. Ania came out as lesbian on social media and was subsequently shamed by her school.
Hello dear Deti-404,
About half a year ago, I wrote a letter to this group. It was full of energy, strength and the call to battle. In general, I’m a rebel by nature, but a few days ago everything changed…
So, my name is Ania, I’m 15 years old, and I live in [REDACTED]. I’m a lesbian, and as soon as I realized this, I had no intention of hiding it. I didn’t want to advertise it either (I don’t like unnecessary attention). In general, only the people closest to me knew about my orientation. But recently (about a month ago), a group appeared about our school. They started asking questions about me like “Is it true she’s a lesbo?”, “So does she have a girlfriend?”, etc. I didn’t want to hide anything, so I answered the questions calmly. Of course, people started looking at me askance, some even started hollering when they see me: “Ew, don’t come near me, lesbian.” But this didn’t bother me much. I thought that these were just immature people who didn’t have a good sense of their own identity yet.
On my social media page, I had a few thematic pictures and some text. There were anonymous homophobes wandering around on ICQ [a popular Russian instant messaging service] as well. But in general, I was ready for that.
But two days ago, the teachers invited me into the teachers’ common room during the noon recess. A good half of the teaching staff was there. They urged me insistently to take down my social media page. Here are a few quotes from their speech:
– "Don’t you understand that you’re disgracing the school with your inclinations?"
– "If this is the case, keep quiet: you shouldn’t put your dirty laundry on display."
– "And how exactly are we supposed to treat a student with lesbian inclinations?"
– "Ugh, what a disgrace! I hope nobody’s seen it yet, otherwise imagine the shadow this casts on the school’s reputation."
Anyway, I think you’ve understood the gist of the conversation. Or rather, there was no conversation. There was a monologue from them.
I was at such a loss that I didn’t manage to make any objection. I know that they violated my rights, but I feel their prejudiced attitude towards me already. In short, after deliberating a bit, I deleted the page. I created a completely empty one, plus an underground one only for close friends.
But now, it’s become scary to go to school. One time, a teacher began a homophobic monologue during class, occasionally casting glances at me. My classmates, who know my orientation, now feel the teachers’ support. They’re beginning to bully me pretty seriously.
I can’t transfer out of this school because, first of all, it’s the best school in the city. Second of all, we are studying German, and there are very few other schools in the city which have that language. But the most important reason is that, according to the new law, students in the final grades (9th and 11th) are not allowed to transfer to other schools.
I don’t know how I’m going to endure another half year in this hell. And if I ask my mom to transfer me to another school during the summer, I’ll have to tell her everything. She’ll scream at me, I know. At one point during the summer, I told her about my orientation, but she laughed it off, saying that it’ll pass. If she finds out that everyone knows about my orientation, she will say pretty much the same thing as the teachers. But I don’t want to be silent and hide!
Basically, I don’t know what to do…
Roma, 29, tells the community about his difficult experience growing up and feeling like an outsider:
I’m 29 years old. I fully realized my homosexuality only at 25. But before that…
I grew up in the Siberian backwoods. When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be like a girl -- walk like they did, do my hair, play with dolls ... but I wasn’t allowed to do this, for reasons I probably don’t have to explain. Even back then, my behavior differed from the behavior of most of my peers. They didn’t accept me, called me a girl, laughed and bullied me. I endured and tried to ignore it.
This continued as I was growing up. Growing up, I couldn’t understand: What did I do to deserve this, why me? I tried to be like everyone else, and do things the way they did. But everything stayed the same: the shoving and name-calling, the humiliations ... so I clammed up. And blamed myself for everything -- I was disgusting even to myself for being “like that.”
Years passed, and I was always apart from everyone else, teeth bared, never letting anyone get near me. And I became determined to get rid of “that” part of myself. I got older, tried to make friends with girls, but it never went beyond platonic feelings. And I liked, I still liked guys. When I was with other guys and one of them said “kill the gays,” I would support him. But in my own thoughts, I secretly dreamed about a reciprocated love with a guy. It was a battle with myself ... a long battle.
Life went on, I grew up, started working, moved to the city, and that’s when things started changing for me. Association with various people and self-analysis returned me to myself. I calmed down, my clear sense of self gave me the confidence and determination to be myself and never let anyone meddle with my personal life.
That turning-point year when I turned 25 was very difficult in the psychological sense. It seemed to me that I could still turn back, and that I was being researched and “stalked” by homophobes. It seemed like everyone would turn away from me, and I would become an outcast everywhere. I concealed everything and feared, feared every minute, every second. And I had such a mess inside my head, to the point where it gave me headaches. And then, I made up my mind. And I’m grateful to that man for the fact that on that first evening, he managed to calm me down and show me that feelings between two people of the same sex are no less strong.
Love yourself, love others, be strong and honest, at least with yourselves.
A letter from Kir, a 29-year-old trans man, describes his response to his family after they didn't accept his gender identity:
Hi. I’m already over 18. I’m even almost 30. I’m an FtM transgender post-op. After the operation, getting my documents altered and hormonal therapy, even the most discerning new acquaintance would never guess that I was born a different gender.
Almost all of my friends are heterosexual people with their original gender, who were never disturbed by the problem of me being “different.” My wife is hetero. None of the people I know have ever told me that I am doing something wrong. Except for my family, but your parents’ family is by far not the whole world.
Right now, I’m going to say something that’s probably cruel: The earlier we break off from our parents' environment, the better. [The sooner you break from your parents], the more likely it is that you will not be controlled until your hair turns gray: “Are you living with the correct person, are you screwing in the right position, do you love the right thing?”
It hurts to cut yourself off from your family. But there is a difference between the words “related” and “close.”
Right now, I’m almost 30. Occasionally, I remember myself during my teenage years and realize that back then, there was simply no chance of speaking out. Now, there is. Now, you can find friends on the other side of the globe, without leaving your house, and now you know that you’re not the only strange little animal who’s like this. That’s damned valuable, in my opinion.
Being an LGBT teenager in Russia is hard. But any teenager grows up sooner or later, and grownups can change the world around them, can’t they? My advice will be cynical most likely (please forgive an adult), but I ask you: Pretend, deceive, evade, but one way or another, hold on until you come of age, and then begin your coming-out. It’ll be easier for you to survive that way. After eighteen, nobody owes anybody anything, you can live on your own and live in peace.
Good luck, guys. You’ve got to live!
And 17-year old Katya writes Deti-404 in gratitude. A letter she wrote to Deti-404 half a year ago offering emotional support to gay and lesbian youth helped her find her current girlfriend.
I am writing [Deti-404] a letter of thanks. Half a year ago, you published my words of support for those who suffer from persecution. I offered my help to everyone, and many people wrote to me. Among the people who wrote to me was my Love. She is five years older than me, an intelligent, beautiful woman, who has become a part of my soul.
I want to say a giant thank you to you for what you do. And again, my friends, if anyone needs support, I will always answer you.
Translation by Kate Kozhukhova.