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It Gets Worse: Russia's Kremlin Targets LGBT Youth Support

It Gets Worse: Russia's Kremlin Targets LGBT Youth Support


Youth face losing their last online refuge to express what it's like to be LGBT in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

A Russian communications oversight agency has charged a social media group that connects LGBT teens to one another with violating the country's draconian ban on so-called gay propaganda.

The state agency, Roskomnadzor, has charged Lena Kilmova with "promoting homosexuality to minors," reports BuzzFeed.

Kilmova is a Russian journalist and the administrator of a page called Children-404, hosted on Facebook and its Russian equivalent Vkontakte, which offers what may be the country's last online refuge where Russian LGBT teens can speak freely about the struggles they face growing up in an increasingly homophobic society. The group's name is a reference to the "page not found" prompt that appears online when a URL is entered incorrectly or has been removed from the Internet.

Earlier this year, Kilmova was issued an "infringement notice," informing her that the page was in violation of the nationwide ban on the promotion of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors -- in this case on social media. The initial complaint was filed by St. Petersburg lawmaker -- and key sponsor of the local and nationwide ban on so-called gay propaganda -- Vitaly Milonov, who most recently made headlines in the U.S. for demanding a lifetime ban on Apple CEO Tim Cook entering Russia after Cook came out as gay last month.

After Milonov filed his initial complaint in January, a local judge dismissed it the following month, noting that Kilmova had not established or promoted the group, but merely served as its administrator. The judge's ruling, which acquitted Kilmova of all charges, was strikingly sympathetic, and recognized that "the group is of great help for minors facing problems because of their sexual orientation and gender identity."

Roskomnadzor claims the latest charges are the result of more than 150 complaints the agency says it has received about the group, including allegations from an antigay, pro-Kremlin youth activist who contends the only reasonable response to someone coming out as LGBT is "disgust," notes BuzzFeed.

If found guilty of violating the ban, the group could be taken offline for up to 90 days, while Kilmova could face a fine of 1 million rubles (roughly $21,000 U.S.). If the charges stick this time around, the page could be shuttered permanently, BuzzFeed reports.

Since its creation in 2013 amid the height of outrage and fear surrounding Russia's ban on "gay propaganda," Children-404 has published thousands of poignant pleas and anonymous posts expressing the pain, fear, courage, and sorrow of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Russians. Many respondents on the page -- some anonymous, some from far-flung nations -- appear to try to give hope to the young members and remind them that they are not completely alone, despite the state-sanctioned homophobia they face every day.

"I was 13 when I understood that something was wrong with me," one teen from central Russia wrote on Children-404's social media page, according to BuzzFeed. "I just started liking one of my classmates one day, and I couldn't do anything about it."

In addition to peer support, Children-404 also provides suicide prevention services and occasionally, in the the most serious of cases, connects troubled LGBT youth with volunteer psychologists, according to BuzzFeed.

Although Roskomnadzor's complaint reportedly fails to list the specific ways Children-404 has violated the ban, it does draw attention to the group's suicide prevention work.

"What's the state offering for these teens right now?" Kilmova asked independent Russian news site Slon, according to BuzzFeed. "The answer's obvious: nothing. Roskomnadzor says that it's found homosexual propaganda, but instead of showing where I have forbidden materials, they're writing that I just don't have the special knowledge to publish them. It's absurd!"

No Mother's Love for LGBT Russians

Under President Vladimir Putin, selected as The Advocate's 2014 Person of the Year for being the single greatest threat to LGBT people worldwide, Russia has become a living hell for LGBT people of all ages -- and things are only getting worse.

According to Pew Research's 2014 Global Attitudes Project, 72 percent of Russians think homosexuality is morally unacceptable. This hints at the increasing power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which between 1991 and 2008 saw the proportion of adults calling themselves adherents increase from 31 percent to 72 percent.

In July 2013, Patriarch Kirill I, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, deemed same-sex marriage "a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse," a sentiment that appeals to Putin's conservative base. Julie Dorf, a senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality, argues that Putin relies on the church to legitimize his rhetoric, and in turn, the church gets greater political access.

Homophobic Acts: Inane to Olympic

In June the Human Rights Campaign released a report on the state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia to mark the one-year anniversary of President Putin signing into law the ban on so-called gay propaganda. The report, titled simply "Russia: Year in Review," catalogued the law's far-reaching impacts. Among the more absurd applications of the law are an elementary school that was fined because children there were allowed to exchange Valentine's Day cards with students of the same gender, and a rating of 18+ for a Sims video game that allows characters to be in same-sex relationships.

"No violation is too small or silly to escape notice of the anti-LGBT crusaders," the report stated. "And targets for investigation have included children's books, a ninth-grade girl, and video games."

Outside of the realm of homophobia-driven, government-backed watchdog groups, the draconian antigay law has spurred a marked uptick in violence, according to HRC.

"Witch hunts, arrests, poisonous gas attacks, and murders" are commonplace in modern Russia, writes Ty Cobb, the HRC Foundation's global engagement director. "Not only do these terms evoke powerful memories of brutal regimes that fill the pages of history books, they also represent the very real dangers that LGBT people face each and every day in Vladimir Putin's Russia."

"The evidence is clear," Cobb continues. "State-sponsored homophobia and transphobia in Russia poses a direct threat to the safety and welfare of LGBT Russians, and that threat is growing."

Even the threat of being seen as backwards, a particular sore point for Russia historically, did not deter Putin's acolytes from bearing down hard on foreign and Russian LGBT people during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite presidential promises that the Sochi Games would not be a dangerous venue for LGBT athletes and spectators, HRC documented numerous violations of that promise -- including the arrest of a trans Italian Parliament member who wore rainbow attire.

'Western Influences'
A consistent theme underlying Russia's state-sanctioned homophobia is the contention that homosexuality -- and general acceptance and tolerance of LGBT people -- in a uniquely Western phenomenon that is incompatible with traditional Russian values.

During the Moscow premiere of a documentary about Children-404 earlier this year, protesters held signs declaring "Western Depravity Must End." Putin and his allies in government nationwide frequently use such rhetoric to paint Europe and the West as backwards and doomed to fail -- along with any politically unpopular ideas (or people) the leaders decide to equate with such "filth."

Yet large crowds continue to pay to see big-name Western recording artists and pop stars, while authorities permit them to hold massive concerts -- even knowing that artists like Madonna, Judas Priest front man Rob Halford, and most recently, Sir Elton John will promote acceptance and tolerance of gender and sexual diversity in Russia. Both Madonna and John directly criticized the Kremlin's antigay politics, while Halford positioned his band as "the rainbow flag of metal" in an interview after the group's performance in St. Petersburg.

For his part, Elton John is a proud two-time "offender" under the ban. "Is Tchaikovsky's beautiful music 'sexually perverting?'" the British-born pop star asked the crowd at a recent concert in St. Petersburg. Similarly, John dedicated a 2013 concert in Moscow to slain gay Russian youth Vladislav Tornovoi, who was just 23 when he was raped and murdered after coming out as gay.

"You took me to your hearts all these years ago, and you've always welcomed me with warmth and open arms any time I've visited," John said from the Moscow stage. "You have always embraced me and you have never judged me. So I am deeply saddened and shocked over the current legislation that is now in place against the LGBT community here in Russia. In my opinion, it is inhumane and it is isolating. People have demanded that because of this legislation, I must not come here to Russia. But many, many more people asked me to come, and I listened to them. I love coming here."

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