Stella Maxwell
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How LGBTQ+ Russians Are Continuing to Organize During the Pandemic

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The apple trees are blossoming outside Antonina’s window. She has been quarantined, alone in her apartment, for almost two months. 

Antonina is 23 years old and nonbinary — she doesn’t identify as male or female, and accepts any pronoun people assign to her. She has cropped dark hair and talks softly during our video chat.

“Yesterday, on the street, a little boy called me ‘lady,’ and an old lady called me ‘boy,’” she tells me. 

Before the lockdown began, life in Yekaterinburg, a city to the east of Russia’s Ural Mountains, often created these situations for Antonina. She asked to be referred to by her first name only, for fear of repercussions. 

“The society in Yekaterinburg is not exactly tolerant,” she explains. 

In Russia, members of the LGBTQ+ community have long faced hostility, ignorance, and abuse, even within their families.

As Russia’s COVID-19 cases have risen to more than 414,000 — the third-highest number of infections in the world — a strict lockdown has been imposed across the country. Those measures have exacerbated Antonina’s feelings of isolation. 

“Self-quarantine is quite hard for me. I live completely alone and I get lonely,” she says. 

Unexpectedly, the early days of the lockdown also offered an opportunity to Antonina and many others. A LGBTQ+-friendly festival had been planned for April in a St. Petersburg warehouse complex. Rather than cancel it, the organizers decided the three-day event would take place over Zoom. 

In previous years, Znakravenstvafest — which takes its name from the Russian for “sign of equality” — had been hugely successful with the community. 

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Courtesy THOMAS DWORZAK / MAGNUM PHOTOS 

“People felt they were in a different world — a different universe,” Nastia Dyakova, one of the organizers, tells me during a video call. 

When the lockdown began, the organizers realized that holding a physical iteration of the festival was no longer possible. So, using the Russian social media platform VK, they began to advertise it as a ticketed online event.

On April 12, hundreds of people logged in to Zoom. The organizers asked attendees to shout out where they were from. The chat pinged with cities and regions all over Russia, the former Soviet Union, and beyond. 

“People weren’t afraid to turn their cameras on,” says Dyakova. “They were dancing in their underwear, waving LGBTQ flags, and the atmosphere of acceptance was fully present.”

The 350-person gathering provided many young people with a means to escape the claustrophobic situations they had suddenly found themselves in. 

“I remembered that cleansing feeling of walking into a space and realising people are like you,” says Alina, 21, who attended the festival from her bedroom in Karelia, in northwest Russia, and preferred I use just her first name.

The freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia are limited by both society and law. For instance, in 2013, Vladimir Putin’s “gay propaganda” legislation enshrined long-standing homophobic attitudes in law by banning the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” 

In practice, the law means that people under the age of 18 no longer have access to educational resources about sexuality. Activist groups like Human Rights Watch also report that these measures have contributed to a growing lack of mental health, legal and psychological support services for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Russians will go to the polls July 1 to vote on a constitutional amendment that will allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036. On Tuesday, Russian pro-Kremlin media released an antigay campaign video, warning viewers to vote for the amendment or face a country where same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples are allowed.

The video shows an orphan boy finding out he’s being adopted by a makeup-wearing man. "Is this the Russia you’re voting for?” the video ends, as the couple embraces. The clip attracted hundreds of thousands of views —and harsh criticism. But the homophobia and prejudice it upholds are everyday realities for LGBTQ+ Russians like Antonina.

For Antonina, the festival — which included lectures, discussions, and breakout rooms, all on Zoom — was eye-opening. 

“I realized there were so many people from the community,” she says. “There was a lecture on activism that really inspired us all to get engaged with the LGBT community in our cities.” 

For the first day of the festival, Antonina left her camera off, feeling safer watching anonymously.

 “On the second day, I got really into it. I turned my webcam on and was having fun with everyone else. I was smiling and started writing into the chat,” she says. Soon she was dancing in full view of everyone. 

Gayza, 20, another festival attendee who asked to be identified only by her first name, is quarantined in the western city of Izhevsk with her parents. They don’t know that she identifies as queer.

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Courtesy THOMAS DWORZAK / MAGNUM PHOTOS 

“I’m still financially dependent on my parents,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out if they’d accept me. I’ve been trying to test the waters.”

Gayza adds that her parents consume a steady diet of state media, via which the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ narratives are widely spread.

“My mother repeated some propaganda to me about same-sex marriage,” she tells me. “She said, ‘How awful!’”

Gayza had never been to an online or queer party before Znakravenstvafest. She stayed in her bedroom for three days, worried her parents might walk in because there was no lock on the door. 

“I told them not to disturb me,” she says. “I said it was educational, about feminism, and my mum didn’t react well. For her that’s the same thing as saying ‘queer.’ She was like, ‘Don’t get yourself into a sect.’”

For the duration of the festival, Gayza joined her family only at mealtimes. Often, she found the lectures so interesting that she didn’t want to tear herself away.

“My parents would get offended. ‘How is it possible?’ they said. They couldn’t understand what was so important that I had to miss lunch.”

Since Znakravenstvafest, smaller LGBTQ+ and sex-positive Zoom parties have been happening every weekend in Russia. The security can be strict. 

Kinky Party is a Moscow-based sex party that welcomes people of all genders and sexual orientations. At its recently launched online events, there are queues to get in, and virtual door staff check names off against a list. On entry to the Zoom call, guests must introduce themselves to the host or be unceremoniously kicked out. 

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Courtesy THOMAS DWORZAK / MAGNUM PHOTOS 

Despite hosting an altogether different kind of event, the people behind Znakravenstvafest also have to be careful. If the festival inadvertently admits someone under the age of 18, the organizers could face criminal charges under the propaganda law. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+-friendly events are constantly under threat of being hijacked or crashed by homophobic groups.  

“We’re always trying to avoid the risk of the government approaching us or sanctioning us in any way,” says Dyakova, the festival’s organizer. 

But they believe the risks to be worth it. After the online event, Znakravenstvafest set up a Telegram chat, via which young people from all over Russia and the wider world could continue to talk. 

Dyakova cried at the messages she received. Even over the internet, the festival had built a whole new universe. 

“The world we managed to create really was less violent and more accepting,” she says. “It was more open-minded than our reality.”

It has also paved the way for other online gatherings. 

Maxim Cuclev is a filmmaker from Chisinau, Moldova, who has strong links with the Moscow queer scene and has made documentaries about LGBTQ+ life in his own country. 

Along with about 50 people from Russia, Moldova and Europe, I attended his Spring Queerantine party in early May. Cuclev painted his face in what he described as “acid harlequin” makeup. Green disco lights bounced off the wall behind him and a patchwork of Zoom windows showed other faces lit in orange, pink, and blue. 

Slava Rusova, a young nonbinary musician quarantined with her mother on the outskirts of Moscow, stared through the camera with a languid expression, wearing a white tank top. The screen lit up her pale face. 

“Since we were born, we’ve been in isolation,” she says. “But it’s harder right now. We can’t be together with our friends.” 

However, Rusova adds that the online gatherings do feel more secure than LGBTQ+ events in the real world. “You can just push the button and the person that’s trying to bully you goes away,” she explains. 

Still, lockdown — which is beginning to ease in Russia, despite continually rising COVID-19 numbers — can’t end soon enough. 

“I want to go to a real party,” she said. 

This article is a co-production with Coda Story. Alexandra Tyan contributed to reporting. Karina Levitina contributed to research. Follow Isobel Cockerell on Twitter:  @IsoCockerell

NOTE: All those whose faces are featured in this story gave permission for the images to be published. However, their names are left out for safety reasons. 

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