Gay Russian teens face life in closet

The Washington Post

Like other gay teenagers in Russia, Maxim Moiseyev grappled with his identity alone, frightened and uninformed. Adults either ignored him or admonished him. Classmates reviled him. And a new law that forbids minors from hearing anything positive about homosexuality has only made life harder.

Maxim, a 16-year-old Muscovite, is among the few Russian teenagers who dare to openly identify as gay. He first did so at age 13, when he had nothing more to lose. His mother had just died. She had been found beaten and drowned in a pond. His parents had divorced when he was 3, and he went to live with his grandmother.

“I changed,” said Maxim, a dark-haired boy with an earnest expression. “I was afraid when I was younger, but when my mom died I opened up. I didn’t care when people called me dirty names.”

Maxim said he never felt attracted to girls. When he was 10, he said, he told another boy that he loved him. The boy laughed him off. “Are you crazy, or what?” he said. He kept his feelings to himself after that, but when he was 12, his uncle got a computer. Maxim went online and searched for “what does it mean if a boy likes a boy?”

The search produced a trove of nastiness, but amid the homophobic comments, he found definitions of gay and lesbian. “I printed that out,” he said, “and thinking about myself I decided I should be called gay. Of course I didn’t say a word to anyone.”

Now, it’s even more difficult and dangerous for teenagers to get information. The new law makes it illegal to tell minors that “traditional” and “nontraditional” sexual relations are socially equal. It prohibits giving minors gay “propaganda” but is so vague that most people assume they can’t mention the word “homosexuality” in front of minors.

Lawmakers said they want to protect children. “Homosexuality is a sexual perversion which is unnatural and contradicts human nature,” said Duma Deputy Tatiana Yakovleva, a member of the ruling United Russia party. The law is so broad that it has been interpreted as prohibiting gay pride parades — a minor might see one. Frightened teachers are silent.

President Vladimir Putin signed the national law July 1. Even before that, four cities had passed their own versions. Earlier this year, Lena Klimova, a 25-year-old Internet journalist from Yekaterinburg, wrote an article about the debate, challenging the parliamentarian’s assertions that homosexuality was a perversion.

A 15-year-old girl wrote to Klimova in March, saying the article had saved her life.

The student said she had been sitting in biology class when a pack of girls started to hiss at her. “Lesbian,” they taunted, “lesbian.”

A teachable moment? Not there. When the distraught victim told the bullying girls to shut up, the teacher ordered her out of the classroom. When her mother asked her why she had gotten home early, the girl broke down in tears and told her everything. She was a lesbian and had been together with her girlfriend Vera for a year.

“So my mom started to yell at me,” the girl told Klimova, “and said that everybody had normal children, and I am not normal, a pervert. She was yelling that she would lock me in my room and would never let me see Vera again.”

The girl said she was in despair, feeling there was no way she could go on living, but when she happened to find Klimova’s article, she realized that she was neither abnormal nor alone.

“No one in Russia has ever looked at LGBT teenagers and their situation,” Klimova said.

That incident led to the creation of Deti-404, pages on Facebook and a similar Russian site called Vkontakte where teenagers can share their stories. Deti means children and 404 refers to “page not found” on Internet searches.

“They have a very difficult life,” Klimova said. “They’re afraid to go to school psychologists because if they do, the psychologists call the parents and there are scenes and quarrels at home. Some parents ban their children from talking about it. They take away their cellphones and order them to stay away from their girlfriend or boyfriend. They threaten to send their kids to psychiatric hospitals, and sometimes do.”

While the law has done damage, Klimova said, it has also made her and others speak up. “I don’t want to live in a country where a particular group is persecuted,” she said.

Ivan Simochkin, a freelance website designer in Moscow, helped Klimova develop Deti-404, refusing to worry about whether he could be accused of breaking the law. Fines for violating the law begin at $125, but those who break it using the Internet can be fined up to $3,000.

Simochkin, who began supporting gay rights when a friend opened his eyes to the widespread discrimination, worries that teachers have been put in an impossible situation. “Homophobes have been given the signal that it’s OK to persecute gays,” he said, “and those who might help them are afraid to do so.”