February 3, 2014
Closed, Destroyed, Deleted Forever
Moral crusader Vitaly Milonov is trying to shut down Children 404, a group which supports LGBT teens. Dmitry Pashinsky talked to the group’s founder, Lena Klimova
In Nizhny Tagil, Lena Klimova, a 25-year-old journalist and founder of the project Children 404, which is dedicated to helping LGBT teenagers, has been charged with promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors.
On January 31, formal misdemeanor charges were filed against Klimova following a complaint by Vitaly Milonov, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly.
According to the charge sheet, law enforcement officers have deemed that the project’s group page on the VKontakte social network, where participants communicate with each other, publish open letters, and get help from psychologists and lawyers, promotes non-traditional sexual relations. Klimova now faces a fine of fifty thousand to one hundred thousand rubles [approx. 1,000 to 2,000 euros]. She also does not preclude the group’s being shut down. In her opinion, this would cause “irreparable harm” to thousands of LGBT teenagers, who would lose a means of sharing their problems and adapting to society.
Commenting on the situation in the media, Vitaly Milonov himself said, “This group is most likely funded by foreign grants. It should at least be declared a foreign agent. It should banned from involvement in politics, and of course this group should be closed, destroyed, and deleted forever.”
Lena Klimova talked about how absurd it was to be accused of promoting homosexuality among minors for letters written by minors themselves.
It’s not clear from what Milonov said who should be declared a foreign agent, me or the group. I hear this nonsense about foreign funding all the time. I don’t know what the basis of these claims is. I would say it’s a bad thing to lie.
Has a court date been set?
How do you plan to make your case? What does your lawyer say?
The lawyer says we will muddle through. I haven’t asked her yet how we’re going to make our case, but I think we have almost no chance of winning. I suspect a political put-up job is underway. When I went to the police investigator in mid-January, he told me he saw no evidence of a violation and would refuse to open a case. But then I was suddenly summoned again, and the same investigator admitted he wasn’t calling the shots and would now draw up a charge sheet. From which I concluded that the order had come from higher up. I imagine he was told, Are you a fool, or what? Don’t you know who Milonov is? File charges right now! The interrogation lasted for less than an hour. I was asked what the group was and why it had been created, for what purpose. I was also asked who LGBTs and transgenders were.
Personally, what is happening reminds me of the lead-up to a show trial. The only thing that is not clear is why the authorities want another LGBT-related scandal right before the Olympics.
The trial will probably be after the Olympics. They hope the Games will take place and the international community will stop worrying about the problems of gays in Russia. Although I’m sure it won’t be that way. Three or four people have already been convicted under this law, the latest as recently as January 30. The newspaper Molodoi Dalnevostochnik was fined for publishing an interview with the fired gay school teacher Alexander Yermoshkin. He said, “My existence is itself the most effective proof that gays are normal.” The editors were fined fifty thousand rubles for this phrase.
Аs for us, this is totally Kafkaesque. We’re charged with promoting homosexuality among minors, and it is the letters of minors themselves that constitute this promotion. This is nonsense! But we’re told that no, minors will read the letters and be swayed.
How likely is it now that the group will be closed? And what will the consequences be?
I think it’s quite likely. But we are fully prepared for this. Around a week ago we started working on a website. In addition, we have a mirror group on Facebook, and Facebook is much more difficult to block. The site itself will have foreign hosting. It can also be blocked by putting it on the list of banned sites, but such bans are easy to get around. But closing the group on VKontakte will cause irreparable harm. It’s our greatest resource. On Facebook we have 2,500 subscribers, but on VKontakte, where young people mainly hang out, we have over 16,000 subscribers. All the psychological and moral support we provide work only on VKontakte: people write and offer advice, and we moderate the discussions. But the people subscribed to our Facebook page are usually foreigners and people from the older generation. We’ll be sorry to lose the audience on VKontakte.
Have you contacted VKontakte management in connection with this case?
With regard to this case, no. But our opponents have written complaints to VKontakte’s tech support and posted screenshots of their correspondence, from which I’ve gathered that the site’s management is wholly on our side. They say they see no evidence we are promoting homosexuality. If you think otherwise, they write, take it to court. But going to court is not the same thing as writing to VKontakte: you have get your butt off the couch. Only Milonov has been able to do that so far.
Is this the first time the authorities have put pressure on you?
Yes, it’s the first time. Before this, no pressure groups were formed to oppose us, no complaints were filed, and there were no parliamentary inquiries.
How many people are involved in the project team?
There are around ten psychologists and eight coordinators. Everyone has their duties. For example, I’m in charge of corresponding with the teenagers, while other people handle posting the letters on social networks, banning homophobes, and translating from foreign languages. There is also someone who runs our closed group on VKontakte. We have that for teenagers to communicate freely.
Students at the University of Massachusetts Send a Message of Support to Children 404
Why is a group meant for free communication closed?
Only teenagers and vetted adults who come to help them are members of the closed group. It is closed because the problems discussed there are fairly personal, the sort of problems that could be put up for general discussion only anonymously, the way it happens in the open group.
You have a fairly large team. What motivates these people? What prompted them to work on this project?
Aside from wanting to help, people have very different motivations. Our first admin is a heterosexual with two children. He became an LGBT activist long ago, I don’t know why. Our next admin is a LGBT teen, whose letter launched the project. There is another straight admin, but his daughter is a lesbian. For everybody, it is a fifty-fifty mix of personal motivations and the desire to lend a helping hand.
I find it hard to talk about what motivates other people, I can only talk about what motivates me. Well, sexual orientation also motivates me, as I’m bisexual. And I’ve had to deal with discrimination. When I was suspected of being lesbian, I was fired from my job with a lot of fuss. This was at a state university where I had worked for quite a while. At one point I was called on the carpet and told to write a resignation letter. My boss later added I shouldn’t pretend I didn’t get it. I was in a desperate situation and couldn’t strike an attitude by invoking the Labor Code. It left a huge wound in my soul. I have an acquaintance who says that the basis of all human rights work is deep psychological trauma. Some people, of course, get their skulls cracked, but still that incident forced me to feel the injustice of the world, so I help others. I don’t want them to feel the same thing I did.
Are there many groups like yours on the Russian segment of the Internet?
There are quite a lot. And, in my experience, they sprang up like mushrooms after we appeared. More than once I have had to ask them to change their name, because they were all called Children 404, but there was porn posted on their walls. At least patent the name! Someone will show up and write they saw kiddie porn on Children 404, and then go and try to prove we’re innocent.
But it’s obviously provocateurs who set them up?
No, they are not provocateurs. They’re silly boys from the rainbow community. But I haven’t found any psychological support groups either for teenagers or LGBT people generally. In Russia, only one helpline for LGBT people has remained. Incidentally, it recently stopped taking calls from teenagers for fear of being charged with violating the law on promoting homosexuality.
Does your project receive financial assistance from anyone?
No. We didn’t go looking for investors, either. The reasons for this are many, but the main one is that we are not an organization, a legal entity. We’re nobody. We don’t exist. We’re just a group of concerned people in a social network.
And you don’t envision the possibility of registering Children 404 as a human rights organization?
I’m afraid that no one would register us. But even as a project we get on well. What are the advantages of registration? We’re interested not in financial resources but in human resources. We always welcome new lawyers and psychologists. We find them among those who’ve already worked with LGBT people. We don’t do interviews: we are guided by the assessments of friends. I’ve had to turn down a few students without diplomas who “just wanted to help.” We also need translators from English, because people often write to us from abroad, and because we are planning to translate current research on homosexuality for the website, and most of this in English. All the work is voluntary. It is only Milonov who tells tales about foreign grants.
I suspect he is not too sincere, but he manages the role nicely.
Yes, a journalist who knew Milonov back when he still worked for [the slain Yeltsin-era democratic politician] Galina Starovoitova wrote to me. He was then the most liberal of liberals. The journalist told me not to believe all this homophobia: when the wind blows the other way, Milonov will be the first to be gone with the wind. But nowadays homophobia is trendy. Even the media noticed us only when that red-headed parasite took a swipe at us. News about his complaint to the police spread far and wide, including outside of Russia. He filed the complaint back in October, and it took two and a half months to get to Nizhny Tagil. I didn’t advertise the fact I live here. He thought I was from Petersburg, so he sent the complaint to the local authorities there. The final countdown to the Olympics had started by the time the complaint found me.
Rally in London in Support of Children 404
How many letters have you received over the course of the project?
We have been around since March 2013, and to date we have received 1,067 letters.
What places do the teenagers write from?
Aside from Russia, they write from Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Canada and Israel. Quite a lot of letters come from the US.
What about the North Caucasus?
There have been only one or two letters. A young woman who called herself Gina sent a letter, but she was already eighteen or twenty. Everything had worked out more or less fine for her, surprisingly. The other day we got a letter from a guy from a Muslim family. He is twenty-two, but he has the same problems as teenagers. He has thoughts of suicide, and his family is quite poor, they have no money. He can’t come out either to his father or his mother.
Recently, literally everyone has been turning to us for help, including teenagers suffering from ordinary romantic tragedies. I remember one amazing letter from a young woman who was dating an older woman with a ten-year-old child. She asked for help in coming out to her girlfriend’s daughter. Usually, kids want to come out to their parents, but here an adult wanted to come out to a child.
Do adolescents suffer more from an intolerant society or from self-loathing?
A psychologist recently said our main problem was that the teenagers who wrote to us had already recognized who they were. But those who are still trying to accept who they are almost never write, because they are sitting around thinking there is something strange happening to them. They type “how to stop being gay” into a search engine, but they definitely won’t find us that way.
But mostly it is people who have accepted themselves who write. Everyone has different problems. Some are in unhappy relationships, others have problems with their parents, still others are bullied at school. There is a letter for every problem. Just recently, someone wrote to me, “I feel gay, but I don’t like it at all. I want a normal family and children, but I can’t stop looking at boys.” We also publish letters like this. Someone will always write in the comments, “Don’t worry, being gay is alright.” And someone is going to call that promotion of homosexuality? What is the guy supposed to do? Seek treatment? Where? Go pray? It’s all very complicated.
You publish the letters, and the kids get support in the comments. But you’ve said almost nothing about the work of your psychologists, about how teenagers have been helped. Why?
To be honest, I have never thought of doing that. And our psychologists are unlikely to go that route. When I had to find out the details of a situation, they told me they could not say anything specific, because professional ethics and doctor-patient confidentiality forbid it. They described the problem and how it was solved only in the most general terms. And there is not much point in my knowing. As it is, hundreds of young people know we have psychologists and that they can consult with them.
What are the most frequent questions?
The question asked most often is whether to come out to one’s parents. It gets asked so often I’ve worked out a universal answer to it: unless you are one hundred percent sure your parents are not homophobes, it is better not to do it. It is worth coming out when a few important conditions are in place: one, you have your own place to live, and, two, you have your own source of income. Only when these are the case is it absolutely safe to come out. But if neither the first or second condition has been met, it is risky.
It happens that a letter arrives where a guy writes that his parents are horrible homophobes, but he couldn’t stand it and came out, and his parents abruptly changed their minds about gays. Or vice versa: the parents seemed gay-friendly, and the person came out to them, but then he or she was kicked out of the house practically in their underwear. It is impossible to predict what parents will do, but you also cannot forbid kids from coming out to them.
How did you personally come out to your family and friends?
It was fairly hard. My friends accepted me without question. As for my mom, alas, she still hasn’t accepted me. We had a difficult conversation. I cannot even describe it. I have a difficult relationship with my mom, although she sometimes asks me about both my activism and the project. But she does not want to hear anything about my personal life. She says, When you are around me, pretend you’re ordinary. So I have every right to sympathize wholeheartedly with children in similar situations.
What else do the teenagers who write to you have in common besides their orientation?
It is quite hard to figure that out, because the letters are not written to a template. I once did a survey. A total of 115 people were polled. What percentage had thought of suicide? How many had come out to parents and friends? I wanted to find patterns. If you judge on the basis of the letters, what do they have in common? Geography for sure: most of them come from Moscow and Petersburg. The age range is wide: the youngest was twelve, the oldest, fifty. She was a mom whose daughter was an LGBT person. All her life she had regarded LGBT people tolerantly, but then she had to deal with one personally and had had second thoughts.
Do they often write about suicide?
Not really. Since the majority had recognized who they were, they simply took it for granted. At any rate, this was true for half the people I polled, while the other half had tried to find a way out in relationships with the opposite sex, going in big for religion, reading the “right” books, and consulting with psychologists. Suicide was seen less as a way out and more as an inevitability, because they had been harassed at school and at home. They felt terribly lonely.
I know absolutely hellacious stories. There was one girl, a lesbian. Her mother did not accept her, and the girl swallowed a bunch of pills. The ambulance took her to hospital, were her stomach was pumped. She wrote, “You know what the first thing my mom said when she saw me? ‘Did you think everyone would be happy you’re still alive?'” Can you imagine such a thing?