Queerfest of Russia: A Battleground

The Russian LGBT festival QueerFest, traditionally a space for celebration, this year resembles a battleground, with each day a fight for survival. 

September 18, the QueerFest opening ceremony. Two hours before the event, the main venue calls to cancel. The reason: “compromised integrity of the arch over the entrance, which may result in its collapse.” At the same time, all other events continue.

The new venue is attacked by 20 “[Russian O]rthodox activists” accompanied by [Petersburg legislative assembly] Vitaly Milonov, who insult guests and spray them with a green liquid and an unknown gaseous substance. (video)

24 complaints were filed with the police, including one from a St. Petersburg human rights ombudsman’s office staff member.

September 19. The venue Etagi, well known for its social projects in St. Petersburg, cancels QueerFest’s events, including an event by the Manifesta 10 biennale, which is taking place in St. Petersburg this year. Organizers learn that Etagi received a phone call from the police. Another venue, planned for the next day’s event, cancels the same evening.

September 20. The planned “Night of Independent Music,” already having moved to a different venue, starts as planned, but midway through receives a fake bomb threat.

September 24. The police attempt to shut down a press conference entitled “Who is Shutting Down QueerFest?” There is now concrete proof that it is not the extremists that are scaring the venues but the police. The Regional Press Institute, which is hosting the press conference, is pressured by a police lieutenant colonel and a major to cancel the event under the pretext that “violations of public order may ensue.” RPI becomes the first and only venue that stands up to the pressure, exposing it to the media and the public.

At this point, the organizers no longer openly publish festival venues, instead inviting the wider public to view the event through the online feed. Hundreds of people view the events each day.

In the six years of organizing the festival, there has never been such a consistent and organized attack on our freedom of assembly and expression. Instead of ensuring public order by providing protections, the police use it as a pretext to shut down events. Instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice, the authorities look the other way,” says Polina Andrianova, one of the festival organizers. “Every means is used to push us into the ‘ghetto.’ Yet, the festival is about dialogue and being open in society, and our best defense right now is to stay visible.”

QueerFest’s organizers ask partners to publicize what is happening and take a firm stand against the unlawful actions used to foil the festival with the acquiescence of the authorities.

QueerFest’s organizers urge the St. Petersburg authorities to:

1. Ensure that the attacks at the festival’s opening are properly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice;
2. Ensure that the festival’s events can proceed with sufficient police protection.

The festival’s program can be found here. Follow the festival’s events online, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Editor’s Note. The above press release was slightly edited for republication on this blog.

__________

Queerfest Opening Quashed by Attackers
Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
September 24, 2014

Queerfest — an annual LGBT rights socio-cultural festival that opened in St. Petersburg on Sept. 18 — was forced to cancel most of its events following attacks, pressure from authorities, bomb threats and last-minute cancellations. A group led by anti-gay lawmaker Vitaly Milonov tried to get into the venue where the invitation-only opening event was held. After not being let in, the anti-gay protesters blocked the entrances and attacked the audience with an unknown gas and green dye, with the police not immediately intervening.

The festival’s opening event was moved to Ziferburg cafe on Nevsky Prospekt after the Kazanskaya 7 business center — where Queerfest’s scheduled main venue, the art space Freedom, is located — canceled the opening 90 minutes before its announced time. A representative of the owner annulled the rent agreement due to a “suspicion of damage to the integrity of the arch above the main staircase of the building,” which did not prevent other events from being held in there, Queerfest organizers said in a statement on Sept. 19.

The event started with a nearly one-hour delay at Ziferburg cafe after the Queerfest exhibition of photographs was hastily moved and assembled there. About 200 people, including foreign diplomats, were gathered when Milonov and between 15 to 20 anti-gay attackers tried to stop the opening.

Milonov, a United Russia deputy in the city’s Legislative Assembly and chairman of the committee on legislation responsible for the city’s 2012 law forbidding the “promotion of sodomy, lesbianism, bi-sexuality and transgenderness amongst minors,” led an anti-gay group to the cafe, located on the third floor of the Passage shopping center.

Showing his deputy identification, Milonov tried to get in but was stopped by security guards. He ended up instead standing near the door, swearing and throwing insults while telling the guards that ethnic Russians should not protect LGBT people. He described the audience as “pedophiles who rape children,” among other things. Attacks started minutes after Milonov left the building.

Having thrown vials containing unknown gas that smelled of rotting fish under the door, anti-gay attackers prevented visitors from entering and leaving, spraying green dye from syringes on them. At one point, both entrances to the cafe were blocked. One was locked from outside by attackers and the other was held by security and volunteers to prevent them from entering and attacking people inside.

“Milonov left just a couple of minutes ahead of the attacks,” organizer Anna Anisimova told The St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 21. “They met in the stairwell, or he passed the baton to them, but I can’t say for sure because the fact was that thugs came just after Milonov had left. They were not together at one time.”

A number of people felt sick because of the gas and one or two were eventually taken away by ambulance. According Anisimova, some 20 to 30 members of the public had their clothes spoiled by green dye, including two representatives of the St. Petersburg ombudsman Alexander Shishlov. She said that foreign diplomats did not suffer. About 20 formal complaints regarding criminal assaults were filed with the police.

The police that were stationed in large numbers outside the building did not intervene until Shishlov arrived and urged the officers to protect the festival’s audience, while Alexei Smyatsky, the chief of the city’s public safety police, was seen speaking with Milonov in front of the building at the time when the attacks apparently began.

As attacks went on outside the café, the opening event was briefly held with foreign diplomats expressing their support for the festival and the LGBT community in St. Petersburg.

Attendees included Norway’s Consul General Heidi Olufsen, Sweden’s Deputy Consul General Björn Kavalkov-Halvarsson, the Netherlands’ Deputy Consul General Hugo Brouwer, Acting U.S. Consul General Courtney Nemroff and U.K. Deputy Consul General Robert Kempsell.

On Sept. 19, Ombudsman Shishlov appealed to city council chairman Vyacheslav Makarov asking him to take measures against Milonov, Zaks.ru reported. “The human rights of citizens were severely violated as the result of violent actions,” Shishlov wrote.

“I suppose that the active participation of a Legislative Assembly deputy in such actions discredits the city council and harms the reputation of St Petersburg. I request that you assess the actions of the deputy related to human rights abuses, as well as take measures for the code of ethics to be observed by Legislative Assembly deputies.”

Shishlov also urged St. Petersburg police chief Sergei Umnov to personally supervise the investigation into people’s complaints and take legal action against the offenders. He also asked Umnov to prevent possible attacks against the festival’s future events.

Despite Shishlov’s appeals, the pressure on Queerfest continued. An art workshop organized in cooperation with the Manifesta biennale and the conference “Queer or What Is the Art of Being Yourself,” Queerfest’s first public events scheduled for Sept. 19, were both canceled after the art space Loft Project Etagi refused to host the events one hour before the scheduled start.

On Sept. 20, the underground music club Zoccolo 2.0 canceled Queerfest’s Independent Music Night event, which was moved — in a shortened version — to the LGBT club 3L. At about 1 a.m. the police evacuated the venue due to a bomb threat. The LGBT club Malevich, located opposite 3L on Zastavskaya Ulitsa, was also evacuated.

“As far as we know, the police, among others, contact the owners of the venues and warn them about riots and put pressure on them, so that owners pressure the venues that rent their rooms from them,” Anisimova said.

“Zona Deistviya [a co-working space at Loft Project Etagi] was shut down altogether, so they create such conditions that nobody should work with us at all. On Sept. 20 we held a closed, peaceful musical event without any advertising at 3L and it still received a bomb threat, so even LGBT clubs fear working with us under the circumstances.”

Parents’ Day, a meeting with parents of LGBT people scheduled to be held on Monday, was also canceled “due to the inability to ensure the safety of participants. We fear for our parents; if we can cope with the situation, they don’t have such strong nerves,” Anisimova said.

Although Loft Project Etagi admitted reacting to a warning from the police, in most cases it was difficult to find out from whom exactly the pressure came, because the owners of the premises did not speak to the organizers directly but instructed the management of the venues.

Anisimova said that the festival would hold some lectures and a conference for a small number of people at places undisclosed for safety reasons, broadcasting them on the Internet. The events on Friday and Saturday will be public with announcements made on the festival’s website, assuming the situation does not deteriorate further, she said.

The festival’s closing event, a concert called Stop Homophobia in St. Petersburg featuring Swedish rock singer Jenny Wilson on Saturday, will be held but the organizers may move it into another venue that is less likely to be pressured by authorities and anti-gay activists — and would work on safety measures with security and in cooperation with ombudsman Shishlov.

According to Anisimova, attacks and pressure on the venues came as a surprise both to the organizers and the LGBT community.

“It was unexpected for me,” Anisimova said. “After the May 17 [the International Day Against Homophobia] rally and some other events went peacefully, it appeared that negative attention and homophobic aggression toward us had subsided. Turns out it hasn’t.”

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