Is There Life on Mars?

One of the joys of the Web is being able to catch glimpses of life on different planets.

Gieselman dumped the girlie name bestowed at birth, asked friends and teachers to use Rocko, the tough-sounding nickname friends had come up with, and told people to use “they” instead of “he” or “she.” “They” has become an increasingly popular substitute for “he” or “she” in the transgender community, and the University of Vermont, a public institution of some 12,700 students, has agreed to use it.

While colleges across the country have been grappling with concerns related to students transitioning from one gender to another, Vermont is at the forefront in recognizing the next step in identity politics: the validation of a third gender.

The university allows students like Gieselman to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.

—Ulie Scelfo, “University Recognizes a Third Gender: Neutral,” The New York Times, February 3, 2015

__________

Russia Blacklists LGBT Teen Online Support Group
The Moscow Times
February 2, 2015

A Russian web site that served as a support group for LGBT teenagers has been blacklisted by the authorities and will likely be blocked within the country, news reports said Monday.

The site’s name Deti-404 (Children-404), after the online HTTP error message for “page not found,” may prove portentous if Russia’s Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor considers the site to be in violation of a federal law that regulates online content.

Russian news site Ura.ru reported on Monday, citing Roskomnadzor, that the Deti-404 web site will be blocked because it disseminated information on committing suicide.

Deti-404.com and as its eponymous groups on social networks Facebook and VKontakte were still accessible in Moscow at press time Monday evening.

Ura.ru published a post contained on Deti-404’s Facebook page showing a young woman’s scratched-up arm with the numbers “404” writing in black ink. The caption reads: “I want to die, to disappear, so that I simply never existed.”

Deti-404’s founder, Yelena Klimova, said last week that she was fined 50,000 rubles ($780) for violating Russia’s controversial law against the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” The site’s blacklisting may be linked to that case.

Roskomnadzor opened a case against Klimova last November after it claimed to have received some 150 complaints from “citizens and organizations” about Deti-404’s pages on social media networks.

Closed, Destroyed, Deleted Forever: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Lena Klimova and Children 404 on Eve of Olympics

colta.ru
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

Detailed_pictureLena 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?

Not yet.

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?

Homosexuals and Homophobes: Victoria Lomasko on the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival

Originally published (in Russian) at soglyadatay.livejournal.com

Victoria Lomasko
Side by Side: Homosexuals and Homophobes

When the organizers of the Petersburg LGBT film festival Side by Side invited me to serve on the festival jury, I agreed right away. I’m no expert on cinema, and I’m not a member of the LGBT community, but given what has been happening in Russia, the festival has become a political event, and being involved with it is a way of clearly expressing your civic stance.

As one of the organizers, Gulya Sultanova, told me, “This time, almost all the movie theaters [the festival approached] decided to support the film festival, despite the potential risks. And that’s worth a lot.”

I found it difficult to share Gulya’s optimism. I was certain that attempts would be made to disrupt the festival, and that trouble lay in store for organizers and festival goers.

A Dangerous Opening

Several minutes before the festival’s opening ceremony at the Warsaw Express shopping and entertainment complex, police got word of a bomb threat to the movie theater. While police combed the building for a bomb, festival goers hung outside in the chilly wind.

“There are homophobes on the corner. They’re really creepy.”

A gang of beefy skinheads appeared a few meters away from us. As Gulya later explained, the guys were nationalists from an organization called Soprotivlenie (Resistance). One female viewer standing next to me was visibly nervous.

“Now they’ll start throwing rocks at us, like during the rally at the Field of Mars. Now they’ll start firing at us with pneumatic guns!”

Right there among the gay activists was Dmitry Chizhevsky, a black bandage on his face. It had only been just recently that persons unknown had attacked an LGBT community center and shot Chizhevsky in the eye with a pneumatic pistol.

Side by Side organizers asked festival goers not to wander off by themselves.

We were finally ushered into the movie theater. The Dutch film Matterhorn, about a father who has kicked his gay son out of the house, opened the festival.

Police escorted Side by Side viewers from the movie theater to the subway.

Predictions by Foreign Guests

Post-screening discussion of Out in East Berlin: “I think the tough times are still ahead of you.”
3_strahi“We were afraid of pogroms, that they would try and kill homosexuals in the street.”

At the last minute, many foreign guests had been frightened to come to Russia.

Side by Side Received Five Bomb Threats during Its Ten-Day Run

Five times the police received false threats of bombs planted at Side by Side festival venues. Loft Project ETAGI art center and Jam Hall Cinema were each threatened once, the Skorokhod cultural center, twice.


“We’ve received another bomb threat, friends!”

The police and ambulance came each time, and everyone was evacuated from the buildings where the “bombs” had been “planted.” At ETAGI, for example, its staff, patrons from its cafes, bars and shops, and its hostel guests were kicked out onto the street along with LGBT activists.

The people behind the false bomb threats have not been found.

Side by Side co-organizer Manny de Guerre: “No venue will ever work with us again.”

Manny’s worries were justified. After the bomb threats, both the Zona Deistviya co-working space at ETAGI and Jam Hall Cinema terminated their agreements with Side by Side for the remaining screenings.

One day, the festival program was disrupted entirely. Not only were the screenings not held. A discussion entitled “Young People’s Freedom to Access Information on LGBT” was also canceled.

Lena Klimova: “In our city, many people don’t even know the word LGBT.”

Lena Klimova, a journalist and creator of the Internet project Children 404, was supposed to take part in the discussion. She had specially come all the way from Nizhny Tagil for the festival.

Through the Back Entrance

The screening, at Jam Hall Cinema, of Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), which was then playing without incident at many other theaters in Petersburg, was interrupted by a bomb threat. The police led viewers out of the theater through the back entrance. At the main entrance, Petersburg legislative assembly deputy and United Russia member Vitaly Milonov demanded that police free children whom the “sodomites” were, allegedly, “forcibly holding” at the screening. Around twenty lowlifes came out to support Milonov.


“We caught several minors in the movie theater and photographed them with their IDs.”

While waiting for the theater to be checked for bombs, Side by Side viewers took refuge in a nearby cafe, but several people, including me, lingered on the street. A policeman came up to me.

“Tell your people not to stand in the street but to hide in the cafe. They could be attacked.”

“They don’t want to go into the cafe.”

“It’s dangerous. Although they look like ordinary people. Maybe they won’t be noticed, and no one will bother them.”

While what the policeman said jarred me, it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the absence of support for Side by Side on the part of Petersburg’s civic and leftist activists.

In the Bomb Shelter

After Jam Hall pulled out of its agreement with Side by Side, the festival moved to the Green Lantern Press Club, a small basement space. No bomb threats were made to this venue.

As festival jury member Bård Ydén remarked, “What bombs? We’re already in a bomb shelter.”

The feature films Tom at the Farm and In the Name Of and the documentary film We Were Here were shown in the “bomb shelter.”

LGBT Christians

In the Name Of is about a priest’s struggle with his homosexual desires. Andrei, a pastor at a Protestant church, took part in the post-screening discussion.

LGBT Christian: “A persecuted minority is being oppressed in the name of the church.”

“I’m offended by the idea that a person can’t be both Christian and LGBT.”

The pastor recounted how he had once invited LGBT Christians to celebrate Easter at his church, but the other parishioners had refused to eat at the same table with them.

Pastor: “The Bible unequivocally treats homosexuality as a sin.”

We Were Here

We Were Here, about the AIDs epidemic among gays in San Francisco in the 1980s, made a huge impression on me. The epidemic claimed over fifteen thousand lives during this period. The US government considered introducing a compulsory quarantine, clothes with identifying marks or special tattoos for people infected with HIV. Mass protests by the LGBT community put a stop to such plans. Gays demanded information about the new disease, development and free distribution of drugs, and government support for HIV-positive people. At the same time, the LGBT community established charitable organizations: hundreds of gay activists became volunteers, while many lesbians donated blood and worked as nurses.

One of the people featured in the film, AIDS activist Ed Wolf, came to the festival.

Ed Wolf: “I’ve ridden around Petersburg. You have many gays here. I saw them myself.”
Moderator: “So the American government wasn’t willing to solve the problem?” Ed Wolf: “An army of activists forced the government to act.”

Thanks to the civic engagement of the LGBT community and, later, the society at large, the epidemic in San Francisco was stopped relatively quickly.

Ed Wolf continues to work on HIV/AIDS issues. According to him, women are now at risk.

“It’s hard for women to force their husbands to wear a condom every time.”

Wolf also said that gays are also men and that it’s time for them to reconsider their patriarchal views of women.

Lesbiana

At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was also not free of sexism. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked which movies I would be voting for. Hearing I had chosen Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”

Most of the films shown at Side by Side were shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution was the only feature film at the festival made by women about women. The screening room was half empty: men did not come.

The audience at Lesbiana

Lesbiana combines interview with aged lesbian activists who were involved in the LGBT and feminist movements during the 1970s with documentary footage from the period. In those years there were a lot of separatist lesbian communes, where women lived and engaged in painting, sculpture, literature, music and performance.

Sharing our impressions of Lesbiana at a cafe: “I wonder whether there are ‘feminine lands’ in Russia where only lesbians live?”

Jury Deliberations

The jury at Side by Side consisted of Alexander Markov, a filmmaker; Marina Staudenmann, director of the Tour de Film international film festival agency; Bård Ydén, director of the Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; and two people far removed from the professional cinema world, Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist and LGBT activist, and me.

 Alexander Markov (on left). Elena Kostyuchenko: “As the only LGBT activist on the jury, I’m responsible for authenticity.”

Our discussion quickly shifted from the films to Russia’s homophobic policies.

Elena Kostyuchenko: “If they start removing children from LGBT [families], our lives will change forever.” Marina Staudenmann (on right)

We were nearly unanimous in our choice of the winning feature film.

 Marina Staudenmann: “La vie d’Adèle.” Bård Ydén: “La vie d’Adèle.”
Alexander Markov: “La vie d’Adèle.”

Valentine Road, about the murder of a transgender schoolboy by his classmate, won the prize for best feature-length documentary film.

The Festival’s Closing Ceremony

Aside from the by now routine bomb threat, viewers who came to the closing ceremony had a surprise in store from the Rodina (Motherland) party. Party activists handed out “gift bags” to them.

Side by Side organizers describing what was in the “gift bags”: “The bags contained rope and bars of soap, along with a note reading, ‘From Russians with love.'”

Gus Van Sant, the festival’s most anticipated guest of honor: “The people who wanted to shut the festival down caused the LGBT community to close ranks.”

Gus Van Sant showed up at the Side by Side closing ceremonies with Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, whom he introduced to the audience as his “good Russian friend.”

A woman in the audience asked the famed director, “What is a Putin endorser doing at an LGBT film festival?”

Van Sant chose not to answer the question.

Afterparty at the Malevich LGBT club

Sitting among gays and lesbians at the closed LBGT club, I mulled over my impressions of the events of the festival. I had felt frightened several times during the clashes with homophobes, and I was glad I was heterosexual. I would not be forced to live my entire life in a constant state of anxiety.

Towards the end of the festival, Gulya Sultanova said, “We’re just a festival, but there’s the sense we’re running a military operation.”

LGBT activists are just people. Why must they live as if they were invisible or criminals?