Historically, Russia has been rife with homophobia. The depth of this prejudice is thought to have been engrained in Czarist Russia in the 1700s. During this time, homosexual military men were punished with forced labour, flogging, and rape. But even today, signs of the same homophobic mindset are still evident within the country.
Today, teachers and parents who reassure Russian children that homosexuality is normal can face fines and imprisonment. The police force has the power to arrest and detain tourists and foreign nationals who are suspected of being homosexual or even pro-gay. And it isn’t just the Russian government with a prejudice problem. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that almost three-quarters of Russians believe homosexuality to be immoral. Horror stories of the barbaric murders and assaults of LGBTQ individuals across Russia have made headlines all over the world.
Thankfully, there are those who are making a stand against this injustice, and one such person is Lena Klimova, a twenty-five year old Russian journalist who is offering hope to LGBTQ teens in the face of abhorrent adversity.
Children-404 (Дети-404 in its native Russian) was the brain-child of Klimova, who wanted to create a platform for homosexual, bisexual, and transgender teenagers to psychologically explore their sexuality. After writing a series of articles that criticised the so-called “propaganda of homosexuality” parliamentary bills, Lena began to receive emails from young people who spoke of bullying from their peers because of their sexuality. This spurred her on to create Children-404 in the hope that homosexual teenagers could share their stories and access online psychological assistance. This is a particularly important forum for the LGBTQ Russian youth, as they are provided a sanctuary from a society that claims “where gays are allowed, paedophilia will soon flourish”.
Our society believes that gay teenagers do not exist in nature… Meanwhile, one family in twenty has an LGBT child in it, and those children are society’s invisible ‘Children-404′.
It is this widespread ignorance in an LGBTQ intolerant society that is one of the targets of Klimova’s campaign. You only have to take a look at some of the heart-breaking letters written by the teens to get a glimpse of how important her work really is. “My name is Ania, I’m 15 years old. I’m a lesbian, and as soon as I realised this, I had no intention of hiding it,” one letter reads. “Two days ago, the teachers invited me into the teachers’ common room during noon recess. A good half of the teaching staff was there… here are a few quotes from their speech: ‘Don’t you understand that you’re disgracing the school with your inclinations?’, ‘If this is the case, keep quiet: you shouldn’t put your dirty laundry on display’. Now it’s become scary to go to school. One time, a teacher began a homophobic monologue during class, occasionally casting glances at me. My classmates, who know my orientation, now feel the teacher’s support. They’re beginning to bully me pretty seriously”.
Another letter from a twenty-nine year old transgender man reads “I ask you: pretend, deceive, evade, but one way or another, hold on until you come of age, and then begin your coming-out. It’ll be easier for you to survive that way. After eighteen, nobody owes you anything, you can live on your own and live in peace”.
Unsurprisingly, the project has not been without its hindrances. Klimova has faced a lengthy court battle after being accused of promoting homosexuality – a punishable crime in Russia. The author of the St. Petersburg law which criminalised alleged “homosexual propaganda” – Vitaly Milonov – slammed the project, claiming that “they seduce young people and bring them round to the mistaken view that homosexuality is acceptable and not a sin”.
It was on these grounds that Lena Klimova was trialled, with a potential punishment of a 100,000 roubles fine. Fortunately, the courts found the Children-404 founder not guilty on the basis that she shared the children’s stories and didn’t promote homosexuality outright; a loophole in the law that was gladly exploited. The support group was also permitted to keep running, providing a lifeline for the homosexual, bisexual, and transgender teenagers of Russia.
Despite the uproar from its homeland, Klimova’s work has gathered support from all across the world. Rallies have been held in London, New York, and Oslo among other cities, with participants all showing their support for the Russian LGBTQ youth. Fellow Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin has praised Klimova, calling her project the “youth crisis centre which the state ought to have created instead of adopting its anti-gay law”.
Lena Klimova is not only a heroine for Russia’s young LGBTQ community but a champion for them, providing hope in amongst a sea of homophobia and hate crimes.
References include Cafe Babel, Global Equality, Huffington Post, Channel 4, NY Times, LGBT Net, Amnesty and The Guardian.
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