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RUSSIA: LGBT Russians fleeing discrimination and war to South Caucasus

Fleeing war and discrimination, LGBT Russians find refuge in South Caucasus

By Anastasia Tenisheva


The Moscow Times (01.08.2022) – https://bit.ly/3AvfCUz – When tens of thousands of Russians fled the country this spring following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, many chose to resettle in Armenia and Georgia. 


But for LGBT Russians, their new homes in the conservative South Caucasus — where there are few protections against homophobic violence — may mean facing even greater risks than in the hostile environment they left behind.


Watching her friends in Russia being arrested for their anti-war activism, body-positive blogger and LGBT advocate Ollie decided to move to the Armenian capital to work with a project helping LGBT people affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 


Ollie, 27, said she chose Yerevan because many Armenians speak Russian as a second language and Russians do not need a visa to enter the country. 


“Nothing is scary after living [as an LGBT person] in Russia,” said Ollie, who declined to give her full name. “Here I have not experienced homophobia or transphobia… Probably around 50% of my queer acquaintances moved to Yerevan.”


Armenia and Georgia are socially conservative societies, and LGBT people face a number of legal and social obstacles, as well as discrimination and occasional violence. Armenia placed 47th out of 49 European and Eurasian countries in a ranking of civil liberties, protections and recognitions afforded to LGBT people.


Like Russia, the Armenian Constitution only recognizes marriage between men and women.


But while LGBT Armenians struggle for acceptance, a number of LGBT Russians said they feel safe in Armenia because — at least for the moment — they are treated as guests.


“It feels like local rules don’t apply to me as I’m a foreigner,” said one member of the Russian LGBT community in Armenia who requested anonymity to speak freely.


“Armenia has legal discrimination [against LGBT people], same-sex marriage is illegal and local LGBT communities are even more closed. It’s a conservative country. But I haven’t experienced discrimination,” she said.


Several local and international LGBT organizations in Armenia are working to help new Russian emigrants to integrate.


The Queer Svit project, where Ollie works as a marketing director, helps LGBT people from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus flee abroad and provides temporary shelter in Armenia.


In Armenia, locals are “tolerant” toward LGBT foreigners, said Mamikon Hovsepyan, the communications director at Pink Armenia.


“The capital is quite active and diverse and there are some [LGBT-friendly] places, cafes, clubs and parties, but the general attitude is negative,” he told The Moscow Times.


“[LGBT] Russians will be accepted by [Armenian] society unless they show their sexuality,” he added. “Homophobia usually targets the local community.”


Local human rights group Pink Armenia last year registered at least 35 human rights violations against LGBT people, as well as discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.


A trans person was sexually assaulted in Yerevan in June.


The situation in neighboring Georgia is similar. A far-right group staged a rally to disrupt an LGBT event in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi earlier this summer and one of the group’s members died after setting himself on fire in a protest against non-traditional relationships. 


Russian activist Alexander Sofeev, who visited the event targeted by protesters, said the situation was tense, but police ensured the safety of participants.


“I think the Georgian government does not promote homophobia, it is usually done by individual far-right activists,” Sofeev, a member of the Pussy Riot feminist art group who moved to Tbilisi last year, told The Moscow Times.


“On the contrary, in Russia, it [homophobia] is imposed at the state level,” he said.


Russian activists said that Moscow’s crackdown on anything perceived as “Western” in the wake of the war has had an acute impact on the LGBT community.


“Tensions in Russian society have increased since the war began and it affects the most vulnerable groups, including sexual minorities,” said Anna Akulina, 32, who left the southern city of Rostov-on-Don for Yerevan in early April.


Since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian state television coverage has cast LGBT rights as foreign values that threaten the country. A Chechen military commander said on state television last month that Russia is fighting a “holy war” against “satanist values” such as LGBT rights.


Last month Russian lawmakers submitted legislation that would ban any information deemed “LGBT propaganda.” 


“Russia is not a safe place for a queer person: you face being outed at work, bullying, even beatings. You get used to hiding all the time in Russia,” said body-positive blogger Ollie. 


Many LGBT Russians fled abroad in fear of human rights abuses if they were detained or arrested by Russian police for their anti-war views. 


“Can you imagine me calling the police in Russia if anything happens? I cannot. I don’t trust them,” Ivan Sokolov, who is openly gay, told The Moscow Times. 


“I’m more likely to get help [from the police] in Armenia.” 


But Sokolov, 23, who moved to Yerevan a week after the war started, said he’s experienced homophobic slurs, and that he worries about what might happen in the future.


“I feel safer here than in Russia,” he said. “But what will the situation be in three or six months?” 



Photo credits: Brett Sayles / pedels



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POLAND: Polish court acquits activists who put LGBT rainbow on icon

By Vanessa Gera


APNews (02.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/3cbpDJv –  A Polish court on Tuesday acquitted three activists who had been accused of desecration and offending religious feelings for producing and distributing images of a revered Roman Catholic icon altered to include the LGBT rainbow.

The posters, which they distributed in the city of Plock in 2019, used rainbows as halos in an image of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Their aim was to protest what they considered the hostility of Poland’s influential Catholic Church toward LGBT people.

The court in the city of Plock did not see evidence of a crime and found that the activists were not motivated by a desire to offend anyone’s religious feelings, but rather wanted to defend those facing discrimination, according to Polish media.

The conservative group that brought the case, the Life and Family Foundation, said it planned to appeal.

“Defending the honor of the Mother of God is the responsibility of each of us, and the guilt of the accused is indisputable,” the group’s founder, Kaja Godek, said on Facebook. “The courts of the Republic of Poland should protect (Catholics) from violence, including by LGBT activists.”

The case was seen in Poland as a freedom of speech test under a deeply conservative government that has been pushing back against secularization and liberal views. Abortion has been another flashpoint in the country after the recent introduction of a near-total ban on it.

One defendant, Elzbieta Podlesna, said when the trial opened in January that the 2019 action in Plock was spurred by an installation at the city’s St. Dominic’s Church that associated LGBT people with crime and sins.

She and the other two activists — Anna Prus and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar — faced up to two years of prison if found guilty.

An LGBT rights group, Love Does Not Exclude, welcomed the ruling as a “breakthrough.”

“This is a triumph for the LGBT+ resistance movement in the most homophobic country of the European Union,” it said.

The image involved an alteration of Poland’s most-revered icon, the Mother of God of Czestochowa, popularly known as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. The original has been housed at the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa — Poland’s holiest Catholic site — since the 14th century.

Podlesna told the Onet news portal that the desecration provision in the penal code “leaves a door open to use it against people who think a bit differently.

“I still wonder how the rainbow — a symbol of diversity and tolerance — offends these feelings. I cannot understand it, especially since I am a believer,” Podlesna told Onet.

Podlesna was arrested in an early morning police raid on her apartment in 2019, held for several hours and questioned over the posters. A court later said the detention was unnecessary and ordered damages of about $2,000 awarded to her.

Because of all the attention the altered icon has received, it is now a very recognized image in Poland, one sometimes seen at street protests.

Photo credits: AP Photo / Czarek Sokolowski

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TURKEY arrests dozens of students at peaceful protest over LGBT rights

By News Wires


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday lashed out at Turkey’s LGBT movement, accusing it of “vandalism” following an outbreak of student protests.


France24/AFP (02.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/3cviwx1 – Four people were arrested over the weekend for depicting Islam’s holiest site with pictures of the LGBT rainbow flag during a rally at Istanbul‘s Bogazici University.


And shortly after Erdogan‘s televised speech on Monday, another rally erupted at the same school with dozens of people detained and social media footage showing police dragging away students who had been protesting peacefully.


“We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation’s glorious past,” Erdogan said during a video linkup with members of his ruling AK Party.


“You are not the LGBT youth, not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.”


‘Inciting hatred’ 


Rights groups accuse Erdogan of taking the mostly Muslim but officially secular country on an increasingly socially conservative course during his 18 years in power.


Homosexuality has been legal throughout modern Turkey’s history.


But gay people often face harassment, and LGBT events — including Istanbul Pride — have been blocked under Erdogan.


Turkey was hit by a wave of student protests last month after Erdogan appointed a loyalist as the head of Bogazici University.


During one demonstration last Friday protesters hung an artwork opposite the new rector’s office depicting the holy site in Mecca and images of the LGBT movement’s rainbow flag.


Turkish police accused four people of “inciting hatred in the population”. Two of them have been remanded in custody and the other two placed under house arrest.


Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu branded the suspects “four LGBT freaks”.


Groups of students once again demonstrated at Bogazici university on Monday despite the presence of hundreds of riot police, demanding the four be freed and the rector stand down.


AFP reporters saw several students dragged away by the police and Istanbul’s governor later confirmed 159 people had been arrested.


Further afield in the Aegean resort city of Izmir, social media posts showed police scuffling with a small group of rainbow flag-waving students.


The rallies have echoes of the 2013 protests that sprang up against plans to demolish an Istanbul park before spreading nationally and presenting a direct challenge to Erdogan’s rule.


Erdogan last month accused some of those taking part in the student demonstrations of being “terrorists”.


Photo Credits : Reuters / Murad Sezer


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WORLD: LGBTQI rights during pandemic times: Activists raise alarm over increase in hate speech and violence

Poland, Iraq and Bangladesh in the spotlight during a webinar in Brussels. Strategies to strengthen protections and improve funding mechanisms discussed.


By Brianna Hertford, Human Rights Without Frontiers


HRWF (01.10.2020) – During 2020, LGBTQI people around the world, an already marginalised group, have been subjected to an increase in risk and violence largely due to responses towards and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.


On Friday, 25 September, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom hosted ‘Protecting and Advancing LGTBI Rights Globally’ in Brussels, an event that exposed the threats facing LGBTQI people and highlighted strategies to push for much-needed protection and rights.

The event began with a virtual panel discussion with three LGBTQI activists:


  • Julia Maciocha, the Director of Warsaw Pride in Poland,
  • Amir Ashour, the Founder and Executive Director for IraQueer based in Iraq,
  • and an activist from Bangladesh who remained anonymous for safety reasons.


The questions centred on the state of LGBTQI rights in each of their respective contexts, activism within the local LGBTQI community, their personal experiences as activists and suggestions for how to move forward.


The second half consisted of a discussion facilitated by Rachael Moore and Aida Yancy from the RainbowHouse Belgium.


Country-specific threats to LGBTQI people and activists


In Poland, a Catholic majority country, the outspokenly anti-LGBTQI agenda of the government is not reflective of the general public’s sentiments as about 50% of Polish people support same-sex marriage, Julia Maciocha argued.


One major unresolved issue that she raised concerned legal and administrative barriers for transgender individuals seeking legal gender recognition (LGR). LGR is essential to obtain identity documents that correspond with one’s identified gender, which increases one’s ability to navigate public spaces with more dignity and safety. Unfortunately, the current process in Poland is handled by the court system and requires the transgender individual to sue their parents, even if they are an adult. If their parents are not supportive and refuse, this lengthy and costly court procedure is at a higher risk of taking longer and ultimately failing.


State-sanctioned hostility towards LGBTQI people in Poland is at odds with many of the commitments and values of the EU, which has led to controversies such as the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ and EU funding. In July 2020, the European Commission rejected applications from six Polish towns for the opportunity to ‘twin’ with other EU cities because these towns had declared themselves ‘LGBT free’. Consequently, these towns did not receive the funding involved in this exchange programme. A month later, the Polish Justice Minister announced that the government would provide financial support to these towns and decried the EU’s actions as ‘illegal and unauthorized’.


In Iraq, a Muslim majority country, LGBTQI people live with the constant fear of violence, torture or even death through annual ‘killing campaigns’ that have terrorised the LGBTQI community for over a decade now, according to Amir Ashour. Recently, the hate speech and violence targeting LGBTQI people has dramatically increased, he said, because of political and religious leaders spreading misinformation related to the pandemic and framing LGBTQI people as a threat. Additionally, measures such as quarantines to combat the pandemic have increased risk, as LGBTQI people may be stuck in abusive homes or kicked out of temporary housing. Another pressing issue he highlighted was that when LGBTQI asylum seekers flee to Western countries, they are then forced to ‘prove’ their sexual orientation or gender identity during the refugee determination process.


In Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, homosexuality is still criminalised by a law that was inherited from British colonialism. After the 2016 highly publicised murder of Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of the first Bengali LBGT magazine, the movement was forced underground. Since then, social media platforms have been essential for LGBTQI activists to mobilize. Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQI sentiments are widespread amongst the general public, and so violence against this community is typically viewed as justified. One exception is the perception of transgender people, who are seen more positively due to historical cultural norms. Transgender women in particular are generally more accepted, but this does not translate into tangible rights.


Rachael Moore and Aida Yancy explained that although Belgium is ranked as the second-best country regarding LGBTQI rights by ILGA Europe, the lived experience of the LGBTQI community varies widely depending on which ‘letter’ one identifies with. For example, intersex children are still operated on at birth because, legally, parents need to register a child’s sex with their birth certificate. Additionally, bisexual people comprise of the largest portion of the LGBTQI community yet are often invisible due to prejudices from general society and LGBTQI people alike. Despite numerous legal protections in Belgium, many individuals still experience violence and discrimination, but do not always report to the police.


Globally, LGTBQI activists face many hostilities for their advocacy, including online threats and smear campaigns. Additionally, fear is a constant reality: fear of increasing political and legal persecution; fear that loved ones may be attacked either because they identify as LGBTQI or are associated with advocacy work; fear for LGBTQI people who are struggling with depression and may commit suicide; and fear of persecution and violence by the state or religious fanatics. Activism comes at an immense personal cost.


Strategies for increasing rights and improving funding mechanisms


Throughout the event, it was made clear the importance for members of the international community to learn from activists themselves if international involvement would be helpful and, if so, in what way. In Poland and Iraq, international pressure was welcomed by the panellists, while the panellist from Bangladesh requested a more indirect approach.


Julia Maciocha advocated to expand legislation in Poland to include hate speech on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as for the EU to enact sanctions against the Polish government.


Amir Ashour stated that there was a huge need to tackle religious hatred in Iraq and advocated for the separation of state and religion.


However, in Bangladesh, there have been instances where international involvement has resulted in an increase of risk for the LGBTQI community and activists. Instead, the focus should be on supporting local efforts. For example, the transgender community have been acting as liaisons with local preachers to combat the increase in anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQI rhetoric amongst religious leaders in Bangladesh.


Providing accessible avenues of funding for small NGO’s and grassroots initiatives is an essential step forward in protecting and advancing LGBTQI rights. Across all national contexts, funding was a huge issue, especially since governments and other donors are not giving as much due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the many reasons that funding is so essential is that activists often cannot find paid work due to their role as human rights defenders and so, without funding, these movements may become unsustainable.


Currently, application processes for funding are typically very time consuming and complicated, often requiring experts to complete them which is an additional expense. These applications, which usually must be renewed on an annual basis, take precious human resources away from the actual work of the NGOs tackling these issues on the ground. It is in everyone’s best interest to find a balance between the need for transparency and accountability, and the need for accessibility.

Finally, during any decision-making process about the LGBTQI community ranging from funding mechanisms to policy making, there was a call for increased intersectionality. Rachael Moore and Aida Yancy explained that it is not enough to tailor a programme to fit the needs of one ‘letter’, because each member of the community will have different needs. This will also be impacted by other aspects of an individual’s identity such as race, ability, age, etc. Without taking these factors into account and planning accordingly, well-intentioned legislation and programmes will continue to exclude already marginalised members of minority groups.



To learn more about LGBTQI rights, religions and human rights in Europe, read HRWF’s 2013 report: ‘LGBT People, the Religions & Human Rights in Europe‘.

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Russia lifts house arrest of LGBT activist facing pornography charges



The Moscow Times (16.03.2020) – https://bit.ly/2J7qTiC – Russia on Monday lifted the house arrest of an LGBT rights activist accused of distributing pornography for posting drawings of vaginas on a body-positive social media page.


Yulia Tsvetkova, 26, has been under house arrest since November in the remote Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on Amur, some 6,000 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow.


Amnesty International said the case was absurd and labeled her a prisoner of conscience.


A district court ruled she can now leave her home but must comply with a travel ban, Tsvetkova said.


“Today they will take off my bracelet,” she wrote on Facebook after the hearing, calling the ruling an encouraging sign.


“The investigation has big plans. But perhaps we had a small victory today,” she said, noting the case had not been closed.


Tsvetkova faces up to six years behind bars over the pornography charges. She was previously fined for violating a controversial Russian law against gay propaganda.


“She still risks a real prison sentence,” Amnesty International’s Russia director Natalia Zvyagina said in a statement after the ruling, calling for “the lifting of all charges against Yulia and an end to her persecution.”


As part of her activism, Tsvetkova hosted lectures for the LGBT community and held classes on sex education, which is prohibited at Russian schools.


She has reported receiving death threats from a homophobic group.


She told AFP earlier that she had maintained a social media page called “Vagina Monologues” for six months as a “hobby.”


She said she believes the authorities are using the pornography charge as a pretext for cracking down on LGBT activists because it is easy to pin on people and carries a long sentence.


The prosecution asked for her house arrest to be lifted because she has still not been charged, reported OVD-Info, a website that tracks detentions at political protests.


It is unclear when the trial will begin.


Her arrest prompted pickets and an online flash-mob where artists posted works of art depicting vaginas.

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