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What It's Like to Be a Lesbian in Russia, the Day After the Orlando Massacre

Flowers left outside the US embassy in Moscow. Photo: Will Stevens / Twitter

Flowers left outside the US embassy in Moscow. Photo: Will Stevens / Twitter

For about a year, between the springs of 2013 and 2014, LGBT rights in Russia were a major theme in international news reports. These were the months that sandwiched the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, when Western audiences suddenly took an interest in Russia’s domestic goings-on. Russian lawmakers gave the world something to talk about, too, when President Vladimir Putin signed a federal law in June 2013 banning so-called “homosexual propaganda” in the presence of minors. The vague legislation made it illegal for anyone to do anything in public that might be deemed to “promote” homosexuality.

When the Winter Games wrapped up on February 23, however, foreigners quickly lost interest in Russia’s gay-rights question.

Google users' interest in Russia and LGBT-rights issues, according to Google Trends.

Google users’ interest in Russia and LGBT-rights issues, according to Google Trends.

Today, June 13, people around the world are sharing their reactions to the deadly massacre that occurred in Orlando this past weekend, where nearly 50 people were gunned down at a gay night club. For many supporters of LGBT rights in Russia, the bloodshed has been a reminder of their own vulnerability in the face of what they say is a resurgence of anti-gay violence in Russia.

Elena Kostyuchenko. Photo: Andrei Blinushov / Facebook

Elena Kostyuchenko is an investigative journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and a longtime LGBT-rights activist in Moscow. One of the first reporters to write about Pussy Riot, Kostyuchenko has been assaulted and detained on several occasions while doing her job and while participating in political demonstrations. When it comes to LGBT issues, hers is one of the most prominent voices in Russia.

Kostyuchenko has written two viral Facebook posts since the massacre in Orlando. Her texts address the attack on the gay night club, but they’re not limited to expressing her grief about that single tragedy. On Sunday, June 12, she shared the story of how she learned about the attack in Orlando while spending the day with her mother in Moscow. The text has attracted more than 2,100 reactions and 74 shares on Facebook:

Время от времени меня спрашивают, каково быть лесбиянкой. Ждут, как я понимаю, описания чудес лесбийского секса, или силы влечения женщины к женщине, или особенностей восприятия собственных сисек. Но я никогда не смогу объяснить, каково это, правда.

Провести счастливый день с мамой, которая приехала в Москву выбрать лучшие ирисы и пионы. Гулять с ней по саду (похуй, что мерзнут ноги), разруливать интриги с цветочными продавцами, подбирать литературу, прятать чеки, кормить ее пастой в любимом кафе и чувствовать себя взрослой-взрослой.

А потом сажаешь ее на поезд. Сидишь рядом, держишь в руках план дачи, споришь, куда высадить белые астильбы. И тут звонит бывшая – приезжай к посольству, 50 человек убиты, стрелок в гей-клубе, возьми, пожалуйста, цветы. И ты спрашиваешь: “50 человек? Точно стреляли или бомба? Какой гей-клуб?” И вдруг видишь, как у мамы отливает кровь от щек. Она становится белой-белой. Говорит: где? И я говорю: США. И тут мама говорит спокойно очень: Лена, поезд отходит через три минуты, беги давай, и не бери розы, возьми белые цветы.

Знаете это чувство? Нет? А это единственное реальное различие между мной и вами. Единственное.

From time to time, people ask me what it’s like to be a lesbian. As I understand it, they’re hoping to hear about the wonders of lesbian sex, or the power of attraction one woman feels to another woman, or how we feel about our own tits. But I’ll never be able to explain what it’s really like.

Spend a lovely day with your mom, who’s come into Moscow to get some fresh irises and peonies. Walk around the garden with her (who gives a shit, if your legs are freezing), listen to all the flower vendors’ gossip, get her some new books, hide the receipts, buy her some pasta at her favorite place to get lunch, and feel like a bona fide adult.

And then put her on the train back home. Sit down beside her, and with the landscaping plans for her cottage in hand argue a bit about where to plant the astilbes. And then an ex-girlfriend calls you on the phone, and says, “Come to the [US] embassy. Fifty people were killed. There was a shooting at a gay night club. Bring flowers, please.” And you ask, “Fifty people? They were definitely shot? It wasn’t a bomb? What gay night club?” And suddenly you see how the blood drains from your mom’s cheeks. She goes white as a ghost. She says, “Where?” And I say, “The US.” And then mom says very calmly, “Lena, the train is leaving in three minutes. You make a run for it. And don’t take roses. Take white flowers.”

Do you know this feeling? No? And that’s the only real difference between you and me. The only one.

The following day, Monday, June 13, Kostyuchenko wrote again on Facebook, this time taking on people who prefer to downplay the Orlando attacker’s decision to target the gay community. So far, in about five hours, the post has attracted more than 1,000 reactions and 214 shares on Facebook:

Получила много комментариев, оценивающих мою состоятельность как женщины и как дочери, много традиционного «чтоб вы сдохли», «вы не люди». Ладно. Но есть еще кое-что, что я хотела бы обсудить.

Когда вы пишете «террористам нужен только повод», «нет значения, какая ориентация у убитых», «я тоже скорблю, так чем я от вас отличаюсь» – вы закрываете глаза на причину убийства.

А эта причина – гомофобия.

Я не люблю это слово, оно абстрактно, но оно хотя бы примерно объясняет то, что за последние два года 19 моих знакомых подверглись нападениям, две были изнасилованы, а двое были убиты. Что более 20 человек вынуждены были покинуть страну. Это мой круг общения, он не такой уж широкий. Против нас принимаются законы, мы неравноправны и официально признаны «неравноценными» (ст 6.21 КоАП), мы не имеем права на брак и на совместную опеку над детьми, мы не имеем права навещать друг друга в тюрьме или в больницах. В регионах третий год существуют и действуют неонацистские группы, которые охотятся исключительно на ЛГБТ. Телевизор активно подогревает атмосферу ненависти и страха, был годовой перерыв на украинскую войну, но теперь мы снова враги государства №1, просто посмотрите новости.

Я рада, что вы можете жить, не замечая этого. Что это вас не касается. Я бы тоже была рада не знать всех этих подробностей, как пуля из травмата входит в глаз, с каким звуком, или каково писать заявление на парня, которого привел твой отец, чтобы ты «исправилась», как набирать номер 911, потому что кто-то пытается открыть твою дверь, а менты не приезжают. И ты сидишь до утра с ножиком в руке и слышишь, как ковыряются в замке. А потом, утром, когда возня стихает, выходишь из дома, закрываешь дверь и не возвращаешься туда никогда. Это то, что пережили люди, близкие мне. Может быть, что-то из этого пережили ваши коллеги и друзья. Даже наверняка.

Я знаю, как долго зарастает сломанный нос (я даже посравнивать могу, носы ломают часто), каково, когда в тебя кидают камень, бутылку, кусок асфальта, каково, когда твою подругу находят задушенной в машине, когда врачи говорят, что тебя ждет глухота, потому что слуховые нервы отмирают после удара в висок (это я могу подробно, это я пережила сама), каково, когда тебя обливают мочой и снимают на камеру, когда тебя вызывают к директору и увольняют, заставляют менять школу, университет, место службы. Я знаю даже, как это, когда твои одноклассники насилуют тебя за гаражами. Я знаю, как это, когда мент плюет тебе в лицо, пока его коллеги душат твоего друга, а ты ничего не можешь сделать, потому что руки скручены – и все это под ликующие вопли «пидарасы!» Я знаю, каково это – мечтать купить участок земли, огородить трехметровым забором и в этой клетке растить своих детей, потому что только так ты можешь гарантировать их безопасность.

Любой разговор на эту тему приведет к «не выпячивай». В дни массовых убийств это приведет к «какая разница, какая ориентация».

Нет, вы действительно не знаете, что чувствует моя мама, когда узнает о расстреле гей-клуба. Что чувствую я, когда понимаю, что мне нечем ее успокоить. «Все будет хорошо» – да ладно?

Ориентация убитых – важно.

Если вам не важно – вам похуй на причину убийства и на то, почему эти убийства повторяются, повторяются, повторяются.

I’ve received lots of comments assessing my validity as a woman and as a daughter—lots of the usual “Go and die,” and “You people aren’t human.” Whatever. But there’s something else that I want to discuss. When you write, “Terrorists only need a reason,” “The orientation of those killed doesn’t matter,” and “I’m mourning, too, so how am I any different from you?”—you’re closing your eyes to the cause of these murders.

And that cause is homophobia.

I don’t particularly like this word, “homophobia.” It’s abstract, but at least it roughly captures why, in the past two years, 19 of my friends have been attacked, two friends were raped, and another two were killed. And more than 20 people [I know] have been forced to leave the country. All this has happened just within my circle of friends, which isn’t all that big. They pass laws against us, we’re [treated as] unequal and officially labeled as “worth less” (see Article 6.21 of Russia’s Administrative Code) [the so-called ban on “gay propaganda” in the presence of minors], we don’t have the right to marry or to joint custody of children, and we don’t have the right to visit each other in prison or in hospitals. For three years now, there have been active neo-Nazi groups preying exclusively on members of the LGBT community. The TV actively inflames the atmosphere of hate and fear. For a single year, [the media] took a break and focused on the Ukrainian war, but now we’re back to being the number one enemies of the state—just take a look at the news.

I’m glad you get to live your life without noticing any of this—that none of this affects you. I’d be glad, too, if I didn’t know all these details, like the sound of a bullet from an air rifle entering someone’s eyeball, or how to file a police report against the guy your father brought to you, trying to “fix” you. Or how to dial 9-1-1 because someone is trying to open your front door, and the police aren’t coming, so you stay awake until morning with a knife in your hand, listening to someone trying to pick the lock. And later that morning, when things have quieted down, you walk out of your home, close the door behind you, and never come back ever again. This is what people I know have endured. Maybe some of your friends and colleagues have experienced similar things. In fact, it’s highly likely.

I know how long it takes for a broken nose to heal. (I can even speak from personal experience, as I’ve had my nose broken often.) I know how long it takes [for a broken nose to heal] when they throw rocks, bottles, and chunks of asphalt at you. I know what it’s like when they find your girlfriend strangled in a car, when doctors say that you’ll go deaf from the blow you received to the head (I can say more about this, as it happened to me personally), when they pour piss on you and film it on camera, when you’re called in by your boss and fired, and when you’re forced to change schools, universities, and jobs. I even know what it’s like when your classmates rape you behind the parking garage. I know what it’s like when a cop spits in your face, while his buddies are strangling your friend, and you can’t do anything about it, because your arms are twisted behind your back, and everywhere around you there’s a crowd screaming triumphantly, “Faggots!” I know what it’s like to dream about buying a small plot of land, fencing it off with a 10-foot wall, and raising your children inside this cage, because it’s the only way you can think to guarantee their safety.

Any conversation on this subject leads to advice like “Don’t stand out.” On days where there are mass murders, it leads to people saying, “Who cares what their orientation was.” You really don’t understand what my mother felt when she heard about the shooting in the gay night club. You don’t understand what I feel when I realize that I’ve no way to comfort her. “Everything will be okay”? Please.

The orientation of the people killed is important. If you don’t think it’s important, then you don’t give a fuck about the reason for these murders, or about why these killings keep happening again and again and again.

Russians have surprised many in the West by mourning together with the world the dead in Orlando. Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to contact the White House with a letter of condolences, and the spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sharply criticized those who make homophobic statements about the people killed and injured in the night-club massacre. Dozens of Russians (like Kostyuchenko) brought flowers to the US embassy in Moscow, leading the embassy’s spokesman, Will Stevens, to write on Twitter that the display of sympathy was “deeply moving.”

According to the website MediaZona, however, Moscow police detained two men who tried to display a sign that read “Love Wins” outside the US embassy. In posts on Facebook, the two men said they intended to stage a picket, and were detained without any explanation.

  • “What It’s Like to Be a Lesbian in Russia”

    The statistics are absolutely clear – it’s a lot safer to be a homosexual in Putin’s Russia than in Obama’s America. The author would do well to stop engaging in this whataboutism and instead throw his support behind the American democratic opposiion i.e. Donald Trump, the only person who can make America safe for LGBT again.

    • Kevin Rothrock

      I don’t know what statistics you have in mind, but this article doesn’t make any arguments about where it’s “a lot safer to be a homosexual.” The LGBT community faces threats all over the world, as is clearly demonstrated by the Orlando attack and Kostyuchenko’s story.

    • Karen Caldwell

      Are you kidding? Do you know what’s happening in Russia to LGBT persons on a daily basis? They are literally hunted down by gangs of men who record themselves stripping, beating, pissing on, and sometimes violating them. The vast majority of this violence against LGBT people is publicly supported and condoned by the Russian people. Putin has clearly voiced his belief that LGBT people’s lives don’t matter, and that he also supports Trump. Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, and misogynist who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims (1.6 billion members of an entire religion) from entering the U.S. He’s probably the least safe person on the entire planet for us as gay people in America to vote into office. He’s a sociopathic nut case.

      • Yes life is a living hell for homosexuals in Russia – much worse than in most of the Islamic world including Clinton-funding Saudi Arabia where it is illegal and punishable with the death penalty, and with the solid approval of most of the population. However, I’m certain that is all just racist bigoted propaganda from the Dangerous Donald, Gallup, and the Russian intelligence services.

    • Karen Caldwell

      And I’d also like to point out to you, since your comment seems to indicate the opposite, America has never been “safe” for LGBT people. It has become safer very slowly over the course of a hundred years. The blatant truth of the matter is that America has a lot of catching up to do in this department. Gay people are safer in almost every single other first world country than here. Then again, almost every single other first world country has functional universal health care, lower rates of poverty and violence, higher life expectancy, and higher rates of overall happiness than us.

    • Coyote

      “The statistics are absolutely clear – it’s a lot safer to be a homosexual in Putin’s Russia than in Obama’s America.”

      What statistics?

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