FEATURE-Russian gays still suffer, despite sexual revolution
By Claire Bigg
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, Dec 31 (Reuters) - When Communism collapsed a decade ago and Russia cast off its Soviet conservatism, the ensuing sexual revolution generated looser public mores and a boom in the sex industry.
But Russian gays and lesbians say traditional gender roles and homophobia are still deeply ingrained in the post-Soviet mind-set.
The Soviet ban on homosexuality may have been lifted, but homosexuals say modern Russian society still discriminates against them. Some believe it could take generations for their status to improve.
"I don't feel there has been any progress in Russia in the past 10 years in terms of tolerance towards sexual minorities," said Ignat Fialkovsky, president of St Petersburg's Association HS-Gay-Straight Alliance.
"I would consider myself lucky to see some progress even in the second half of my life," he said.
In Russia, male homosexuality was punishable by up to five years in prison. Lesbians ran the risk of being sent to psychiatric institutions as late as May 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code.
That seems like a bad dream now. But fears of homosexuality being outlawed again have not died out completely.
REINTRODUCING BAN ON GAYS?
In May 2002, a group of deputies in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, tabled an amendment reintroducing prison sentences for homosexuals as part of what they said was a campaign to restore traditional moral values in Russia.
"I know the draft law was largely viewed as a publicity stunt by the deputies, and it wouldn't have scared me if I knew that the president condemned such a position. But Putin is a terrible homophobe," said Alexandra Sotknikova, who runs St Petersburg's lesbian organisation Labris together with her partner, Marina Balakina..
"I think such a ban has a real chances of resurfacing in Russia," she added.
Another reminder of how widespread and socially-accepted homophobia is in Russia came on International Human Rights' Day on December 10. Gay and lesbian groups were banned from holding a news conference in St Petersburg's House of Journalists.
"Personally I can't stand gays, because I don't love men. I don't mind lesbians that much," said Vladimir Ugryumov, the president of St Petersburg's Union of Journalists and editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Vecherny Peterburg, the man who cancelled the conference.
"I don't think the intimate life of certain people has anything to do with human rights, and I don't think sexual questions should be discussed in the public arena."
Local gay and lesbian activists say Ugryumov's reaction merely reflects a widespread attitude in Russia towards homosexuality and a reluctance to discuss sex in public, a habit inherited from the prudish Soviet past.
This lack of public debate and the consequent ignorance of gay and lesbian issues serves only to perpetuate the high level of homophobia in Russia, gay groups say.
This is particularly true of female homosexuality, according to Fialkovsky, who says most Russians understand the word 'homosexuality' as relating exclusively to men.
Balakina says there are still many women in Russia, particularly in the provinces, who experience homosexual feelings but are unaware of the existence of female homosexuality.
"I have met women who lived three or four years before realising they weren't the only lesbians on the planet," she said.
HIDING SEXUALITY FROM FAMILY, FRIENDS
Fear of rejection and discrimination has led many gays and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation from their families, friends and colleagues.
Those who have come out say they are marginalised by society and often rejected by their own families.
"Our social circle is very restricted, it is mainly composed of gays and lesbians. We would like to have more contacts with heterosexuals, but it is difficult," said Sotnikova.
"At work, the situation is also stressful because I am constantly preparing answers to questions from colleagues to cover up the fact that I am lesbian," she said, adding that it took her family almost four years of conflict to accept her relationship with Balakina.
The scant attention paid to homosexual issues has translated into a lack of legislation. Russian gays and lesbians do not have many of the rights enjoyed by some of their Western counterparts, such as the right to marry, adopt children, or have parental rights over their partner's child.
Some same-sex couples say they are even afraid of having a child, fearing their relatives or the authorities would take it away on the grounds that it needs both a father and a mother.
But the desire to form a family and the conviction that the state will not take any measures to allow them to do so has forced some Russian homosexuals, like Balakina and Sotnikova, to turn to unusual and complicated solutions to bypass the law.
"We are planning to have a baby soon with two gays from Moscow who also want a child," said Balakina.
"That way, our child will have a father. Of course we had to search a long time for the right people: our relationship will have to be based on trust, because there are no laws in Russia to protect the rights of people like us."