President Vladmir Putin's government took yet another dark turn on human rights last month when Russia's parliament unanimously passed a law banning gay "propaganda." As sweeping in scope as it is troubling in content, the law criminalizes equating gay and straight relationships and bans distributing material about gay rights, including sharing any "propaganda" about "non-traditional sexual relations" with minors. It also imposes hefty fines and other penalties for individuals, non-profit organizations, media groups, and foreigners who break the law. Individuals who use the media or the internet to promote "non-traditional relations" can face fines of up to 100,000 roubles ($3,048), organizations can be fined up to 1,000,000 roubles ($30,481) and closed down for up to 90 days, and foreigners can be fined up to 100,000 roubles ($3,048), detained for up to 15 days, and deported.
The international response to the Russian government's latest LGBT crackdown has been encouraging, bizarre, and even a bit comical.
The U.S. State Department has said that it is "absolutely against" the new law and "very concerned by the overall direction in Russia" in regards to treatment of the LGBT community. The International Olympics Committee (IOC), which is preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, claims that it has "received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [gay propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," provoking the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to remind the IOC that it needs to try harder.
In the U.S., sex advice columnist Dan Savage has urged "queers and their allies" to "dump Russian vodka," leading several gay bars to join the boycott of Russian vodka brands. The boycott, in turn, prompted Stolichnaya Vodka to profess its love for the LGBT community, while a leading Russian gay activist asserted that the boycott is "doomed to failure" because it fails to target homophobic lawmakers.
Meanwhile, inside Russia, LGBT individuals and organizations are already dealing with the brutal full force of the new law. Violence has ensued at several pride rallies and protests across the country, resulting in numerous detentions, injuries, and even deaths, including of a 23-year-old victim who was "raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed with a stone." Just last week, a Russian neo-Nazi group brutally bullied and tortured a gay teenager after falsely advertising to meet the boy for a date.
Given this dangerous backdrop, one might wonder why even the most dedicated LGBT rights activist would travel to Russia, knowing full well that any discussion of the topic could result in detention, fines, or worse. But Kris van der Veen, a 33-year-old Dutch LGBT rights activist-turned-filmmaker, decided that the risk of having personal stories untold far outweighed any danger to himself. After being followed, detained, interrogated, fined, hauled into court, and nearly unable to leave the country, Kris explained to me why he made the trip to Russia on July 17th — and why, even after the ordeal, he wants to go back.
Kris's involvement in the LGBT community began more than three years ago, when he was asked lead a small foundation in his hometown, Groningen, Netherlands. His task was to raise funds from the Dutch government to organize events and projects supporting LGBT rights.
In 2012, the mayor of Groningen traveled to Murmansk, Russia — Groningen's sister city for more than 25 years — where he visited the "House of Equality," a human rights organization which organizes all kinds of activities for LGBT youth, including sports and psychological assistance for struggling LGBT teens. After returning to the Netherlands, the mayor wrote to Kris and asked him to visit Murmansk to provide the House of Equality additional resources, including contacts and knowledge about the broader LGBT movement.
Kris, already closely following the Russian government's crackdown on the LGBT community, "wondered how [the new anti-gay law] affects people's daily lives," so he invited the chairman of the House of Equality of Murmansk to Groningen in March 2013. It was there that Kris told the chairman that he'd like to make a documentary about the daily lives of the LGBT community in Murmansk. The chairman thought it was a great idea, so Kris began raising funds for a trip to Russia in earlier this month.
On Wednesday, July 17th, Kris traveled to St. Petersburg. He arranged meetings with several Russian LGBT organizations to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground, including "Bok o Bok" ["Side by Side"] LGBT Film Festival, Coming Out, and the Russian LGBT Network.
All three organizations were actively involved in the fight for LGBT rights and had already faced significant persecution by the government. In June 2013, a magistrate judge returned a guilty verdict against both Coming Out and Side by Side for violating the "foreign agents" provision of the anti-LGBT law, fining both organizations a maximum penalty of 500,000 Rubles ($15,229) for accepting money from foreign entities. On appeal to a district court judge, Side by Side was found guilty, but the organization's fine was reduced to 400,000 Rubles ($12,183). The same appeals court dismissed Coming Out's fine, sending the case back to the lower magistrates' court on procedural grounds.
After his meeting in St. Petersburg, Kris traveled to Murmansk with a camera guy and a translator. Kris described Murmansk as a "very poor, gray, and dark" city where it's raining all the time — or as he described it to me half-jokingly, "a perfect ambiance for a sad story" about the LGBT community.
Kris didn't know what to expect when he arrived in Murmansk. He hoped to interview several LGBT youth (ages 18-23, as well as adults over 23) at a campsite called "Frigate," a cultural event for the LGBT community held under the title "Youth for Human Rights Camp." But interest in his work far exceeded his expectations; a long line of young LGBT people wanted to tell their stories. Kris wound up interviewing around 8-10 people that day, ranging in age from 18 to 60. Most of them were young members of the House of Equality who had yet to tell their parents they were gay, fearing abandonment or worse.
The following weekend, July 20-21, a human rights seminar was held in Murmansk. Kris gave one of the seminars on Saturday, July 20, explaining the history of LGBT rights in the Netherlands and expressing the hope to his Russian audience that their country might follow a similar trajectory.
On Sunday, Kris was walking in a hallway with several other Dutch activists when 15 people surrounded him. Most were policemen, many in uniform and others in police clothes. They told Kris and his fellow activists to go to a small room. It was there that the interrogations began.
First, Kris was questioned about the seminar he gave on human rights because the police said he needed a special visa to deliver such a lecture. Several hours and many intense moments later, Kris and his colleagues were fined more than 3,000 Rubles (about $90). At this point, Kris said that he and his colleagues "were very glad because [we] thought we would go to prison." Kris explained that he "wasn't even afraid of going to prison because [he] thought, 'I haven't done anything wrong.'"
But even as the first interrogation concluded, the questions were becoming exceedingly nasty. The Russian police would frequently yell and stare at Kris and his compatriots.
Finally, after more than three hours of questioning, the immigration police left, but the activists were then told that other police wanted to talk to them. What was at first a terrible ordeal was about to become an 8-10 hour nightmare, with no breaks to use the restroom or for food or water.
The second group of police were even less pleased than the first. They wanted to know about a girl Kris had interviewed for his documentary. The police claimed that she was 17 years old, and that her presence in the documentary would violate a provision of the anti-LGBT law that prohibited speaking with minors about "non-traditional sexual relations." They wanted documents proving the girl's age, but Kris and his colleagues didn't have any. The police claimed that Kris's interviews were a form of "homopropaganda" and violated Russian law.
But Kris's interrogators weren't done yet. Through a translator, they began asking Kris if he was a gay spy of some sort, sent from the Netherlands to corrupt Russian youth.
"Do you think LGBT people are better than straight people?"
"Does Netherlands have a better society for gay people?"
"You are the only gay person here, right?"
"Have you told heterosexuals to become homosexuals?"
Kris said at that point he began laughing uncontrollably, overcome by the ridiculousness of the interrogation. His interrogator didn't understand why he was so amused. "It was great," Kris said.
Finally, after more than 8 hours, the questions stopped. The police told Kris and his colleagues that he needed to appear in court at 9 a.m. the following morning.
Kris explained, "We really felt like we didn't have any other choice [but to go to court], so I didn't sleep for more than one hour [the night before]. I was wondering what should I do, because I have a very good friend who's a member of the European Parliament and a LGBT activist, and she said she could send a message to the press. But I didn't know if I wanted to do that, because it might make things [worse, and] the Russians might want to just make a statement [with my case]."
On Monday, July 21, Kris decided to call his friend, urging her to alert international media.
Kris described the courtroom as "a very small lobby where we didn't feel like we could speak free." He and his colleagues had a hard time obtaining an attorney through the Dutch consulate given the short time frame, so they were forced to rely on an court-appointed Russian attorney who didn't speak much English. It was as if "we were being watched at all times," Kris said, as if the entire court seemed to be working for the same opposing team.
Several police came in and out of the courtroom throughout the day, presenting evidence that Kris and his colleagues had the wrong visas and were promoting "homopropaganda." Russian human rights activists had also showed up, posting on Facebook, Twitter, and alerting Russian media of the situation. Strangely, the judge only addressed the human rights activists, never asking Kris and his colleagues a single question directly. A representative from the Norwegian consulate in Murmansk stopped by to help represent the Dutch activists' interests in Russia.
After a day-long hearing, the government's prosecution failed for want of "evidence" to initiate a full trial. Kris and his colleagues were finally told they could leave.
The group rushed to the Murmansk airport. When they arrived, police officers stopped them yet again, demanding in Russian that they sign a document agreeing to provide more information about the documentary and return to Murmansk in the future. Kris and his fellow activists refused, demanding to speak with a translator and an attorney. Finally, the police relented. The activists made it back to St. Petersburg, where they met with representatives from the Dutch consulate and quickly left the country.
Kris returned to the Netherlands early last week, shaken up but otherwise in good spirits. Russian police had confiscated his hard disk, but Kris had made copies and still had enough footage to complete the documentary.
When I asked Kris about how his experience in Russia affected him on a personal level, he told me that a Russian radio station warned him that it would be very risky to go back to the country (as he had told the media he would) because so many people were talking about what had happened.
"My picture is everywhere. A lot of the comments after the articles say I should be hanged to the highest tree, for example. Stuff like that. It's very extreme," Kris said. "So, yes, I think I am a bit frightened, but I never had the feeling there that I should say I'm not gay. I felt like, okay, if you want to put me in jail because I'm gay, do whatever you want, because I feel more strongly saying who I am and telling what I did instead of lying about who I am."
"Yesterday I drove to Amsterdam, and sometimes I think a car is following me. Sometimes I talk about the week I was in Murmansk, and I wonder if someone is listening to my conversation, because we know we were being followed that week, and later on Russian people told us that probably the Secret Service knew about my plans long before I came to Murmansk and they were following me, and they were looking for whatever they could find to make a statement."
He continued, "And this is just a small thing when you compare [my experience] to other dissidents or people who think differently in a broader area. I didn't realize that there was such a big secret police [apparatus] that was working beside all the ministries and have so many possibilities to get to know you, to get information, to put pressure [on you]. And [the police] also [made] a lot of mistakes while questioning us for 8 hours. They questioned us without food or drinks, without telling us what our rights were. It's really harmful, but [the police] think, 'Oh, whatever. No big deal.'"
When asked about what can be done internationally to help the LGBT community in Russia (like pouring out Russian vodka, or boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics), Kris told me that a Russian activist advised him "to go for 'positive provocation.'"
"I like the term, because you don't say, 'Okay, we quit all ties with Russia,' with the 'expectation that the Russians will say, "Okay, we'll stop the anti-gay law, let's work together again,'" he explained. "I think [the Russians] have too much pride to do that. I think the [Russian] government wants to build this country with values and norms which are old-fashioned, and I think it's really important for countries and for cities like Groningen [in the Netherlands] to have these ties with other cities and governments in Russia so that these exchanges can take place, people can come here from Russia and the other way around, and we can try to work together."
While some LGBT people in the Netherlands have suggested that the country break all sister city ties with Russia, Kris feels that this approach would be misplaced. It sends the message that activists in other countries are washing their hands of the issue, rather than investing, visiting, and working to change things in Russia. He noted, "It's very passive to say, 'We don't want anything to do with you.'"
Regarding the potential Olympics boycott, Kris said that he had read that Russia would suspend the law for the event. He found that tactic bizarre, as it simply shows "how ineffective and stupid the law truly is." He suggested that other countries whose athletes participate the 2014 Olympics organize a large gay pride march "to show diversity and visibility." As for pouring out vodka, Kris said that for those outside of Russia, it is simply a matter of making a statement, but a statement that people in Russia need to hear. Symbolic acts of protest — or actual protests in the streets — might give the LGBT community hope and optimism.
"Much of the time we don't realize how lucky we are (in the Netherlands) with a government that says, 'There has to be space for differences. There has to be a society where people can be different.' That really is a luxury. I'm lucky that I was born in the Netherlands and not in Russia," he said. "So maybe this vodka thing will [at least] help raise the awareness of gays who just go to bars and drink vodka."
Kris believes that LGBT activists have one of the strongest networks in the world, but he is surprised to now be considered among their ranks. "I'm now a gay activist, I read," he said jokingly. "I don't know what to think about it."
However, he thinks that LGBT individuals and their allies can do a lot more to change things. In Netherlands and other Western countries where gay rights are more widely accepted, "it's very easy to [be complacent]," and presume the fight for equality has been won. While donating to organizations that fight for LGBT rights around the world is important, Kris believes activists would have an easier time — and are often more effective — changing their own societies. In the Netherlands, for example, where research shows that nearly all Dutch people support LGBT rights, Kris remains deeply troubled by instances of bullying and pockets of intolerance that continue to plague the gay community there.
I asked Kris what his next steps will be, whether he will consider going back to Russia even in the face of death threats. "I wish I could go back [to Russia] when the documentary is finished and to show it, because that's no crime," he explained. "[But] you have of anti-gay people and bullying there. So that might be the biggest fear I have."
Meanwhile, the LGBT organizations Kris met with in Russia continue to be trapped in an oppressive society that refuses to tolerate them. "The LGBT groups find it very difficult, because they want to educate [the community]," Kris told me. "They want to tell parents that it's okay whether you're gay or you have another religion, etc. But they cannot do that anymore because then it's 'propaganda.' So that's a problem for them."
But Kris worries most about the young people he encountered in Murmansk — the LGBT youth persecuted by their own government and shunned for who they are. "For people who think a gay person is not a normal person, they see the government supports it, because the [Russian] government says it shouldn't be promoted and you shouldn't talk about it with children. And that affects their lives." Before he filmed his young subjects, Kris always explained to them that being openly gay on camera can have drastic consequences for their safety. These same young people who later told Kris, "You have to make sure this film is finished." He intends to do just that.
As we concluded our talk, I asked Kris if there's anything in particular young Americans should know — and do —about his story. He told me he really likes the positive approach of the It Gets Better Project, where millions of people have shared powerful personal stories about coming out, overcoming obstacles, and living openly. On his way back to Amsterdam from Russia last week, Kris said that he was overcome with emotion. "I was pretty upset. It felt really hard leaving people [in Russia], because I'm not sure if it's 'getting better' there."
With more anti-gay laws on the way, the outlook isn't particularly encouraging for the LGBT community in Russia. Yet, as all activists must, Kris remains hopeful that in the end amplifying the voices of LGBT people there will make a difference.
"It's a small light in the darkness," he said.