Skip to content

The LGBTQ+ lives caught in the grip of wartime Russia

by Anna-Maria Tesfaye March 29, 2024 9:01 PM 8 min read
A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'save trans people in Russia' during the fifth Trans Pride protest march for transgender freedom in London, United Kingdom, on July 8, 2023. (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
by Anna-Maria Tesfaye March 29, 2024 9:01 PM 8 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.

Become a member Support us just once

In the vast expanse of Russia, a country where the rigid chill of societal norms and legal strictures often bites more painful than the harshest winter frost, unfolds the poignant story of Ada Blakewell, a 23-year-old trans woman.

Her journey is a mirror, reflecting the trials and tribulations faced by many within the Russian LGBTQ+ community, now officially outlawed by the state.

Born into a setting that was steeped in conservative and deeply Orthodox traditions, Blakewell’s mere existence was a challenge to the norms her family and society held dear. The act of revealing her gender identity to her family, which should have been a moment of liberation and acceptance, morphed into the onset of a nightmarish chapter of her life.

Abducted by her mother, she was transported to an isolated location in the scenic but remote Altai region, bordering Kazakhstan. There, Blakewell was subjected to what was called "conversion therapy."

This period, extending over nine grueling months, was characterized by torment and suffering, a far cry from any form of therapeutic intervention.

Within the confines of the so-called conversion therapy camp, Blakewell was subjected to a regimen of physically exhaustive and psychologically damaging activities.

She was fed sedatives against her will, forced to sign documents while being physically tortured, and after an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Blakewell was severely beaten.

The camp was a place where forced labor, physical violence, and mental manipulation were rampant, all under the pretext of "curing" Blakewell of her transgender identity.

The ordeal Blakewell faced was meticulously designed to exert physical and emotional tolls, leading to the development of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that continues to haunt her.

For the moment, Blakewell has left the country and is helping and advocating for trans people from and in Russia.

Blakewell’s experience serves as a grim reminder of the oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that overshadows life in Russia.

The enactment of the so-called "trans ban" law in the summer of 2023 stands as a stark manifestation of this repression.

This law, signed into action by Russian President Vladimir Putin, prohibits not only medical interventions aimed at gender transition but also the legal recognition of such changes in official documents. The ban extends to the annulment of marriages if one partner is transgender and restricts their rights to adopt children.

This legislation effectively makes it impossible for transgender individuals to align their legal identities with their gender identity, compounding the difficulties they face in a society already marked by severe discrimination and lack of acceptance.

A view of the State Duma building, the lower chamber of Russia's parliament, in central Moscow on October 27, 2022. The Duma unanimously passed amendments toughening a notorious 2013 "gay propaganda" law in a first reading on October 27, its official website said. The ammendments extend the law that previously criminalised spreading what authorities deemed "gay propaganda" to minors to all Russian adults. The bill now outlaws "gay propaganda" in the media, internet, advertisement, literature and cinema. Violators could face fines up to five million rubles for "LGBT propagnda". (Kirill Kudryavtsev /AFP via Getty Images)

The introduction of this law is a significant regression in the rights of transgender individuals, effectively erasing their identities from legal recognition and imposing a state-sanctioned denial of their existence.

It represents the culmination of years of increasingly hostile rhetoric and legislation against the LGBTQ+ community under the guise of protecting "traditional values."

Critics and human rights organizations argue that these measures will exacerbate the already high rates of mental health issues, including suicide and depression, among transgender people by denying them access to essential healthcare and legal acknowledgment of their gender identity.

Furthermore, the law encourages the proliferation of an underground market for gender-affirming surgeries and treatments, pushing these medical practices into unsafe and unregulated spaces.

“Openly trans people (in Russia) have only three options now,” Blakewell says, “Leave Russia, live underground in disguise which sounds horrible or not give up and fight, but it looks like the last option leads to persecution from both the government and, what is worse, right-wing activists.”

Ban on LGBTQ+

In November 2023, Russian Supreme Court's decision to label the "international LGBT movement" as "extremist," has starkly intensified the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in general within the country.

This ruling, emerging from a lawsuit by the Justice Ministry accusing the LGBT movement of inciting social and religious discord, has effectively jeopardized all forms of LGBTQ+ rights activism in Russia.

Under this classification, participating in or financing an extremist organization can lead to severe legal consequences, including imprisonment for up to 12 years and significant restrictions on personal freedoms and civil rights.

The UN experts have condemned this decision, highlighting its dangerous precedent and the negative consequences it poses, effectively banning all public LGBTQ+ activities and organizations in Russia. They've expressed concerns about the broad application and potential for abuse of this ruling, which continues a troubling trend of state-sponsored human rights violations against LGBTQ+ individuals in the country.

Russian riot police detained gay rights activist during World Day Against Homophobia and Transophobia in Saint Petersburg on May 17, 2019. - About ten LGBT activists took part in the protest with four arrested by the police in Russia's second largest city. (Olga Maltseva /AFP via Getty Images)

Human rights activist, Caleb, who’s last name is omitted to protect him from persecution in Russia, stated that this court decision could lead to a blanket ban on LGBTQ+ organizations working in and with people from Russia, violating rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, as well as the right to be free from discrimination.

This ruling threatens to undo decades of progress made by LGBTQ+ activists, potentially inspiring new levels of violence against LGBTQ+ persons across Russia.

The court’s ruling gave a green light to common people who are queerphobic to attack those who they suspect are part of the now outlawed community.

“If you are queer or even look queer, like you dyed your hair pink or something, face piercing, people on the street can be aggressive towards you,” Blakewell says.

“Now you can commit hate crimes and (it’s implied by the government that) that’s ok!”

Before this court ruling and the so-called trans ban, Russia significantly expanded its "gay propaganda" law in November 2022, making the public expression or promotion of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and identities across all ages illegal.

This legislation, approved unanimously by the State Duma, imposed hefty fines for any perceived promotion of homosexuality in public spaces, online platforms, films, books, and advertising.

The law equates any positive or neutral representation of non-heterosexual orientations and non-cisgender identities with "propaganda," subjecting individuals to fines up to 400,000 rubles ($4,300) and legal entities up to 5 million rubles ($54,000).

Foreigners face arrest and deportation for violations.

This broad and vague legislation already left much to law enforcement's interpretation, increasing risks for the LGBTQ+ community.

Imprisonment for ‘gay propaganda’

In a stark illustration of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, the experiences of Haoyang Xiu and Gela Gogishvili offers a glimpse into the personal impact of the nation’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance.

Haoyang, originally from China, had been living in Russia since he decided to pursue studies at the Kazan Federal University.

Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg May 1, 2013, during their rally against a controversial law in the city that activists see as violating the rights of gays. (Olga Maltseva /AFP via Getty Images)

It was during his time in Kazan that Haoyang, then 21, met 24-year-old Gogishvili from Moscow.

They began dating and sharing their experience through a blog, celebrating their relationship and the intertwining of their diverse backgrounds.

However, their openness about their relationship attracted unwelcome scrutiny.

On April 5, 2023, the two were detained by police on charges of spreading “LGBT propaganda.” While Gogishvili was released with only a warning, Haoyang faced a harsher fate: a seven-day arrest followed by a court order for deportation.

Now seeking asylum in France, Haoyang reflects on the harrowing time spent in a migrant jail, where the emotional toll was compounded by homophobic and racist insults from the guards.

‘Traditional values’

From the expanded “gay propaganda” law to the extremism court hearing is part of a broader crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia, where the government argues it is protecting "traditional values" against a supposedly corrupting Western influence.

The legislations' architects claim they shield society, particularly children, from "hybrid warfare" purportedly waged through LGBTQ+ "propaganda."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a forum for family values in Moscow on January 23, 2024. (Photo by Sergei Karpukhen/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Talia Kollek, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, specializing in Russian LGBTQ+ studies, claims that queer people have become a target in Russia because they are an easy scapegoat and readily associated with the West.

According to Kollek, after the fall of the Soviet Union, where homosexuality was a criminal offense, the newfound visibility of LGBTQ+ topics in Russia coincided with the sudden import of Western goods, media, and culture.

This correlation meant that homosexuality could be interpreted as yet another foreign import, which has had sinister implications for the fate of LGBTQ+ rights in Russia.

In times of political, economic, or social unrest, Vladimir Putin has shored up his political legitimacy by framing himself as the defender of Russian “traditional values,” targeting LGBTQ+ people as a particularly dangerous external “threat.” It is therefore no surprise that LGBTQ+ rights have come under attack in earnest following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

This development represents a significant regression in LGBTQ+ rights within Russia, setting a concerning precedent for the suppression of freedom of expression and the promotion of discriminatory policies under the guise of protecting societal values.

Katya Dikovskaya, a seasoned human rights lawyer working as a head of legal help for a Russian human rights group called Sphere, outlines the current legal quagmire surrounding the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals.

The government’s failure to officially publish court orders or explicitly list LGBTQ+ organizations as extremist leaves both the community and its advocates navigating a minefield of ambiguities.

“They (the government) still haven’t put any of the LGBTQ+ organizations into the extremist list, the only thing we know for now is that the term ‘LGBTQ’ itself and the flag are considered extremist,” Dikovskaya says.

“However, one lady was fined for wearing rainbow earrings, but this is actually illegal even by current rules, as the court order hasn’t been officially published. You can’t be fined for something you don’t know is illegal,” she adds.

Moreover, this is a great loophole for the government: they can arrest anyone for anything as there are no rules until they publish this court order.”

Basically, at the moment it’s really hard to figure out who can be persecuted.

This legal gray area not only complicates the understanding of what constitutes illegal activities but also opens the door for arbitrary enforcement by authorities.

There have already been cases of people who were reported for using gay dating apps, posting stuff online, and so on.

Speaking of NGOs and activism, psychological and legal help is not illegal, however any events and advocacy is a reason to be persecuted.

These measures not only restrict the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community but also set a concerning precedent for the suppression of dissent and the promotion of discriminatory policies under the guise of protecting societal values.

Dikovskaya emphasizes the ambiguity surrounding the application of these laws.

The lack of clear rules and the government’s failure to officially publish court orders create a legal gray area, leaving both the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates in a state of uncertainty.

This situation allows for the arbitrary enforcement of laws, potentially leading to widespread persecution based on vague criteria.

Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.
Freedom can be costly. Both Ukraine and its journalists are paying a high price for their independence. Support independent journalism in its darkest hour. Support us for as little as $1, and it only takes a minute.
visa masterCard americanExpress

Editors' Picks

Enter your email to subscribe
Please, enter correct email address
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
* indicates required


* indicates required
Successfuly subscribed
Thank you for signing up for this newsletter. We’ve sent you a confirmation email.