QueerFest and “Side by Side” film festival in Saint Petersburg

In autumn 2014 two events were held in Saint Petersburg, which were related to LGBTI issues: in October QueerFest was held there and in November “Side by Side” film festival took place. Their organizers and participants encountered various troubles and obstacles.

The opening event of the QueerFest had to be moved to a different location because of the pressure on the owners of the space, which was booked for the event, and the threats to LGBTI activists from infamous Saint Petersburg city deputy Vitaly Milonov and radical Orthodox activists. The organizers of the event had to llok for a new location just a few hours before the beginning of the festival was scheduled and as a result of that some of the scheduled events for that day had to be cancelled. As soon as the public gathered for the event, homophobes headed by Vitaly Milonov blocked both entrances to the venue and tried to break inside, while at the same time they poured green disinfectant onto people. After they failed to get inside, they sprayed some gas, which was likely to contain sulfur and obstructed breath, and then blocked several hundred people inside by placing padlocks on the doors of the venue. However, the public was reserved and determined and the festival was opened. Police forces also were very “reserved” during the attack of homophobes: they interfered only after they had been approached by the officials of the Saint Petersburg ombudsman’s office, which were among the guests of the festival. In spite of the great number of people who filed complaints to the police, in spite of the active work of lawyers and abundance of photo and video footage of these attacks, only a single person, Timur Isayev, was formally charged with an administrative violation (petty hooliganism) and the court ruled that he should pay a small fine (Rb500).

Other events, which were part of QueerFest, also faced great obstacles: the program of the festival had to be cut short, events were moved to other venues and in some cases cancelled. In order to break up the festival, homophobes resorted to various pranks and even called in to report a bomb supposedly placed at one of the venues. But not a single person was formally charged neither for the pressure on the owners of the venue, nor for the false reports of bombs placed there, nor for the open threats and discriminatory public statements against LGBTI activists.

All the films scheduled for “Side by Side” film festival, which took place in November 2014, were showed in the end, but the festival organizers also had to change locations of the film shows, while the procurator’s office demanded to present all documents, authorizing screening of the films, on the opening day of the festival. Procurators also demanded organizers to visit procurator’s office the next day and even until now they continue to request various documents to be provided. The festival itself successfully took place partly due to the appeal of Saint Petersburg ombudsman A.Shilov, who had stated that discussing “uncomfortable” topics was very important and stressed that “violation of any single person’s rights… is harmful to the society as a whole”. The guards of “Sokos” hotels, which were booked for several events of the festival, also acted very professionally and prevented attacks by provocateurs against the organizers and guests of the festival.

Both QueerFest and “Side by Side” film festival were of utmost importance: these events in modern-day Russia are almost the only possibilities for open discussion of LGBTI topics, they feature experts, panel discussions, dissemination of information. Discussions were a very important feature of both events. Among the topics discussed as part of “Side by Side” film festival was the issue of emigration, which is often and actively debated in Russia nowadays: debate on “Emigration of LGBTI activists and political asylum: to run away or to stay?” was part of the festival’s program. Recently many human rights defenders, journalists, social activists were forced to leave the country. Those, who are not content with the way things are in Russia, with various violations of human rights and arbitrariness of state authorities, are more and more often subjected to repression. Recently political asylum was granted to Kirill Kalugin, who organized a picket on Dvortsovaya square in Saint Petersburg on Paratroopers’ Day. This LGBTI activist stated that the reason for emigration was the threat to his life and safety, which he had felt in Russia. Kalugin’s lawyer, Vitaly Cherkasov, who represented him in a court case following attacks on August 2, 2014, was attacked by homophobes right after the court session was over.

The problem of getting political asylum is complicated not only because of the complex procedure, but also due to the fact that often in a situation of objective need for escape due to personal safety considerations, the decision to emigrate is not adopted by many. While discussing the issue of asylum for LGBTI activists we need to point out several difficulties, among them a need to prove that a person is openly LGBTI. That means that while filing documents for getting political asylum, a person should state that he/she is LGBTI, otherwise request for political asylum may be considered ungrounded. But the pressure of stereotypes, pressure from the society and the state may be so strong that even if a person considers himself/herself LGBTI, an open statement about it may be an impossible step to take because he/she was used to hiding this in the past by all means necessary. It is also very often that the threats against LGBTI people start to appear after they openly come out.

Another problem is the necessity to collect evidence, which is required for substantiating the request for political asylum. While LGBTI persons are forced to hide their sexual orientation, which is different from “normal”, collecting and presenting such evidence may be problematic. Although there are some general requirements regarding providing evidence of one’s LGBTI status, it is also known that the more numerous and the more varied they are, the more likely they are to be accepted by the bodies, which decide on granting political asylum. There are cases, when people, who are able to testify on behalf of a person asking for political asylum regarding the latter’s LGBTI status, are not ready to testify, fearing for their own safety.

Yet another problem is granting political asylum to LGBTI couples: while in case of other political asylum seekers the whole family gets the asylum in case of a positive decision, in case of unregistered partnership of LGBTI persons the latter are obliged to file separate requests for political asylum while facing the necessity of collecting all the documents and evidence separately and running the risk of just one person in a couple being granted the asylum. It is also important to realize that all the documents have to be collected, translated, notarized, that the contacts of organizations providing assistance are to be known beforehand, as well as the information concerning where, when and how to apply for political asylum. At the same time the circumstances under which a person has to leave the country of his residence are often such, that there may be immediate threat to him/her and this leaves no chance to properly prepare for that.

Currently all of the above mentioned difficulties, which were discussed in the course of debates at the “Side by Side” festival, constitute the problems and procedures, which need to be resolved and simplified. Nevertheless, in spite of all these difficulties, emigration and getting political asylum status often remain the only possibility for a normal life for a person, who is not hiding his sexual orientation or his opinions and strives to continue his/her activities aimed directly or indirectly towards human rights defense and securing his/her own identity. It should be noted that people, who decide to emigrate, leave behind everything, which they had throughout their life, their home, relatives and friends, in order to seek asylum in countries, where they are not under threat to their life and safety.

by Inessa Sakhno