While LGBTQ Tolerance Thrives in Long Beach, its Sister City Sochi Has Far to Go

Valery Gannenko, 24, is a part-time reporter for the Moscow-based newspaper Sobesednik (Собеседник) and a contributing author for several media projects (FURFUR, Open Russia, Afisha). Gannenko is visiting the Long Beach Post newsroom for the next two weeks as an intern with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) exchange program. Read his introduction here.

My congratulations to all the residents of Long Beach city: you are living in one of the best places for LGBTQ people nationwide. Long Beach provides care for LGBTQ seniors, youngsters and homeless; there is comparatively little discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender in the city. The LGBTQ community is fully included in the city’s life—so the city has earned 100 points out of 100 for that. LGBTQ Pride is a really big event here, and Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride, Inc. has gifted almost a million dollars back to the community.

While Long Beach city’s results are brilliant, the average number of points earned by cities is 73, which is definitely not bad. But there is always a bad apple in the crop, and this time it is closer than usual—in the family.

The Russian city of Sochi has been a sister-city to Long Beach for almost 28 years, and both Sochi and Long Beach have experienced a lot since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the increasing warmth of US-Russia relations—and the decrease of it—and eventually—the Olympics of 2014, held in Sochi.

It must be said, that through all this, Sochi has remained a good sister to Long Beach—while some other sister-cities abandoned their status. And both cities still experience benefits from this program: cultural and business exchanges, delegations sent both ways,and so on.

But 2013 brought tension between the two cities.The tensions were about the new laws, according to which “gay propaganda” or “information advocating for a denial of traditional family values” had become illegal in Russia. This transpired right before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Not long after that, President Vladimir Putin explained the meaning of this law to reporters stating “we have a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia. I want to underline this. Propaganda among children.”

Even if Putin has said “We are not forbidding anything,” they actually did.

Four Russian gay-rights activists were arrested on the first day of the Olympics, an Italian transgender-rights activist claimed that she was taken to the police station for carrying a pro-LGBTQ sign, and Sochi’s mayor’s comment became the icing on the cake.

“It [nontraditional family values] are not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live,” said AnatolyPakhomov, Sochi’s mayor at the time of the 2014 Olympics.“We do not have them in our city.” And these were the words he said right after his welcome-all-if-you-do-respect-our-laws speech.

It needs to be said that gay people are really not accepted in the Caucasus. This year, Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper, published an explosive article, describing how gay people in Chechnya (one of Russia’s federal subjects, located in the North Caucasus) are being arrested, tortured and even killed.

An anti-LGBTQ protest in Russia.

In 2014, the Long Beach City Council predictably condemned Russian anti-gay laws, with one former councilwoman comparing them to those that Nazi Germany had once employed.

Since June marks LGBTQ Pride Month in the US, (although The White House hasn’t recognized it) and a lot of public attention is driven to Russia due to those Trump-Putin relationship, the issue of gay rights in Russia and in Long Beach’s sister-city particularly, needs to be examined once more.

A brief history of LGBTQ in Russia

Having homosexual relationships has been a crime in Russia both during the reign of tszars and Bolsheviks. It was first explained by religious decrees, later—by laws passed by several Russian emperors.

But the religious explanation of banning homosexuality prevailed—laws were based on the orthodox mentality of Russian people and monarchs. Still, a lot of Russian artists, writers and others were openly gay then.

When the Bolsheviks came to power, there was a short period where homosexual relations were allowed due to the abolishment of all old laws, the dramatic increase of secularity and anti-Christian public sentiment. But all of this ended with communist party members growing more suspicious about LGBTQ persons—though some of the party leaders were, themselves, homosexuals.

During the reign of Josef Stalin, LGBTQ relationships again were completely banned. Again homosexuality became illegal—according to the 121th Article of the criminal code.

Homosexuality was often associated with espionage and counter-revolution, with those charges often being conflated.

The article banning homosexuality remained in the Russian criminal code until 1993. It was assumed that after the Bolshevik reign ended, things would change, but Putin’s rise to power has been followed by a  Russian society where state authorities and its people have become more and more traditional.

What Russia has now are gay teachers in schools being targeted by homophobic activists, with some eventually being fired, gay marriages being banned, gay parades being shut down by police and (sometimes) Russian nationalists. Attempts to help gay teenagers manage social barriers have also been said to be a violation of Russian laws.

LGBTQ and the Russian Orthodox Church

Despite Christians and sexual minorities both having been oppressed by the Soviet Union, where one might assume they should be more understanding of each other’s struggle, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently held a negative attitude to those connected to LGBTQ issues.

In 2007, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, proclaimed homosexuality to be an illness, comparing it to “distortion of the human personality like kleptomania.” Alexy II died in 2008 and his successor, Patriarch Kirill, has been more aggressive in his statements against homosexuality.

In 2013, he declared that homosexuality was a “sign of Apocalypse.” Like Schipske did in 2013, Kirill also referenced the atrocities of Nazi Germany, except he called gay marriage a threat to humanity, claiming it was on par with the laws enacted by the Germans during World War II.  

While all of the highest authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church blame LGBTQ people for being a serious danger to “traditional values”, there are a certain number of liberal priests, who are sympathetic to the LGBTQ community. 

However, as long as one is  an orthodox priest, they are not allowed to be openly gay. One of the former priests—due to some bureaucratic issues he was still among the staff of the temple—once stated that he was gay, —and his statement was followed by a tremendous scandal. One of the main reasons being that in Russia homosexuality is often thought to be synonymous with pedophilia.

LGBT and Muslim community in the Caucasus

Chechnya, one of the most conservative Russian regions—and it is being encouraged by the Russian government to be even more traditional and conservative—is especially intolerant toward the LGBT community.

It is a common belief among the Chechen people that homosexuality does not exist in their community. Local Chechen authorities claim that there are no homosexuals in the republic. Some Chechen people are sure that homosexuality is the invention of “corrupt western culture,” and if one of the family members comes out as gay, it is considered a dishonor for the entire family with the honor of the family only being salvaged after the death of the LGBTQ family member.

A member of  a Chechen council on the development of civil society and human rights, Kheda Saratova proclaimed that “homosexuality is an evil that every citizen of the Republic will struggle with.” She added that if she received a statement about the murder of a homosexual, she would not investigate it, though she later claimed that the statement was a misunderstanding between her and a journalist.

The attitude toward homosexuality in this region is not only connected to its strong Muslim tradition, but also to the taboo attitude toward everything related to sex in the region. Dr. Irina Kosterina, the coordinator of the gender program at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, said, roughly, “even a wife’s pregnancy is discussed only through euphemisms, so they do not speak of homosexuality. And another reason is that local Chechen officials want to [appease politicians] in Moscow.”

LGBTQ in Russian jails

According to 2008 statistics reported by Kommersat, a reputable Russian newspaper, 18.2 percent of Russia’s population have been imprisoned or somehow prosecuted –a figure that amounts to nearly one in four men in Russia.

This means that a large portion of the country is familiar with the formal and informal rules of life in prison in Russia. That’s not taking into consideration prison officers—of which there are more than 300,000 in Russia.. A survey conducted by a data analysis group in Russia specifically for Gazeta.ru showed that almost 38 percent of participants know about those informal rules of behaving oneself in prison.

According to those rules, gay males in prison receive the worst treatment out of all inmates, often treated as subhuman. They are tasked with the worst jobs in the prison, they are not allowed to speak to “normal” prisoners, and are sometimes subjected to sexual violence. 

Everything that they touch is considered “dirty”. Being homosexual in a Russian prison is not the only way of becoming this kind of pariah—if “normal guys” consider their behavior as inappropriate, or other inmates steal something from their cell-mates, or they are an informant—there are dozens of reasons.

This attitude toward LGBTQ people remains in a person’s mentality, even after that person is freed from the jail.

The LGBTQ situation in Sochi now

The saddest thing surrounding the LGBTQ population in Russia, and Sochi particularly, is the LGBTQ person’s attitude toward themselves. I’ve written to dozens of them via a special social network—and only a couple agreed to talk about the changes that have occurred since 2014—the year when the scandal with gay rights in Russia broke.

All of them spoke in a unified  voice of the positive changes in the attitude toward the LGBTQ population.

“There still are two gay bars in the city,” says Dima, 28.

“We are no longer beaten in the streets,” says Max, 23.

“People at work know that I’m gay, and most of them are ok with that,” says Michail, 30.

Their answers were all very similar, but the glaring fact that “not being beaten in the streets anymore” qualifies as progress in the minds of the LGBTQ residents of Sochi is an indicator of just how far there still is to go.

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