There is no LGBTQ liberation without visibility. It is freedom, equality, and privilege — and in places like Russia, visibility also demands immense courage. Under the country’s so-called “gay propaganda law”, in place since 2013, there is no space for LGBTQ representation in the cultural mainstream, whether that’s in the media, public spaces, or in education. But that hasn’t stopped a new generation of queer creatives, bloggers, and influencers from creating a new kind of representation that is digital, personal, and political.
The year 2020 has been difficult for Russian LGBTQ community so far: feminist artist and LGBTQ activist Yulia Tsvetkova is facing up to six years in prison for her body positive drawings; new constitutional amendments define family as “a union between a man and a woman”; an ice-cream brand was accused of promoting homosexuality by having rainbow packaging; and a new bill to “strengthen the institution of family” threatens the rights of trans people.
But despite the increasing governmental pressure, the queer underground — or perhaps more accurately, the digitally-powered, queer parallel universe — is thriving. In the last two years, O-zine, an independent magazine about Russian queer culture, has become a vital consolidating force for the LGBTQ community, while a whole range of smaller independent publications and blogs on Russian queer life have also made their presence felt. Izvestnye Tetki is reclaiming Russia’s male gay history in all its glory; Queer Screen seeks out the hidden LGBTQ icons in Russian and Soviet cinema; Lesbian Lobby Telegram and Let’s U-Haul! Youtube channel keep up to date with lesbian life, Washed Hands provides queer sex education.
This new visibility, however, is not limited to content platforms. It’s also about the people who are open and outspoken about their life and experiences. The representation they create is radical, although it might not always look like that: it can also be soft, fun, light-hearted, and even seemingly mundane. This openness is an equivalent of holding hands on the street: a gesture so small, but so significant for queer couples. This generation is creating the new language of love and intimacy which was previously non-existent for Russia’s LGBTQ youth.
“A jab against homophobia,” reads Kamila’s instagram tagline. Based in St Petersburg, she writes about queer love and relationships, mental health, being Asian, and the preconceptions she has to face in Russian society with its homophobic and sexist politics. “People ask me why LGBTQ people are proud of their sexual preferences, and why heterosexual people aren’t,” she writes. “But for me, it’s obvious that it’s because heterosexual people and their families don’t have to fight for themselves as much as LGBTQ community has to all over the world. I love my family, and I’m proud of us for fighting against the old men in power.”
Sasha Rakhmanov is an LGBTQ activist, blogger and YouTuber who “writes about relationships, LGBTQ sex and equality.” He is also a host of Queer News, a YouTube show which spotlights positive stories from the Russian queer community. A big part of Rakhmanov’s life is his relationship with musician Roman Danilove. Together, they starred in Danilove’s recent music video Automobile: heartbreakingly beautiful ode to their real-life love story.
“I would have loved to be openly gay [earlier], but it’s impossible not to hide your sexuality in Russia. Sometimes I have to hide the person I love. Imagine if a heterosexual couple had to behave like they’re in a relationship in private, but in public act like friends,” he writes. “Millions of people think that I am imposing something on them, but I just want to be myself. I want to throw away this mask of a ‘friend’ and stop hiding the best in me.”
With a combined audience of more than 380K followers on Instagram, Nastya Larkicheva and Marina Basistaya may be Russia’s best-known lesbian couple. They’re both bloggers, while Basistaya is also a talented videographer. They open their lives to the world: whether that’s travelling, friends, jobs, clothes, or their evolving love story.
Sonya is an actress based in St Petersburg. She frequently appears on Instagram with her girlfriend Nika, providing a “dose of rainbow love”: a safe space to discuss queerness, body positivity, and living in Russia as a creative. “What I do isn’t propaganda. It’s simply showing that it is possible to love whoever you want, if it makes you happy. I often forget why I have this blog, which is the reassurance I need that I am doing something important and needed. But then I remember that I also used to be a little girl who didn’t know the word lesbian and throught that she was completely alone in her town and her country, a lonely soul with no chance for escape. I wish I had been told earlier that I was not a mistake. I think it would have made it easier to deal with my fears, insecurity, and vulnerability to this day,” she writes.
@russiaforgays is the Instagram home of Fyodor and Igor. Neither of them are full-time bloggers — but they hope to show the love, intimacy, cuddles, and day-to-day life of their relationship in a positive light. Allowing gay and queer people to simply be normal in society’s eyes is something is still regarded as out of the ordinary in Russia. “On our account, we talk about our life. We are a regular couple. Together, we go through difficult and happy moments. We work, study, drink beer and hang out with friends. We have a dog,” they write. “We want to show that gay people are people, just like everyone else”.