Being a gay activist in Russia | Stonewall
Chwaraewch Ran
Russian LGBT Pride

Being a gay activist in Russia

Nikita is a gay activist who was born and lives in Russia. He attended Stonewall's International Campaigners Programme in 2015. Here is his story:

I’ve noticed that every time I watch a ‘coming out’ video (and trust me, I’ve checked out, like, a million of them), the person talks about how they realised they were LGBT and how they then came out to their relatives and friends. But, I guess my story would be a little different (don’t worry, I’m not going to get into all the details!) because when I first realised I was attracted to men, I didn’t really know what ‘gay’ meant.

There has never been anyone on Russian TV that is openly LGB or T and the word “gay” was mainly used as a way to describe effeminate or flamboyant men. So, I ended up thinking ‘being gay’ had nothing to do with sexual orientation (and I don’t think I’d ever heard of lesbians, bisexuals or trans people back then either), just the clothes someone wears, basically.

Now, imagine a 13-year-old boy, living in a small town in Southern Siberia, who has never heard of ‘actual’ gay people, who is totally naive and finds himself in the situation where he feels sexually frustrated and attracted to this singer Díma Bilán (Uh, a pop-star! You could’ve done it better, Nikita!) who was very popular back in the early 2000s in Russia. Confused? Maybe. Scared to death? That’d be about right.

That’s how I remember the first time I ever knew I was different. And it took me quite some time to figure out what it was and how to deal with it.

Dima Bilan - Russian pop star

Díma Bilán

I guess the hardest thing about being LGBT in Russia is the lack of role models and I think that’s why it takes a lot to actually come out. You’re not simply scared of people’s reactions; you also feel lost in your way.

When you grow up, you’re taught you’re going to meet your other half one day, and get married and have kids.

But what if you’re gay?

 – I used to think. “How do I get to do all of that stuff? Am I going to have kids? What do I do after I graduate from school? What if they find out about my orientation at work? What should my aspirations be?”.

These were the questions that kept bothering me and which I had no answers to. I just didn’t know what my life was going to look like after or if I came out, and I didn’t have anyone to look up to. The new law banning “homosexual propaganda among minors” that was being passed about the same time I started seriously questioning my sexuality only added fuel to the fire.

Luckily, I was pretty good at English and that helped me do my research. That’s how I got to know about all the amazing things the Trevor Project and Stonewall were doing in the US and the UK and also sparked my interest in gender studies.

It was definitely a breath of fresh air and gave me so much motivation that I wanted to live again. After about a year of trying to accept myself and succeeding in it (sort of), I started thinking:

What about everyone else who doesn't know how to speak English? Where do they find their inspiration?

I realised I had this knowledge that could actually be pretty useful if I shared it with others, so that their coming out might go a little smoother.

I also noticed that even within the LGBT community, there's still a lot of stigma about people’s sexuality. It surprised me how much self-hatred and internalised homophobia there was. I wanted to know what other people's experiences were like.

That’s why I joined the Russian LGBT Network’s hotline as a volunteer, and later continued my activism in a few other LGBT organisations in Saint Petersburg, mostly focusing on educational workshops about LGBT history and queer studies. I felt like I could spread the word and help my queer friends out with these ideas, while also learning myself.

Being LGBT and living in a country so full of stereotypes and ignorance kind of makes you become an activist. You simply don’t have any other choice. I personally didn’t choose to be one. I just wanted people not to take me for granted, I wanted to be… treated equally.

And the easiest (only) way I found was to talk to people and educate them (because they will never Google “ Are gay people actually not all bad?” themselves). There might not be someone else who could do that for you, especially when members of your community are being marginalised and sometimes even demonised on a federal level.

Do I want to give up? Sometimes. A lot of the time. Do I think of moving to a country that has better policies towards its LGBT citizens? Yes, absolutely. Especially after I come home from another Tinder date that I've had to 'fake-phone-call leave', because the cute guy I was with said he thinks feminine gays and masculine lesbians are a disgrace to the LGBT community. But what I learnt after all these years of being a gay activist in Russia is that it’s within your power to make the world a little better (no matter how cheesy that sounds). It never comes easy. But it feels so good when you see changes happen.

Young LGBT people in Russia still need role models, just like I needed them back in the day. I want to do my best to become a role model for them some day and that’s why I’m still in the game.

If you want to make become an activist and make a difference like Nikita, apply for Stonewall's Young Campaigners Programme. Applications are open until 5 September.