MOSCOW — Russia’s gay-banning frenzy continues. It’s putting pressure on LGBT people all across the country, stopping them from marching, and even pushing some back toward the closet.
Russian hardliners like to claim that homosexuality is an “evil” sent to Russia from the West to reduce the already declining population. But until recently, the internet remained a safe space for Russian homosexuals, and online dating services grew increasingly popular, even in the most provincial towns.
Earlier this year, a court in the little town of Parabel in Siberia, without any warning or explanation, decided to ban BlueSystem, one of Russia’s most popular LGBT websites. Then the government’s telecommunications agency, Roskomnadzor, reacted to the court decision and banned the site. Internet providers started blocking it, without any notice to the BlueSystem administrators until, this month, the website’s users were astonished to see it shut down completely.
“The Kremlin is afraid of gays,” the BlueSystem team wrote in a post last week on its VKontakte social media page. “On the eve of the State Duma elections, the Kremlin activated its repressive machine and included the most popular Runet gay site, visited by over 100,000 people a day, in a list of banned internet resources.”
Moscow human rights activists were not surprised to discover such a measure was taken, as a new wave of pressure has begun.
“LGBT resources get blocked as part of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression online,” Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. “The authorities are also attempting to shut down Children-404 (Deti-404), an online support group for LGBT teens.”
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, gay activists often end up beaten or arrested for any attempts to demonstrate for their rights. When the Russian parliament passed a homophobic bill banning gay “propaganda” in 2013, dozens of gay activists took part in a "kissing protest" outside the State Duma in Moscow. They were harassed and pelted with eggs by anti-gay protesters. Police then detained about 20 LGBT activists. “The infamous gay propaganda law is used as a key tool to silence LGBT people,” Lokshina added.
The BlueSystem site, which can still be accessed outside Russia—and may be available using VPN from inside—published news about human rights violations, court hearings, and the banning of gay parades all across the country.
Earlier this year, the site reported that communities in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, St. Petersburg, and Tula, as well as in the Crimean towns of Yalta and Simferopol, asked Russian authorities to allow them to march in defense of LGBT rights, and everywhere they heard the same “Nyet!”
Last week BlueSystem published news from the Russian provincial town of Kaluga, where LGBT people asked authorities to allow them to demonstrate in the Park of Peace and Constitutions “in support of tolerant attitudes [and] respect for the rights and freedoms of homosexually orientated people in Russia.” What happened to that protest? It was banned.
Russian internet censor Roskomnadzor also has banned four political websites that called earlier this month for a boycott of the State Duma elections. Indeed, the Russian prosecutor general demanded that Roskomnadzor monitor the entire Russian internet and ban any site publishing anti-election agitation, the Regnum news agency reported in July.
Besides anti-government and gay “propaganda,” Roskomnadzor banned the websites YouPorn and PornHub.
In reaction, the Russian blogger community decided to talk about sex—a lot.
The protest was proposed by Daniel Trabun, an editor at Russian Esquire: “The government forced a prudish, sterile, and conservative attitude without any explanation or opportunity for discussion. This unhealthy duality also manifests in the lack of a neutral lexicon that we could use to talk about sex," Trabun wrote on Facebook.
Was the BlueSystem website providing Russian LGBT with information about sex? Of course it was. But there was much more.
“The BlueSystem website was mainly popular as a dating resource,” Pavel Lobkov, a Russian television anchor, told The Daily Beast. Lobkov was the first Russian to come out and publicly declare on live TV that he had HIV, and he said BlueSystem helped him meet others with the virus. “Dating on the internet is like water flowing downhill, it finds its own level, and people will always find a new way to date online.”
“The authorities do not understand that their banning machine is pushing LGBT people to hang out in parks, meet under trees, that sort of thing, which would definitely increase crime in Russia, as has happened in countries like Morocco,” Lobkov told The Daily Beast.
But the LGBT community is not giving up. In what will be, at this point, largely a symbolic gesture, two openly gay men—Aleksei Korolyov, 29, and Bulat Barantayev, 33—are running for seats in the State Duma.
“The LGBT community now is in a desperate situation and we need allies,” said Korolyov, who was quoted by the British newspaper The Independent. The LGBT candidates are running with the pro-European People’s Freedom Party (Parnas).
The gesture is important, said Korolyov, at a time when the authorities are facilitating homophobic discourse that, in turn, inspires hate crimes.
Before, people might have turned to BlueSystem for advice on how to stay safe. Now that option no longer exists in Russia.