Mikhail (Misha) Tumasov (46) is an activist for LGBTQ+ human rights from Russia. He dreamed of becoming a priest. But as a gay man, he was compelled to take another path. Today he works with e.g. the Russian LGBT Network.
Upon being asked what he likes and dislikes most about his homeland, Tumasov pauses for a moment. “The question is both very easy and very difficult,” he says. “I like the moments when I feel good and meet people. Yet those same moments can also make me feel sad and alone.”
This is an answer most people will readily understand – yet it also sheds light on the conflicts facing LGBTIQ+ people in the Russian Federation. The world’s largest country in terms of area is home to a wide range of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. On the one hand its sheer size and diversity offer many possibilities for people to live their lives and come together with others. On the other hand, (state-supported) disinformation and propaganda, a near-totalitarian political environment, and economic difficulties especially outside the major cities pose hardships for marginalized groups in particular.
Tumasov comes from Astrachan, a southern Russian city in the Volga Delta near the Kazakh border and not far from the Caucasus Mountains. Born in 1975, his road to LGBT+ activism has been marked by the desire for community and representation, and by a belief in mutual understanding and dialogue. “I grew up in a typical Soviet family,” he says. “My mother, father, brother and all of us were atheists of course. But my spiritual path began at the age of 14.” He joined the local church and later decided to attend the Catholic seminary in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But there he realized that biblical studies would not dispel what he considered his ’sinful nature’. He left the program and aspired to become an English teacher. It was only after an attempted suicide that he began to overcome his self-loathing and find an LGBT-friendly group in Moscow that helped him accept himself as a gay man. This in turn led him in 2011 to found Avers, an LGBT organization in Samara, a city in his home region. Avers was the first LGBT human-rights organization in the Volga area. A few years later he returned to Saint Petersburg and began working with the Russian LGBT Network.
Russia’s state-supported anti-LGBT climate
Tumasov’s path through different regions and institutions is not unusual in Russia. While organizations can offer visibility and a sense of belonging to people seeking free and autonomous lifestyles, they are increasingly becoming targets of an ever more anti-LGBTIQ+ regime. Although homosexuality is not prohibited by law in Russia and people can do what they like in their private lives, freedom of expression is sharply restricted, positive portrayals of LGBTIQ+ lives in public are essentially impossible, and the work of human-rights defenders and journalists (to name just two endangered groups) is severely limited.
In 2013 an “Anti-LGBT Propaganda Law” went into effect, prohibiting “propaganda for non-traditional relations” among minors. Although the law has led to hardly any actual convictions, the devil is in the details. Because definitions of “propaganda” are extremely vague, the mere visibility of LGBTIQ+ people in public spaces can be seen as subject to prosecution. This restricts public discourse and promotes self-censorship. Above all, it fosters a climate that pushes LGBTIQ+ people and projects ever closer to penalization.
There are multiple factors behind this law and the hostility toward LGBTIQ+ people, which have led among other things to an increase in LGBTIQ+ hate crimes (and a very high number of unreported cases). These factors include the church (usually Russian Orthodox) and its connections with the regime, plus a media landscape that takes or is compelled to take a similar approach. Debates about LGBTIQ+ rights therefore also need to consider the rule of law, state censorship and freedom of the press. The Russian state has recently taken substantially harsher action against what the Kremlin views as ‘undesirable organizations’ and ‘foreign agents’. The former have to cease essentially all their activities in Russia. This applies especially to funds and NGOs, recently including various German organizations such as the Deutsch-Russische Austausch and Zentrum Liberale Moderne. In July 2021 this was also applied for the first time to an independent portal, namely the Projekt.Media investigative platform. ‘Foreign agents’ can still be active, but are required to label all their publications and organizations as such, and show all sources of income. In addition to numerous media outlets (such as Meduza.org) and NGOs (including those with LGBTIQ+ focuses), this can also affect individuals (often journalists and activists). Since November 2021, it has also applied to Tumasov’s organization, the Russian LGBT Network, and its cofounder, the activist Igor Kochetkov.
What all these media and other organizations have in common is that their work includes the promotion of LGBTIQ+ rights, or at least the production of objective reports on the topic. From the Kremlin’s perspective this is a welcome opportunity to link critical voices about its policies with positive reports on queer life, and to depict “Gayropa”* as inimical to Russian sovereignty. “LGBT” is turned into a shorthand term for attacks on Russia’s own “traditional” life – an approach that supports the Kremlin’s defensive narrative and fuels polarization with emotional fire: if you’re in favour of alternative lifestyles then you’re against your homeland (Russia).
Tumasov explains how this affects the lives of LGBTIQ+ people. “There aren’t any ways to address the topic calmly and sincerely in public”, he observes. “People who don’t conform to the society’s patriarchal image are demonized by state-controlled media. In addition, the executive branch is incapable of investigating SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) related hate crimes.” This is accompanied by discrimination on a legal level: “Not only does the state prohibit same-sex marriages, it also doesn’t recognize them from other countries – in contrast to its policy for heterosexual marriages.”
Prospects for the future
Given this state of affairs Tumasov takes a rather dark view of the future. “We’re actually watching a worst-case scenario unfold before our eyes. What really concerns me is that this combination of a general patriarchal approach and a selective application of human rights is setting an example for other ostensibly democratic states. It’s anything but democratic – in fact it actually undermines democracy. If a cult of personality gains the upper hand, like that of Vladimir Putin, human rights and individual liberties are sacrificed to so-called common interests on a daily basis.”
Tumasov, like so many others, has drawn his own consequences. Following multiple traumatic experiences in public (physical attacks and threats from homophobic groups), he derives his strength from his private life. When asked about his most beautiful experience, his answer is clear: “my marriage. I’m blessed to have my husband, and to share these moments with him and my closest friends.” Despite all the difficulties, Tumasov tries to maintain a regular schedule that includes rising early, preparing meals at home, and staying informed.
The work of the Russian LGBT Network human-rights organization demands considerable fortitude and vigilance. Founded in 2006 and headquartered in Saint Petersburg, it sees itself as a member-defined network and acts as the largest umbrella organization for LGBTIQ+ human-rights defenders in the country. In light of state-supported attacks on human rights in many areas, the Russian LGBT Network takes an intersectional approach and works closely together with other organizations that focus on e.g. feminism, labour rights and environmental protection. For an idea of the activists’ everyday work, see the documentary entitled Welcome to Chechnya, part of the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It shows how Tumasov’s colleagues help extricate Chechen LGBTIQ+ people from life-threatening situations in the Caucasian constituent republic.
A network approach also figures prominently in Tumasov’s answer to what people from other countries can do to support the Russian community. “The situation in Russia and the actions by Putin’s regime affect us all – in Europe and beyond. Russia is an important player, and the regime’s activities have a major effect on other countries. So when we support Russian activists, we also weaken Putin’s regime and thereby also his ability to interfere in other countries.”
Tumasov calls for keeping up the struggle, because “nothing will change in Russia as long as the regime does not change.” That, for him, is the only way for his greatest dream to come true, namely “to live in freedom without fear”.
*Gayropa: A compound of “gay” and “Europe”, the neologism “Gayropa” mocks (western) European tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality. It is an anti-homosexual epithet also used to discredit Europe
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