I’ll be there. I will come and kill you. When it is over and you go home, I will catch you and smash your head.”
Odds are that’s not the message you received when you were planning your outing to this year’s Charlotte Pride, scheduled for Aug. 24-25 in Uptown. Yet, in Charlotte’s Russian sister city Voronezh, that’s exactly what LGBT activists heard in January as they planned a simple, peaceful protest of a then-impending anti-propaganda bill practically closeting all LGBT people and LGBT advocacy.
Russia’s treatment of LGBT people has been less than ideal for years. Our cover image this issue includes photos from the June 29, 2013, Pride march in St. Petersburg. There, as with similar actions in Moscow and other cities, LGBT activists were met with violent force from nationalist and neo-Nazi counter-protesters, as well as violence and arrests from police officials for gathering in an “illegal” assembly.
Pavel Lebedev, 23, faced similar circumstances in Voronezh.
“I was there to explain that this law violates human rights and that thousands of people will lose their voice as a result of it,” Lebedev told the BBC. [Ed. Note — This writer attempted to arrange an interview directly with Lebedev through Voronezh human rights activist Alexey Kozlov, but was unable to speak to Lebedev before our deadline.]
“The authorities are promoting violence,” Lebedev continued. “The law implies that some people are inferior and compels them to shut up and stay out of sight.”
That law, which ultimately passed in June with a unanimous vote in Russia’s parliament, has sent the nation into a downward spiral of anti-gay hate and violence.
Voronezh: City of Heroes?
Located in southwest Russia, 515 kilometers from Moscow and about 270 kilometers from the Russian-Ukranian border, Voronezh is a city of nearly 900,000 people. It entered into a sister-city relationship with Charlotte in 1991.
There, Lebedev and his co-organizers wished to speak out against a law they knew would harm them. Their Jan. 20, 2013, protest was met with significant opposition, as leading residents in the city encouraged as many as 1,500 people to show up in a counter-protest.
“Our task is to disrupt the event!” wrote a local lawyer and an organizer of the counter-protest. “Voronezh — City of Heroes, not a stronghold of perverts! We call on all the healthy forces of all normal citizens to join us!”
Lebedev and the other organizers were faced with a barrage of hate.
“On the 20th of January we will kill you,” read one threat. More followed: “I will come to [the protest] personally to kick you with my own feet,” read a second. “Jan. 20, 2013 from 5-6 p.m., you will die,” read yet another.
When the day came, Lebedev and his friends took to the town square. Across the street, hundreds or more stood in opposition with banners unfurled and slurs not far behind.
Snowballs, bottles and other items were hurled through the air. Shouts of “kill the fags” and “beat the faggots” were heard. Counter-protesters attacked. Lebedev was kicked to the ground, as was a female gay rights protester. A third, 22-year-old Andrey Nasonov, was thrown to the ground and kicked until he lost consciousness. He was later treated for a concussion.
“After I’d been beaten, I was afraid, shaking,” Lebedev told the BBC. “I had tears in my eyes. But I cannot stay silent any longer.”
Police took little to no action during the protest. It’s that lack of protection for basic rights that Kozlov has spent years fighting against.
“We are defending the freedom of assembly and fight against all forms of discrimination,” Kozlov told qnotes in an interview via email.
As leader of the Charity Foundation for Ecological and Social Justice, Kozlov also serves as editor-in-chief of Article20.org, a website tracking human rights abuses in Voronezh and elsewhere in Russia and named after an article in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Kozlov’s group helped Lebedev and his friends organize the Jan. 20 protest in Voronezh. He said city officials there have taken little action to punish those who assaulted Lebedev and his friends.
On Aug. 2, Article20.org reported that a local court found one man guilty of assault, but stopped short of finding a hate- or bias-motivated intent. Lebedev’s chant, “Down with fascism,” the court said, “could offend the young man and provoke a fight,” Article20.org reported. The maximum penalty for the assault conviction was 12 months hard labor; the perpetrator received only two. That sentencing has yet to be enforced, said Kazlov. Other attackers have yet to be brought to justice.
“Only in the case of Pavel have police found the attacker,” he said. “We supported Pavel in that court case and in the three others, but police have refused to start those investigations.”
Olga Gnezdilova, an attorney representing Lebedev, said it is clear where government officials stand.
“It was obvious that police did not want to protect activists,” she said in an email interview forwarded from Kozlov. “The government does not treat these cases really seriously. Practically in all cases, police or courts recognize the crime as hooliganism [mischief] but not hatred motivated.”
The growing legal hostility in Russia has given way to mass violence on the streets. Kozlov said circumstances are growing more dire by the day.
“The situation is serious,” Kozlov said. “Russian authorities are trying to make LGBT the ‘public enemy’ and it will cause more violations of the rights of LGBT people and direct violence against LGBT people and their supporters.”
One far-right, nationalist group, in particular, has taken to a Russian social media site to encourage mass anti-gay violence. They have also targeted several young gay men and teenagers looking to meet up with others like them. The group schedules fake sexual encounters, and when their victims — one reportedly as young as 12 years old — meet them, the gang proceeds to emotionally harass and, in some cases, physically torture them.
The gang and their followers have videotaped many of their attacks. In some, the youth are stripped down and forced to hold sex toys while being chastised for their sexual orientation. In others, the young men are doused with or forced to drink urine.
In one video (youtu.be/H3XEiSiKy-Q), a 15-year-old boy is met at a Moscow park by a group of five or so individuals. For 20 minutes, the youth is intimidated with anti-gay rhetoric and slurs as the gang refuses to let him leave. He is questioned about his planned sexual encounter and told the video will be posted online and shared with his family and friends, despite his insistence that his father would beat him if he found out. At the end, a voice is heard saying, “Finish him. Finish him, guys. We will beat him with sticks.” Before he leaves, a bottle of urine is poured on his head. [Ed. Note — qnotes staff has reviewed several other similar videos, all of which we have opted not to share publicly due to their graphic nature.]
Several youth have committed suicide after the kidnappings and attacks. One young man has allegedly died as a result of injuries he sustained, according to one unconfirmed report by the U.K.’s Pink News.
LGBT activists across the globe have leapt into action as news from Russia has grown more serious. Some, including Olympic athletes themselves, have called upon the International Olympic Committee to pull out from their planned 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi or take stronger stands for inclusion and safety of athletes, Olympics staff and fans. In the U.S., some activists, led by gay columnist Dan Savage, have initiated a boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas.
Global debate, local action?
On Aug. 2, the global debate finally reached Charlotte. Scott Bishop, chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), launched a public petition to Mayor Patsy Kinsey and City Council asking that they sever their ties with sister-city Voronezh.
Kinsey said no separation would occur, joining the city’s first openly LGBT elected official, Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, and its second gay official, Councilmember Billy Maddalon, in voicing reservations about a split.
“As a longtime advocate for LGBT rights in Charlotte and across America, I join Council Members Mayfield and Maddalon in strongly condemning anti-LGBT legislation and violence anywhere in the world,” Kinsey said in a statement on Aug. 8. “However, severing our ties with Voronezh would do nothing to help the LGBT community there. On the contrary, it would deprive us of the best means we have to ameliorate the situation.”
Mayfield said a relationship was not easily reparable once broken. Cutting ties, she said, could also send the wrong message.
“Dropping the relationship does nothing to show support to the LGBT community in Russia and some may even see this as abandonment,” Mayfield said. “It is better to encourage a peaceful dialogue than to cut the ties that bring us closer as citizens of the world.”
Maddalon said keeping the relationship alive could help Charlotte set a tone and direction for its peer in Russia.
“I’d love to be able to show them that, look, gay people in Charlotte even serve in city government and we do so with reasonable distinction; there is an alternative way to look at this,” he said.
Kozlov, though, knows exactly what is needed.
“First of all, I will continue to demand that the Voronezh city administration and police hold a proper investigation of the disruption of the picket — what we are trying to do now — and punish the violators,” he said.
Such actions come at a cost, including legal representation for Lebedev and other expenses, like communications, mail service and office supplies.
“If you can collect some money to pay for the lawyers and the expenses of the judicial process…we will be very thankful,” Kozlov told qnotes.
If the legal process fails, Kozlov isn’t opposed to Charlotte dropping its relationship with Voronezh.
“If they will not do that [hold a proper investigation], then severing the sister-city relationship can be the next step,” he said.
For MeckPAC’s part, Bishop has softened his call to completely sever ties with Voronezh, despite receiving nearly 300 signatures on their petition.
“It’s achieved its purpose because it has raised awareness with city leaders about what is going on over there and action has taken place as a result,” Bishop said.
And, though Mayfield still believes the city’s relationship with Voronezh should remain unchanged, she has offered herself as a personal voice for equality. In a recent comment thread on Facebook, Mayfield responded to a user’s suggestion she switch places with a Voronezh official in a “city council exchange.”
“If asked I would go to Voronezh to speak about the importance of tolerance and inclusiveness,” she said.
Kinsey said her office has reached out to the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit human rights advocacy organization. Kinsey is expected to discuss recommendations on the situation in Voronezh at City Council’s next meeting on Aug. 26.
Continuing coverage: Follow developing news on the situation in Voronezh and Russia, as well as our previous reports and all future reports at qnotescarolinas.com/in/voronezh.
[Ed. Note — Quotes from foreign sources have been edited for clarity and grammar. Peter Alfredson assisted with translation.] : :