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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gays and Lesbians Look to Raise Public Awareness

MTRepresentatives of gay, lesbian and bisexual groups meeting in St. Petersburg last month to discuss ways to fight intolerance.
ST. PETERSBURG -- While general attitudes toward sex have become more liberal in the past 10 years, a large portion of the population remains misinformed and often intolerant of alternative-sexual orientations, say representatives of gay, lesbian and bisexual organizations.

A number of participants at a forum organized last month by St. Petersburg's Association HS/Gay-Straight Alliance said this lack of comprehension still creates barriers, even with their own families.

"The private sphere plays a very important role in Russia, therefore it is crucial to provide families with information about homosexuality," said Nadezhda Nartova, a psychologist who works with the St. Petersburg lesbian organization Labris. "Private life is also traditionally discussed at the workplace, so it is important that people have access to such information."

"Our aim is to spread information about homosexuality in order to fight ignorance and intolerance," said HS president Ignat Fialkovsky at the meeting, officially titled "Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals: Legislation, Culture and Society."

Until then-President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code in May 1993, muzhelozhstvo -- a man engaging in sexual intercourse with another man -- was punishable by up to five years in prison.

In May 2002, however, a group of lawmakers introduced an amendment aimed at recriminalizing homosexual relations, saying they had begun a campaign to restore traditional morals in Russia. The bill, although viewed by most State Duma deputies and analysts as a publicity stunt, sparked an outcry among human-rights groups and the homosexual community.

According to HS information, anywhere from 10 percent to 22 percent of Russians are homosexual, but information and statistics are scarce, and little research on homosexual issues has been done in Russia.

"There has been, as far as I am aware, no research work done on lesbianism. At any rate, nothing has been published," Nartova said.

While sexual orientation occupies a place in most human-rights discussions in European societies, Russian-based branches of international human-rights groups have yet to introduce sexual minorities issues to their agenda. Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that the majority of these local organizations were established relatively recently.

"We have so many other problems in Russia that we have yet to really address gay and lesbian issues," said Yury Vdovin, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of Citizen's Watch.

The negative effects of the lack of information and social recognition is particularly strong with regard to lesbianism, which, for many, remains a shadowy notion.

"Many people in Russia still understand the word 'homosexuality' as being exclusively male homosexuality," Fialkovsky said. "Russian society is still very patriarchal and, as such, discriminates against women. Imagine how hard life can get for lesbians," he added.

A portion of the Russian population, both men and women, are still unaware even of the existence of lesbianism.

"Some women can actually live three or four years without realizing that they are not the only lesbians on the planet," said Marina Balakina, the president of Labris, which is currently working on a web site to foster more understanding and tolerance of lesbian lifestyles and culture. "They phone and are surprised to find out that there are other women who feel the same way."

Balakina, however, sais the fact that lesbians are less visible than gays in Russia boils down to economics. Because the salary gap in Russia is so wide, in men's favor, homosexual men have more money to spend than women, one of the explanations for the existence of a fairly well-developed scene compared to that available to lesbians. Balakina said only about 10 percent of her lesbian acquaintances in the city have what could be considered solid incomes.

"The owners of gay clubs are not necessarily gay themselves. Gay culture is also a market," she said.

Participants at the meeting said the lack of attention that homosexual issues receive has translated into a lack of legislative attention to the issues. Sexual minorities, therefore, do not have the legal status -- such as the right to marry and adopt or have children -- or protection that they enjoy in many Western countries.

"Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples in Russia are granted neither legal status nor assistance in finding an apartment, parental rights or child leave for the partner of a parent," Nartova said.

Pierre Noel, a member of the executive board of the Brussels, Belgium, branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association and also a Russian translator and specialist, said certain characteristics of the Russian mindset also hinder the acceptance of sexual minorities.

"Russians are rather ignorant not just about homosexuality but about sex in general," he said, referring to the absence of real public debate about sex under the Soviet regime. "The return of religion in Russia and the fact that the Orthodox Church is hostile to homosexuality also fosters homophobia."