Ruslan, a skinny, articulate 17-year-old with a rare spinal disorder, just finished high school. He dreams of becoming a biologist and leaving his small, industrial city. And he's gay, but only his best friend knows. In a heart-wrenching open letter to other gay teens, he wrote about the difficulties he had accepting his sexuality, and his crush on a classmate who bullied him. Reading letters like the one he eventually wrote, Ruslan said, helped him come around, despite his conservative, religious parents.
Ruslan posted his open letter on a new online support system for Russian LGBT teens, made up of queer youth and adult allies. Despite the new ban on propaganda of homosexuality to minors, the group continues to operate on Russian social network VKontakte. The newly adopted law allows a 5,000 ruble fine for any individual promoting "non-traditional sexual relations" amongst minors. Using the internet to share such information raises the fine to 100,000 rubles.
Yet the group's founder, Lena Klimova, never meant to be an activist. The 25-year-old literary editor stumbled into it accidentally, after deciding to write about homophobia and gay teens for online publications Robalt and 812 early this year. A young gay woman found out about Klimova's work, and wrote to thank her for helping her realize that she's not alone. Klimova started the VKontakte page, and in March, she kicked off the photo campaign.
Klimova dubbed her project "Children 404: We Exist," a nod to how invisible and overlooked these teens are. "The [mainstream media] doesn't write about these children, almost no one talks about them, and it's almost like they don't exist, like a page that says error code 404. But in reality, they exist," she explains.
"The most common problem that they come to us with, asking for help, is how to come out, and whether they should come out at all. And they write the same thing: I'm tired of hiding, I want to tell my parents, friends, or best friend about myself, but I don't know how to do it. Will it be worse? Should I even decide to do this?" she says. "And in second place is the resulting problem: I came out and everyone started abusing me."
Klimova has collected upwards of 300 submissions for her photo project, an offshoot of the support group that compiles images and narratives from young people. And earlier this month, members of the Polish parliament sent in photos of support, holding up signs that read, "Children 404, you exist." Marcel Neergaard, an 11-year-old boy from Tennessee who became an internet sensation this summer when he stood up against bullying, wrote into the project too.
But this is hardly the United States, where Dan Savage's campaign to give hope to gay kids — the It Gets Better Project — drew submissions from President Obama on down. Here in Russia, Children 404 hasn't gotten submissions from the country's elected officials. In fact, public figures consistently demonize gay people in politics and the media. Most of the teens she encounters, Klimova discovered, have gotten the message. Eight out of ten of them don't plan to stay in Russia for long.
In Russia, where laws banning homosexuality were repealed in 1993, gay rights are vanishing. Skinheads and Russian Orthodox protesters regularly break up Gay Pride parades around the country. Police, rather than defending the LGBT demonstrators, ensure that their attackers get away unscathed. And the government has never sanctioned the parades, which began about a decade ago. A recent poll from Russia's leading independent pollster found that 5% of Russians think gays should be "physically destroyed," while 16% believe they should be isolated from society — both numbers up from 2005. Meanwhile, just 23% think gays should be left alone, down from 30% in 2005.
The crackdown on gay rights is accompanied by a surge of nationalistic and anti-Western fervor. Changes in public opinion are reinforced, or perhaps driven by, public policy. In recent years, a slew of regional and national laws have forbidden pride parades in Moscow, forced many NGOs — including many specializing in LGBT rights — to register as "foreign agents," and restricted international adoption by couples from countries that recognize same-sex marriages, all the while persecuting dissidents like Pussy Riot, prohibiting adoption by American citizens, and passing laws to protect the feelings of religious believers. Homophobia is deeply embedded in Russian culture. Even Alexei Navalny, the hero of Russia's opposition movement, gave only a lukewarm embrace to gay rights in a recent interview: Pride parades should be held in stadiums, certainly no adoption rights for gay couples, and partnerships should be decided by regional referendums. (But you know, the host responded, "Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] answers the same thing about same-sex unions.")
The Russian gay rights movement's sole success has been the rise in visibility. Many of the activists are in their late twenties or their thirties. They came of age during the fall of the Soviet Union, when the country was full of hope for freedom and democracy after the fall of communism. But this new generation of LGBT teens grew up amidst the constant discussion of homosexuality in politics and on TV — maybe that's why an informal poll of Children 404 participants revealed that more than half realized they were gay before age 14. And unlike the activists a generation older, they don't remember things getting better for gay people. They see reports of marriage equality online from around the world, while brutal anti-gay hate crimes soar in neighboring cities.
The most vague and broad of all these laws is the ban on homosexual propaganda to minors, passed three months after Klimova started Children 404. What exactly constitutes propaganda is not clear, but whatever the exact parameters are, by reaching out and directly supporting LGBT youth, Klimova is certainly violating it.
She brushes off questions about the law. "I thought about it for a long time, and came to the conclusion that I should go on as if it does not exist," she says. The law is so poorly written, "it's practically impossible to apply it, and it's unclear what the law demands of you."
Yet, four Dutch tourists were charged under the law in July after filming a short documentary on gay rights in Russia. One of the interviewees was 17, and that put them under suspicion of promoting homosexuality to minors. They were later released and fined 3,000 rubles — about $100 — each, for violating the terms of their visas, in addition to being banned from the country for three years.
The Wednesday after the Dutch were fined, an activist conducted a solitary picket — a permit-less protest allowed by Russian law — outside a Moscow children's library, holding a sign that read "Being Gay Is Normal." He and several others were detained, including 16-year-old Nikita Guryanov. (In the first installment of a video blog posted to YouTube, Guryanov identifies himself ironically as an "underage propagandist of homosexuality in Russia.")
And, though Children 404 hasn't been targeted yet, its participants are feeling the effects of the growth in anti-gay sentiment.
Margarita, a 17-year-old lesbian from Omsk, says she realized she was gay at age 12. "I understood that I was very attracted to girls. I wanted to be their friend, but more than friends," she explains. Sporting short blond hair and a silver thumb ring, Margarita says that the new law meant to protect minors harms her. "It's strange. I feel like [the law] oppresses me, personally, because I myself am underage," she says. "Am I propagandizing to myself?"
Like Margarita, Ruslan thinks the law is "total nonsense." "I don't understand why people still can't understand that you can't just go out to the square and say, 'Folks! We're gay, it's great, join us,' and everyone will immediately become gay," he says, certain that the law is meant to distract from more pressing political and economic issues.
But some of his concerns are more immediate: After the latest spate of homophobic laws, the skinheads in his city have become more brazen. He goes online to the Children 404 group nearly every day, because it's one of his only outlets to interact with other gay teens. He's afraid to try to meet anyone in his town; there have been reports of homophobes posing as dates to lure gay men out and assault them.
And Klimova, too, has been targeted. Some of the threats seem more serious than she admits: In other corners of VKontakte, far-right activists have put out symbolic monetary rewards for the home addresses of LGBT activists. They say that as law-abiding citizens, they won't rough up the LGBT activists too badly. "If only a little bit," they joke. Elsewhere, they devote pages to discussing Klimova and the project.
The youth Klimova reaches out to are aware of this. Her informal poll shows that upwards of 80% plan to emigrate to a gay-friendly country — they don't see a future for themselves in their homeland. For as long as they can remember, the crackdown on gays in Russia has been getting worse. Ruslan is studying English. He's an aspiring biologist, and wants to go to graduate school abroad, perhaps in the United States, after finishing his undergraduate degree. When I spoke to Margarita, she was abroad studying German. On the streets in Europe, she sees men holding hands and pushing strollers — sights that are "unbelievably cool, comfortable," and close to impossible at home. She plans to leave Russia for her undergraduate coursework in molecular biology, and doesn't expect to come back.
"The only things that are pulling me back are family and friends," she says. "Besides the fact that I can't study [molecular biology] there — it's not just there — there's also no funding for scientific research. No one really needs it. We're busy waging a battle against gays."