The level of hostility towards gay people in Russia right now is eye-watering, writes Liz MacKean on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Watch Channel 4’s Dispatches tonight at 10pm.
Crawling through the morning traffic in St Petersburg, I was greeted with a surprising sight in the car alongside: a young man was staring intently at images of naked women in a magazine propped up on his steering wheel. Had those been images of young men, he’d have been breaking the law.
The propaganda law, passed unanimously last summer, has been widely condemned as isolating Russia’s gay, lesbian and transgender community. But one often-overlooked feature of it is that it is now illegal to make even “neutral” references to under 18s about “non-traditional” relations. In other words, the only acceptable public comments are bound to be negative.
And the level of hostility towards gay people is eye-watering. In St Petersburg we met Timur Isaev, a married father of one. His group, Parents of Russia, targets gay and lesbian teachers. He offers cash to anyone who gives him information: “This is Russia. This is hell for homosexuals,” he tells us laughingly. “…they should get used to it.”
You don’t have to be gay to be in Timur’s sights. One of his targets is Yekaterina Bogatch, whose offence was to join a demonstration against the increasingly violent attacks on Russia’s LGBT community. She is now under official investigation and might lose her job.
“There comes a moment when you realise that you can no longer keep quiet,” she told us. “Otherwise you simply start to lose self-respect.”
She is “not a good person,” insists Timur, “she may be a good teacher but she is a bad person.”
Other groups are taking their loathing even further. There are more than 30 branches of “Occupy Paedophilia” across Russia. The sequences filmed by our director Ben Steele with the St Petersburg group are the most harrowing in our programme. Led by a woman, Katya Zigunova, they organise what they call “safaris”. They use social media to entice gay men on dates, luring them to a flat where they are attacked and humiliated.
We film as one man realises too late that he’s walked into a trap. Thirteen men surround, punch and taunt him. Katya screams orders at the group, at one point telling them not to hit him too hard, at another, threatening the terrified, whimpering man with worse violence.
They film an “interview” in which Katya asks him questions about his sex life. There are no references to children – this is homophobia, pure and simple. The man is forced to dance for the cameras. After almost an hour, he’s allowed to leave. But his ordeal is far from finished. He knows the group will post their video online – leaving him open to future violence.
The Russian authorities reject the values of liberal Britain where confetti will soon be thrown at the first gay weddings. Even as President Putin told gay athletes they would be welcome at Sochi, he asked them to leave Russia’s children alone. The constant connection between homosexuality and paedophilia is piling the pressure on the country’s already largely hidden gay community.
Dima put it best. The 25-year-old had been blinded in one eye after armed men stormed a gay community centre in St Petersburg: “If it’s constantly drilled into people that we are … scum and perverts, I understand why these guys shot at me… essentially a hunting season is open and we are the hunted.”