By Amina Bhatti
“Back in the Iron Closet,” an event held by Lincoln Center’s Russian Forum on March 24 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, aimed to raise awareness about the rise of homophobia in Russia. The event was co-sponsored by Fordham College at Rose Hill’s Russian Forum and Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s Rainbow Alliance.
According to Fordham’s “Student Leadership and Community Development” page online, the Russian Forum is a cultural club that brings “together Russian and non-Russian students interested in Russian and eastern European culture, history and languages.”
The Rainbow Alliance is a gay/straight alliance that seeks to raise awareness of and support the LGBTQ community.
These clubs decided to team up to shed light on a new wave of homophobia that has arisen in Russia in the past few years. Perhaps most notably, such homophobia was revealed during media coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014, in which clashes amongst LGBTQ activists and anti-gay activists unfolded. This recent rise of homophobia, as well as the experiences of gays and lesbians during this time period, was documented and discussed at the event through the photography of freelance journalist Misha Friedman, whose work has appeared in prominent newspapers and Time magazine.
The other two speakers at the event were George Gellis, the executive director of the No More Fear Foundation — which helps with resettlement of LGBTQ members seeking asylum in the U.S. — and Dr. Zhenya Pomerantsev, the Russian Program Coordinator for the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Fordham. Dr. Pomerantsev discussed from personal experience how gays in Moscow during the 1990s openly gay individuals were able to walk freely in public. Yet today, he said, “there are all sorts of attacks… and vigilante groups [against gays].”
Dr. Zhenya also discussed recent Russian policies which, “prohibit propaganda of…quote, non-traditional sexual relations to minors. It doesn’t specifically mention homosexuality but it is phrased in [an] ambiguous way.” Such policies threaten the lifestyles of homosexualities in Russia. At the event, evidence of this aversion to homosexuality was shown in an ABC Nightline video titled “Anti-Gay Attacks Take Toll on Russia’s Largest Gay Nightclub.” The video documented homophobic attacks on Moscow’s most prominent gay nightclub, called “Central Station.” Local government videotaped staff and members walking in and out of the club through an activity known as “Morality Control.” The video also discussed the denouncement of homosexuality by anti-gay activists.
Friedman’s photos of gay and lesbian couples provided stories of individuals who continue to live in a society where homosexuality is too uncomfortable for them to openly embrace. While there has been media coverage of attacks on homosexuals, Friedman said discussion of the LGBTQ community “is not an important topic to most people in [Russia]”. Another apparent inconsistency with the denouncement of LGBTQ members, as pointed out by Gellis, is the relative lack of controversy centered around lesbians. “Many people don’t even acknowledge their existence,” he stated.
Both the speakers and students showed a general consensus that as of now, even in the United States, lesbians are not given as much media coverage as gay men.
During the event, Gellis also discussed the work of the No Fear Foundation in seeking to provide asylum in the U.S. to members of the LGBTQ community living abroad. He mentioned that the Foundation “has a lot of clients [now] because a lot of [Russian] people get a chance to get American visas… and are capable of escaping [persecution]”. New volunteers to the Foundation were welcome, as expressed during the event.
Maria Decasper, FCRH ‘17, a member of the Russian Forum and conference attendee, said that “[the speakers] touched on a lot of very important issues of human rights, [and that the event] was very moving.” She also added that she “hopes that the Russian Forum will continue to participate in the dialogue surrounding issues of social justice abroad.”