Tiny apartments, co-working cafes, slate grey skies and a vibrant, mobilized community of queer people…  Vancouver you might think. But you would be wrong, friends.  It’s St. Petersburg, Russia.

I arrived in this complex and vibrant cultural capital bleary-eyed from a 19-hour flight. I was welcomed by a warm and witty lesbian couple who whisked me along Moscovsky Prospect pointing out various landmarks of different soviet architectural styles. On my right the towering minimalism of Nikita Khrushchev’s housing complexes, to the left the communist imperial style of Stalin.

Before long we arrived at the first venue, only blocks from the Winter Palace with its endless colonnades, wrought iron gates and gilded flourishes. Through a rear entrance, past a security guard, up several flights of muraled hallways I found myself in a club with drop lights and a room packed with queers of all ages, though all 18+ due to the law forbidding the promotion of non-traditional relationships to minors. The film Love is Strange was on, with Alfred Molina and Ira Sachs as New Yorkers navigating their own housing crisis.

The big screens were at the hotels that hosted the following four screenings. And while there was no surround sound, the security from these hotels did successfully prevent acts of violence aimed at queer community members by homophobic and transphobic protestors. While the organizers recognized this changed the festivity of the fest itself, creating a safer space for queers to gather was essential. They do believe it had an impact on the overall turnout, though venues are only part of the puzzle.  The recent law prohibiting the promotion of non-traditional relationships to minors means that the festival can no longer post promotional materials anywhere in public space made the difference- not on the streets or in the halls of universities.

sidebyside1Any yet people persist. More than 1,500 arrived night after night in big coats and knee boots, oxfords, Chucks, ballet flats and yes, even a pair of Blundstones, to see queer lives from around the world up on screen. Queer professors, bankers, social workers, activists, baristas, lawyers, sex workers, real estate agents, and artists brought family members, friends and coworkers to share in the joy, frustration and ultimately, hope, that permeated each of the screenings. At each event, I peppered countless queers with endless questions about the state of queer Russia.  Their opinions were as unique as their lives.

Many of the queer Russians I met say they know many people who are out to their families, even some those back home in conservative smaller towns and cities where, and many are out within their workplaces. People there, too, question whether being ‘out’ is a requirement for full-fledged queerdom.  Festival founder, Manny De Guerre, estimates 30% of people are out and hears people describe taking a gradual approaches to coming out.

Many of us on the other side of the world have seen the photos of queer Russians who put their safety on the line every time they host a demonstration.  We have seen the photos of bloody faces and bruised bodies. These courageous demonstrators do their part to advance the visibility of queer lives and message that queer people deserve full social and political inclusion.

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Gulya Sultanova, one of the lead Side by Side organizers, believes that public opinion is growing more tolerant because people continue to use the streets and the cinema to present human stories and clear messages to the general public.  She explained that the broadly reported polls that said 88% of Russians support the anti-gay propaganda law are inaccurate because pollsters phrase the questions with derogatory connotations and false premises.  What would be the immediate response of a random sampling of Canadians if posed with a question like ‘Do you want materials educating elementary school children about how to join faggot lifestyles’? Though she worries that since the law was part of broader set of censorship laws that it will be harder to repeal, she thinks ultimately that queer people are achieving visibility in their own ways that are building support in surprising places. Many straight allies invest countless hours into the festival because they believe that a more equitable Russia is possible and aim to do their part to make it a reality. This, too, buoys her.

 

 

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Sergey Khazov-Cassia is an international affairs journalist who reports on LGBTQ issues, Russian foreign policy and was the first reporter to see Russian tanks advancing into the Ukraine. He is known for a kind of unflinching and direct reporting. He explained that while he does not see an immediate avenue to the repeal of the laws that culturally, it is still possible to live visibly within communities in Moscow and St. Petersburg both personally and professionally. Much like other global cities, though it is not as commonplace people can expect to hold hands on the street without widespread acts of violence. Yes, it will attract stares and varying degrees of expressions of disapproval, but queers do hold hands and express affection in public places.

 

 

 

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Matthew Shepard’s family was at the festival and shared their reflections on their loss and the mission to change public opinion in the United States.  These words shook Anastacia Dyumina, the festival’s masterful translator, and left her wondering if it will take a high-profile tragedy of a young Russian that will, sadly, be what it takes to build a stronger empathic connection and commitment to tolerance with a broader public.  Pavel Loparev, the filmmaking partner of Askold Kurev, thought the Matthew Shepard film in particular was an important piece of documentary cinema because it highlights just how homophobia can be fatal.

 

 

 

 

 

Olga Privolnova, Shorts Award Winner
Olga Privolnova, Shorts Award Winner

Equally important, he thought, was to show documentaries such as Olga Privolnova’s film ‘Who Are They’. Her film is a finely observed character portrait that invites us in to the kitchens, living rooms and love stories of Queer Russian couples.  She capture’s each couples’ rhythms and idiosyncrasies with a tenderness that eschewed over-sentimentality.  When I presented her award on the jury’s behalf, we praised her for chronicling queer love in the face repressive laws as a political act- an essential one.  I was honoured to be able to represent the VQFF in bearing witness to her work and the larger work of the festival.

 

 

 

 

 

Jury: Leda Garina, Pavel Loparev, Ivan Chuvilyaev, Tanya Labok (jury moderator), Metha Brown
Jury: Leda Garina, Pavel Loparev, Ivan Chuvilyaev, Tanya Labok (jury moderator), Metha Brown

Irina + Natasha, volunteers

Irina + Natasha, volunteers

 

One of the programs on seeking asylum saw an incredible turn out. One lesbian couple shared their differing on views on whether they should seriously consider it.  Irina and Natasha both love Russia and Russian culture and have no desire to leave. Irina, though, fears for their family. She worries the laws could become more restrictively interpreted and punitively enforced.  She lays awake at night wondering about future somedays. What if their 12-year old son talks about his two moms within his school- could that, one future day, be considered promoting non-traditional lifestyles to children?  ‘Could they take away my son for talking about his family?’ she worries.  As Irina shared her fears, hands trembling, Natasha held her hand and tried to assuage her fears by saying that the tolerance within the major cities and the human rights organizations would prevent such a thing from happening. They both took a deep sigh before moving on to other topics.

The laws are making it significantly more difficult to be visible and organize in smaller cities.  Masha Balganova, one of the festival’s organizers, hails from Tomsk, Siberia. Masha worries not only about rising homophobia, but rising racism. Prominent UN reports and NGOs have reported that discrimination and violence are disproportionally targeted at people from the Caucusus, Central Asia and Africa as well as the Roma. Despite these stark realities, Masha says that the film festival, its volunteers and its audience members have convinced her that the struggle for equity on the part of demonstrators, filmmakers, lawyers, journalists and allies of many stripes will bring change to Russia.  And she believes art is fundamental to disrupting the stereotypes the government would have people believe.

 

Masha Balganova, Side by Side Organizer
Masha Balganova, Side by Side Organizer

Just as there are diverse opinions on the state of queer Canada, there are diverse opinions on queer Russia.  But one things was clear- everyone I spoke to talked about how essential the opportunity to see queer art and connect with queer community is. They were grateful for the hopeful stories of expanding inclusion, but also to see the real challenges queer and trans communities face around the world. To know they are not alone.

Each and every person I spoke to wants a more nuanced and complex portrait of Russia and queer Russia in the international media.  And while they actively hope that queer people around the world will make clear their disagreement with the laws clear, they also clearly hope that queers from around the world will come to Russia to engage with queer Russians.  To share in basic human connection and to witness what they love about queer culture and Russian culture.

Side by Side hosts events throughout the year and there is a Queer Arts Festival in September.
If you are thinking about going to next year’s Side by Side festival in November, you can expect high-profile international films that are paired with fascinating panels that take you deeper into the ways in which diverse Russians understand the issues, the world and their lives.  I know more than a few queers who would love to see you there.