From Russia with love and Pride

Justin Romanov is bringing the fight against Vladimir Putin's oppressive anti-gay law to Canada


Justin Romanov says coming to Canada was like a fairy tale. He feels safe, respected and comfortable as a gay man here. He’s even found love since his arrival eight months ago.

After celebrating his 19th birthday this month, he’s excited about his first Pride experience in Canada. “It’s a really good time for fun, but we should remember that in Africa, Russia, the Middle East and Jamaica, the majority of people hate gay people,” he says. In some African countries, 98 per cent of the population think homosexuality is unacceptable.

“I think many people forget about this.”

But not Romanov. Since he arrived here, three gay teenagers he knew in Russia have committed suicide.

Less than a year ago, his life in Russia was endangered by hate. When he came out to his family at 14, his father beat him so severely that he lost vision in his right eye. When he was 15, his parents sent him to a psychiatrist who told him being gay was not a sexual orientation, but a scheme by the U.S. media to destroy Russia.

“It’s so stupid,” Romanov says, sweeping his blond hair away from his crystal blue eyes.

Though homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders in 1986 and the World Health Organization recognized homosexuality as a sexual orientation in 1993, Russian psychiatrists continue to diagnose it as a mental health disorder, a stigma that prevents those diagnosed from getting jobs.

And, worse, Vladimir Putin’s new law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors has reignited widespread homophobia.

Showing his indelibly courageous spirit in the face of fascism, Romanov was arrested for his LGBTQ activism three times before he left Russia – once for writing a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev and blogging about gay rights and twice for breaking the anti-propaganda law.

“I was 17 years old,” he says. “How was I communicating homosexual propaganda to myself? I’m gay, so I’m always speaking and thinking like a gay person. It’s totally illogical,” he says, throwing his arms in the air.

Every time he was arrested, the police told him he would wind up dead or that someone would rape him with a bottle, which Romanov says is a common anti-gay crime in Russia.

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David Hawe

Last May in Volgograd, a 23-year-old man was found with his skull bashed in after he was raped with several beer bottles. Investigators said the crime was motivated by homophobia – an anomalous acknowledgement in a country racked by anti-gay, conservative sentiments.

His death spurred a series of protests by gay activists across the country.

Vladislav Slavsky, a 17-year-old gay activist still living in Russia, took part in a protest in Armavir. The simplicity of the resisters’ strategy to avoid arrest was poetic. “We wrote our signs in English because the police can’t read them,” he says. They read “Help us” and “Russia is killing us.”

Slavsky lived in Sochi during the 2013 Olympics, ground zero for demonstrations against Putin’s oppressive law. He helped organize protests during the Games against the anti-gay group Occupy Gerontophilia. OG lures gay teenagers into “ambush meetings” where they are humiliated on video that is then shared on the popular Russian social media network VKontakte. Shortly before the Olympics, OG’s social media page was shut down for invading the privacy of minors, but that didn’t stop a group of boys from terrorizing local teens.

When Slavsky realized he knew the 16-year-old homophobe who was posting videos of gay teens in Sochi, he threatened to tell the boy’s parents. The boy stopped.

But then the group filtered all of their homophobic hate onto Slavsky, and the daily beatings began. First with fists, then with rocks, and then they started pouring bottles full of urine on him.

He went to police, who told him he was stupid for being openly gay.

He found no support anywhere he turned.

After someone from his school hacked his social media page and outed him as gay, students and teachers said they hated him and that his only future was as a prostitute. The school psychiatrist told him he was gay because he had either been raped by a man as a child and liked it or was raped by a woman and didn’t like it.

“I have never been raped,” Vlasky says, laughing at the absurdity of the explanation.

He had to write his final exams at the ministry of education to avoid receiving failing marks from his teachers.

Although his parents supported him, he had to move into his own apartment for the last few months of school to escape the daily attacks.

Now that he’s graduated from high school, he wants to leave Russia, but doesn’t yet know where he’ll go or how he’ll get there.

Romanov and Vlasky are just two of the brave youths involved with Children 404, a social media campaign started by journalist Elena Klimova to support gay youth. The number “404” refers to the internet message “Error 404 – Page not found.” According to the documentary Children 404, there are currently about 2.5 million LGBTQ children and teenagers in Russia, but the group has received only about 1,700 letters from youth – children not found indeed.

Khana Kochetkova is an administrator for the social media page. Although she came out to her mother in 2011, the social pressure associated with Putin’s 2013 law has strained their relationship.

Through Children 404, Kochetkova’s mother met another parent and came to terms with her daughter’s sexuality.

Kochetkova says her case is rare, “because most parents don’t accept their gay children. You can count on one hand the letters we receive from parents,” she says.

Most are from teenagers who are told being gay is wrong they are beaten and have suicidal thoughts.

Because Russia has so few LGBTQ organizations, there isn’t much Children 404 can do. “In some cases, we’ve managed to find adult LGBTQ activists so teens have support in their hometowns, but most of the time we’re just trying to get them to accept themselves.”

There are psychiatrists friendly to the project who help some of the teens, and Children 404 occasionally receives a second letter thanking the group for their help. But that doesn’t happen often.

One of those friendly psychiatrists made all the difference when Klimova was charged under the anti-propaganda law. He argued that Children 404 is a support group for suicidal teens, not a propaganda group. Eventually the case was dismissed and Klimova acquitted. Hers was the first case tried since the anti-propaganda law was enacted last year, and one of six that have been dismissed by Russian courts.

In Canada, Romanov remains active in the Children 404 community and regularly receives letters and phone calls from youth searching for ways to leave Russia.

He was lucky. His mother helped him get out. She sold her house to pay $11,000 for his student visa that brought him to Canada.

She wasn’t always so supportive. Although she’d always accepted gay people, he says she couldn’t deal with having a gay son. She even hired a female prostitute to try to change his mind. When that didn’t work, she finally made peace with it and has been his rock ever since.

“If she didn’t understand me, I think I would have committed suicide when I was 16,” he says.

Other teenagers are kicked out of their homes and come from poor families. “They have a hard life,” he says.

In a 2012 poll, 74 per cent of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society, but Romanov and Slavsky say in reality that figure is much higher.

Justin (then Pasha) Romanov in Children 404, a documentary film about a group that supports gay kids in Russia.

Under the current system, because gay Russians are denied education and jobs, raising or saving $11,000 is next to impossible.

For Romanov, the road to freedom from Russia has just begun. He filed his refugee claim this month, a process that will likely take more than a year. With the help of local organizations the 519 and Supporting Our Youth, he’s hoping for success.

“When I have Canadian citizenship, I want to burn my Russian passport,” he says, waving his arm over the table as though he’s fanning the flames.

Before he lights that match, he’s starting another figurative fire at the school where he’s learning English.

He wrote the principal a letter asking why his school wasn’t an LGBTQ- positive space. The authorities responded that at ESL schools where students come from United Arabic Emirates, Saudi Arabia and countries in Africa where homosexuality is not only rejected but punishable, gay rights are not discussed or addressed for fear that students won’t attend. In response to arguments like these, Romanov says, “I would rather live free. That’s why I came to Canada.”

After a discussion with the principal, “I put rainbow flags up at school. Everybody knows I’m gay,” he says.

For this reason and many more, he says, “I love Canada.”

cynthiam@nowtoronto.com | @cynthiajmcqueen

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