State-Sponsored Queer Bashing in Saint Petersburg

The St. Petersburg Times
Issue #1610 (71), Friday, September 17, 2010
QUEERFEST CLAIMS PRESSURE FROM CITY HALL
By Sergey Chernov, Staff Writer

The St. Petersburg authorities kicked a gay art exhibition out of the high-status Union of Artists Exhibition Center, where it was scheduled to open Thursday, organizers said Wednesday. City hall’s culture committee denies any involvement.

The Union of Artists Exhibition Center was one of the venues where Queerfest, organized by LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) rights organization Vykhod (Coming Out), was due to be held.

Vykhod director Igor Kochetkov said the culture committee put pressure on the venue to cancel the exhibition.

“We had two phone conversations with the Exhibition Center’s director, who said he got a call from the culture committee stating categorically that the exhibition shouldn’t be opened,” said Vykhod director Igor Kochetkov.

Kochetkov said that in the official cancellation letter the Exhibition Center listed “complaints from certain public organizations and potential visitors” as the grounds for the decision.

“It’s not only a breach of the agreement, because the agreement can be broken only by force majeure, but it’s also not clear how there could be complaints if nobody has yet seen the exhibition and we haven’t yet placed the works there,” Kochetkov said.

Culture committee press officer Irina Nacharova denied her committee had anything to do with the cancelation.

“The culture committee is absolutely loyal to LGBT festivals and events,” she said.

“The Union of Artists is an independent public organization, and it’s absolutely their decision what kind of exhibitions to hold, when and what to cancel. “

“The only thing is that the plan was to hold a children’s exhibition and this kind of exhibition at the same time, which is perhaps not quite appropriate. But there weren’t and couldn’t be any bans, because it’s a public organization and it takes its decisions independently.”

Union of Artists Exhibition Hall director Alexander Saikov denied getting a call from the culture committee when he spoke by phone on Thursday.

“The thing is that we have an exhibition of children’s works in the next room, almost 800 participants, and because the organizers published their information on Internet, people found out about this and started to write complaints to state bodies and us as well demanding not to open this exhibition,” he said.

“Later, it turned out that, when we had talks on Aug. 8, we were shown one sort of exhibition materials, but in reality it turned out to be entirely different. If I had known that the content of the exhibition would be like this, we wouldn’t have even planned to hold it, for sure.”

However, an employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Thursday that the ban came from the culture committee.

The exhibition and the opening were hastily moved to a new location – the Vegan Club on 50 Ligovsky Prospekt, and journalists were asked not to disclose the site until 6 p.m. Thursday, in case the authorities attempted to shut it down there as well.

Queerfest, which is being held for the second year in a row, has not had any problems before.

“It went quietly last year because we consciously played down the fact that it was promoted by an LGBT organization,” organizer Kochetkov said.

“This year, the concept of the festival is devoted to equal rights of self-expression for all the people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. As far as I understand, that’s what caused this pressure.”

Queerfest has been supported by a number of international figures, including Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, Belgian-Italian singer Lara Fabian, British author Sarah Waters and U.S. film director John Cameron Mitchell.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am to have so many Russian followers, readers and friends. That many of them are gay, lesbian or transgender gives me especial pleasure,” wrote British actor and writer Stephen Fry.

“It has not been easy to be out and proud in Russia of late and it takes a very special kind of courage to stand up for yourself in such an atmosphere of enmity and ignorance. I think it is a very Russian quality to be so brave, to have such integrity and such a proper sense of pride and self.”

In 2008, the Side by Side gay film festival was thwarted by the St. Petersburg authorities when two film theaters broke their agreements and canceled the events.

Queerfest runs through Sept. 25. Check www.queerfest.ru for updates.

_______________

Here is a translation of the official statement made by Queerfest organizers:

The opening of the International Queer Culture Festival in Saint Petersburg has been threatened with cancellation. The directors of the exhibition center of the Saint Petersburg Union of Artists, where the opening and several other festival events were to have taken place, unexpectedly informed festival organizers that they were canceling their rental agreement with us. We were told by telephone that the reason for this was an insistent recommendation made by the Saint Petersburg administration’s culture committee that the exhibition center not permit the event, which the committee regards as “propaganda of homosexualism.”

If the culture committee really did make such a recommendation, then we regard this an act of censorship, which is forbidden by the Russian Federation Constitution. There are no legal grounds for government officials to interfere with the holding of the festival.

We have underscored on several occasions that the International Queer Culture Festival poses no threat to national security and public order, to the health and morals of the population. The fact that certain people, by virtue of their personal convictions, are unhappy with any social and cultural activity on the part of open gays and lesbians, cannot be grounds for arbitrary bans. In fact, it is the government’s duty to ensure that all citizens enjoy an equal right to voice their opinions and express themselves culturally in any manner not proscribed by law.

We call on the Saint Petersburg authorities to refrain from actions and statements that encourage the violation of human rights and Russian law.

You can find more detailed information about the festival program on our official web site: http://www.queerfest.ru

Press materials: http://queerfest.ru/index.php/mass-media-2/for-the-press/?lang=en

Contact us:

queerfest.spb@gmail.com

Igor Kochetkov, director, Vykhod (Coming Out): +7 911-902-1193

Polina Andrianova: +7 904-609-9706

_____________

For our own part, we think it would be more than appropriate for you to let the “loyal” folks at the culture committee know what you think about all this. Here are their contacts:

Telephone: +7 (812) 312-2471
Fax: +7 (812) 710-5515

Press Office
Telephone/fax: +7 (812) 571-0589
press@kkult.gov.spb.ru

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Filed under art exhibitions, censorship, feminism, gay rights, open letters, manifestos, appeals, Russian society

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