The St. Petersburg Times
September 14, 2011
The art of being yourself
By Sergey Chernov
Consulates of the U.K., the Netherlands and Sweden are supporting a major gay rights cultural event that opens in St. Petersburg this week, as national statistics show that homophobic attitudes are on the rise in Russia.
Called Queerfest, the ten-day festival, featuring music, dance, art, lectures and debates, was launched by Vykhod (Coming Out), the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights group in 2009.
“I am looking forward to visiting this year’s St. Petersburg Queerfest because I believe that gay people should be able to live without fear of discrimination or criminalization,” said British Consul General Gareth Ward in an email this week.
“Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people make a big contribution to British cultural life — St. Petersburg’s sister city Manchester has a famous gay pride event. This can be an important and fun way of celebrating diversity and tolerance in Russia as well.”
Homophobia is a problem in many countries, Ward went on.
“The U.K. is a world leader in supporting LGBT equality, but we are not complacent,” he said.
“Last year the U.K. government passed an ambitious program to tackle prejudices. In Russia, homosexuality was decriminalized in the 1990s, but there is a long way to go to remove social stigmatization and hate crime. Civil society groups such as Vykhod are leading the way.”
Ward will speak at the opening of Queerfest on Thursday, Sept. 15, along with the Netherlands Consul General Yennes de Mol.
The Swedish Consulate has also backed the event by sending a letter of support, which can be read on Queerfest’s web site.
The motto of this year’s festival is the “Art of Being Yourself.”
“It’s dedicated to the subject of self-expression through art by different people, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” Vykhod director Igor Kochetkov said.
“We want to approach this subject both through works and speeches of artists and through discussing the issues of the freedom of expression and its borders with human rights activists, representatives of public and religious organizations, and journalists.”
The festival’s diverse program includes photo exhibitions by World Press Photo award-winning Italian photographer Mattia Insolera and the Moscow-based contemporary artist Serge Golovach.
The festival will open at the KvARTira gallery at 130 Nevsky Prospekt, where Queerography, an exhibition of work by various photographers, will be held, as well as several other events.
One day of the festival will be devoted to feminism, while another will concentrate on human rights issues.
Queerfest will end with a rock concert called Stop Homophobia! at the Avrora Concert Hall on Sept. 25. Headlined by Moldovan folk-punk band Zdob Si Zdub, it will feature Cuibul (also from Moldova), the Moscow band FiLLiN and St. Petersburg’s own Iva Nova, Monoliza and Snega.
Last year, the festival came under pressure from the authorities when the state-owned House of Artists canceled a photography exhibition — and the festival’s planned opening — at the last minute, allegedly after getting a telephone call from City Hall’s Culture Committee.
The exhibition and the opening were hastily moved to a new location, the underground vegan establishment V-Club, and journalists were asked not to disclose the site until a specific time in case the authorities attempted to shut it down there as well.
“The cancellation caused a big stir in the press and eventually the Culture Committee was forced to speak on behalf of tolerance,” Kochetkov said.
Although the Culture Committee has never admitted to issuing a ban on the festival, Kochetkov said he was told about the order by the House of Artists’ director himself.
Kochetkov said that this year, the festival’s organizers invited representatives of the Culture Committee to the opening. “They asked us, ‘Is the venue state-owned?’ We said, ‘No.’”
As of Tuesday, this year’s preparations had gone smoothly, though Kochetkov said that last year the problems did not start until two days before the opening.
According to Kochetkov, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church flatly refused to participate in debates, although local television presenter Valery Tatarov, who has been criticized for making homophobic statements, readily agreed.
Kochetkov welcomes Tatarov’s participation in the debates, emphasizing that the presenter has not called for violence against homosexuals.
“We wouldn’t invite people who incite violence, because they should be dealt with by the law, first and foremost,” he said.
On Saturday, the Orthodox Church described homosexuality as “a sinful distortion of human nature” on its web site, calling gays and lesbians “spiritually unhealthy.”
Queerfest’s organizers cite a Levada Center poll that showed that homophobia is on the rise in Russia.
Compared to a 2005 poll, the 2010 poll showed that the number of people who think that gays and lesbians should be “let be” dropped 5 percent during the past five years, while the number of people who think that gays and lesbians should be given medical treatment or isolated from society increased by 4 and 6 percent, respectively.
Seventy-four percent of the respondents said that homosexuals are morally corrupt or mentally handicapped people, 24 percent suggested that they should get psychological help, 39 percent think that they should be forced to undergo medical treatment or be isolated from society, while 4 percent believe that such people should be “liquidated.”
“These figures show that society has grown less indifferent to the very fact of the existence of people of different orientations, and that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people have to fight for their right to be themselves,” Kochetkov said.
“To fight, above all, ignorance and cruelty — things that are dangerous for everybody. This means that we are fighting not for our narrow interests, but for the common cause, to make our society more human and free.”
All Queerfest events are open to the public, except for the opening, which is invitation-only. For a full program, see www.queerfest.ru.