Sunday, August 28, 2016


Russia

Children-404: LGBT Support Group In Kremlin's Crosshairs

Yelena Klimova, the journalist who runs the Children-404 online support group for LGBT teenagers. (file photo)
Yelena Klimova, the journalist who runs the Children-404 online support group for LGBT teenagers. (file photo)
By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW – Isolated and full of angst, 16-year-old Ivan issued a cry for help online.

"I can’t tell anyone about myself. (No one knows I’m gay.) I have no friends; my parents won’t understand if I tell them. (My father abandoned me when I was born; only my mother and grandmother are left and they are religious)," he wrote anonymously on November 19.

"I realize not everyone is fated to find love, but I don’t want to live without it. I haven’t found any other reasons to live in this boring, rotten world." 

The post sparked dozens of messages of sympathy, support, and advice.

Ivan made his appeal on the page of the support group Children-404 -- "Deti-404" in Russian -- on the Russian social networking site VKontakte. 

The online project aims to provide a safe virtual space where Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) teens can share their thoughts and overcome an isolation made worse by legislation prohibiting the propagation of "non-traditional sexual relations" to minors.

Activists say the so-called gay propaganda law disavows the very existence of LGBT teens. 

And Children-404’s promise to support this isolated and vulnerable segment of society through to adulthood makes the project the country's "most important LGBT project" says outspoken gay rights activist Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist with the opposition-minded newspaper "Novaya gazeta."

But now, Children-404 is falling foul of the very legislation it sought to mitigate.

This week [November 18], Yelena Klimova, the project’s founder and a journalist from the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, was charged with violating the law prohibiting gay propaganda. If found guilty, she could be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 rubles and Children-404 could be closed down. 

Although the court charges announced on November 18 refer only to the group's VKontakte page, Klimova says she fears the authorities would block Russian web users from all of the group's platforms. In addition to its VKontakte page, the group is also present on Facebook and has its own website. 

That would mark a big blow to a unique sanctuary for young LGBT minorities in Russia, say activists.

"This is the best and most humanistic project working for Russia’s LGBT community at the moment," Kostyuchenko said. 

"It's the most important because if we look at this law [on gay propaganda], the most vulnerable section of society are LGBT teenagers."

'Walls Of Silence'

Kostyuchenko added that the isolation faced by LGBT teens makes them a high suicide risk.

"According to this law, LGBT teenagers do not exist," she said.

Klimova launched Children-404 in April 2013 after a 15-year-old lesbian wrote thanking her for an article she had written about the problems faced by LGBT teenagers. 

The girl, Nadya, -- whose full name is not public -- told Klimova it helped her stop contemplating suicide.

This inspired Klimova to launch Children-404. The project is named after the "404" Internet error message that indicates a webpage does not exist. 

Over the summer, she published a collection of interviews with members of Children-404 called "LGBT Teenagers, In The Walls Of Silence." 

Despite the project's short existence, it has not been short of enemies.

When a documentary film about it premiered in Moscow in April, it was disrupted by anti-LGBT protesters. Accompanied by armed policemen, they barged into the screening mid-film, calling it "child pornography," and then checked the age of all those in attendance, according to Human Rights Watch

Klimova has already been charged with violating the law on gay propaganda once, in January, but the complaint was dropped.

To face the latest set of charges, Klimova will need to travel from Nizhny Tagil to Moscow to appear in court, having been denied a local hearing. 
 
Klimova posted what she called the "tastiest parts" of the latest charges on her VKontakte page on November 18. According to her account, the charges say the materials on Children-404's page "might cause children to imagine that being gay means that a person is manly, strong, confident" and "has a sense of personal dignity and self-respect."  

A statement from Russia's state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, on November 17 suggested that Klimova was not qualified to provide counseling to teenagers due to her "lack of specialist knowledge."

In an interview with Slon.ru, Klimova retorted that 15 psychologists were working for Children-404. 

"What does the state offer these teenagers at the moment? The answer is obvious: nothing," she said.  


Tom Balmforth

Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.

 

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