Russia's escalating campaign against homosexuals has reached high schools, with at least four teachers harassed this year over their ties to the gay community.
Two of them have already been fired, a trend activists blame on the introduction of a controversial law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.
Yekaterina Bogach, an award-winning Spanish-language instructor in St. Petersburg, is the latest to be caught in the crosshairs of antigay vigilantes. This week, the city's education department placed her under investigation after a group of local residents filed a complaint claiming that her participation in gay-rights rallies made her unfit to teach children.
Bogach, 37, is an activist with the Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality, a group founded last year in St. Petersburg to combat what it describes as a growing witch hunt against Russia's embattled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
She says she is not homosexual herself and stresses that she never brings up her views in class. "It's easier for people to think that I'm homosexual, bisexual, or transgender," Bogach says. "Their tiny brains cannot grasp the simple fact that one can fight not only for oneself; that someone who witnesses discrimination and injustice can also stand up for the rights of others."
Bogach, while describing the efforts to destroy her teaching career as "very unpleasant," says she is not entirely surprised, given Russia's increasingly homophobic climate.
Lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party have penned a raft of antigay bills over the past year. Among these are proposals to bar homosexuals from donating blood and to take children away from gay parents.
Activists say such initiatives have emboldened vigilante groups to target gay people. "The government is conducting openly homophobic policies," says Natalya Tsymbalova, head of the Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality. "We try to fight as hard as we can with all possible means, but we also understand that it's hard to do anything against the government machine. It's hard to confront a tank with bare hands."
Vigilante 'Witch Hunt'
A man known as "Timur," who claims to head a Muslim organization as well as an online group called Parents of Russia, appears to be the driving force behind the campaign against Bogach. He claims to have 1,500 activists scouring the Internet in search of gay or gay-friendly teachers.
In an online video, he said: "We consider that such individuals cannot represent the teaching body and be in schools, have access to children. In all their manifestations -- especially Mrs. Bogach -- they show their ruthless attitude to children's psyche, which she is constantly harming."
Timur regularly attends gay-rights demonstrations wearing a motorcycle helmet and heckles participants. His crusade against homosexuals has found fertile ground. One schoolteacher has already lost her job after he lobbied for three months to have her fired.
Olga Bakhayeva, a 24-year-old history teacher, was pressured into resigning from her job at a school in the Urals city of Magnitogorsk following a stream of hate mail attributed to Timur and several complaints to local officials, including prosecutors.
Bakhayeva, who is bisexual, was eventually summoned to the local education department to answer questions about her sexual orientation. She now lives in St. Petersburg and has given up teaching.
At least two other teachers have been targeted for speaking out in defense of gays. Ilya Kolmanovsky, a Moscow biology instructor and journalist, was able to regain his job only after news of his firing sparked an outcry from fellow journalists. Kolmanovsky, who is married and has two children, had taken part in a demonstration against the homosexual "propaganda" law.
Aleksandr Yermoshkin, a geography teacher in Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, was less fortunate. Also a gay-rights activist, he was asked to step down in September after a group called the Movement Against the Propaganda of Sexual Perversion petitioned local authorities.
"Shortly before September 1, my school director got a phone call from the deputy head of Khabarovsk's education department, who raised in a rather harsh manner the issue of my firing or her own dismissal as director," Yermoshkin says. "She received another call on September 2 asking her how the matter was being resolved."
Yermoshkin is still battling to reclaim his job.
The plight of Russia's homosexuals has drawn stinging international criticism, with some rights groups calling for a boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to ease Western concerns by denying that gays were being victimized and pledging that homosexual guests
would "feel comfortable" in Sochi. But a recent spate of attacks has fuelled doubts such a promise can be held.
Several videos have emerged on the Internet detailing assaults during which gay men were humiliated, beaten, shaved, and forced to drink urine, recite homophobic slogans, or pose in their underwear.
Two vigilante groups, Occupy Gerontophilia and Occupy Pedophilia, have claimed responsibility for some of these assaults, which they say are intended to "reform" homosexuals.
Earlier this month, a group of masked men wielding baseball bats and pneumatic guns stormed an HIV aid group for gay men in St. Petersburg, injuring two people. One man was left permanently blinded after being shot in the eye.
Despite the victim being a close friend, Bogach says nothing will deter her from advocating equal rights for all Russians, regardless of their background or sexual orientation.
"We all belong to a minority. Some people are redheads, some people are short, others are smokers," she says. "People don't understand that today it's one minority which is being persecuted, but that tomorrow it will be another."