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Openly Gay Candidates Push Back In Russia's Duma Elections

Russian Duma candidate Bulat Barantayev says he has been attacked in the past and also received an official summons merely for applying to organize an LGBT event. (file photo)

Bulat Barantayev is calling for the impeachment of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for all corrupt officials to be tried and imprisoned.

But that's not why he has no chance of winning a legislative mandate in Russia's September 28 Duma elections.

Barantayev, by his own admission, won't be representing Novosibirsk from the liberal Parnas coalition because he is one of the first openly gay men to run for the Duma in modern Russian history.

"For a long time now, I have used all opportunities to cultivate an audience for accepting LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people," Barantayev told RFE/RL when asked why he was running in a race he is certain he can't win. "By my example, I show that gays in Russia can create their own successful businesses, can meet with people, can have children, and can even run for the State Duma."

Aleksei Korolyov is another openly gay man on the Parnas ticket in the southern city of Krasnodar. He is also realistic about his chances but confident his candidacy is a step forward for Russia.

"The LGBT community now is in a desperate situation," he told RFE/RL, "and we need allies. It is good that we have been able to form an alliance with Parnas. The LGBT community gets new resources to defend itself and the party should get some new voters.... I decided to run because the ruling party has adopted an extreme homophobic position. The authorities are facilitating a homophobic discourse in society that is inciting hate crimes."

Moved To Action

Both Barantayev and Korolyov were moved to public action by Russia's 2013 law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors.

"The mechanism that the authorities are using to foster homophobia in society is very primitive," Barantayev said. "The LGBT community has been branded as enemies in order to divert the public's attention from real economic and political problems."

Barantayev, 33, has been open about his sexuality since he was 25, and in 2011 he created the local nongovernmental GORD gay-advocacy organization.

In 2009, he was inspired when opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015, made a quixotic run to become mayor of the city of Sochi. He joined Nemtsov's Solidarity movement, the first step on his road to the current campaign.

Russian gay rights activist Aleksei Korolyov
Russian gay rights activist Aleksei Korolyov

Korolyov, 29, has been a gay-rights activist in the southern city of Krasnodar since 2012.

"For four years, I have been working to establish relations between the LGBT community and various democratic organizations, including the Yabloko party," he said. "Before the passage of the 'gay propaganda' law, many democrats said the topic isn't important and society won't respond positively. Now everyone understands that the LGBT community needs support."

The liberal Yabloko party even included support for the rights of sexual minorities as a plank in its party platform. Parnas, however, did not.

"Unlike Yabloko, our party is struggling to survive. We can't afford to get into particulars," Barantayev said when asked why. "Even in this silence, the democratic values of Parnas include the defense of LGBT rights."

Playing The Long game

Barantayev said that he doesn't feel in danger running for parliament.

"I am risking less than other candidates from our party," he said. "The leader of the Novosibirsk branch of Parnas, Yegor Savin, is under tremendous pressure. His assistant was recently assaulted. People who are distributing his leaflets have been threatened over the phone. The building where his business is located was set on fire."

"I'm of no interest to local officials, the police, or the United Russia party," Barantayev added. "The authorities believe there is no chance I'll be elected in today's Russia. So they don't pay any attention to me."

This contrasts sharply with his past experience of merely being gay in Russia.

"I have been attacked," he said. "I was called and summoned to the mayor's office in response to my application to hold an LGBT event. But outside the building, I was jumped by thugs and beaten up. When I return home late, young men that I don't know call me by name and shout obscenities. Because of the attacks, I am a little afraid to be out in public sometimes. But I don't have a victim complex. They treat us the way we let them treat us."

Both Bulant Barantayev and Aleksei Korolyov were moved to public action by Russia's 2013 law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors. (file photo)
Both Bulant Barantayev and Aleksei Korolyov were moved to public action by Russia's 2013 law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors. (file photo)

Both men are playing the long game and are optimistic that time is on their side.

"Maybe I'll be elected to the eighth Duma [in 2021]," Korolyov said. "We can't hide and be afraid. The discriminatory law has activated the LGBT community and has spurred development. We recognize that if we don't do politics, politics will do us."

In Novosibirsk, Barantayev also sees progress.

"These days, the best journalists come to LGBT events and report about them properly and positively," he said. "In 2016, being a homophobe is the same as having 'I'm a provincial rube' tattooed on your forehead."

Asked about pro-Kremlin television personality Dmitry Kiselyov, who notoriously said the organs of gays should be burned rather than used for transplants, Barantayev said: "Kiselyov is the opinion leader of provincials. He does not determine what happens tomorrow."