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Ad Appearance Is No 'Recipe For Happiness' For Russian LGBT Family

Yuma (left) with her daughters: Mila (far right) and Alina (second from the right). Alina's girlfriend and fiancée, Ksyusha, is second from the left.
Yuma (left) with her daughters: Mila (far right) and Alina (second from the right). Alina's girlfriend and fiancée, Ksyusha, is second from the left.

When Moscow-based psychologist and LGBT activist Yuma Yuma first saw her family in a grocery-chain advertisement spotlighting real-life customers, it was a point of gay pride.

"Perhaps the most important thing for our family is care and acceptance," Yuma wrote on Instagram in late June after the Russian health-food franchise VkusVill posted its ad featuring Yuma, her adult daughters Mila and Alina, and Alina's girlfriend and fiancée, Ksyusha.

Yuma expressed amazement at the amount of support her queer family had received and thanked VkusVill for its willingness to combat intolerance. But such good feelings would be short-lived.

Just days after VkusVill released the ad as part of its "Recipe For Happiness" marketing drive, the chain was in damage-control mode amid an outpouring of criticism, leading it to call the ad "a mistake" and apologize for "hurting the feelings of a large number of our customers and employees."

Although the original ad had been posted with a legally required 18+ warning and a message from the grocery chain saying that "not telling about the real families of our customers would be hypocrisy," it was taken down and replaced with images of a conservatively dressed family made up of a man, a woman, and their three young children.

The VkusVill apology was signed by company founder Andrei Krivenko and 11 top managers. However, it was not signed by VkusVill online-content manager Roman Polyakov, who publicly defended the advertisement with Yuma's family.

"The post was not approved by the management, because we don't discuss every post with the company's leaders," Polyakov told RFE/RL. "But at first the senior managers reacted positively. And, more importantly, the audience reacted well. The first day we got hundreds of grateful comments and only a handful of negative ones. Only later did the number of negative comments reach the thousands because people who previously hadn't been following us joined in the discussion."

Yuma said her family "laughed at how ridiculous and cowardly" the VkusVill apology was in an interview with the Siberia.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

'Not Just Ordinary Hate'

VkusVill's move was not entirely unexpected, Yuma told RFE/RL on August 4, but the real-life backlash her family encountered was.

"It was not just ordinary hate with insults. It was real threats," Yuma said, describing threats against Alina's 8-year-old daughter as the worst. "Our address and all contact information were leaked to extremist organizations. They threatened us with physical violence."

Russian feminists and other activists have complained in recent years of similar online harassment from followers of socially conservative, patriarchal forums that publish their private contact data. Vladislav Pozdnyakov, the founder of one such forum called Male State in February posted on Telegram that "feminists and LGBT are biogarbage" and "have no place among normal people."

Yuma was not unfamiliar with the intolerance experienced by members of the LGBT community in Russia.

She became an LGBT activist after the country passed its controversial and homophobic "gay propaganda" law in 2013 that technically bars "the promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," but which was accompanied by an uptick in violence against queer people and has been criticized by rights watchdogs for effectively barring information even remotely related to LGBT lifestyles.

Alina with her fiancée Ksyusha
Alina with her fiancée Ksyusha

As groups like Children-404, which provided counseling to LGBT youths facing violence, were banned, Yuma began providing psychological assistance to LGBT people facing persecution in Chechnya amid what has been dubbed the southern Russian republic's "gay purge."

She and Mila also volunteered to work for Side By Side, Russia's only LGBT film festival, and other LGBT-friendly events.

"During my activism, I have seen too many broken, terribly lonely, beaten, hunted people," Yuma told RFE/RL, noting that the victim's families were often responsible for their suffering.

"It's awful; it doesn't have to be this way," she said. "Everyone in our family agrees with this, and everyone voluntarily invested in this story with the VkusVilla advertisement."

'Our Love Is Just As Valuable'

After the cyberthreats began pouring in, staying in Russia was no longer an option.

"I understood these were no longer trolls and bots, and that in Russia we could not avoid violence," Yuma said. "Comments on the Internet are a small part of the pressure."

Comments alluding to violations of the law and alleging that the Yumas were "causing harm to a child" led the family to conclude that more trouble was on the way.

"I did not wait for an invitation to the police," Yuma said. "We packed our bags very quickly, and we left for a safe place the day we found out that [the family's personal data] had been leaked."

Yuma and her family in Barcelona.
Yuma and her family in Barcelona.

After holing up with friends for nearly a month in Moscow, the family made the jump to Barcelona, Spain.

"Here we don't have to hide our happiness in being a family," Yuma said from her adopted home. "Ksyusha and Alina don't have to hide their relationship. And our youngest (Alina's 8-year-old daughter) doesn't have to lie about her family at school."

Yuma has not yet decided on her next move, but has no plans to go back to Russia in the near future. She also has no regrets, saying her family's story is far from over.

"The most important thing has already happened, and it cannot be changed now," Yuma said of the ad and its aftermath. "We were shown as we are, together with other families. We talked about what we love to eat, who cooks, how we choose products. We're just a family. It is foolish to reduce everything to genitalia. We love the same as others love. Our love is just as valuable. And everyone heard this."

With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service