“I changed,” said Maxim, a dark-haired boy with an earnest expression. “I was afraid when I was younger, but when my mom died, I opened up. I didn’t care when people called me dirty names.”
Maxim said he never felt attracted to girls. When he was 10, he said, he told another boy that he loved him. The boy laughed him off. “Are you crazy, or what?” he said. Maxim kept his feelings to himself after that, but when he was 12, his uncle got a computer. Maxim went online and searched for: “What does it mean if a boy likes a boy?”
The search produced a trove of nastiness, but amid the homophobic comments, he found definitions of gay and lesbian. “I printed that out,” he said, “and thinking about myself, I decided I should be called gay. Of course, I didn’t say a word to anyone.”
Now, it’s even more difficult and dangerous for teenagers to get information. The new law makes it illegal to tell minors that “traditional” and “non-traditional” sexual relations are socially equal. Its prohibition on giving minors gay “propaganda” is so vague that most people assume they can’t mention the word “homosexuality” in front of minors.
Lawmakers said they wanted to protect children. “Homosexuality is a sexual perversion which is unnatural and contradicts human nature,” said Duma deputy Tatiana Yakovleva, a member of the ruling United Russia party. The law is so broad that it has been interpreted as prohibiting gay pride parades — a minor might see one. Frightened teachers are silent.
President Vladimir Putin signed the national law July 1. Even before that, four cities had passed their own versions. Earlier this year, Lena Klimova, a 25-year-old Internet journalist from Yekaterinburg, wrote an article about the debate, challenging the assertions that homosexuality is a perversion.
A 15-year-old girl wrote to Klimova in March, saying the article had saved her life.
The student said she had been sitting in biology class when a pack of girls started to hiss at her. “Lesbian,” they taunted, “lesbian.”
A teachable moment? Not here. When the distraught victim told the bullying girls to shut up, the teacher ordered her out of the classroom. When her mother asked her why she had gotten home early, the girl broke down in tears and told her everything. She was a lesbian and had been together with her girlfriend, Vera, for a year.
“So my mom started to yell at me,” the girl told Klimova, “and said that everybody had normal children, and I am not normal, a pervert. She was yelling that she would lock me in my room and would never let me see Vera again.”
The girl said she was in despair, feeling there was no way she could go on living, but when she happened to find Klimova’s article, she realized that she was neither abnormal nor alone.
“No one in Russia has ever looked at LGBT teenagers and their situation,” Klimova said.
‘A very difficult life’
That incident led to the creation of Deti-404, pages on Facebook and a similar Russian site called Vkontakte where teenagers can share their stories. Deti means children and 404 refers to “page not found” on Internet searches.
“They have a very difficult life,” Klimova said. “They’re afraid to go to school psychologists because if they do, the psychologists call the parents and there are scenes and quarrels at home. Some parents ban their children from talking about it. They take away their cellphones and order them to stay away from their girlfriend or boyfriend. They threaten to send their kids to psychiatric hospitals, and sometimes do.”
While the law has done damage, Klimova said, it has also made her and others speak up. “I don’t want to live in a country where a particular group is persecuted,” she said.
Ivan Simochkin, a freelance Web site designer in Moscow, helped Klimova develop Deti-404, refusing to worry about whether he could be accused of breaking the law. Fines for violating the law begin at $125, but those who break it using the Internet can be fined up to $3,000.
Simochkin, who began supporting gay rights when a friend opened his eyes to the widespread discrimination, worries that teachers have been put in an impossible situation. “Homophobes have been given the signal that it’s okay to persecute gays,” he said, “and those who might help them are afraid to do so.”
All LGBT teenagers share two big problems here, Klimova said: isolation and parents who can’t accept them. Deti-404 has already helped with the first, she said, but transforming parents will take years. “You have to change the whole society,” she said.
Maxim has been an enthusiastic contributor to Deti-404. “I decided I should be an activist,” he said. “I want to explain to people who don’t understand about homosexuality.”
Though Russia repealed a law making homosexuality a criminal offense in 1993, four years before he was born, attitudes inherited from Soviet times prevail today. A national poll by the independent Levada Center in April found that nearly 80 percent of respondents attributed homosexuality to disease, psychological trauma or immorality.
In the Soviet Union, gay men and lesbians could be sent to prison or forced to undergo medical treatment.
Sitting in a sunlit Moscow park, under the baleful gaze of a large statue of Lenin, Maxim recalled how classmates called him names and threatened him after he revealed he was gay. Teachers ignored his situation, except for one who picked up scissors and tried to cut his longish bangs.
Some kids asked why he became gay. “I didn’t become gay,” he told them. “I was born gay.”
His grandmother has come to accept him, but she hasn’t heard about the law and he hasn’t told her, sparing her worry.
The law set off vociferous criticism of Russia around the world, along with debates about boycotting vodka and even the Sochi Winter Olympics. President Obama made his disapproval clear on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.”
Those rebukes have little resonance here, where the law is widely supported and where gays and lesbians feel the landscape has grown more dangerous than ever for them.
“You can’t impose homosexuality on anyone,” Maxim said, “but you can easily impose homophobia.”