Protests. Photo: Private

Protests. Photo: Private

Features The protests in Belarus and the future of the LGBTQ+ community

In the ongoing protests in Belarus against Alexander Lukashenka and the sitting regime, the LGBTQ+ community walks alongside other demonstrators, with a common wish to see a regime change.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:1-2, p 98-101
Published on balticworlds.com on April 22, 2021

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  • There is no single established acronym encompassing the different spectrums of sexuality and gender. The author has chosen to use LGBTQ+, but LGBTI and LGBT+ appear in the article in cases where a specific actor uses these acronyms in their communication.

In the ongoing protests in Belarus against Alexander Lukashenka and the sitting regime, the LGBTQ+ community walks alongside other demonstrators, with a common wish to see a regime change. The LGBTQ+ community perceives a political turnaround on the highest level as a first step towards a more inclusive society where the community would have a more defined space.

During the last few years, the LGBTQ+ movement has acquired a more visible role in Belarusian society after longer periods of societal disregard of the community’s existence. Nick Antipov, a Belarusian LGBTQ+ activist and human rights defender, says to Baltic Worlds via link that the movement was previously non-existent on the official agenda:

“We were not included in the public discourse; there was no discussion in the public sphere. We didn’t exist in the media sphere, and if we did it was argued our specific concerns were just part of a Western concept [of identity].”

Antipov is co-founder of MAKEOUT, a Belarusian feminist, anti-discriminatory project. The initiative focuses on questions of gender and sexuality, and its members strive to increase the awareness of these topics in society as well as to strengthen the LGBTQ+ community and other groups that are facing discrimination based on gender or identity.1

The initiative started in 2014 but was not legally registered as a project until 2018. Antipov says that the project needed to be officially registered or the members’ activities would be considered illegal. The application was refused nine times before it was suddenly approved.

A bumpy road ahead

The LGBTQ+ movement in Belarus is facing many obstacles, including widespread hate speech, bias-motivated violence and a lack of anti-discriminatory legislation. Homophobia and transphobia are not uncommon on official levels, and a reluctance to accept LGBTQ+ people is relatively widespread throughout society in general.

According to an annual report produced by the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), bias-motivated speech and violence were two of the main problematic issues for the LGBTI community in Belarus in 2019. The lack of appropriate legislation is also of concern. Björn van Roozendaal, Programmes Director at ILGA-Europe, explains:

“In Belarus, there is no legislation that prevents hate crime and hate speech against LGBTI people, and there is nothing that ensures equality, non-discrimination or family rights of LGBTI people. Civil society is subjected to a large amount of pressure from the authorities, starting from the de facto impossibility of registration of NGOs, ranging to pressure on activists, and this makes the work much harder and perilous for LGBTI groups.”

Anton, a Belarusian activist who has been working with many Belarusian feminist and queer initiatives since 2015 and who prefers to leave out his last name for security reasons, outlines some additional obstacles facing the community:

“Same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples are forbidden. […] The definition of hate crimes does not explicitly mention crimes aimed at people because of their SOGI [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity], it just says ‘crimes based on … hatred towards any social group’. Only once, in 2016, was this law used in a homophobic attack case.”

Moreover, transgender people cannot change their passport ID number, which means that they are involuntarily outed to officials since these numbers stand for one’s gender assigned at birth. The gender transitioning process, whereby you transfer to the gender presentation that is in line with your internal sense of gender, is also complicated and one has to deal with doctors who do not always possess enough knowledge about the subject matter. The problems are worse outside of Minsk, according to Anton.

Furthermore, he explains that people who change their legal gender from female to male receive a military service card, but they are not allowed to serve in the military. The card includes a code for a group of medical diagnoses, namely 19a, which stands for several severe psychiatric conditions. Some employers require such a military card when interviewing potential employees and may reject the candidate on basis of such a diagnosis.

Living and identifying as a LGBTQ+ person is not illegal, yet one’s experiences and existence are largely made invisible. Nadzeya Husakouskaya, who at the time of the interview worked as a researcher at Amnesty International, says the law does not simply mention LGBTQ+ people.2

“No, there is no law explicitly protecting LGBTQ+ people. However, being a LGBTQ+ person is also not criminalized.”

Yet Husakouskaya perceives Belarus as being a highly binary society, with strong heteronormative attitudes on display. There are certain societal expectations concerning gender, and gender non-conforming persons find it relatively difficult to navigate in public spaces. Women are, for example, expected to present themselves in a certain way, in line with socially expected standards of femininity. They are still to a high degree relegated to the domestic sphere, but over the last few months of Belarusian protests women are visibly reclaiming the public space, thus challenging the old structures.

A more active player

The Belarusian LGBTQ+ community is also challenging traditional structures to a higher degree than before and its increased visibility and organization has resulted in negative repercussions on the part of the state.

Nadzeya Husakouskaya says that representatives of the state structure have always expended a considerable amount of energy on political opponents, and since the LGBTQ+ movement was previously not perceived as a political actor and was not overly organized it was to a certain extent left to be. Once its members got organized, claimed the public space and became vocal, however, the state pushed back.

The backlash on the part of the state has intensified from 2018 onward, according to Husakouskaya, after the British Embassy in Minsk flew a rainbow flag on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, IDAHOT, on May 17 that year. The British activities generated a response from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which published a statement on its website. ILGA-Europe’s Annual Report covering 2018 states that it was not the first time the Embassy flew the rainbow flag, but in previous years the government had simply ignored the action.3

ILGA-Europe notes that the Ministry of Interior’s statement read that the UK was challenging Belarusian “traditional values” and called LGBTQ+ people and same-sex relationships “fake”. This in turn led to an online petition requiring an investigation of the legality of the statement. However, on the same day that the online petition was published then Minister of Internal Affairs, Ihar Shunevich, stated the UK Embassy’s action was propaganda of an unacceptable way of life. Social media users responded with publishing posts with the hashtag #Iamnotfake.

About a week later Belarusian activist and co-founder of MAKEOUT, Victoria Biran, did a one-person protest outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs in which she posed for photos holding a poster with the text “You yourself are fake”.4 This led to her being found guilty in court for violating the “procedure for the organization and holding of mass events”, a legal breach according to Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of Belarus.5 She was sentenced to a fine.

Nadzeya Husakouskaya says that the fact that the LGBTQ+ community and others responded to the statements from governmental levels changed something in the dynamics between the community and the state:

“When the LGBTQ+ community started to react to the statement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, tension was created. The community entered a more politicized state”.

Generations of activists and a new reality

Nick Antipov from MAKEOUT says that the country has already experienced strengthened LGBTQ+ activism from 2014 onward. He states that there have been three generations of LGBTQ+ activists in the post-Soviet period operating in the years 1990—2004, 2007—2013 and 2014—2020, respectively. In between these periods the activity waned due to more wide-spread persecution.

As examples of current activities organized by the activists, he mentions the establishment of educational programs for the population at large and initiatives targeting young LGBTQ+ people. Several initiatives have started in cities other than Minsk. Previously, LGBTQ+ activism was mainly concentrated to the capital.

“The community has been more active. We have sought to amplify our voice, and we have done a good job in raising this voice in the media.”

2020 was a very turbulent year for the whole of Belarusian society, including Antipov and his fellow activists. For the LGBTQ+ community, all activities were at first put on hold by the spread of Covid-19:

“It all started with Covid-19, hindering all types of activism since there were no events due to safety restrictions. Some activists found other volunteer work”.

The presidential elections on August 9 resulted in other types of initiatives, however. Antipov says that the goals of the community changed – the focus became to support civil society at large and protest injustices on a more general level.

According to Anton, the LGBTQ+ community has been an integral part of the protest movement against the sitting regime, but the activists do not usually bring forward specific demands concerning their situation:

“It’s important to note that LGBTQ+ people have participated and are participating in all kinds of activities to remove Lukashenka and help victims of regime violence. Most of the time they don’t bring rainbow flags or make statements demonstrating that they belong to the community. I know queer people who interviewed victims of prison torture in August, who have sown flags for the protests, who put white-red-white flags on their windows, who made leaflets, […] who gave parcels to the detained and sent them postcards — and I took part in some of these things myself.”

Despite it not being a regular occurrence, rainbow flags have at times been waved during the demonstrations, and queer columns have been organized. According to Björn van Roozendaal at ILGA-Europe, such actions resulted in mixed reactions from the other participants:

“During the massive protests, there were several initiatives of local LGBTI groups forming their own columns of marchers where they displayed symbols, including flags, that openly showed their LGBTI and sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). There was some criticism from the main groups of protesters, but there was also support from others.”

Yet cases of abuse due to protesters’ LGBTQ+ identity or the showcasing of symbols supporting the community have been registered. Amnesty International launched a petition for above mentioned LGBTQ+ activist Victoria Biran who was detained on her way to the Women’s March in Minsk on September 26.6 The petition reads that she was likely targeted because she was carrying a rainbow flag, and that as an LGBT+ activist, Biran is at heightened risk of ill-treatment in detention.

Aisha Jung, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, explains:

“[…] those who are perceived to be politically active, including LGBT+ activists, are singled out for particularly harsh treatment in detention. For those perceived to be transgressing strongly entrenched societal ‘norms’ around gender, that vulnerability is only exacerbated further.”

Victoria Biran was released on October 11. According to a statement from Amnesty International, her friends said that when Biran was brought to the police station a law enforcement official asked her to point out LGBT+ activists from a list of names.7 Police, however, denied that they knew about her LGBT+ activism and had not noticed her rainbow flag.

Another case of ill-treatment concerns LGBTQ+ activist Zhenya Velko who was detained on the same day as Victoria Biran, on September 26, at the Women’s March. Amnesty International has worked together with MAKEOUT on his case. According to a report by MAKEOUT, Zhenya Velko was subjected to cruel treatment and discrimination due to his transgender identity. He had to endure transphobic rhetoric, blackmail and serious threats of sexual assault and even murder at the time of the arrest and during his two days of administrative detention.

Appropriating the narrative

Despite the many challenges the members of the Belarusian LGBTQ+ community is facing, they are determined to work towards change. On a question from Baltic Worlds if a possible regime change could result in an improved situation for the LGBTQ+ community, Nick Antipov answers that in Belarus many people commonly use “when” the regime falls, not “if”:

“We try to appropriate this narrative. When the regime falls, we will choose our government, parliament and strive for freedom of assembly. We must work with hope. We don’t have guns; we only have stories that we want to amplify and change.”

Antipov believe that regime change will only be a first step towards positive change, but it is nevertheless a starting point. The LGBTQ+ community must work together with the rest of Belarusian society and take further steps towards a greater understanding of the problems the community is facing. Homophobia does not vanish in an instant, but society must acknowledge the violence committed due to such homophobia, he says.

Nadzeya Husakouskaya says that when the Lukashenka regime falls, there is a window of opportunity for the community. Nobody can then say that its members have not been there, that they have not been part of bringing about change.

However, Husakouskaya argues, in the current situation in Belarus some aspects of identity politics become quite redundant since all sectors of society are mobilized and differences in their identities are bridged on many levels. Belarusian society is not willing to tolerate violence at any level, towards any citizen, no matter their identity. There is an increased acknowledgement of the fact that every person, whoever they are, has the right to a dignified life.

Husakouskaya recognizes that there is an unprecedented diversity among the protesters, a solidarity between different classes and groups and that such unification of the people can result in different groups being able to co-exist in society after Lukashenka has been replaced. Husakouskaya also hopes that when the regime is gone, there will not be a re-traditionalization of society.

For Nick Antipov, the current times involve both highs and lows — when he is at his highest point, he believes that the regime will soon fall and at his lowest he thinks that they will all perish. However, he says that the wheels of change have been put into motion and that there is no way back to what was:

“There is no alternative to continuing the protests, there is no going back. Lukashenka does not want to leave, but we will not leave either. We have no choice but to continue.” 

References

1
MAKEOUT, last accessed November 10, 2020, https://makeout.by/about_us.html.

2
Nadzeya Husakouskaya left Amnesty in December 2020, and is currently working independently as a consultant in the area of LGBTQ+ rights in Europe and Central Asia.

3
ILGA-Europe, Annual Report 2019, last accessed November 11, 2020, https://www.ilga-europe.org/annualreview/2019.

4
Viasna, May 24, 2018, last accessed November 13, 2020, https://spring96.org/ru/news/89959.

5
ILGA-Europe, Annual Report 2019.

6
Amnesty International, petition, September 30, 2020, last accessed Novem-

ber 13, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur49/3143/2020/en/.

7
Amnesty Internationl, October 15, 2020, last accessed November 13, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR4932282020ENGLISH.pdf.

  • by Marina Henrikson

    PhD in Russian Studies from the University of Manchester, UK. Currently a freelance journalist with a focus on questions concerning human rights and the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

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