Fleeing war and discrimination, LGBT Russians find refuge in the South Caucasus

YEREVAN, Armenia — When tens of thousands of Russians fled the country this spring after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, many chose to resettle in Armenia and Georgia.

But for LGBT Russians, their new homes in the conservative South Caucasus – where there are few protections against homophobic violence – may mean facing even greater risks than in the hostile environment they left behind. them.

Seeing her friends in Russia arrested for their anti-war activism, body-positive blogger and LGBT advocate Ollie decided to move to the Armenian capital to work on a project to help LGBT people affected by the invasion. Russian from Ukraine.

Ollie, 27, said she chose Yerevan because many Armenians speak Russian as a second language and Russians do not need a visa to enter the country.

“Nothing is scary after living [as an LGBT person] in Russia,” said Ollie, who declined to give his full name. “Here I didn’t experience homophobia or transphobia… Probably about 50% of my homosexual acquaintances moved to Yerevan.”

Armenia and Georgia are socially conservative societies, and LGBT people face a number of legal and social barriers, as well as discrimination and occasional violence. Armenia put 47th out of 49 European and Eurasian countries in a ranking of civil liberties, protections and recognitions granted to LGBT people.

Like Russia, the Armenian Constitution recognize marriage between men and women.

But while LGBT Armenians struggle to be accepted, a number of LGBT Russians have said they feel safe in Armenia because, at least for now, they are treated as guests.

“I feel like the local rules don’t apply to me because I’m a foreigner,” said a member of the Russian LGBT community in Armenia who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Rosemary Ketchum / pexels

“Armenia has legal discrimination [against LGBT people], same-sex marriage is illegal, and local LGBT communities are even more closed off. It is a conservative country. But I was not discriminated against,” she said.

Several local and international LGBT organizations in Armenia work to help new Russian emigrants integrate.

Queer Svit projectwhere Ollie works as a marketing manager, helping LGBT people from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to flee abroad and providing temporary shelter in Armenia.

In Armenia, locals are “tolerant” of LGBT foreigners, said Mamikon Hovsepyan, director of communications at Pink Armenia.

“The capital is quite active and diverse and there are some [LGBT-friendly] venues, cafes, clubs and parties, but the general attitude is negative,” he told the Moscow Times.

“[LGBT] Russians will be accepted by [Armenian] society unless they show their sexuality,” he added. “Homophobia usually targets the local community.”

Local human rights group Pink Armenia last year registered at least 35 human rights violations against LGBT people, as well as discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

A trans person was sexually assaulted in Yerevan in June.

The situation in neighboring Georgia is similar. A far-right group staged a rally to disrupt an LGBT event in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi earlier this summer and one of the group’s members deceased after setting himself on fire to protest non-traditional relationships.

Russian activist Alexander Sofeev, who visited the event targeted by protesters, said the situation was tense, but police provided security for attendees.

“I think the Georgian government doesn’t promote homophobia, it’s usually done by far-right activists,” said Sofeev, a member of feminist arts group Pussy Riot who moved to Tbilisi last year, in Moscow Times.

“On the contrary, in Russia, it [homophobia] is taxed at the state level,” he said.

* Nationalist rally against LGBT community activities in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2021 TASS/Zurab Kurtsikidze

* Nationalist rally against the activities of the LGBT community in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2021
TASS / Zurab Kurtsikidze

Russian activists said Moscow’s crackdown on anything perceived as “Western” in the wake of the war had had an acute impact on the LGBT community.

“Tensions in Russian society have increased since the start of the war and this affects the most vulnerable groups, including sexual minorities,” said Anna Akulina, 32, who moved from the southern city of Rostov-on- le-Don for Yerevan in early April.

Since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian state television coverage has portrayed LGBT rights as foreign values ​​that threaten the country. A Chechen military commander said on state television last month that Russia is waging a “holy war” against “satanic values” such as LGBT rights.

Last month, Russian lawmakers submitted legislation that would ban any information deemed to be “LGBT propaganda”.

“Russia is not a safe place for a queer person: you risk being exposed at work, being bullied or even beaten. You get used to hiding all the time in Russia,” said body-positive blogger Ollie.

Many LGBT Russians have fled abroad for fear of human rights abuses if they are detained or arrested by Russian police for their anti-war views.

“Can you imagine me calling the police in Russia if something happens? I can’t. I don’t trust them,” Ivan Sokolov, who is openly gay, told The Moscow Times.

“I’m more likely to get help [from the police] in Armenia.

But Sokolov, 23, who moved to Yerevan a week after the start of the war, said he had been the victim of homophobic slurs and was worried about what might happen in the future.

“I feel safer here than in Russia,” he said. “But what will the situation be in three or six months?

Russia news

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