Feature Piece: The Battleground of Queer Russian Youth and the Case of Maxim Neverov

Written by Emma de Carvalho

The history of gay rights has had its moments and setbacks, from Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895 through to pride marches and gay-marriage movements in this last decade. And it has certainly been an exciting and progressive moment to grow up in. Nonetheless, the lag between social change and legal change has been frustrating, at the least, and insurrectionary at its most. The recent case of Maxim Neverov casts light on this shifting dynamic for young people in Russia.

Neverov was already under the watch of local authorities before he was arrested, being an LGBT activist in his home town Biysk. He was charged on August 7th with the equivalent of over US$700 for having circulated images of men hugging on the online platform VKontakte, on the grounds of having violated the 2013 law on ‘gay propaganda’. Whether he had publicly shared the images or saved them to a private album remains unclear, the latter being a more invasive and active breach of privacy. Ironically – and perhaps unsurprisingly – those who were allowed to attend the Commission meeting (Commission on Minors and the Protection of Minors’ Rights) were not allowed to record or video tape it. The charge was eventually dropped out of lack of evidence, a decision Neverov himself said to have found surprising. What was striking about Neverov’s case was that he was the first minor to be prosecuted under the 2013 law, a law that is supposed to protect minors.

The case of Russia is geopolitically particular. Bordering on the continental ‘West’, it has been in proximity – at least physically – to a very European style LGBT- activism and discourse. On the other hand, governmental and institutional attitudes have not been as accepting. Teenagers and young adults have been caught in this crossfire between increasingly progressive media networks and conservative domestic policy. Homosexuality in Russia remained classified as a mental illness up until 1999. In 2013, the government passed a ban on the spreading of non-traditional sexual ‘propaganda’ which they claim destabilises and corrupts young people. Hate crime against LGBT youth has been on the rise. This law could also be linked to a rise of STDs amongst homosexual men, who are barred from accessing information and resources online.

And yet, each victory seems to polarise attitudes. Harsh policing and a rise in violent abuse towards queer youth in Russia is a backlash to the sexual liberalisation that many still find to be threatening and immoral. In a 2015/2016 survey, Pew Research Centre found 84% of young adults in Russia between 18 and 34 years thought ‘homosexuality should not be accepted by society’, as compared to 88% of adults aged 35 and over. The gap in intergenerational attitudes towards homosexuality is not as punctuated in Russia as it is in other countries: the figures for Greece were 24% and 51%, respectively. Cases of LGBT-targeted crime are often ignored or covered up by authorities, written off as hooliganism. This process of actively refusing to acknowledge targeted hate crime is part of a wider picture of erasure of the community. Young adults and teenagers form a more vulnerable sub-set of the LGBT community, and are now even more at risk than before.

The politicisation of intimate human experience – who we love and how we love – is a battle waged by politicians and institutions. This bureaucratic rationality is, perhaps, symptomatic of our era, only it adds the third layer of the politico-legal to what is already a personal and social fight for so many people. Instead of criminalising abuse and hate speech, this law criminalises identity and expression. Grappling with sexual identity at school is already made to be a struggle, but having to deal with a legal case on top of this is not a gay rights issue, it is a human rights issue.

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