QueerFest in Russia: The Art of Being Yourself Here and Now

Queerfest Russia
Opening ceremony of QueerFest 2017. Photo: Alba.

The opening ceremony of the ninth QueerFest, supported by Civil Rights Defenders, was a success from start to finish. For the second year in a row, the festival could open without disruptions of violence, harassment and provocations. This year’s festival has received more attention than the previous ones, and the organisers believe that the large number of diverse visitors has to do with the increased feeling of safety. “We are looking forward to reaching new audiences”, said Polina Andrianova, one of the organisers.

QueerFest in Russia is an international LGBTQI+ culture festival organised by the Russian LGBT Group “Coming out”. Yesterday, 14 September, marked the beginning of a ten-day long celebration filled with lectures, workshops, photo exhibitions, concerts and much more. The organisers have revealed that this year’s event “is going to be very personal” and that it each day will “uncover stories of people who live their lives and look for happiness right here and now, regardless of the difficult environment they live in”.

The 200 guests that had gathered for the opening of one of Russia’s largest LGBT events were greeted by the organisers, supporters, activists and representatives of diplomatic missions in St. Petersburg. Among the guests were also members of the office of the St. Petersburg ombudsman for human rights and representatives from civil society organisations.

Civil Rights Defenders has supported the event and its organisers since its beginning in 2009. We have seen how every year has brought an increase in scale, scope and strength. Over the years, many thousand people have visited the festival, including high profile musicians, artists and politicians. Among the performers this year are the Swedish musician Ängie and the soulful Russian group “Parks, Squares and Alleys”.

The Repressive Rules of the Game

As supporters of the festival, Civil Rights Defenders has also witnessed first-hand how the widespread homophobia in the Russian society has affected the event. QueerFest’s nine-year history has been marred by bomb threats, venue refusals and cancellations, and frequent interruptions by violent right-wing extremist groups and Russian authorities.

“Russia’s systematic crack-down on human rights has limited the possibilities and security of organising LGBT events such as QueerFest. During the past years the State has introduced the foreign agent law, the law on undesirable organisations, the LGBT propaganda law and other other laws that violate human rights organisations’ freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said Joanna Kurosz, Programme Director for Eurasia at Civil Rights Defenders.

Despite the ongoing harassment and threats towards the LGBTQI+ community, the QueerFest continues to be a space for tolerance, respect and celebration. After the peak of violent acts towards the festival in 2014, the organisers stood tall and stated that “the festival is about dialogue and being open in society, and our best defence right now is to stay visible”.

Queerfest Russia
Guests enjoyed the photo exhibition “Where Love Is Illegal” by Robin Hammond. Photo: Alba.

“We are happy that the organisers do not capitulate to the repressive rules of the game of the authorities and homophobic extremist groups. Instead, they look beyond the threats, become stronger, and keep organising one of the most important human rights events in Russia today. This year’s success is a product of their hard work and commitment. We are proud to be supporting this incredible event,” said Joanna Kurosz.

This year, the organisers have informed that they will switch focus from combatting the system to focusing on the importance of people – their experiences, their uniqueness and their will to live full lives.

With Cautious Optimism

After the tremendous amount of pressure in 2014, the last two years have been calmer and the festivals have been able to go on without major incidents. The complete freedom from harassment during yesterday’s opening ceremony is a good sign and Civil Rights Defenders sincerely hopes that the remaining ten-day long celebration can go on without interruptions and be allowed to end on a high note.

“The feeling of safety, whether destined to be temporary or long-lived, provides LGBT people with a boost of interest and confidence,” said Polina Andrianova.

With cautious optimism, we may be witnessing how the trend has reached a turning point. But should it simply be a case of “the calm before the storm”, the organisers will not back down.

“No matter what this year entails, whether it is going to be attacks from homophobic activists and harassment by the city administration, or a trouble-free ten days, the festival will continue its mission of empowering LGBTI people in Russia to be themselves, here, and now, which in our time and our country can be an art,” wrote the organisers in a press release on 12 September.

Queerfest Russia
Polina Andrianova is one of the organisers of QueerFest Russia. Here cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony of QueerFest 2017. Photo: Alba.

The Queerfest takes place between 14–24 September in St. Petersburg. Please find the full programme of the festival here or follow the event on Facebook and Instagram.

Should you have any questions about the event, please direct them to Cecilia Rosing, Programme Officer for Eurasia at Civil Rights Defenders. Cecilia is visiting the festival this year.

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