The realities of queer activism in Belarus
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
In Belarus, the current unrest as a result of recent elections means that if you are a peaceful protester you may face violence on the street. But queer activists participating in the current protests face a double whammy of violence from both the government and opposition sides.
In a recent interview with Politico Europe, Andrei Zavalei, a Belarusian queer activist, recalled his experiences in the protests so far: “rubber bullets, stun grenades, water canons…When I think of this very moment, recalling the fear, shock and terror I encountered, it doesn’t feel like an exceptional experience for me. I’ve had the same feeling of insecurity many times before. For my pidor family, this is nothing we’re not used to”.
“Pidor” is a homophobic slur. The term that should be used is queer — that’s the politically correct word used worldwide. But in homophobic Belarus, “queer” doesn’t mean anything except among the most privileged part of the LGBTQ+ community.
In Belarus, queer activists fight injustice every day. Before this election however, these activists had to protest quietly and clandestinely. Now queer activists make up an almost invisible, but substantial group in the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.
Whilst many queer protestors support the candidate from the united opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, they don’t dare take rainbow flags to protests. If they did, many fellow protestors would not be very friendly - just to put it mildly. And if rainbow flags were brought to the march, the Government would use this as pretext to claim that the whole protest is organized by the decaying West, and that the protests are against ‘traditional’ family values.
Sandwiched between European Union member states and Russia, Belarusian homophobic prejudice is still very strong. Homosexuality was decriminalized after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994. However gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights are still severely limited, and homosexuality remains highly taboo in Belarusian society.
The last attempt to register a public association for LGBTQ+ people was made in 2013. The Department of Justice rejected the application and the Supreme Court confirmed the decision, ruling that there was no need to create such an organization as the constitution protects minorities.
One year later, the architect Mikhail Pischevsky, a gay man, was attacked in Minsk. He was beaten so severely that surgeons had to remove 20 percent of his brain to keep him from dying. Mikhail never recovered or regained consciousness and died months after the attack. A judge ruled that the crime had no homophobic motive, even though it occurred just outside the entrance to a gay nightclub and he was called a pidor by his attacker.
The mainstream media in Belarus stays silent on LGBTQ+ issues. Gay life is still largely underground, and most Belarusian’s, including those who are up for a greater rapprochement with the EU, still consider homosexuality as a disorder.
Since the election, opposition protesters have painted “go away, pidors” on walls, swearing at the police. Special forces –siloviky– have shouted “on your knees, pidors,” while punching and detaining protesters. The LGBTQ+ community are stretched across two battlefields at the same time. They always have two flags flying – one for democracy and one for the LGBTQ+ community.
On Sunday 16th, during the largest protest so far, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets and the LGBTQ+ community brought rainbow flags with them. There were of course a lot of angry gazes, and some individuals tried to stop the protesters, but they made it through the march.
When this fight will be over for others, it won’t be over for the queer community in Belarus. Their rainbow flags have just come out. And they are not going to put them away.