3 мая 2021

"We went through a very difficult time": Repression against LGBTQ activism in Belarus, 2012-2013

This text is about the repression against LGBTQ activism in Belarus in 2012-2013. After the second attempt to register the organization "GayBelarus", its participants experienced unprecedented pressure, which eventually led to the destruction of the organization. I would like to document that specific period from the life of "GayBelarus", sharing the memories of people who were directly involved in those events…
Изображение: Darya Danilovich
© Darya Danilovich
When we launched MAKEOUT in 2014, we often said that we as activists came to a "scorched field". It felt like that. The previous generation of activists seemed inaccessible — some burned out and left activism, others left the country or simply "disappeared". We did not want to be those who "start from scratch", who think that they are doing something "for the first time", and we began to study what had been done before us by previous generations of LGBTQ activists. We began to collect and preserve our history in order to pass this knowledge on to future generations. It was important for us to build this "bridge" between the generations, to establish continuity, so that the new generations which will engage in activism after us will not have the feeling of a "scorched field" again.

Over the seven years of our activism, we have seen different changes. Recent years have been stressful and challenging for LGBTQ community and the activist community in our country. We observed how the authorities, represented by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, began to openly express their homophobia, and how the Catholic Church of Belarus supported the collection of signatures to introduce criminal liability for LGBTQ people... This is the story of our community that goes on… The story of repression, among other things.

This text is about the repression against LGBTQ activism in Belarus in 2012-2013. After the second attempt to register the organization "GayBelarus", its participants experienced unprecedented pressure, which eventually led to the destruction of the organization. I would like to document that specific period from the life of "GayBelarus", sharing the memories of people who were directly involved in those events…

When we talk about the "scorched field" or disruptions in the continuity between different generations of LGBTQ activism in Belarus, about the obstacles we face when passing on our experience and preserving it — it is not a feature of our memory, not some peculiarities of our community. There are objective external reasons for this. And I think it is important to remember this, especially now — to notice, to document and to call things by their proper names.

"We went through a very difficult time": Repression against LGBTQ activism in Belarus, 2012-2013© Darya Danilovich

Grem, a member of "GayBelarus"

Another attempt to register "GayBelarus" resulted in heavy repression against all of its members. It was 2012. I got a call from an unknown number and got an invitation to "talk about our mutual friend Sergey Androsenko [the leader of "GayBelarusy" — editor's note]". I consulted with Natalia Mankovskaya, who was at that time his right-hand, and then refused to go to that meeting. Then I got threats. They ended up sending some ridiculous letter to my university saying that I didn't want to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. I was lucky that the deputy dean turned out to be a good man and there were no consequences.

I am ashamed that I did not have the strength to send a complaint to the prosecutor's office. We wrote the letter, prepared all the papers, they were already in an envelope, and all I had to do was to drop it in a mailbox. But I was so overwhelmed with inner fear that I didn't dare. This was the time when the persecution began, when they waited for Sergey near the entrance to his house, the same with his mother, and there wes some repression against his younger sister. One of my friends left the organization and activism because it was indicated to her that if she continues to engage in it, her younger brother may suffer. "GayBelarus" numbered more than 100 people, after all these events there were at best 20 left. The others just quit. Most of them basically left activism. They did not start to keep low profile for some time, to wait out, — they left activism altogether, so, apparently, those actions affected them.

We went through a very difficult time — 2012 and 2013. The police and OMON came to every LGBTQ party, copied passport data, and those who refused to provide it were detained until their identity was confirmed. In 2013, we tried to organize a pride, but most of the events were disrupted. The initiative tried to reformat itself, change its strategy and methods, but in the end we just watched it die.

Natalia Mankovskaya, a leader of "GayBelarus"

In my memory, 2012-2013 are marked by formal repression, it was a response to an attempt to organize a pride and to register an organization — that is, they were directly related to the activism of "GayBelarus".

Clearly, this was not a new phenomenon. Raids on parties were arranged before 2010 as well. The police did not pay attention to crimes against LGBT people, even murders — I had been finding such cases since the early 2000s. But what happened in 2012-2013 was a counteraction particularly to LGBTQ activism.

We tried to register the organization twice — in 2011 and 2012. After the second attempt, 69 out of 72 people who signed the foundation document were summoned for questioning by the police — each person but for its three leaders. We could not have foreseen such big pressure. For many, this was unpleasant because of the risk of outing among other things. The police called their places of work and study. "You need to have a talk with your student". They called the people themselves, inviting them "for a conversation". Of course, I recommended not to go there without a subpoena, but many preferred to go anyway. They mostly asked questions about the funding sources of the organization. There were also personal homophobic questions like: "What is your sexual orientation? What is your role in sex?"

Mara, one of the participants of "GayBelarus", recalls how she was invited to a "conversation" to a police department:

"It was an unpleasant situation. I was invited to such conversations before, but then they persistently called me for a long time. And now they called me just once, I did not manage to answer it, and then they called the school where I worked. I do not know if it's true or not, but the principle said that the Ministry of Eduction demanded to fire me. And he said that he tried to protect me. I went to have that conversation. They asked me about drugs, about underage people attending the events of "our club" [club “6_A", which was closed in 2013 after multiple police raids — editor's note]. They asked about Sergey Androsenko and his sister, asked me if I had seen her at the club. I said I hadn't. I guess everything collapsed after that. Many people emigrated. I think just a handful remained active".

In the months of January and February 2013, at least 10 raids on LGBTQ parties took place, and at least 47 people were detained. The persecution of activists began. LGBTQ activists were searched at the border. Sergey Androsenko's passport was taken away, and for some time he was left without documents. After several new "inspections" club "6_A" was forced to close. The closing of the club was not covered in the media at all. Soon, a new concert venue, "the Pirates", opened on the site of the country's oldest gay club.

On the opening day of the club, a long queue lined up to it. In the context of the previous venue closing under police pressure, such consumer blindness seemed to make the repression invisible.

LGBTQ activism was undermined. Sergey Androsenko left for Moldova. The form of activism that "GayBelarus" engaged in became impossible in such conditions. For several months, there was no activity at all. "The atmosphere was so toxic — it was not clear at all what to work with, what to rely on," recalls Natalia Mankovskaya. Nevertheless, the team decided to organize another gay pride in such conditions.

© Darya Danilovich

Natalia Mankovskaya: "At the end of 2013, we were going to Moldova for strategic planning, and in the end we decided to organize a pride. That's when, to be honest, it was scary that we would be detained, and people would become scared even more. After all, a pride is not a place where you just walk around and look over your shoulder.

It is clear that sometimes to come and watch movies is already an act of civic courage. On the other hand, at that time there were almost no LGBTQ friendly spaces, and those few that existed refused to hold events because it was scary.

We managed to hold some events — a performance of the Free Theater, for example, and something else. But most of the pride events were disrupted: there was no opening, no closing, no pride party, no other more or less public events".

As part of the 2014 pride, the "GayBelarus" team presented their book "Belarusian LGBT Community Persecution Chronicles, 2008-2013". But the press did not pay enough attention to these chronicles. "Either we did not know how to highlight something interesting at that time, or the topic of human rights was not the same as it is now, when it became obvious that it is related to everyone," says Natalia Mankovskaya.

After an attempt to "resurrect" the organization after a short time, it finally ceased to exist.

Natalia Mankovskaya: "There were people who were quite stubborn, who wanted to continue despite everything. We decided to bring the organization back to life somehow. It was February 2014. At first, we thought to keep the name "GayBelarus". But then we realized that we needed to look for something else, because it had become a red flag for the police. Then we thought of the word "Identity" (there was an idea that it would still be "GayBelarus", but restructured). There were still some activities in 2014. We did a project on queer history, and continued our human rights consultations. They decided not to think about a new pride anymore. We managed to register an organization called "Identity", which lasted for more than a year. In any case, this attempt was not very successful. For several months, we operated this way, but in the end, the team broke up. Perhaps, this can be called the final breakup of "GayBelarus". It was the beginning of 2016".

© Darya Danilovich

Roman Troshkin, a member of "GayBelarus"

My story begins in 2009, when I met Sergey Androsenko at Mamba. I was 21 years old. I didn't know then that he was an activist. He came to our meeting with another activist, Sergey Praded, and then we went to meet their friends. They spent the whole day talking about some trips, some strange thing (for me at the time) called human rights. You might say, it was the first time I'd ever heard such talk. And I saw activists for the first time. My deliberate involvement in activism began in 2011. I remember standing on the balcony and thinking… I had a clear desire to come out, and I felt that I could not do it without someone's help. When I signed up for "GayBelarus", I had a goal to come out. And I achieved my goal. By the age of 25, I came out.

I was an active member of "GayBelarus": I came to meetings, spoke out, participated in discussions, and was aware of many projects that were being done at that time. In general, working with "GayBelarus" was cool. All the time it was so full of life. It was some kind of "real life" or something. I felt like I was involved in something bigger. And it seems like we made progress — we did it for ourselves, we fought for our rights.

After another attempt to register the organization the authorities began to put pressure on everyone who signed up. They called at work, at school, to the parents; the police came, harassed us, "we will expel you, we will fire you", threatened to out those who were not open… I wasn't open then, but I wasn't afraid so much anymore. Then they started to raid clubs. The community began to express their frustration and accuse activists: "If you kept a low profile, nothing would happen, you ruin everything".

Yes, we can say that there were conflicts, but the main blow was, of course, from the state. It was a hammer that hit a nut. The nut itself then fell apart, and different trees then grew out of it…

I'm not engaged in activism right now. On the one hand, I was thinking of all those good things that still could be done. But on the other hand, when you are engaged in activism, new things to do appear endlessly. I just asked myself, do I want to do this all my life, do I want to continue to follow this path? And I realized that I didn't want to or couldn't... I want to live, not fight. Yes, this is my fight, but I can't do this all my life. I think that I will leave Belarus. I used to have an opportunity to leave, but then I decided that I wanted to do something here and develop it… As sad as it is, if I had an opportunity to give myself advice in the past, I would have said to my past self to emigrate. Perhaps it will be better there, not immediately, but after a while.

When Androsenko was here, he created a certain illusion, a romantic appeal, a belief that we would win. He was certain. At first, he said that he would never leave Belarus, but then he changed his mind. I was angry with him for a very long time after he left. It's one thing when a person tells you that they want to leave. And it's another thing when they leave. And then they don't come back, and then they don't, and later as well. And you feel that it has become a part of you, and then everything has split apart. The breakup of the organization seemed like unrequited love — at first there was love, and then there wasn't. Maybe other people had a less personal relationship with the organization, but I did.

The activism of "GayBelarus" was distinguished by its work on visibility, including human rights street actions in support of LGBTQ people. Since 1999, only one street action was allowed by the city authorities. It was a picket against homophobia that took place on February 14, 2011. All other peaceful gatherings in support of the LGBTQ community (and more than a hundred applications were submitted) were banned.

LGBTQ activists also formed a separate block in 2012 taking part in the march on Freedom Day, participated in the Chernobyl Way annual rally.

© Darya Danilovich

Grem: "We went out with rainbow flags on Freedom Day, and it was important for me to do it. It was important for me to show the Belarusian society that we exist, and that LGBT people are just as concerned about the issues of democracy and change, that we also want to participate in shaping the political agenda. Then we participated in the Chernobyl Way rally. It was 2012, when Shunevich became the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. And it wasn't safe that time. Aggressive representatives of the Belarusian Popular Front ran around us and pulled our flags out of our hands. The organizers of the march asked us to go to the back of the rallied crowd. Plus, I heard the riot police talking on the radio, saying not to interfere if someone attacks "these ones". I heard this phrase and realized that if some illegal action happens now, then the people who are supposed to protect you will watch it in delight. It was as if I was dipped into ice water. I was terrified".

"At that time, these marches were usually organized by the conservative coalition. Someone from that coalition said that they would tie us up and hand over to the police. What a 'fun' time we had. Now, times have changed, of course", says Natalia Mankovskaya. The most difficult part, according to the activist, was the lack of understanding and support from within the LGBTQ community itself.

Natalia Mankovskaya: Many accused "GayBelarus" and, in particular, Sergey of being provocative. I can understand them, even though I know that they are based on victim blaming. Of course, a number of ill-considered actions not discussed with other people could have been avoided (sometimes, I was just confronted with the fact that somethings was happening). I think we didn't have enough connection with the community (there wasn't as much of it as there is, for example, now). We did not feel that this activity was necessary for anyone other than ourselves, and when we were asked: "Why are you doing this?", that was hard.

© Darya Danilovich

— What advice would you give to your past self?

Natalia Mankovskaya: It's quite personal and difficult to express in public, especially when it's related to conflicts within the team which were sometimes more stressful than all this external pressure. Because the raids are unpleasant and scary. But what happens inside is more unpleasant. There's much advice to give: on how to choose your team, how to build relationships within it. To do something that inspires you, not something that someone thinks is important.

In particular, not to stop, because if you remember how it was in 2010, when everyone wanted to dissociate themselves from the pride (of course, "Viasna" has always supported us understanding that a pride means freedom of association, and same-sex marriage means freedom of private life, etc., but in general there was a certain rejection and disregard), and now only the most conservative politicians and civil activists are not ashamed to demonstrate this disregard, and now they are a minority.

That is, if today we are talking about freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, now it is somehow awkward to say "we will tie them up and hand over to the police".

Of course, big changes have occurred in the last six months in particular. I am sure that now no one will say that human rights are some kind of Western fiction, alien to our spirit. Everyone has experienced what human rights are, that they must not be given away, that they must be fought for. People have seen that the concepts of human dignity and fair trial are not an abstraction. And this is an extremely difficult experience, but a good inoculation against perceiving these attacks on our freedoms as something normal.

Also, all these repressions are expensive, they consume resources, and they are not free. And we must understand that in contrast to this, we have our own resources. Human ones. We just should not waste them on mutual destruction and squabbles. We need to spend them on creation. One can always find a place where one can do something useful.

— You've been engaged in activism for 10 years. Many people left activism after such strong pressure. What has helped you to continue despite a very difficult period?

Natalia Mankovskaya: I can't say I didn't quit activism. There were periods when I didn't do anything for several months, because I just couldn't. I always had doubts. Maybe it won't work, maybe this is the end...? Is it worth it? Is it not? I still wonder what is the effect of my work? Sometimes I hear good reviews, I find out that our team or I helped someone, and I think that it's good! And then you think: maybe I could have done more? I guess it's always the case.

In addition, I was engaged not only in LGBTQ activism, but completely different areas related to human rights: I worked in the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, and in the office for the rights of people with disabilities. It's just my life choice, I guess. I understood that one way or another I would be in this field, it seemed to me that I still had something to say, I still had unrealized ideas, a sense of something left unspoken. There was no such moment when I thought that I didn't want to do it anymore. Well, it's complicated, yes. But there are still some things I want to do. And it seems that it may be useful for someone.