Another Side of the Struggle for LGBT Rights in Russia

Last November in St. Petersburg, the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival held its closing ceremonies an hour later than scheduled. During that time, the audience stood outside in the cold while police investigated a bomb threat. It was the fifth such threat during the 10-day festival.

Despite the delays, audiences returned to fill the hall to capacity. “The audience showed real solidarity,” said Manny de Guerre, one of Side by Side’s founders. “People just kept turning up and waiting patiently until the buildings had been checked after what turned out to be the hoax calls.”

Difficulties like these were nothing new for Side by Side, a long-time grantee of the Open Society Foundations. In the festival’s inaugural year, 2008, both screening venues were shut down by fire inspectors on the eve of the event’s premiere. The organizers persevered, and the following year, 22 films were screened at eight different venues across the city, bringing in over 2,000 people. Over the past five years, the festival has successfully drawn increasingly larger audiences in St. Petersburg. It has also expanded to other Russian regions, holding mini-festivals in cities such as Arkhangelsk, Tomsk, and Novosibirsk.

The festival’s expansion continued even as the Russian government passed laws forbidding “propaganda of homosexuality to minors,” first in cities like St. Petersburg and Archangelsk, then at the federal level. While “18+” warnings were placed on all festival materials, there was no guarantee that the screenings would proceed.

It was only a month before the 2013 festival that the City Court of St. Petersburg overturned charges against Side by Side: Two previous court rulings had found the festival guilty of violating the “foreign agents” law and fined the organization €12,500. The charges were overturned on procedural technicalities, thanks to the efforts of two committed human rights lawyers.

In spite of these challenges, 2013 could be considered Side by Side’s most successful year yet. Audiences were larger than ever and media coverage was extensive both inside and outside of Russia. Manny de Guerre and her colleagues were able to raise the full €12,500 to cover their fine using crowdsourced funding from domestic and international supporters.

The festival’s aim is not just to show LGBT films from around the world, but also to create a forum for open discussion that will break down stereotypes and foster respect for the rights of LGBT persons. Each film is followed by a roundtable discussion or a workshop, often featuring the film’s director, screenwriter, producer, or cinematographer.

This year, the creators of the Oscar-winning Milk were special guests at the closing ceremonies: director Gus Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and producer Bruce Cohen (view a clip above). After a lively discussion with audience members of global LGBT rights movements, they expressed their solidarity for Russia’s LGBT community. “The world is watching,” Black reminded the crowd.

Especially during the Sochi Olympics, media coverage of Russia’s crackdown on LGBT rights has focused overwhelmingly on the negatives: images of gay protestors with bloody noses and virulently homophobic quotes from Russia lawmakers. The Side by Side Film Festival illustrates that the situation is neither so bleak nor so simple.

In fact, many activists speak of the current crisis as a direct response to an LGBT movement that has steadily become larger and more visible. The current backlash is galvanizing individuals who had never thought of themselves as activists to take a stand and join an increasingly diverse LGBT movement across Russia’s regions. It’s up to us to ensure that “the world is watching,” even after the Olympics have ended, so that we can continue to provide support and solidarity to this growing movement.

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