What It Means To Be Gay In Russia – We Ask A Russian Coffee Champ

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Olga Melik-Karakozova owns Double B Coffee & Tea in Moscow, where she works as an owner and barista. She is a four-time Russian barista champion, and a lesbian.

LGBT rights are being crushed in Russia, protests against persecution are increasingly violent, and horrifying accounts of homophobia are running rampant. Considerable attention is being paid to these issues by the media, from actor Harvey Fierstein’s firebrand editorial in the New York Times, to Barry Petchesky’s ongoing coverage of the issue as it pertains to professional hockey for Deadspin, to author Dan Savage’s calls to boycott all Russian products, including vodka. There is now a serious movement afoot, in the UK and elsewhere, to boycott the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics over civil rights concerns.

We asked Olga to tell us what it means to be gay in Russia. We gave her the opportunity to be anonymous but she refused. “No anonymity, that’s what they want us to become,” she told us. These are her words. The whole world is listening. 

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]irst I would like to give you a brief account what it means to be gay in Russia. Perhaps you don’t know that before Perestroika, homosexuality was considered to be a criminal offense in the former USSR and people got long sentences for committing it. One of the examples was Sergej Parajanov (famous Russian-Armenian film director) who spent years in prison. When Perestroika started it seemed that things where changing, criminal prosecution for homosexuality was abolished. And basically public opinion towards LGBT became more tolerant.

But one of the main qualities of the Russian political system is looking for scape goats when times are tough. These scape goats can exist both within the country and outside. Dealing with them within the country is by far easier because Russia has had a long history of political suppression and persecution of different minorities.

Olga's 2012 World Barista Champion t-shirt.

Olga’s 2012 World Barista Champion t-shirt.

It is very common to launch different campaigns in media blaming certain groups of people for all Russian problems. Another trick which is widely used is mixing up different groups of so called public enemies. All pedophiles supposedly become gay and all gays are considered to be pedophiles. Also all Chechens are terrorists and so on. A lot of common Russian people are completely confused about who is who. The Russian Orthodox church also takes part in the persecution of LGBT. Christians are supposed to be tolerant and moderate, but not here.

Strange as it seems, even liberals and the political opposition are completely indifferent to the problems of Russia’s gay community. So you have to bear in mind that in eyes of common Russian person everybody who is gay is either sick or sinful and very often both. It is no surprise that members of LGBT community try at least to protect their rights – if not to change things radically which is at the moment “Mission Impossible”, sadly.

Olga and her mother at Double B before going to Duma to protest agains the anti-gay law. I'm mother of 5 children, I demand freedom of speech and equality for my children. And I have on the poster: I'm lesbian and I'm as human as Mizulina (deputate who initiate the law).

Olga and her mother before going to Duma to protest against the anti-gay law. Her mom’s poster says, “I’m mother of 5 children, I demand freedom of speech and equality for my children.” Olga’s poster says “I’m lesbian and I’m as human as Mizulina”. During the protest, in front of dozens of policemen, someone ripped her mother’s poster from her hands and ran off with it.

But dealing with the same scape goats but outside the country is a more complicated issue. Russian politicians are extremely aggressive but at the same time very easily scared. Especially if someone fights back and they realize that their position is wobbly. That’s why your support meaning support from “the West” is extremely important for us here. That is possibly the only factor that could really affect the situation with LGBT here. In this respect event threats to boycott the Sochi Olympics don’t seem like overreaction to me.

As for me personally, one of the main feelings that I carry throughout my life is insecurity. All Russians are very uncertain of what is going to happen tomorrow but with me as a lesbian it is even more so. May be you don’t know that in the autumn the Russian Parliament (Duma) is going to pass a law which will let local authorities to take away children for adoption from gay families. In my book this is called fascism.

Another thing that you must realize it’s that for a lot of Russian people there is only one “right” position which is the position of our state. Accordingly it is very difficult to defend another point because you feel like becoming a pariah in the eyes of other people.

Olga competing on the world stage at the 2012 World Barista Championship in Vienna, Austria.

Olga competing on the world stage at the 2012 World Barista Championship in Vienna, Austria.

I think that my prospects for the future are very bleak if I stay here. And still, maybe it makes sense for me not to wait until somebody “hits me on the head”, but to take my chances now and to run.

A society where a gay business owner fears for her safety is no society at all. We stand with Olga – please share her story, and consider following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook to show your support. Thank you.

#YesEqual | #StandWithOlga