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  • Writer's pictureChristian Gersbacher

Young queer people from Belarus raise their voices: We will not be intimidated!

Protests against Lukashenko in Minsk in August 2020, photo by Jana Shnipelson / Unsplash

"Better a dictator than gay" once said Belarusian ruler Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with a hard hand and oppression for over 26 years. In Belarus, there was just a struggle for freedom and democracy. Even before the 2020 presidential elections, there were major protests against the Lukashenko regime. The authorities had tried to ban opposition demonstrations and rallies and sometimes used violence against them. After the political activist Zyarhey Zikhanousky was not admitted to the elections, his wife Swjatlana Zichanouskaja ran for office. Together with Weranika Zepkala and Maryja Kalesnikawa, the three women quickly became the face of the Belarusian democracy movement. Election observers from the civic initiative "Honest People" recorded over 5,000 violations of Belarusian election law during the voting period. On the evening of the election, the election commission announced the preliminary official result as 80.08% for Lukashenko and 10.9% for Swjatlana Zichanouskaja. Independent observers and the opposition consider the figures to be falsified and thus not legitimate. After the election falsifications become known, there are loud mass protests, especially in the capital, Minsk. Police brutally use stun grenades and tear gas against demonstrators. Over 30,000 people are detained in the following three months and tortured and beaten in the prisons. It is a story of the present, especially on our European continent.

And what about LGBTQ* rights in Belarus right now? What is the acceptance of queer people in Belarusian society? Raids on gay clubs, homophobic insults, the daily feeling of insecurity are part of the everyday life of many queer people in Belarus.They raise their voices against oppression, against injustice and for the future of LGBTQ* in their country. And that in a country, this dictator said: "I'd rather be a dictator than gay". I talk to two young queer people from Belarus about their everyday lives.

Protests ahead of 2020 presidential election in Minsk, photo by Jana Shnipelson / Unsplash

Anyone who messes with dictator Lukashenko in Belarus lives dangerously

659 political prisoners are currently listed with the Belarusian human rights organisation Vyazna, and the number is growing daily.

The most well-known LGBTQ* organisations had to finish their activities or work undercover, with many security measures in place, because otherwise they risked detainment.

Misha 22, activist und student from Minsk

In the 30 years since Belarus' independence, homophobia has only once been recognised by the court as a motive for hatred.

Two young brave LGBTQ* people of Belarus who are raising their voices for their rights:

Statement for diversity: rainbow bag during mass protests in Minsk, photo by: Jana Shnipelson / Unsplash

Mischa, non-binary human rights activist currently based in Minsk.

How do you feel as a queer person in Belarus right now?

The situation is quite heavy. I'm from a small city myself, and since I came to study in the capital of Belarus, I understood that the most valuable thing for LGBTQ* people is probably the sense of community, because together we can work on proposing some laws or changes in the legislature, provide education to the masses, etc.

There was a strong surge in regional LGBTQ* initiatives and NGOs, but then it fell short because of the restrictions (even though our government didn't impose any measures, most initiatives quite sensibly decided to follow the safety rules themselves). Many LGBTQ* activists and human rights activists were prosecuted for it and had to flee the country. The most well-known LGBTQ* organisations had to finish their activities or work undercover, with many security measures in place, because otherwise they risked detainment. If our country ever has the chance to recover from the political regime of our president, I'm afraid we'll have to start almost from scratch.

Luckily, there is TikTok and other social media networks to educate the youth, but,in general, it seems like rights of minorities are once again at the end of the list of priorities for most people.

Have you already experienced hostility yourself?

I was lucky enough not to get detained or prosecuted, but many of my friends have fleed the country because the danger of being a trans person in prison is just imaginable.

Being a political prisoner is bad enough, but if you being queer or gender non-conforming when faced with representatives of law enforcement might cost you literally your life.

Prisoner transport trucks can be seen everywhere in the city during the protests, photo by: Jana Shnipelson / Unsplash

The civilians are no better — even those that are pro-democratic, progressive, and looking at Europe for an example still are not ready to accept the LGBTQ* community. There was a photo of two girls kissing in front of the law enforcement officers, and the amount of hate it received is just unimaginable. People really make sure the LGBTQ* community receives the message they are not welcome in Belarus — old or new.

What is your motivation to stand up for human and lgbtq* rights?

I really can't imagine my life without it. Helping people is rewarding, of course, but other than that — I couldn't just stand aside and ignore the horrors happening to the LGBTQ* people of Belarus. If there is no fight, there is no hope, and I really want to do what I can to change the status quo. Even as simply as existing — for many of my acquaintances I am the only nonbinary person in their lives, and by being outspoken about my identity or about my sexuality I hope I make people wonder about what other things they might not notice about the world too.

The Police try to push back the protesters, photo by: Andrew Keymaster / Unsplash

Mark is 24 years old and living in Minsk and works as a Support Manager in a Belarusian IT company.

Mark, how do you feel as a queer person in Belarus right now?

In queer communities and safe spaces I've always felt like home, of course. Though I do, of course, meet people once in a while that make a conscious decision to misgender me and insist on using gendered terms. I'm currently in a process of applying to change my name and gender marker, and it's quite humiliating. Transness is officially considered a disorder. Though the doctors tend to use the correct pronouns, they expect you to tell a certain story that not every trans* person fits into. All in all, the procedure is a year long, hella intrusive, and feels like Hunger Games. If you survive the pressure they put on you, you're good.

How do you assess the acceptance of LGBTQ* in Belarusian society?

If you want to be a public voice for LGBTQ* rights in Belarus, you have a big responsibility. There were also some queer people at the protests in 2020. But conspicuously many people did not see queer people as allies and threw insults around, even though they desperately needed allies in this big fight.

Thousands of people are on the streets during mass protests in Minsk, Photo: Andrew Keymaster / Unsplash

Are LGBTQ* issues talked about at school?

I honestly don't remember any sex education at all in my school. I suppose there are schools that have dedicated hours, but I assume if LGBTQ* is discussed, it's solely the initiative of the teacher, not something that is encouraged or appreciated by the system.

Do the media in Belarus report on LGBTQ* issues?

Our television and media is heavily censored in general. But also other than independent online journals, no one really talks about LGBTQ*. And they mostly do educational content, their purpose is to somewhat get people used to the idea of queer people existing. We are far, far away from specifically debating issues. When Lukashenko was speaking about LGBTQ* , ranting about gay men and how that's completely inappropriate and wrong, and when asked about lesbian women, he replied "Ah, well, lesbians... I allow that“.

My dream is to live in a free Belarus where no one is discriminated because of their sexuality.

More information on the current situation in Belarus:

In the Arte Mediathek you can find the documentary: ,,Tagebuch einer Revolution"

Film: Courage - Dokumentarfilm über die belarussische Revolution

Here you can find more exciting interviews from the 'Queer Eastern Europe' series.

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