New Lessons for Belarusian LGBT Community
In February 2011, at a conference on family planning a high-profile lecturer of the Belarusian Medical Academy Sviatlana Kunickaja said in the presence of many journalists that homosexuals are ill people and should be treated medically. Dealing with such statements within Belarusian medical, political or media state framework would be impossible. Kunickaja is a member of a commission of the Ministry of Education in charge of preparing an official agreement with the Orthodox Church. She has long history of religiously motivated work in the Medical Academy promoting “Christian morality” which had never been challenged. Also, the Belarusian Medical Academy remained silent when in 2009 another of its lecturers, Ihar Rybin, publicly said that “homosexuality makes people animals”.
This time, however, LGBT activists threatened to appeal to the Academy’s EU partners, calling on them to freeze their contacts with the Academy in view of repeated homophobic intolerance, disregard for fundamental human rights and non-scientific approaches to medical practice and teaching. Two weeks after the letter was published on gay websites, the head of the Medical Academy replied that the homophobic incidents had been discussed by the governing body of the Academy and that the views of the two named lecturers were not shared by the rest on the teachers of that institution. Kunickaja and Rybin were ordered not to make any offensive and non-scientific public statements contradicting the norms of medical ethics.
While same-sex relationships are not illegal in Belarus, homosexuality is only barely tolerated by a large part of Belarusian society and the Belarusian authorities in particular. There is no single law protecting sexual minorities from discrimination and violent homophobic behaviour is not regarded as a hate-based crime. In this social climate public figures, such as politicians, celebrities and high-profile doctors often make homophobic speeches and their views have rarely been challenged in any meaningful way. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Belarus is learning lessons of living in a country of declarative equality, while gradually exploiting imaginative ways of dealing with homophobic attitudes.
LGBT activists naturally gravitate toward the pro-democratic third sector, political opposition and independent media: the Belarusian state system throws to the margins anyone who cannot be controlled by that system. LGBT activists working for civil rights and equality challenge the state system even if that challenge is not their primary aim.
In addition, LGBT activists have found that they cannot automatically expect a warm welcome from everyone proclaiming their commitment to a freer, more democratic Belarus. On the “Black List” of the gay rights group GayBelarus one can find activists and leaders from the Christian Democrats and other right-wing parties, including their youth groups, who publicly – and often in offensive terms – oppose equal rights for gays.
Maintaining the “Black List” is only a more public sign of what is being done on other levels, including informing the European partners of Belarusian political parties and the donors to non-governmental organisations about the homophobic actions of leading members of these groups. At the same time, LGBT activists work on building connections with the rest of socially active part of the Belarusian landscape, including the national umbrella Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations.
While legitimate ways of challenging homophobia from within Belarus remain limited, the LGBT community is looking for other options outside the country. The intention is to stop intolerance and homophobia in Belarus being funded by western donors. This may lead to a clash with governmental machinery: until now, the regime could ignore the challenging of opposition parties by LGBT activists; the latest story, however, threatened the Medical Academy – an important part of educational and medical system of the country.
News from last week adds new accents to the life of the LGBT community in Belarus, namely – the KGB’s attention to LGBT activists. Two members of the IDAHO Belarus, Varvara Krasuckaja and Raman Navojeu, were put under pressure – formally forbidden by the law – to become KGB informants. Krasuckaja was threatened with expulsion from the Belarusian State University and pressure was put on her relatives and her girlfriend. The KGB was interested in access to the plans of gay groups and personal information about gay activists.
Raman Navojeu, after giving an interview to BBC on the eve of the presidential elections, was made to re-sit his university exams during which he was invited to sign a contract with KGB. When he refused twice, he also was threatened with being expelled from the university and with being outed. Eventually, his parents received a phone call – allegedly from the KGB – disclosing Navojeu’s homosexuality. This was the first case of outing in Belarus which became a matter of public knowledge.
Belarusian gay activists are learning that despite their activities being peaceful and within framework of the law, they are perceived as a threat by the regime. Any activity not sanctioned and paid for by the governmental machinery is a foreign body to the system. For their refusal to co-operate, the KGB comes back with a revenge specifically reserved for gay people – outing. Paradoxically, this is likely to lead to a greater clarity for the LGBT community: staying in the closet is dangerous both for individuals and the organisations they are involved with.