We needed to create an archive of our experiences
Full interview with Nick Antipov, Nasta Mancewicz and Milana Levitskaya, activists with the Belarusian MAKEOUT project. Interviewer: Maxim Rust
MAXIM RUST: What was the reasoning behind creating the MAKEOUT project? After all, you are not the first LGBT organisation in Belarus to emerge…
NICK ANTIPOV: I became an LGBT activist four years ago. Back then I intended to create a space on the internet where LGBT people could be themselves. That is also how MAKEOUT came to be. The project was set in motion at the end of 2013. Back then there were no organisations or internet platforms that would give a voice to LGBT matters in Belarus. Currently, our web page is the largest place for discussing problems related to LGBT discrimination in Belarus. Between 2014 and 2017 we had over 800,000 visitors to our website.
MILANA LEVITSKAYA: Of course we’re not the first and thankfully not the last. To be fair, the story of Belarusian LGBT activism isn’t that short. It goes back over a quarter century. The first organisation was created in 1993, even before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The main agenda for the activists at that time was related to health, particularly HIV/AIDS prevention. This was a natural process. The stigma of being gay and criminalization of male homosexuality exposed and endangered the LGBT. After decriminalisation, Lambda was created – an organisation with a much broader agenda that included freedom of assembly and accepting LGBT as a social group with rights to its own culture and infrastructure. Back then homophobia was rampant in society as well as within the higher echelons of power. The organisation did not receive official registration.
Later, in the 2000s there were organisations that we could describe today as part of the second wave. The Gay Alliance focused on highlighting discrimination in different spheres of life. They managed to create a discussion over layoffs and a broad public debate on whether gay individuals should be allowed to openly serve in the army. A bit later there was Gay Belarus, a civil rights initiative dedicated to human rights issues. Its focus was mainly on lobbying initiatives, organising marches on the streets and helping LGBT organisations become registered. They even managed to put together a few pride demonstrations.
It is interesting to note that most of the LGBT activism was gay activism. One could say that this is also a feature of LGBT activism in the West. Unfortunately, this made lesbian- and trans-activism less visible. It is important to note that apart from the aforementioned organisations there were lesbian and female initiatives too. An example of this is Labris, a group that left a mark on the cultural sphere by organising events, concerts and film screenings. Thanks to this, LGBT activism became more open and accessible.
We are now a part of the third wave of Belarusian LGBT activism. I believe that thanks to the inclusive and diverse nature of the initiatives from the 2000s, we are able to examine the problems faced by the movement in a more complex manner. In our work, we keep in mind the diversity and size of the LGBT community and how their interests sometimes contradict each other and create conflict. This is why equal treatment for the different groups is crucial. We aim to build horizontal relationships without sweeping matters under the rug and we do not support a divisive hierarchy within the movement.
What is the current situation like for the LGBT movement in Belarus?
ML: I think that LGBT activism today has become more stable. In 2006 or 2010 the state attempted to deny the right to peaceful assembly, something that had implications for Belarusian activism beyond LGBT issues. Today, activists have a better set of tools which include social media, cultural and educational initiatives. Yet, we are learning how to develop and strengthen our movement.. Sometimes during international events and conferences we are asked if we have drummers that would set the rhythm during street demos. All of this shows us how very different LGBT activism is even in the former Eastern bloc. At the same time, we do witness significant developments in LGBT culture here. There is more infrastructure and there are new projects on gender and sexuality. These are local initiatives that focus on the Belarusian social reality; they are less keen to copy the foreign approaches, which is a good thing!
There is a frequently repeated saying in our country and the wider region: “society is not ready”. We are faced with this attitude, even today. This is a classic example of exclusion. Sociologists still do surveys with questions such as “Are Belarusians ready to live next to a homosexual neighbour?” The latest of these surveys was carried out in 2016. The researchers never concluded they were observing social stigma towards a social group. The conclusion is always that society isn’t ready. Our society is full of stereotypes, and hate speech is the norm in the public sphere. Homophobic crime is not declining.
We have conducted our own research during the project and found some interesting trends. We set out to discover how much hate speech towards LGBT can be found present in the Belarusian media. The results shocked us. The majority of hate speech came from experts and journalists, not ordinary citizens. Changing public opinion is not our most important challenge at the moment, but nonetheless is significant. Our priority is to create a place where LGBT people can feel a part of the broader society. It is hard to say if today’s activism is better or worse, ultimately it is just different, with other capabilities and tools, but it is impossible without the experience of previous generations of activists.
NA: There was no room for gender and sexuality in Belarus. The gender discourse is traumatic, sexuality monetised, hate speech and taboo. The online sphere is divided with no opinion leaders or public speakers. The Belarusian academic world lacks gender studies, which is why we see working with them as a valuable experience. LGBT activism is rarely explored in academia and is mostly left unexamined. Researchers often view activism with contempt or arrogance. The topics we deal with – stigmatisation, discrimination, limitation of rights and exclusion – are not a theoretical construct but an everyday reality. Our organisation plans events and projects based on our own intuitions. This is a big problem. I believe it would be better if we could work together with the academic community since better research would strengthen LGBT activism.
Have you noticed any changes in recent years? Has there been a change in the way civil society or perhaps the political opposition approaches the LGBT movement and its activism?
NA: It is hard to tell if there has been any tangible change. Political parties have remained homophobic and refrain from including any anti-discriminatory policies in their programs. However the tone of some politicians has changed. An example of this is politicians from the right, the ones that define themselves as Christian democrats. Politicians are a lot more careful about what they say nowadays in case they would get branded as a homophobe. But only the form has changed, the content remains homophobic. In general terms, the world of politics remains unconcerned with LGBT issues.
ML: Here we can see changes in both directions. An example of positive change is that in the four years of our existence, we’ve noticed how LGBT activism has become part of a segment of civil society. We have had a few cases of successful cooperation with the third sector. It has been significant to us that we get visits by other initiatives, unrelated to the character of our organisation or to our seminars on hate speech. To these organisations, matters concerning anti-discrimination to their framework have become something important and natural. This is also why we share the experiences of other initiatives that could somehow support our community.
On the other hand, the tendency for politics to disassociate itself from LGBT and gender related issues prevails. The rhetoric of patriarchy still prevails amongst the opposition in Belarus and it remains a part of the “right wing”. There were occurrences where activists would bring rainbow flags into opposition demonstrations. Today however, the opinion among opposition politicians is that a rainbow flag would discredit the demonstration and discourage others from joining. Another example of this is the fact that we prioritised writing in Belarusian, as most of the available material was in English or Russian. As a result, we would face a rather aggressive reaction from Belarusian nationalists who were part of the opposition. According to these white heterosexual politicians, the LGBT movement is a “disgrace” to the national idea. Minorities are not compatible with their vision of the nation and society. To us, all identities – be it national or gender – are important and hard to choose from. This is an issue for activists who are faced with a choice that would entrench them definitively on one of the sides. If you choose your language and culture – you support the “patriarchy and homophobia”, if you choose anti-discrimination and your own sexuality – “you are a traitor to your homeland and have chosen an alien model”. We oppose such choices and such questions.
Why did you decide to publish the MAKEOUT magazine? Everything and everyone is online – why choose to print it?
NA: A printed version of the magazine was important, as we needed to create an archive of our experiences. It is thanks to the publishing and release of paper editions from state libraries and private collections, that we started to research LGBT activism. We are accustomed to using the internet and we believe that important information will always be available online. The threat of information being removed from the internet comes at the price of general accessibility. After all it could happen tomorrow that we could not afford the server fees, and our website, with all its unique texts, would simply cease to exist. What if one day the state sees us as a threat and shuts down our website, or else makes it harder to access. This is why we would like to retain our work in a physical form, in public and private libraries. If we have a paper edition, we can send it to libraries and archives around the world, allowing us to leave a trace of the experience of our Belarusian LGBT movement.
From a different perspective, there is a feeling that the positive experiences that West European countries are attaining is a somewhat expansive character pushing away other experiences. We are often under the impression that our cooperation with European partner organisations looks like cultural colonisation. We are told how to create LGBT initiatives, how to look for funds or what kind of projects we should develop, etc. We would prefer not to replay and uncritically accept experiences of others in our situation. We would rather have an exchange of experiences and view each of them as something valuable and unique.
What kind of problems and obstacles did you face preparing the magazine? Did you even believe the project would be successful?
ML: I still have trouble believing in it, even when I’m holding a hard copy in my hands. There was a whole range of problems, starting with technical ones. It was a challenge when it came to the design and materials. We would prefer to utilise more recyclable materials and the printing house wondered why we didn’t want to wrap each single magazine in cellophane. There were also issues with the conceptual project – the topics and illustrations frightened the print house at times. Unfortunately there is a lot of disinformation in the field we operate in. Belarusians are sometimes unaware of the fact that our country doesn’t have laws against propagating homosexuality in the way Russia has. At times I’ve been convinced that since there are so many limitations around, people self-censor or switch off rational thinking. When they see “homo” or “LGBT” in the title, they shy away from it, they see it as wrong or dangerous.
NA: This issue reappeared when we were attempting to obtain an international ISBN code. According to our laws, such a code is issued by the printing house that prints a given book. This means the printing house takes responsibility for what they print, requiring special permit from someone higher up. Our printing house got scared while working on the material, so in order to safeguard themselves they asked us to request an ISBN code in a different country – something we did. They told us our magazine is an ambiguous project and that they wouldn’t want any problems later on. This goes to show how you don’t even need a law discriminating or punishing LGBT literature when publishers are afraid anyway. They view the topic as something to avoid discussing publicly, not as something illegal.
Looking at the MAKEOUT magazine, I have a sense that this is a phenomenon for the whole post-Soviet space. Belarus is still viewed in the West through stereotypes, especially when it comes to human rights or LGBT concerns. And yet the magazine is published in Belarus, not Russia or Ukraine…
NASTA MANCEWICZ: The printed edition is a part of the MAKEOUT project, a continuation of the most crucial stage to us. We wanted to have a physical product, something that would serve as a reflection of the last 20 years of the LGBT community in Belarus. It cannot be ignored and cannot be claimed there was no LGBT movement in Belarus. The invisibility of LGBT people in Belarus were the conditions that led this magazine to be released here and now. A feature of the Belarusian reality is that invisibility is seen on many levels – urban scape, media, living, etc. Sometimes we feel as if we aren’t here. The emergence of our magazine is not a signal that the human rights situation in Belarus is all well, or that there are no cases of LGBT discrimination and hate crime – just the opposite, in fact.
ML: This is a difficult question to answer; why did it work in Belarus and not in other countries? There cannot be one simple answer here. I think that we operate under the idea that we live here, so we do it here. I don’t know how it would be if we lived in other countries. An important element is this legal trivial moment – where Russia has this unfortunate law and we don’t. To claim however that it is easier to publish an LGBT magazine in Belarus because there is no formal law is also untrue. One has to keep in mind that any kind of activism in Belarus is not a risk free endeavour. There is always a law or a paragraph they can use against you. If there isn’t a paragraph explicitly discriminating against LGBT, there are always others one can use: the distribution of pornography, for instance. This does not mean it is easier or better in Belarus. It simply means it is different.
You gathered the funds for the publishing of this magazine through crowdfunding. Is this a sign of the times? Or maybe it is just a trend?
ML: I believe that crowdfunding is a good way to raise awareness in society and to show people they can have an influence in important ways. It makes me happy knowing there are people who are not influenced by the discrimination they encounter in their everyday lives. They support this project as if it was their own. Crowdfunding creates new possibilities for expressing solidarity.
NA: This is the first example of a Belarusian LGBT project publishing a magazine through the use of crowdfunding. We had difficulties with the advertisement campaign aimed at gaining support. Even if the project is unique to the country, there was very little information about the initiative to be found in Belarusian media. This was after we sent everyone a press release. This proves that LGBT issues are still a taboo in the Belarusian media. Due to social media our project and activism gained some traction. Thanks to social media activists we were able to reach more users and collect more than planned. 112 per cent of the target we originally set out to reach. This does point to changes happening within society. Our campaign confirmed to us that Belarusian society is ready to support projects connected to LGBT.
What are the most important themes in the magazine?
NM: We discussed many topics so it is hard to decide which ones are the most important. Each of them is meaningful. It is important to mention how we worked with the publication itself. While classifying and organising topics for the different chapters, we noticed how many of the texts were tagged with word “rape”. It is worrying that rape and violence towards a specific social group is not classified as rape, which it is. The archival materials that relate to the past 20 years of the Belarusian LGBT community are also very important.
On our webpage we have a special column called “coming out”, where anyone can share their experiences and story. It is essential for us to highlight that any form of identity that does not conform to the constraints of the heteronormative and patriarchal value base is described as “improper” in our society. We did consider adding these stories to the printed version. However we decided that this column should remain interactive. Instead, we left a few empty pages in the magazine so anyone can write their own story.
Have you presented the magazine in Belarus, how did it go and what was the reaction?
NM: During our presentation of the magazine there was a police presence. They requested all people under 18 to leave the place. They claimed they had received a complaint that we somehow “propagate homosexuality” to underage youth. So we live in a country without a law against propagating homosexuality, but the law dwells in many people’s consciousness . Sometimes I get the impression that we are acting illegally in our own country. This is also why the magazine was published here in Belarus. Not as a measure of how great we have it and not that we are an island of tolerance; more as an inner need to create a space where we exist, where we can speak with our own voice and enter our experiences into the wider social context.
NA: The presentation took place in Minsk. There were some 100 people present. As Nasta mentioned, the police came before we started, their attention was focused on the magazine. Although we showed them all the required documentation and told them the magazine was published legally, it seemed as if rational arguments didn’t work well. Explanations that Belarus doesn’t have any laws preventing us from organising such events also didn’t pass. What was most important though was that we managed to go on with the planned presentation and the magazine reached the people. Belarusian human rights activists declared they would monitor our situation.
The magazine has been released in Belarusian and Russian. Are you planning to develop the project further in English?
NM: We have considered the possibility of printing the magazine in English for quite some time now. Our team was divided on the matter. It is important to us that the texts would be available in English, not only for people that don’t speak Russian or Belarusian, but also because we could send our magazine to various international archives and libraries. Anyhow, our main target is readers living here, which is why the paper edition is in Russian and Belarusian. All the texts have been translated into English and are available online.
To sum up, how do you view the development prospects of LGBT activism in Belarus? Is your project an exception? Does this mean that it is possible to carry out if one is motivated enough and it doesn’t infringe on political issues?
ML: This is a fairly dangerous view: that great determination and desire guarantees change and success. To me it is clear that unilateral hope and action do not suffice. In the first years of our work we faced different kinds of discrimination and people from the community were against the idea of understanding it as a systemic factor. In our society as well as in our community, we face this attitude: that rape against you was just a random occurrence, a onetime event. This is an illusion. If people decide to change their behaviour now, nothing would happen to them. This is a matrix we have to abandon, as violence is the result of homophobia and unlimited power. To say that avoiding political topics enables one to act freely could be deceiving. The rights of minority and marginalised social groups are also political and hard to overlook. The imperative to challenge the stigmatisation of groups and individuals will always exist. A politician is not behind the stigma, but a system. We do not consider ourselves unique examples because we have made it. The experiences of the activists that didn’t make it are no less important. Without the experience of the last 20 years of Belarusian LGBT activism our project would simply not exist. That is perhaps why just motivation and determination isn’t enough. We should change the system of power relations that we all function within, at a personal and private level. We should understand that neither violence nor discrimination is acceptable. These are deep personal processes, but also profoundly political ones.
Nick Antipov is a web-designer and LGBT activist. He is co-founder of the MAKEOUT project on gender and sexuality, and project-coordinator at the Belarusian PEN Centre.
Nasta Mancewicz is a LGBT activist and co-founder and a member of the MAKEOUT project on gender and sexuality
Milana Levitskaya is a LGBT activist and member of the MAKEOUT project on gender and sexuality
Maxim Rust is a Belarusian political scientist and currently a fellow at the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw.