The rainbow colours flying together with the white-red-white flags. The Belarusian LGBT community at protests
The protests in Belarus have brought together people from different parts of the wider society. Despite the often hostile attitudes of other protestors towards them, the LGBT community in Belarus continues to actively participate in the protests.
The unprecedented wave of mass social protests currently sweeping Belarus remains one of the most popular topics in global and European media. Occurring directly as a result of the disputed presidential elections on August 9th, the protests have often been met with brutal force from the authorities. However, this has only emboldened the country’s civil society. The number of demonstrators participating in these protests now has risen into the hundreds of thousands. This is a completely new reality for Belarus, which is bordered by EU states such as Poland.
Of course, issues related to freedom and democracy remain the central theme of the ongoing protests. Despite this, many participants now also hope to campaign for issues that are still problematic in various EU countries, including Poland. These include issues related to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and media freedom. There are also growing calls within the protest movement for the strengthening of equality in the country. This is especially true in relation to groups campaigning for the rights of women and the LGBT community.
These groups’ involvement in the protest movement can be traced as far back as the election campaign, when various figures hoped to challenge Lukashenka’s rule. This is despite the fact that the LGBT community remains particularly vulnerable to violence and repression. Overall, this participation speaks volumes regarding the country’s potential emergence as a modern European political nation in the future.
The opposition – is it really so democratic?
LGBT organisations joined this year’s electoral campaign, as well as the post-election protests, with an agenda shared with the wider opposition movement. Whilst these groups naturally hope to tackle issues related to their community, they also support broader demands. As a result, these organisations have been focused on supporting electoral participation, transparency, and a halt to state violence.
Milana Levitskaya, an activist with the Belarusian anti-discrimination campaign MAKEOUT, recently stated, “We have a coalition of Belarusian LGBT and anti-discrimination organisations and we decided to support, above all, campaigns aimed at galvanising Belarusian society. We did not support any of the candidates, because people within the Belarusian LGBT community have different political views, some of them may vote for more right-wing candidates. Hence, we did not want to take one side.” Nick Antipov, who is also an LGBT and MAKEOUT activist, adds that “The most important thing was to show that we are activists who do not only deal with their own problems, but participate in political life, and we have succeeded. We work together as LGBT organisations, feminist initiatives and human rights organisations.”
Belarusian opposition parties, which until recently in Poland and the West were considered the main representatives of the democratic aspirations of Belarusian society, are rather conservative in terms of their worldview. When it comes to issues such as LGBT rights, the right-wing opposition is often more radical than the authorities. Although opposition figures have declared that they are fighting for freedom and equality, they have often discriminated against certain groups or supported extremely homophobic or right-wing initiatives.
Antipov points out that “during the opposition primaries, in which a common opposition leader was to be elected, the right-centre coalition demanded that all potential candidates declare themselves to be defenders of traditional values. They threatened that if one of the candidates did not do so, there would be no primaries as such. Thus, such politicians limited the possibility for progressive and more open leaders to participate in this process at all.”
“They justify this position with ‘traditional values’. Some opposition leaders refused to cooperate with our initiatives on election campaigns because they believed we were pests, harming “normal people” and endangering the family. This is despite the fact that cooperation would have occurred on a general political level,” adds Levitskaya.
This discrimination is a part of everyday life for Belarus’s anti-discrimination organisations. At the same time, debate within these groups has been caused by proposals regarding this year’s Sakharov Prize. Among the names included within the Belarusian opposition’s nomination is Paval Seviaryniec, who is undoubtedly one of the country’s most repressed opposition activists. He is also an open homophobe.
The statements of the church – as in Poland
The statements and positions of the churches have also proven important in the context of the ongoing protests. In Poland, this topic is constantly present, including comparing the role of the church at the breakthrough time of the end of the communist period, and now, when it has invented its greatest enemy – the “LGBT ideology”. Belarusian LGBT activists have pointed out that in this respect they feel conflicted. On the one hand, religious activists continue to take part in protests and have demonstrated their desire to fight for freedom and talk about human rights. On the other hand, this ‘freedom’ appears to be very limited and not for everyone. The Catholic Church has only helped to strengthen these beliefs as it has a similar attitude to the LGBT community as it does in Poland. The clergy have supported the protesters, sheltered them in churches and called for an end to the violence. However, the church also supports the idea of introducing a Russia-style law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda”. Of course, this desire has also found support among various right-wing and pro-life organisations.
“It is not only the Catholic clergy, other confessions also come to the demonstrations. Their motivations, however, seem to differ from that of society as a whole. They speak not so much about European values as about the end of the post-Soviet era in Belarus. They want more of a scenario that happened in Poland”, says Levitskaya. “When clergy go to protests, they say that they are primarily against violence, but at the same time are against, for example, the introduction of an act on counteracting domestic violence. So violence against women is not a topic worthy of attention for them,” she adds.
It should be added that the Belarusian LGBT community, in spite of the church’s position, has shown real solidarity with the country’s Catholics. After the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was denied entry to the country during a rise in state repression, LGBT activists issued a joint statement condemning the government and expressing support for the religious community. This declaration of solidarity by various anti-discrimination organisations should ultimately serve as an example for the Belarusian church.
Particularly exposed to repression
After the protests began, Belarusian LGBT activists have found themselves particularly vulnerable to discrimination and brutal repression. After the protests started, reports emerged detailing the shocking treatment of these individuals when detained by the police. Whilst these activists also suffered humiliation and beatings like other protesters, they were often deliberately targeted for sexual abuse. Following his detention, the activist Kostya Charnou noted, “After they detained me during a demonstration, at the police station I heard from officers that people like us should simply be eliminated and shot.”
In Belarus, homophobic violence is systemic. Photos of police interventions, such as at the LGBT march in Warsaw, look more and more like pictures of security forces attempting to break up demonstrations in Minsk. The activists themselves point out that targeting sexual minorities is part of the Belarusian security services’ everyday agenda. Perhaps the most pressing issue for these organisations is not even sexual orientation, but any ‘deviation’ from the norm. Levitskaya has pointed out that “Sexual violence against all detainees was homophobic in its entirety, regardless of the orientation of the detainees. This is a question of the prevalence of homophobic stereotypes in society. If any of the detained did not look like a stereotypical man or woman, this mechanism was activated automatically. It all depended on who the perpetrators considered gay or lesbian. It was enough to have an earring, dyed hair or distinctive clothes. This is, of course, homophobia in its essence, but its victims are no longer only people from the LGBT community, but everyone whom the system considers its enemies.”
Rainbow under the white-red-white flags
Despite this “double discrimination”, huge risk and the often-hostile attitudes of the church and fellow protesters, Belarus’s anti-discrimination and LGBT organisations continue to actively participate in the protests. They act together and emphasise that they are not talking about rights for themselves but about a general respect for human and civil rights in the country. Distinct LGBT groups have now started to appear in demonstrations in recent weeks, especially during the “Women’s March”. Images of rainbow flags flying alongside the more traditional white-red-white opposition banners are perhaps a sign that attitudes are slowly beginning to change in Belarusian society.
Of course, it is often still not easy for Belarus’s anti-discrimination activists to participate in protests, even among a crowd of democratically-minded demonstrators. Andrei Zavalei, an LGBT activist who was one of the first to attend a demonstration with the rainbow flag, says, “Exposure to systemic discrimination and repression has brought together millions of disenfranchised Belarusians, whose relatives and families are tortured and humiliated. The Belarusian LGBT community meets hate-speech and violence every day. For me, both the national white-red-white flag and the rainbow flag are symbols of the struggle for equality and freedom from tyranny. But, of course, it is very sad to hear people nearby shout “We want change”, and then look at LGBT activists and say that this is not the Belarus that they are fighting for”.
Belarus’s anti-discrimination organisations and the LGBT community continue to take part in protests supporting common desires for freedom and democracy. Many of my contacts believe that they now have an opportunity not only to come out from the shadows but also to demonstrate that they are human and equal. Many have pointed out that they looked at the changes in Poland with admiration and that they have learned a lot from Poland’s LGBT organisations. Overall, Poland for them continues to be an example of democratic change. However, they add that in the context of tolerance, the country is becoming more and more of an example to be avoided.
This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.
Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in post-Soviet area. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and editor at Białoruś 2020 studium
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