(Moscow) – A prominent Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) support group had to cancel an annual Inclusive Family conference in Moscow after homophobic threats and an attack with pepper spray, Human Rights Watch said today. Police should conduct a thorough and effective investigation capable of identifying and holding those responsible accountable.
The fifth annual LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference was to take place November 9-11, 2018, to share LGBT families’ experiences and to support family unions that do not conform to Russian policy and concepts of “traditional family values.” The organizers are Resource LGBTQIA Moscow. Unidentified assailants also attacked volunteers at the 2017 conference.
“It is totally unacceptable for activists to face threats and attacks simply for holding a conference,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities need to do more to ensure that these threats and attacks stop.”
Yulia Malygina, director of Resource LGBTQIA Moscow and one of the conference organizers, told Human Rights Watch that on November 7 and 8, she started receiving text messages and phone calls from people she did not know with homophobic threats about the conference. She also saw a number of hate speech messages about the conference posted on the Russian social media platform VKontakte (VK).
On the morning the conference was to start, November 9, the conference venue address, which had been kept confidential for security reasons, was leaked on VK and was rapidly picked up by a number of homophobic groups. Malygina attempted to file an online complaint with the police, but due to a technical glitch was not able to finalize it.
Around lunchtime, the site started receiving calls and online messages to cancel the conference. When the organizers and volunteers arrived at 3 p.m., shortly before the conference was to open, the management told them it had decided not to host the conference so as to not jeopardize the security of other events taking place there. “It was clear how difficult this decision was for the management,” Malygina said.
Resource LGBTQIA Moscow notified conference participants about the cancellation but volunteers remained at the site. At 7 p.m., she said, a group of five or six volunteers left for a shop across the street. As they left the shop, an assailant confronted them and sprayed them with pepper spray. Two of the volunteers had eye injuries and were taken to a hospital. They were treated and discharged after midnight.
Malygina said that people at the site told her they had seen the assailant there earlier that day, asking questions about the conference and waiting outside the building.
Immediately after the attack, Malygina called the police, who arrived 40 minutes later. But when they learned who had called them, the police refused to provide any assistance, stating “it wasn’t their territory” and left. They suggested calling another police precinct responsible for that site. Those police arrived two-and-a-half hours later, Malygina said, and asked no questions. They took two volunteers, who were in the attacked group, to their precinct, where they stayed until midnight filing their complaint.
On November 10, the organizers decided to start the conference in the form of a live online stream, and by November 11, Resource LGBTQIA Moscow had found another site and was able to hold some of the conference events there. However, when the new site’s address, which had been confidential, was also leaked on VK, the organizers canceled the remaining events to avoid further attacks or harm to conference participants.
Some of the statements on VK, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, refer to Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, which bans spreading information that puts relationships among LGBT people in a positive light in public, where children might see or hear it.
This attack is one of many LGBT activists in Russia have suffered in recent years. In November 2017, assailants attacked two activists, Zoya Matisova and Nadezhda Aronchik, near the site of the Inclusive Family conference. In August 2018, the police opened a criminal investigation, and arrested and charged two of the alleged assailants with disorderly conduct. As a part of the investigation, the police deemed Matisova and Aronchik victims of an attack committed “on the grounds of hatred and hostility against a specific social group” that was “distinguished on the basis of belonging to non-traditional sexual orientation.”
Resource LGBTQIA Moscow said it will continue organizing their annual conferences. “We’ve decided that we will never hold closed events,” Malygina told Human Rights Watch. “Instead, we will make them open. We don’t want to hide anymore, run away, or hide the venue address.”
“The attack on ‘Vth LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference’ is yet another example of how the anti-gay propaganda law has emboldened hate groups,” Reid said. “If the authorities want to end hate-based violence, they should start by annulling the ‘gay propaganda’ law.”