by Josh Withey
Holding LGBT events in a country that outlaws “gay propaganda” is incredibly difficult, but not impossible.
The Bok o Bok (Side by Side) film festival, founded by Manny de Guerre and Gulya Sultanova, showcases LGBT films, panels and lectures in a country that is clamping down on human rights.
It’s not been easy to hold Bok o Bok since its creation in 2007. Venues have been closed down at the last minute by fire inspectors, attendees have been threatened by members the public and in extreme cases, bomb threats have been phoned in to shut down venues.
The start of this year’s festival was no exception when Vitaly Milonov, the author of the “gay propaganda” law, attempted to gatecrash the opening night. Videos have emerged of him allegedly shouting: “Underage children could be inside!”
“We always have to have spare venues reserved for emergencies,” Gulya tells the Guadian. “Spaces cancel on us because they get pressure from the above, or receive bomb threats, or just get scared of the consequences.”
But despite the threats of violence, forced location changes and secret gatherings, Bok o Bok has persevered. Arseniy Vesnin, a journalist and member of Bok o Bok’s jury, told the Guardian: “I hope that the spotlights, projectors and screens of the festival shine a light of enlightenment and kindness.
“Today we all have an opportunity to speak out and we must […] It’s not just the educated and the minorities who need respect, but also those who are ignorant and misled.”
Gulya Sultanova explained what situation the festival finds itself in, eight years since it was founded: “On one side there is pressure and persecution from the city government, and on the other side is the local police, and they are protecting us.” But protection from Russian police wasn’t always readily available, Gulya explained: ““Every time someone is attacked at our events, we go to the police over and over, forcing them to start the case and investigate, and often they can’t charge the guilty ones as they are very public people. So now they try to avoid these situations by properly protecting our events.”
After years of persecution, disruption and hostility, Bok o Bok continues. “We see the positive results of our work,” says Gulya, “we have [a larger] audience, the LGBT community is getting stronger in the city, we see that people are less afraid, we see interest, the general public is now more often approaching us with an open mind, ready to learn.
“This situation in our country won’t change unless we have an active LGBT community. And we are getting there.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared on American television earlier this year and said that his country is just as accepting, welcoming and representative to gay people as the United States.
Speaking to CBS’ 60 minutes, Putin explained that “the problems of sexual minorities in Russia had been deliberately exaggerated from the outside for political reasons.”