Sitting in a Moscow cafe, Sabrina ties a bright pink scarf around her shaved head. She also brought along face rhinestones but she doesn’t stick them on as she’s heading to university later.
Sabrina, 21, is non-binary, but that is something she only mentions to a small number of people, along with her first name. Usually, for safety reasons, she lives as the young man she appears to be.
She and others like her are facing more and more repression and violence in Russia and a new law is set to make things far worse.
Russian lawmakers recently passed legislation on what is termed LGBT propaganda, which significantly tightens an earlier regulation.
So far, anyone deemed to have “advertised” homosexuality and transsexuality to minors was liable to prosecution, in a regulation that triggered outrage around the world.
But the latest legislation imposes steep fines for any positive portrayal of these issues, in a law that targets media, literary and film content, advertising and personal posts on social media, alarming rights activists, artists and publishers alike.
Sabrina is no stranger to hiding. In themselves, homosexuality and transsexuality are not punishable in Russia, but in this legal situation, attacks and assaults are widespread.
“They insult us, they rape us, they kill us,” says Sabrina. She does not want to share the male name that appears in her passport for this article, even though when she is at university, all the lecturers use that name. Even her mother still sees her as her son.
“Sometimes I feel a kind of lostness, hopelessness,” Sabrina says. She feels better when she can go to queer pubs and clubs, where she is free to wear high heels, a skirt and make-up. It is unclear, though, whether these establishments will survive under the latest legislation.
“We thought, sorry, but: how crap,” Sabrina says of the day the State Duma voted in favour of the stricter regulation. After that day, fear prompted some people she knows to immediately flee the country.
The latest law is formulated so broadly that it can be applied to a whole range of activities, says Vladimir Komov, a lawyer for the Delo-LGBT+ group. It spans gay and lesbian love stories in films shown in cinemas, as well as photos shared in social networks.
Large numbers of individuals are likely to be prosecuted under the law, especially at the start as officials seek to set an example, says Komov.
“Everybody is panicking right now, so that’s an initial success for the authorities,” says Ekaterina Selezneva, his colleague.
She says in future, films and books that feature queer people are not likely to be published or released, while clubs will be forced to go underground. Few will know about them, and they will only have “cash registers like on the black market.”
Selezneva and Komov are sitting in a small office room located in a back courtyard, where they work representing members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, in short LGBTQ. On the lawyers’ wall is a rainbow poster, a symbol that vanished from public space in Russia long ago.
People who come to them for support have often been blackmailed, robbed or beaten up.
Komov and Selezneva say the increasing repression can be tied to Russia’s war on Ukraine, launched in February by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“An image of the enemy is created and then you can say: Look, we have defeated this enemy, and that means we can also defeat other enemies,” Selezneva says.
Putin himself never misses an opportunity to mock homosexuality and transsexuality as signs of what he describes as “liberal Western depravity.” His attacks on minorities are often lauded by traditional, conservative Russians.
The new law is just one aspect of the state’s broader expansion of censorship, Komov says, adding that he expects worse is ahead.
“This step paves the way for the introduction of state censorship in other areas as well.”
Konstantin, a gay filmmaker, also doubts that the Kremlin will stop with the latest law. Aged 39, he fled to Montenegro two months ago when hundreds of thousands of reservists were drafted for Russia’s war effort. He dares not return to his homeland, also due to the latest legal developments.
“Stigmatizing a single section of society will inevitably lead to the ever-widening exclusion of those who don’t love as is expected, don’t talk as is expected, don’t think as is expected,” Konstantin says. “I think we can expect things that will be even more inhuman.”
Few see hope ahead. “All this hatred will only stop when we have a new president,” says Sabrina. Once she graduates, she wants to emigrate next year – ideally to Germany.