5 Feb 2014

The teen who stood up to Russia’s anti-gay laws

Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, which is supposed to protect children, has for the first time been used against a minor – 14 year-old Maria Novikova. This is her story, as told by Nick Sturdee.

Maria Novikova holding a banner which says 'Just love. Love has no orientation'.

Photo: Maria Novikova holding a banner which says ‘Just love. Love has no orientation’.

Until recently, Maria Novikova led the life of an ordinary 14-year-old provincial schoolgirl, in a small town called Dyatkovo in western Russia, writes Nick Sturdee. Ordinary, that is, but for the fact that she was openly gay and campaigned for gay rights.

But that wasn’t a big deal: no-one in her class particularly minded about her sexuality, she says. Her teachers weren’t interested, and even when she and a friend held a picket against the sacking of “outed” teachers elsewhere in Russia, no-one made a fuss.

All that changed when last month Maria’s mum received a “resolution” in her post-box from the town’s committee on minors. It informed her that her daughter had been found to have “systematically propagandised non-traditional sexual relations among minors by admitting openly that she is of non-traditional sexual orientation.” Furthermore, the letter stated, Maria had been “disseminating information designed to create the distorted impression among minors of the social parity of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.”

These laws do nothing to protect children – although that is why they were supposedly passed – Lena Klimova, campaigner

It was a verbatim copy and paste of Russia’s most controversial new law, aimed at protecting minors from what President Putin recently described as “homosexual and paedophile propaganda”.

As Channel 4 News reported last month, the law may have resurrected some of the nation’s worst traditions, encouraging denunciations and blackmail against those suspected of “non-traditional” sexual relations. Maria’s story fits the pattern, and is apparently the first example of the law being used against a minor – the very group the authorities say it protects.

Video: Matt Frei reports from Russia, where the anti-gay campaign is showing the country’s worst side

Yes I am a lesbian. What is that to do with anyone?

Maria Novikova holds a banner which says 'There is not place for xenophobia in schools. While teachers are sacked, bureaucrats cut the budgets'

Last September, Maria says that she decided to write to a man who had taken it upon himself to “out” a teacher in a distant Siberian town. The teacher lost her job. The self-styled moral crusader – known in Russia for his anti-gay stance – responded by writing abusive hate mail to the 14-year-old schoolgirl, and telling her mother that she should be isolated from society and sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Maria responded on her “vk” page – a Russian version of Facebook – by writing, “Yes I am a lesbian. What is that to do with anyone?”

The man wrote to Maria that she was going to have some “problems”. And sure enough, she was summoned to the committee on minors where she says she was told that it was time to stop her gay rights activity, and that she was likely to be prosecuted for promoting homosexuality and might face a fine of up to 50,000 roubles (£1,000). Maria was placed under the “control” of the committee – meaning that her behaviour would be monitored and she would be summoned every three months.

The evidence the committee provided for Maria’s guilt was not complaints from other parents at school, or concern over sexual activity among minors on the part of her school head. Her “systematic propagandising of non-traditional sexuality” constituted her comment that she was a lesbian on her private vk page, her conversations about the issue with other girls at school and her participation in the picket.

But Maria was not going to give up without a fight. She posted the ruling of her offence online, drawing the attention of local and national Russian press – and the anger of local officials. And her action seems to have worked: on Wednesday, she was summoned to the minors committee and told that they had made a mistake. The officials said she would no longer be subject to their control order. Maria taped the entire meeting – and warned officials that she would keep the recording until she had seen evidence that they had dropped the case.

Photo above right: Maria Novikova holds a banner which says ‘There is no place for xenophobia in schools. While teachers are sacked, bureaucrats cut the budgets’

Enforced psychiatric treatment

It is a victory of sorts, over a law that is widely seen as abusive. But for Maria, the experience will take a long time to heal. The schoolgirl says it has profoundly damaged her relationship with her mum, whose opposition to her sexuality has been only strengthened. She is still frightened by the prospect of enforced psychiatric treatment – a practice that made the news last year as two Russian families sent their children to have their sexuality changed in closed psychiatric wards.

And while Maria has won her fight for now, gay rights activists are shocked by what they see as the complicity of bureaucrats with individuals and laws that they claim persecute the LGBT community. For Lena Klimova – one of those to publicise Maria’s case – it is a sign of worse to come: “Her story shows that a witch-hunt has been launched.

“These laws do nothing to protect children – although that is why they were supposedly passed.”