Annually, since the fall of 2009, in Saint-Petersburg “QueerFest” International festival takes place. “QueerFest” is a human rights event, which was invented and implemented in order to create in the city places for a dialogue between the various parts of society in order to develop tolerance to the invisible and stigmatized groups. To fight against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and xenophobia in general, festival chooses a language understandable to everyone - the language of culture, art and beauty.
Each year “QueerFest” basis on the format of a Western Gay-Pride: weekly cultural and human rights session, culminating inan informalprocession, - in Russian context instead of themarch there is a performance with celebrities in support of the LGBT community in Russia.
History of “QueerFest” reflects the main trends that have taken place in the attitude of Russian society to the LGBT community and LGBT movement for the last six years: from the invisibility and isolation of LGBT and closing communities on themselves – through the careful attempts to build a dialogue, the first steps in the public space of the city and country, through the neglect of the medias, through the understanding of gender and feminism issues, through protests, threats and refuses, in spite of persecution by the state and the prohibitive legislative initiatives, due to the words and actions of support from around the world – to the comprehension of ourselves as a whole and a clear sense of our righteousness in struggle for the right to be ourselves…
For the seven years of our history it became obvious that the festival is important not only for LGBT and queer community, but also for all fans of the contemporary art. “QueerFest” hasfoundthesupportamong such respected personalities as Vladimir Pozner, English actor and playwright Stephen Fry, Belgian singer Lara Fabian and many others.
“QueerFest” is a unique human rights event, perfectly fit into the cultural landscape of the city, thanks to which every year in St. Petersburg there is a space for a free conversation about LGBT and queer issues.
In 2015, the main topic of Queerfest program became variety of identities. This subject was developed through the works of world-renowned photographers: Wolfgang Tillmans (project ‘Activism as identity’); the winner of an international contest “World Press Photo 2015” Mads Nissen (project ‘Homophobia in Russia’); American photographer Sarah Deragon and her ‘Identity Project', and Vincent Voignier (project ‘Transgenders in Russia’). Their art was displayed during 'Way to identity' exhibition.
Three photo projects had been exhibited for all 10 days of Queerfest. The fourth one, by a popular German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans – was only available for visitors at the opening day: due to the pressure by the police and homophobic activists, the organizers of the festival were forced to change the venue and it was not possible to exhibit 'Activism as identity' project in the new venue.
Many people came to support and participate in 2015’s Queerfest program – such as Boris Dittrich (advocacy director of LGBT Rights Program in Human Rights Watch); American photographer and author of one of the exhibited projects Sarah Deragon and her wife; photographers Mass Nissen and Vincent Voignier; Ulf Pettersson (the founder and director of Stockholm’s museum ‘Unstraight’); Matias Cristoffersen (one of the organizers of Stockholm’s Pride); Jesper Groen (photographer documenting transgender people’s lives) and many others. Queerfest’s program ended by a performance of Motoboy – Swedish singer, a member of the legendary “Cardigans”.
Video messages supporting Queerfest were made by Stephen Fry, Wolfgang Tillmans and Marina Cherkunova (member of the band “TOTAL”).
The 2015’s Queerfest was diverse and intense but all parts were integrated into the whole picture. All events and exhibitions has found a way to cover a topic of Identity from the different points of view. More than 2500 thousands of people from all over Russia came to see the festival.
By 2014 “QueerFest” became notable event in the cultural life of St. Petersburg, in the lives of the LGBT community and allies, artists, activists, representatives of various social groups. The program of “QueerFest-2014” was rich and diverse: for the guests of the festival several interesting photo projects were prepared (“Days of a melancholy”, “Butch”, “New Rebels”), lectures, workshops and discussions ( lecture by Lenore Goralik “How to start a conversation about tolerance”, lecture by Irina Roldugina "All of us are not criminals: homosexual subculture of the early Soviet Petrograd", discussion “Social Art and Civil Citizenship” and others), “Night of Independent Music” and the closing performance “St. Petersburg without homophobia” by Swedish singer Jenny Wilson as well.
Complicated situation with human rights, down in Russia over the last two years, has made serious correction in the plans of the organizers of the festival: influenced both by pressure from the government, and by attacks of radical groups.
Excerpts from Andrew’s personal experience, guest musician, volunteer and visitor, about the first five days of "QueerFest":
“- The place of opening event was forcedly changed because of provocateurs coming to the initial location
- At the factual place of opening event dozens of visitors were doused with green disinfectant
- During the first two days four of pre-arranged locations refused in conducting events (a few hours before the events start);
- Opening concert had to be carried out in another place; we (as musicians) got to know it just two hours before sound check;
- 10 minutes after the concert someone called to the club with a message about mining; the caller is not identified so far;
- The event on Monday was canceled for security reasons;
- A press conference dedicated to the disruption of Queerfest 2014 was oppressed by authorities who asked organizers to cancel the press conference with the wording "This press conference is a danger to society";
- Two (of two) deputies from Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, who had agreed to participate in a press conference, the announced that they will not come due to being busy (a few minutes before the start)”.
Despite the provocations, the attempts of break-downs, numerous threats and refuses of venues, “QueerFest-2014” took place! More than 1,000 people attended the event, more than 800 people joined it online. It became obvious that regardless all the problems and obstacles, year after year "QueerFest" will create a place for an open discussion about discrimination, homophobia and injustice.
In the beginning of 2013 the existence of the Festival was compromised. First of all this was because of the abrupt change of the situation in the country: with the repression of the LGBT organizations, demonstrative cases against “foreign agents” and aggression toward sexual minorities, warmed up by homophobic laws.
At the same time, the organizers began to receive dozens of questions, suggestions, words of encouragement from all over the world: from the LGBT community, friends, supporters and partners of the festival. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the tightening of the situation in Russian society exacerbates the need for the Festival. So the decision was made – Queer Fest 2013 was held.
The format of the festival in 2013 was different from the previous years. The organizers and curators of the event plunged guests into a rich, dramatic history of the emancipation of LGBT in Russia and Europe. Retrospective exhibition dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of the abolition of the Article 121 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (for "sodomy"), the project “History of Prides. The countries”, discussion on the role of women in the history of the LGBT community were waiting for the visitors. One of the most interesting guests of the festival was the musician Alexander Bard («Army of Lovers»), who spoke about his personal history of LGBT activism in Sweden.
Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin (Germany); from the circulation in a support of Queer Fest:
“Anyone who limits the abilities of others because of their religion, colour of the skin or sexual orientation threats them, threats the whole society. This is about the basic principles of our coexistence. This is about the core values: humanity, tolerance and freedom to be different, not like everybody else.”
The hope on education and promotion of the democratic values in Russian society that has emerged after the success of 2011 was replaced by a desperate anxiety. The year 2012 started with the stab in the back to all of the LGBT community. Only 2 month after Queer Fest 2011 in Saint-Petersburg’s Government was introduced the draft of the homophobic law, which has reminded many people the early periods of totalitarian regime, which had begun from the repression of the LGBT. In February 2012, the law was adopted with an absolute majority and the context in which September festival was prepared has immediately changed. The organizers began to feel a serious fear of the attacks (which was supported by the sad experience of May “Rainbow flashmob”, when the activists who came to speak out for the right of LGBT were attacked by more than a hundred of the Nazis).
Stephen Fry, English actor and writer:
“In recent years, it wasn’t easy to be open and proud in Russia and you needed a special courage to defend yourself in an atmosphere of hostility and ignorance. I think that this kind of courage, integrity of the personality and the sense of pride for themselves are very Russian qualities. Prosperous and happy gay community is a symbol of a healthy society”.
This time the main topic of the festival was a creation of the space for a free expression of the LGBT culture from both sides: a dialogue between people who do not belong to the community and those who are inside.
That year “QueerFest” also was strongly supported by famous people: the festival began with a video message from a famous British actor Sir. Ian McKellen (“Lord of the Rings”, “X-Men”, “The Da Vinci Code” and others), and finished with a recital of Lena Katina (ex T.A.T.U.). By the way, this was the first time in the history of the festival when it was supported by Russian celebrity.
Within 10 days program guests could see the cultural panopticon: in “Taiga” and “Mart” (“March”) were held an exhibition-performance “The Art of Being Yourself”, media installations, social photo exhibition “Private Room”, project “Non-traditional museum”, meetings with artists, street art on the theme of LGBT activism. The events of Queer Fest became places for a discussion on LGBT issues around the world. At the same time, the cultural space of the festival faced the obstacles in the form of new laws: particularly, the law protecting the children from the “adverse information”. We had to hang the signs “18+” throughout the exhibition and had to remove some works of the transsexual photographer Evan Schwartz, because there were artist’s child photos.
To the relief of organizers and guests of the festival, all the concerns about the aggressive reaction of the society were in vain. The possible explanation for this was the presence of the diplomats and ministers of the western countries at almost every Queer Fest’s event. Anyway, it gave us hope for further successful development of the festival in an open format. However, in 2013 the context of the festival should have changed dramatically.
In 2011 Queer Fest has attracted much attention of the media. If previously medias preferred to distort readers’ opinion by writing about gay-prides, scandals and provocations, in 2011 from the beginning of our work the festival got an adequate informational and analytic coverage on the radio and TV.
Polina Adrianova, organization team of “QueerFest”:
“The problem of social exclusion exists, it’s real. But it is very difficult for people who have never faced it to understand and accept it as their own problem. The art can help them to survive this experience as their personal, makes them think about it, evokes a sense of empathy. The language of art is common and accessible to everyone. It gives us an opportunity to understand each other more quickly.”
In 2011 a photo exhibition, open discussions and debates, meeting with artists and musicians were visited by 2000 people.
An important achievement of that year was the fact that in 2011 for the first time the direct dialogue between the advocates of gays and lesbians rights and the supporters of the traditional values took place. Before this the attempts of LGBT activists to start the public discussion with the opponents met only refusals and reluctance to discuss anything.
Journalist and writer Valery Panyushkin about the discussion:
“There should be not one or two discussions like this, but hundreds: every day, on this subject, on another subject – on any subject”.
Another important moment of the festival was a feminist event. Until 2011 Russian LGBT activism addressed to feminism very rarely, despite the fact that the problem of the gender discrimination is obviously and directly concerns of lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals.
The venue where feminists from different countries and of different movements brought together to talk about their views aroused a great interest of the public and the medias. In autumn 2011 as a result of the discussion the book “I’M A FIMINIST. DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT?” (edited by Maria Sabunaeva) was published.
The exhibition “Queerography” was curated by Nadya Plungian. The collection of photos, collages, videos and movies where the creators speak in the first person about the problems of marginality and social exclusion was presented on 4 different venues of Saint-Petersburg. The main venue where the festival events took place was dedicated to a feminist art.
As in 2010 the festival wasn’t without a difficulty. The administration of the venue “Nepokorennye, 17” (“Unconquered, 17”) asked to remove Olga Akhmetieva’s exhibition right before the opening. Moscow photographer made single portraits of men shown without the stereotypes of masculine behavior, in terms of men’s vulnerability. Akhmetieva’s photos were removed to the gallery “Mart” (“March”).
“Queerography” presented not only well-known names (Mattia Insolera, Karina Sembe, SergeGolovach, Steven Beckly, Lida Mihailova), but also young artists from Russia and Ukraine (Kir Esadov, Mikaela, Polina Zadirako, Umnaya Masha (Smart Mary), Elena Maksimova, Katya Romanova, Isabella Levina, Ekaterina Gaidukova and others). In the halls of feminists’ art was the premier of Marina Vinnik’s film “Pain”, nominated on the Kandinsky Award. A special stand of the exhibition was dedicated to the documentation of political LGBT actions and rallies.
At the closing rock show Saint-Petersburg queer community was supported by Moldovan bands Cuibul and ZDOB SI ZDUB, as well as some Russians: СНЕГА, FILLI, MONOЛИЗА, ИВАНОВА.
Within 11 days citizens and visitors of the city had an opportunity to join discussions on the issues of sex, gender, sexuality and discrimination faced by LGBT people.
In 2010 Queer Fest faced more hostile conditions. The main partner of the photo exhibition “And Others”, the Exhibition Centre of Saint-Petersburg Union of Artists, stopped the lease agreement 24 hours before the opening and informed us about the impossibility of hosting the events of Queer Fest on the venue.
The volunteer team curated by Solmaz Guseynova in a one night finished the installation of the exhibition on a new place – V-club. Despite the difficult circumstances and due to the volunteers’ discipline the festival was opened on time and has passed successfully.
Within 10 days on different venues the seminars and discussions, performances, poetry meetings, workshops with the slogan “The Art of Being Yourself” took place. The conference on gender issues was timed for the festival: the result of the scientific discussion was the publication “Is Queer Possible in Russian”.
The grandiose rock marathon became the completion of the Festival – 12 bands performed in “Orlandina” Club in the support of the idea of tolerance, equality and non-violence. The words that everybody has the right to an open expression of love, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity were said from the stage. Jay Jay Johanson, a famous Swedish musician, who came specially to support Petersburg LGBT community, captured the hearts of the audience with his clean soulful voice and touching songs.
Altogether 2700 people visited Queer Fest. According to organizers, the festival has not only achieved its aims, but also exceeded the expectations.
Polina Adrianova, organization team of “QueerFest”:
”Even if only one person began to think that if somebody does not fit the usual concept of the norm, this is not the reason for his/her discrimination, it means we’ve already won”.
In 2010 the Festival of Queer Culture was supported by the journalist and TV presenter Vladimir Pozner, English actor and playwright Stephen Fry, the governing Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, Belgian singer Lara Fabian, journalist Valery Panyushkin, music critic Artemy Troitsky and many others.
In autumn 2009 for the first time in the history of modern Russia an International Festival of Queer Culture took place in Saint-Petersburg. This event had a great cultural and social significance not only for the members of queer-community, but also for the fans of contemporary art.
Within ten days at the several venues the plays were performed, shows and discussions were organized, exhibitions and poets battles took place and all-night parties were held. Artists, actors and musicians of different directions and aesthetic credos form different cities of Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Spain, Israel and USA attended the festival.
Altogether about 3000 people visited the festival. We want to believe that everyone felt a part of a common culture. The festival became not only a beginning of a dialogue, but it also raised the question of the limits of visibility of LGBT-community in Russia, became an indication of the need of revising the social stereotypes.
Svetlana Yaroshenko, sociologist:
"I like the idea of uniting “different” people, who don’t fit the conventional framework. Almost everyone can appear in such situation. However, often it seems that the situation is exceptional. And I would like the exclusivity to become neither a fashion, no a game of equality, but a subject of practical dialogue. When the desire of being heard and visible combines with the willingness to see and to listen to others, with the sympathy, with the ability to negotiate and to do something together, instead of putting the labels. The special skill is needed for this. I think the creativity can help.”
The fact that the festival has passed, gave us a hope for the continuation and development of human rights and cultural initiatives, which could eventually turn into a good tradition.