‘Is my sexual orientation immoral?’ Why St. Petersburg fired a gay teacher
In December 2014, a St. Petersburg school for children with disabilities fired a gay teacher for committing an “immoral offense.” The dismissal marked the culmination of a “forced coming-out” campaign by local activist Timur Isayev, who regularly searches for gays on Internet social networks and reports their sexual orientation to their employers. Using this method, Isayev says he’s managed to get 29 teachers throughout Russia fired from their jobs in the past several years. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky went to St. Petersburg to learn the details of this story.
On December 8, 2014, a nervous Anastasia (her name has been changed in this text) entered the principal’s office at St. Petersburg school number 565, a school for children with disabilities, where she was a music instructor.
Anastasia had a good idea about why she’d been summoned. Almost two weeks prior, the school’s principal, Stanislav Vinogradov, and a local official with the Kirov District of St. Petersburg, Irina Boitsova, had in this very same office asked Anastasia to resign. The day before, local anti-gay blogger Timur Isayev had confronted Vinogradov on the street outside the school, handing him a file with photographs of Anastasia kissing her girlfriend. Isayev demanded that she be fired for “immoral behavior.” He also sent the same files to the district administration.
In the letter to Vinogradov, which he also posted to his VKontakte page, Isayev wrote: “There’s a sick, mentally defective lesbian-teacher working for you. […] This teacher reveals herself openly on social networks as an immoral lesbian-person, and resides or cohabitates with another similarly ill young lady, according to her social media. […] We strongly urge you to fire her under the labor code statute for incompetence in the workplace.”
Without ever explaining whose interests he represented in his complaint, Isayev also cited Russia’s law against gay propaganda (the June 2013 ban “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”), noting that “repudiating traditional family values is considered immoral and unacceptable” in a school.
Along with the letter and the photographs of Anastasia and her partner, Isayev attached another file with information about Anastasia’s friends and community memberships online. He drew special attention to the pages for musician Zemfira, actress Renata Litvinova, and independent television station Dozhd, all of which Anastasia “liked” on VKontakte.
When the school’s administration first called her into the principal’s office, Anastasia says, the district’s spokesperson said, “You belong to the LGBT community, and you’re not permitted to work with children.” The official told Anastasia that she’d never be able to serve as a teacher again.
Anastasia refused to resign, however. That evening, at a gay pub where she tends bar part-time, Anastasia told her colleagues about what had happened to her. They encouraged her to appeal to Vykhod (Exit), a St. Petersburg LGBT organization dedicated to defending gay rights.
* * *
It’s impossible to find Vykhod’s office (located not far from Nevsky Prospect), if you don’t know its exact address and don’t have someone from the organization waiting to meet you. There’s not even a sign above the door. On the inside, everything is covered in rainbow stickers and brochures about gender identity and homophobia. On the walls are posters for the Side by Side LGBT film festival and a banner reading, “Our rights are worth more than your gas.”
“Forced coming-out.” That’s how Vykhod’s attorney, Dmitri Laptyev, describes the activism of Timur Isayev, who searches online social networks for gays and reports their sexual orientation to their employers. According to Vykhod, Isayev is responsible for the dismissals of two other teachers—a man and a woman—in the past several months. Isayev even got the woman fired twice: after losing one job, he tracked her down to the next school and repeated his efforts. (Neither teacher disclosed his or her name to Meduza.)
Last winter, Isayev also sought the dismissal of Ekaterina Bogach, a Spanish-language instructor at a St. Petersburg high school, but officials in the education department found no evidence of “gay propaganda” in her actions.
In February 2014, Isayev stalked a ninth grader in the Bryansk region, who had expressed support for the LGBT community on the Internet. Based on Isayev’s appeals, the local commission on juvenile delinquency registered a file on the young girl. Later, Isayev attacked her on the street, shouting, “Die, lesbian!” When journalists drew attention to the incident, officials expunged the girl’s juvenile file.
Timur Isayev told Meduza over the phone that he’s managed to get 29 gay teachers fired from schools throughout the country. He said he also hoped to oust another two teachers in Moscow next week, though he refused to give any details.
Isayev makes no effort to hide his blatant homophobia. On his VKontakte page, his “status” has long read, “Russia is HELL for pederasts. And they better get used to it!” In February 2014, Isayev told Meduza's reporter, “Homosexuality isn’t normal—it’s a disease that’s treated with hormone therapy. I’ve pushed back against this evil, and I’ll continue to push back. The laws are on my side. They say it’s their ‘private lives’ and so on, but it goes from personal to public information, when it appears online in social networks.”
* * *
Vykhod advised Anastasia to take a sick day. The next day, on December 8, she brought a tape recorder to her meeting with the school principal, Stanislav Vinogradov. (Meduza has a copy of the audio.)
Vinogradov: Irina [Boitsova, a Kirov District official] wants results. Let’s just be honest: what are we going to do about this?
Anastasia: I don't think this is a reason to fire me.
Vinogradov: Why do you think that? Why?
Anastasia: Why should I be fired?
Vinogradov: There’s a labor code against immoral offenses. We have a source of information about you, this Timur Isayev. He just called me again, and was told that I’m fighting a toothache and can’t come to the phone.
Anastasia: I think this man is mentally ill.
Vinogradov: He’s a psychopath, I agree. At first, I thought this was just about him, but now I’m getting calls from Irina Borisovna [Boistova], saying she’s coming to visit our school. If the district’s deputy chief of staff is coming to our school, it means we’re in trouble. And she says she, too, has information about you. As far as I can tell, the chain is like this: [St. Petersburg] Lieutenant Governor Vladimir Vladimirovich [Kirillov] passed along this information about you to the education department, which gave it to the district administration head, who handed it to the deputy chief, who came to me. She says the department is waiting for results.
Anastasia: Meaning that the department of education considers my sexual orientation to be immoral?
Vinogradov: Well, yes. It’s just not permitted in a school. I was told there doesn’t need to be any fuss over this—no need for blood or labor codes. They won’t leave us alone until it’s is settled. Maybe you could find a reason to change your name? We’ve got no way out here. You’ve got to resign.
Anastasia: Can you give me some concrete examples of what’s considered immoral?
Vinogradov: Do you want me to fire you right now for breaking article 81, paragraph 8, of the Labor Code [“an immoral deed committed by an employee performing pedagogical functions that makes continuing in his or her position impossible”] and we’ll meet in court? Just try it. I cannot keep you on staff. I’m trying to do this the nice way. We have no alternative here. I’m going to get another call soon from Irina Borisovna, and she needs to give an answer to the department of education. This really is a tough situation. I saw on television that young people are tracking down these pedophiles and punishing them themselves, like vigilantes.
Anastasia: You think I’m pedophile or something?
Vinogradov: No. I’m just saying.
Anastasia: You know, it wasn’t big money that brought me to this job. At this school, I took a monthly salary of 7,000 rubles [$105] after earning 46,000 [$700] at my last job. [Anastasia was a salesclerk at a sporting goods store.] I came here because I like school, I like the faculty, and I like all the projects we think up and the contests we win.
Vinogradov: Your luck’s run out today, but it doesn’t mean your life is over.
Anastasia: You have no complaints about my work as a teacher?
Vinogradov: No. Irina Borisovna also thinks you’re an excellent teacher. But you see how it is.
Anastasia: If you’d told me that I’m doing this, this, and this poorly, then I’d leave the school myself. But these accusations—they’re just insane. Fire me according to the labor code.
Vinogradov: Very well. Then I’ll need something from you in writing.
After meeting with the principal, Anastasia wrote a statement where she asserted that “everyone has the right to privacy and personal and family secrets,” adding that she doesn't consider her personal life to be an “obstacle to working with children.” Her termination notice (Meduza has a copy of the document) says Anastasia was fired for “committing an immoral act incompatible with working in education.”
Lieutenant Governor Vladimir Kirillov was unable to respond to questions from Meduza, due to a business trip, and St. Petersburg’s department of education denies any involvement in Anastasia’s dismissal. “It’s just not possible,” Department Spokesperson Larisa Kuzmina explained. “We have no relationship with that school, let alone its personnel policies, which the Kirov district administration manages.” Irina Boitsova, a local government official, was unable to provide an official statement. Meduza also failed to catch Principal Vinogradov at work. According to his secretary, he’s “in meetings all the time.” He refuses to speak on the telephone.
“Can we just find normal, healthy people, and not sickos?” Timur Isayev asked Meduza. “Only the best of us should be teachers. Some mentally ill person is hardly the best. LGBT? These people are extremists. A teacher is supposed to educate others, but all these pederasts have no patriotism. How are they supposed to educate our kids? They’re all hippie protesters and fifth columnists subscribed to the lying liberal media.”
A couple of weeks after Isayev spoke to Meduza, police arrested him for unknown reasons. He admitted that his real surname is Bulatov, and he’s been wanted by the authorities since 2005. The website Moshennikov.net, a kind of crowdsourced Better Business Bureau, accuses Bulatov of fraud and theft.
* * *
As for Anastasia, she’s hardly an LGBT activist. She doesn’t attend gay rights rallies, she’s never heard of the Occupy Pedophilia vigilante group, she doesn’t know what Children-404 (Russia’s It Gets Better campaign) is, and she’s unaware that Russia passed a federal law against “gay propaganda” in June 2013. Even now, after being fired, she doesn’t want to get sucked into a public conflict.
She’s able to talk about teaching endlessly, however.
Seven years ago, Anastasia moved to St. Petersburg from Sakhalin, where she graduated from the college of arts with a degree in choral conducting. For a few years, she worked as a salesclerk in different stores, until realizing that she couldn’t live without music. She returned to Sakhalin for a bit, where one day she ended up substituting for a friend who worked at a local school. Anastasia found that she liked working with children very much. Once back in St. Petersburg, she applied to work as a music instructor in the school system. Her timing was fortuitous. There was a vacancy at school number 565, and they hired her. In three years, Anastasia says she never had a single conflict with any of her colleagues, and no one complained about the quality of her work.
Anastasia says her school has two tracks: one for autistic children and kids with cerebral palsy, and another for children who struggled in ordinary schools. Eighty percent of the students are from the neighboring school. “At first, they didn’t warm up to me. It took a while,” she explains. “But they’ve become very attached by now, especially the autistic kids. They need more time to open up to you. I have a lot invested in them. That I won’t be there is going to be a blow to the kids, too.”
Anastasia says her students like learning the songs from cartoons best of all. “If we’re learning a song, every stage of it should be illustrated,” she says. “We act out every movement with our hands. If we learn a song about a Christmas tree, I bring a small Christmas tree to class, and everyone feels it with their hands, so they know its prickly needles. That way, they remember the song better. They need to clap, stomp, and dance their way to everything.”
Outside the classroom, Anastasia tutored eight children separately. “I have one girl who plays the keyboard,” she says. “Her left hand is atrophied. We’ve been practicing for a long time now. She’s a hard worker, and we’ve worked to develop her memory and learn the notes. Usually she plays with one hand, while resting the other on her knee. One day, after two years of studying together, while playing with her right hand, the fingers on her left hand suddenly began to move.”
When asked how she’ll manage without all this, Anastasia says, “What’s happened hasn't hit me yet. I’m not guilty of anything. I’ve been kicked out of something that was my life—something I gave my soul to. But I’m not done—I’m going to stand up for my rights.”
Anastasia’s attorney, Dmitri Bartenyev, who’s also defending Children-404’s creator Yelena Klimova (whose community the government charged in November with “signs of homosexual propaganda in the presence of minors”), told Meduza that he would file a lawsuit by the end of December 2014 demanding Anastasia’s reinstatement at her school.
It’s unknown if Bartenyev ever did bring the matter to a court.