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‘You feel the hatred your child faces’ Russian parents of LGBTQ+ children on helping their kids survive in Putin’s world

Source: Verstka
Eduard Khlebushkin

Support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ children have existed in Russia since at least the early 2010s — though it’s more accurate to call them mothers’ groups: in over 13 years of existence, no fathers have joined. Over the past decade, LGBTQ+ rights in Russia have been increasingly under attack, with more and more anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed. On November 30, 2023, the Russian Supreme Court classified anything to do with the so-called “international LGBT movement” as “extremism,” effectively putting parents under threat of criminal prosecution for caring for their LGBTQ+ children. Two mothers who’ve been part of the LGBTQ+ parent community in Russia for the past decade agreed to speak with Verstka about how they’ve tried to protect their children and fight for their rights in the face of increasing hatred. Meduza shares a retelling in English.

The names of the people in this story who are still in Russia have been changed for safety reasons.


Sixty-two-year-old Svetlana from St. Petersburg raised her son, Yevgeny, as a single parent. Yevgeny, who passed away a few years ago, came out to his mom as gay in the summer of 2009 when he was 22 years old. Svetlana took the news calmly, though she still thought her son should get married and have children. Yevgeny brought home pamphlets from psychologists with answers to common questions that parents of LGBTQ+ children might have. Svetlana read them. “My main conclusion was that a person is born gay. That was enough for me, that it’s not an illness,” she says.

Six months after Yevgeny came out, he and his mom went on vacation together with a gay couple. Svetlana says it already felt completely normal to see two men together. “In that moment, I thought to myself, it would be good if Yevgeny had someone too,” she recalls. That’s usually how it is, she adds: “A parent accepts their child after six months.” Only a few accept their child’s sexuality right away.

On Svetlana’s living room wall, there’s a photo collage of her son and his friends in rainbow colors. Among them are many well-known St. Petersburg LGBTQ+ activists of the 2010s. Yevgeny didn’t hide the fact that he was gay and spent most of his life advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

Svetlana’s acceptance of her son’s sexuality soon evolved into activism of her own. At an LGBTQ+ festival in St. Petersburg, she saw a screening of Prayers for Bobby, a film which tells the story of a religious mother and her gay son, Bobby, who ultimately takes his life when his mother and the Church refuse to accept him. After his death, Bobby’s mother questions her beliefs and becomes an activist for the U.S. organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Following the screening, there was a discussion with parents of LGBTQ+ children. Svetlana and another mom participated. When asked if they wanted a community like PFLAG in Russia, they said yes.

The first meeting took place in St. Petersburg in January 2011. Svetlana says about seven mothers came — fathers never attended. At the time, they didn’t plan anything political; they just gathered to support each other. In late March 2011, at a press conference, Svetlana, Yevgeny, and Russian LGBT Network founder Igor Kochetkov said that if someone tried to restrict LGBTQ+ people’s rights, they’d appeal to the authorities. Soon, though, conservative United Russia politician and anti-LGBTQ+ rights crusader Vitaly Milonov, then a member of St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly, proposed a regional ban on “LGBT propaganda” among minors.

At first, activists still had hope they could stop the bill. LGBTQ+ youth and their moms came and held signs outside the Legislative Assembly. But on March 7, 2012, the law passed. Gradually, more and more mothers began to join the protests. “Anya, the mom of an LGBTQ+ kid from St. Petersburg, used to break dishes, but then she became an activist. There was also a mom of a transgender child; it took her a while, but then she came out holding a sign,” Svetlana recalls.

In 2012, mothers started marching at pride events. While now it seems almost unimaginable, a pride event in 2013 was actually authorized by the authorities. This didn’t protect the activists, though. One person had their face severely beaten, and everyone there was arrested. Svetlana says that even elderly mothers were shoved “very roughly” into a police van. At annual May Day pride marches, police always arrested participants and crowds shouted homophobic phrases. “In 2013, they threw rocks, feces, and rotten eggs at us and shouted all sorts of things. I won’t even quote what they were saying. You feel what hatred your son or daughter faces, and it’s very painful.”

At the beginning of his activism, Yevgeny took an aggressive stance against homophobic legislative initiatives, but after some time, he started to retreat inward and close himself off. “[When Yevgeny passed], he took with him an era where there was hope,” says Svetlana. She believes if he were still alive today, he would find the new repressions unbearable. “So many years of struggle, and all for nothing.”

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Tamara joined the St. Petersburg parent support group in 2020 when meetings were moved online because of COVID-19 restrictions. She lives in Moscow, but, as far as she knows, there weren’t any similar groups there. Tamara is 74, born during Stalin’s era. “This isn’t my first president,” she says. In the past, everyone in her social circle knew about LGBTQ+ people, but almost no one talked about them — and if they did, it was only when discussing celebrities. In 2016, Tamara learned that her youngest son, Fyodor, is gay. At the time, he was 30 years old. His father found out later.

Fyodor’s partner, Alexey, is four years older than him but looks younger, says Tamara. Despite their differences (Fyodor is a physicist and Alexey is a hairdresser), they share a lot of common interests, including a love of opera. “But most importantly, they know how to compromise with each other,” Tamara adds.

Alexey moved to Moscow with his mother as a teenager after he was attacked for being gay. “Well, that’s who he was, you could tell. There was an attempt on the child’s life. His mom left everything behind and they came to Moscow. Basically, to nowhere. Where could she turn? Who would help?” Tamara says.

Tamara had suspected that her son was gay but was afraid to ask, and he was afraid to tell her. Fyodor struggled with his identity for a long time and tried dating girls. After her son came out, Tamara says she “went through the whole journey parents go through.” “Honestly, at first, my world just collapsed. I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. More than anything, she worried about how others might treat him. Fyodor did science outreach work with young people; he’d even received awards for it from the mayor. “I was afraid he would be completely banned if anyone, God forbid, found out.” Tamara also says that Vladimir, Fyodor’s father, often made homophobic comments: “Once, he was sitting, watching TV, and he said, ‘It’s all those LGBT people’s fault!’”

Then, Fyodor told his mom he wanted to introduce his boyfriend to the family. “Okay, don’t worry, everything will be fine,” she answered. But internally, she panicked, thinking of how her husband might react. It only got worse when she searched for information about LGBTQ+ people on the Internet and found hate groups. Eventually, she told her husband — and her fears proved unfounded. “Why are you worried?” he said. “You’ve always been tolerant. It is what it is.” Afterward, he wanted to meet his son’s boyfriend. Tamara says the meeting “went well.” Fyodor’s older brother also took the news well. He’s over 50, with his own family — on holidays they all get together with Alexey and Fyodor.

When people inquire if Fyodor has a wife or girlfriend, Tamara doesn’t know how to answer. Once, an acquaintance asked, “Does Fyodor have someone?” and she replied with relief, “Yes, he does.” “How long can one go on like this?” Tamara questions. “It’s very hard to always pretend.” She shared the news about her son and his partner with the people close to her, and everyone took it well. Now, she wonders why these conversations are taboo: “Parents are also in the closet, right? I ask other people about their kids. They all grew up right before our eyes. Why can’t I talk about mine? In our society, kids come out of the closet, but parents go in.”

On online support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ children, Tamara heard other parents’ stories and “saw moms leading completely normal lives.” Some mothers came in tears, saying: “We don't understand what this is. We’ve never heard of it before.” This was especially true for moms of transgender children. “It's hard to imagine what life is like for them now [after the crackdown on LGBTQ+ people],” says Tamara.

Children themselves also came to the groups, worried about how to tell their families. “Some do come out, but their parents don’t accept them. How can we help? How long can you live in secret? It's impossible,” Tamara says. “I know what my child went through. We had a conversation, and he told me: ‘If only you knew how much I needed support.’”

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‘How can I make sure my child survives this?’

It’s estimated that LGBTQ+ people make up between 5 to 10 percent of any given society. This means that in Russia, there are at least 7 to 15 million LGBTQ+ individuals and up to 14 to 30 million parents of LGBTQ+ people.

According to kris pokrytan, a psychologist with the Plus Golos project (which mainly supports Russian-speaking families), parents of LGBTQ+ children often go through an acceptance process that isn’t linear or logical. Sometimes, there’s a “mourning period” before they come to terms with their child’s identity. But pokrytan stresses that there’s no one way to process things and not all parents grieve: “For a number of parents, [their child’s] coming out isn’t associated with a feeling of loss. Instead, there can be increased anxiety — where the parent is ready to accept [their child’s identity] but realizes there might be problems at school.”

Psychologists try to support the whole family: a child might feel relief after coming out, whereas a parent might sink into worry about how difficult life may now be — a fear only exacerbated by Russia’s latest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. What’s dangerous is when parents show their child rejection as they navigate their own feelings. “It’s very difficult when a parent becomes unhappy with who you are,” says pokrytan. It’s possible to help work through stereotypes parents might have, but if they believe they can change who their child is, there’s very little psychologists can do.

Fathers in Russia are far less likely to accept their LGBTQ+ children than mothers, according to pokrytan. When a child comes out, their mom or dad also gets a new identity: the parent of an LGBTQ+ child. Everyone copes with this differently, but Russian fathers often don’t cope at all. The exceptions are few and far between.

After the Russian Supreme Court declared the so-called “international LGBT movement” an extremist organization, fewer people started reaching out to pokrytan. When they do, their questions are filled with a new urgency and fear: “How can I make sure my child survives this? How do we stay out of trouble with the authorities and take care of our mental health?”

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‘May your love be infinite’

Fyodor and Alexey come home carrying a New Year’s tree, interrupting the interview. “What if we hadn’t welcomed them?” Tamara reflects. How would our traditions have continued? I think our son would be with us, certainly, but his beloved person, whom he’s been with for many years, wouldn’t be here. That’s a pretty strange thought.”

Tamara’s family puts on a play every New Year’s. “Alexey was very shy the first time, but now he’s gotten the hang of it,” Tamara says. “He called yesterday and said he’d invited his cousin and cousin’s girlfriend to the gathering, and also his friend and her two children. Of course, my older son and his wife and kid will be there too, as well as my husband’s sister. I’ve already assigned the roles.”

The family also organizes pride celebrations at home. At one, they held a symbolic wedding ceremony for Fyodor and Alexey. “Back then, I didn’t realize how serious it was for them. Alexey even cried, and they still wear the rings.” The speech Tamara gave at the ceremony ends with the following words: 

Fate has awarded you its greatest gift — the kind of love that all seek, but only the chosen find. Its tremendous strength gives meaning to life and helps overcome difficulties and conquer any mountains. May your love be infinite. And as for whom and how to love, that’s a personal matter.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Alexey’s mom thought her son and Fyodor should leave the country. However, they’ve decided to stay for now. Reflecting on the court’s decision, Tamara says it’s “convenient for propaganda to use LGBTQ+ people as a tool to distract society from real problems.”

Both Svetlana and Tamara say they’re afraid for LGBTQ+ people, not for themselves. Since the new law came into effect, Svetlana says, everyone’s become occupied with figuring out how to survive, whether or not they should leave, and the feeling of community has been somewhat lost. She worries for the young activists: “You feel like you can’t help in any way.”

Tamara says it’s painful to see the situation in Russia growing worse and worse: “I think, why don’t people come to their senses? These are absurd decisions. For what? What are we suffering for? I say ‘we’ because we suffer too. I suffer along with my children. I’m not afraid for myself — nothing will happen to me. I’m only afraid for my children.”

Photography project in support of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community

‘If you can't save the world, save the world inside you’ Photographer Emmie America’s project in support of the Russian LGBTQ+ community

Photography project in support of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community

‘If you can't save the world, save the world inside you’ Photographer Emmie America’s project in support of the Russian LGBTQ+ community

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Story by Katya Shapovalova for Verstka

Abridged English-language version by Emily ShawRuss

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