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Russia's "Homosexual Propaganda" Law in Action

Alexander Ermoshkin found a new part-time job in a Khabarovsk college, where he teaches geography under a pseudonym. After he was fired from his job because of his sexual orientation, he decided it would be safer and more convenient to his employer not to use his real name. Image by Misha Friedman. Russia, 2014

Alexander Ermoshkin in his office at the Research Institute of Water and Ecological Problems at Far Eastern Division of the Russian Academy of Science. Image by Misha Friedman. Russia, 2014.

Alexander Ermoshkin in a Khabarovsk cafe reflecting on his teaching career of 18 years. Image by Misha Friedman. Russia, 2014.

Alexander Ermoshkin looking at a class schedule in a Khabarovsk college, where he teaches geography under a pseudonym. Image by Misha Friedman. Russia, 2014.

A weekly newspaper from Russia's far eastern city of Khabarovsk, almost 4,000 miles away from Moscow, became the first publication to be punished under the country's law banning the dissemination of "gay propaganda" to minors. Alexander Suturin, editor of Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, was fined 50 thousand rubles ($1,400) by a local court for publishing a story about Alexander Ermoshkin, a teacher and an LGBT activist, fired from his job because of his sexual orientation.

Despite the article being marked “for 16 and over” and various experts testifying in court in the newspaper's defense, the judge decided to fine Suturin, and in early April an appeals court upheld this decision.

Alexander Ermoshkin, 39, the newspaper story's hero, has always assumed Khabarovsk to be a tolerant city. In an action still rare in Russia he came out to his friends and at his work in a school and a university a few years ago, and everyone was quite supportive.

In 2008 he started organizing rainbow flash mobs—activists and friends would gather on Khabarovsk's main square and release rainbow-colored balloons. More than a hundred people participated in the most recent event.

But according to Ermoshkin things started to change after President Vladimir Putin signed into law the national anti-gay propaganda bill. Local officials, in order to show their loyalty to Moscow, focused efforts on the LGBT activists they could easily spot. The energetic Ermoshkin was a visible target.

At one of the last organized events, participants gathered with their mouths taped shut and distributed leaflets advocating tolerance. They were attacked by a group calling themselves "Shtoltz Khabarovsk," a neo-Nazi youth. A few months later, Ermoshkin himself barely escaped the same young people who cornered him in a dark alley.

In early September 2013, he was fired from his job at a school where he had taught geography for 18 years. His letter of dismissal was signed by 678 residents of Khabarovsk, a group that called themselves a “Movement against Sexual Perversions.” The letter voiced fears that Ermoshkin would influence his students to believe that “nontraditional relations are as normal as traditional ones,” and that this would have a negative effect on them.

Protests against the dismissal from current and former students were to no avail.

Ermoshkin also lost his other teaching job at a local university. Although he has little hope for success, he is trying to get at least some compensation from the courts for his termination.

He is still working at his main job, as a plant scientist at the Research Institute of Water and Ecological Problems at the Far Eastern Division of the Russian Academy of Science. He also found a new geography teaching position at one of the local colleges, but he uses a pseudonym in place of his real name.

On several occasions President Putin has said the “gay propaganda” law is not discriminatory and LGBT people should not fear losing their jobs or livelihoods because of it, but this turned out not to be the case. LGBT support groups say that employers now more than ever show prejudice towards gays, and many have lost their jobs already.

Back in Khabarovsk, the local parliamentarians are discussing whether a new, broader law banning “gay propaganda” not only for minors, but for everyone, is necessary. At a roundtable discussion a city councilwoman named Elena Larionova complained that patriotic events receive almost no attention from the media while LGBT events always attract crowds of journalists and lots of publicity. She referred in her statement to Ermoshkin and fellow activists as “piglets.”