Homophobic repression spreads to workplace victimisation
Olga Bakhaeva & Alexander Yermoshkin tell their stories
London, UK - 19 September 2013
Guest post, courtesy of the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality (Russia)
While Russian leaders try to make the world believe that no one is persecuted and discriminated in Russia for their sexual orientation, more evidence to the contrary is appearing lately. After three months of homophobic harassment involving the authorities and law-enforcement agencies, Olga Bakhayeva, a school teacher from Magnitogorsk, was forced to leave her job. Alexander Yermoshkin, a teacher from Khabarovsk, has now suffered the same fate.
Below is an interview by journalist Yelena Racheva with these two teachers, published in the Russian internet-magazine "Colta.ru" (translated from Russian).
Russian teacher: “I don’t know how long I’ll manage to keep fighting”
Olga Bakhaeva is 24 years old and works as a teacher of history and social studies in School No. 56, in Magnitogorsk:
It all started with the “VKontakte” community (Russian social network like Facebook. Ed). In May the “Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality” posted an item about the persecution of an LGBT teacher, and I left a comment that I was LGBT as well and that I worked in a school. That was the beginning! After a couple of hours, I received a message on “VKontakte” from a user named Valkiria Repina (according to the “Alliance of Heterosexuals”, that is the pseudonym of a man involved in attacks on LGBT demonstrations in St. Petersburg. Ed.). Repina told me to resign at once, otherwise they would “ruin my life”.
In the “Parents of Russia” community (an aggressively anti-homosexual movement. Ed.), which is administered by this Valkiria, a post about me appeared, with my private photos and some unpleasant details. Then came more messages: “Why no answer? Tell us your decision. If you resign we shan’t distribute that information.”
I didn’t answer. I mean, I realised that this story wouldn’t die of its own accord. However, the demands were fascist. I was happy in my job, and wasn’t going to change it.
A week later, the story was leaked to the media. I was rung by a journalist from “Moskovskii Komsomolets”. He had rung my school beforehand, saying that he was looking for me, and got my phone number from one of the deputy heads. I told him that I was not a lesbian, that I was bisexual, and that I supported the LGBT movement and had never viewed that as a crime. My social networks contained no indecent photographs or information which could have been regarded as immoral, and there had never been any trouble with parents of my pupils.
Naturally I have never told strangers about my orientation. I realise that a school is a special place, and in any case I would never have wanted to talk about such things there, that’s my private life.
The article was reprinted in other media, and there was a story on local TV… The head-teacher, Lyudmila Vasilyevna, called me in. I did not get any homophobia from her. She said: “I am not going to discuss your views, you can think whatever you like, but we need to somehow get out of this pickle.” She had no intention of dismissing me, but she wanted the whole story to just die very quietly. But I had already realised that nothing was going to happen “very quietly”! These people are fanatical inadequates whose aim is to destroy other people’s lives.
In August, I went back after the holidays and was again called in by Lyudmila Vasilyevna. She told me that someone from St. Petersburg had phoned the Magnitogorsk Department of Education and informed them that they had a lesbian working for them. And afterwards they had continued to ring all summer to find out whether or not I had been fired.
In August, I was summoned to the Education Department. I wrote a statement explaining that I conducted my lessons in accordance with the curriculum and that I didn’t refer to my views on LGBT issues in front of the children.
The head-teacher’s attitude then changed. She said she did not want to fire me, but if I wanted to work as a teacher, I must cease putting on my “Vkontakte” page any comments not only about the rights of LGBT people, but also about politics in general, otherwise I would have to change my profession. I hold libertarian views and believe that we need liberal reforms, and I have never concealed the fact. Suddenly I was being told that I must not write anything “oppositional”! They said, “You teach history, yet you wrote bad things about our head of state and the Kremlin,” when all I had actually done was to share postings.
I do not think that the head-teacher actually uses “Vkontakte”. When she called me in she had showed me a print-out of my page and asked, “Did you do that? Did you write that?” Somebody must have been constantly monitoring my website and reporting to the head-teacher. Spying.
Lyudmila Vasilyevna said “Since there’s nothing for you to do, go and help the caretaker.” And she sent me off to clean up the school site and wash the basement and so on. I didn’t mind, I worked as a cleaner for a while…
A few days later the head-teacher came along and said that a prosecutor was after me. On 18 August “Parents of Russia” had sent in a written complaint about me. There were two issues: on what grounds had I been offered a job at the school (I was still doing a correspondence course), and on what grounds had the school withheld my sexuality from the parents. This strikes me as ludicrous, since teachers have the right not to give even their phone numbers to parents! The complaint was not signed by “Parents of Russia” but by some parent from Magnitogorsk. Her son – who has no connection with my school – had allegedly visited my page, had been subjected to propaganda, and had begun to ask his mother about same-sex marriage. He had supposedly found my page by accident.
When the prosecutor arrived the head-teacher gathered all the teachers together and arranged a sort of public telling-off. “Ol’ga Vladimirovna”, she said, “has acted carelessly. A school is a small state, one has to behave carefully.” The general gist was that people should stay quiet and not step out of line. Everybody was silent. All the teachers listened, and no one spoke up for me. They were all afraid. Ours is a small town, there is not much employment… the head-teacher repeated her idea that I should change my profession. So I wrote a letter of resignation.
You see, I cannot sit around idly and be fearful as a mouse. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror without disgust if I caved in. I had stopped writing about LGBT issues on my page, I only wrote about politics. It turned out I wasn’t allowed to write about politics either. Kittens yes, politics no.
I shall not work in a school again. The whole situation is extremely unpleasant, and I do not want any repetition of it. Oh well, I’ll do something else, I don’t know what, but life is long, let’s wait and see.
Another thing is, I shall have to move, I can’t find a decent job in Magnitogorsk. Valkiria says she will continue to write to the senior prosecutor in Chelyabinsk - allegedly two pupils of mine have been found who are willing to write a complaint that I had engaged in the promotion of homosexuality in the classroom. I left, that’s all there is to it! But that wasn’t enough for them. In their groups, they are still writing about me abusively, they have pretended to be journalists so as to try to find out my address and phone number. They are spreading the lie that I was dismissed without the right to work with children, that I'm a pervert. That means I’m some kind of a repeat-offender, having committed some earlier crime.
It was unpleasant, I won’t deny it. Life as an LGBT in Russia is unpleasant.
Alexander Yermoshkin is 38, and teaches geography in School no. 32, in Khabarovsk:
I have been teaching for 18 years, 10 of them at this school. I can’t say I either hid or displayed the fact that I was gay. I came out by being an activist. Four years ago I started organising a flash-mob called “Rainbow over the [River] Amur”, taking part in LGBT events, even organising a “Week Against Homophobia”, and I was interviewed a couple of times.
I can’t say I wasn’t concerned whether my pupils knew about my orientation. But how would anyone engage in activities they think are wrong? I did not hide the fact that I was organising [LGBT] events, I think the pupils knew. On a desk at the back of the classroom I once found a note that said “Stupid literature, and Gay Geography”. I laughed at the time. “Stupid Literature” was much more offensive than “Gay Geography”.
We acquired a new head-teacher, Natalya Sergeyevna. Prior to an LGBT flash-mob I went to her and said that I was intending to organize that event and that if she considered it incompatible with working in a school I would resign. Natalya Sergeyevna said she considered my employment and my private affairs as a citizen to be two separate things, so I kept my job.
But with the adoption of the anti-gay law… I had never thought of Khabarovsk as homophobic, nothing bad had ever been said about us at public meetings. But in April, after the law had been passed, an event of ours was attacked by ten Nazis from a group known as “Shtolts” [from “stolz”, German for “proud”. Translator.]
Our girls were very scared, but the pressure was more of a psychological type. Evidently there had been no order to beat us up, the order had been to frighten us. After that a flash-mob that we held on 17 May was attacked not by Nazis but by a group of Baptist Christians. Then on 26 August I was attacked while going home from work alone. The modus operandi was the one used by the Okkupai-Pedofilyai groups: they turned on the video camera, tried to question me, made threatening gestures, tore off my spectacles. They weren’t drunk – these people are in training for a healthy lifestyle. I remember their names. Some of them belonged to “Shtolts”, the others were from a new movement against the propaganda of sexual perversion or something like that, I didn’t catch the name of the movement.
Well, the Nazis made common cause with the Baptists, and they were joined by an organization called “Zelyony Dom” [“Green House”], which generally campaigns for the development of democracy at regional level. The leader of “Zelyony Dom” is a man called Sergei Pleshakov who talks some rubbish about our “position below the belt”, our “debauched libido”, vaguely Manichean ideas, and those three groups spent the whole summer collecting signatures in favour of my dismissal.
By August they had collected 678 signatures and delivered them to the regional Ministry of Education, from where it descended to the Khabarovsk Education Department. On 31 August my head-teacher, Natalya Sergeyevna, got a phone call from the deputy head of the Education Department who bluntly said “Either you sack him or else we’ll be looking into your professional suitability”. On Monday 2 September, he rang again, saying “Well? Is the matter resolved?”
On Monday evening Natalya Sergeyevna put me in the picture, said she was sorry, and that she had put it off for as long as she could. I understood her position, and I am not sure how I would have behaved in her shoes.
On Tuesday morning, a female colleague rang me and said that the head-teacher had ordered her to take my classes… No matter, I thought, I’ll go to school and sit my lesson-time out in the staff-room, so as not to let it look as if I were skiving.
You must realise that I can’t write a letter of resignation, I simply can’t make my hand do that. I have already signed up for an appointment with the Director of Education. I shall ask for my dismissal to be carried out officially, or else for my situation to be dealt with according to the Employment Code, but not according to telephone law. If necessary I shall go to court. I don’t know who it is that needs to get me dismissed. Probably the Nazi organisations are trying to earn kudos with the public, I have no other explanation.
Now I am working as a researcher in an environmental research institute, a place which had for many years been asking me how much longer I intended to be a school-teacher, and then had stopped asking. I simply don’t see myself working anywhere except in a school. Not being able to give more time to children makes me feel like a traitor. I love being involved with school olympiads, and I give lectures to teachers on professional development courses. I suffer from a distinct “end-of-summer-holiday syndrome”, when I start to have dreams that I’m on my way to work in a school.
As for now… the most terrible thing is that I have actually been banned from my profession. That’s like forcing an artist to stop painting. As recently as last spring there was a school that was trying to get me to work there, but now there’s no school anywhere that will take me.
I shall, of course, fight for my right to teach, but I don’t know how long I’ll manage to keep fighting.
P.S. After the conversation with Alexander Yermoshkin it became known that he had also been fired from the Far East State University for the Humanities, where he had been teaching in the department of biology and geography.
Source (in Russian): http://archives.colta.ru/docs/31158