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People at risk. Queer family from Russia

A Russian LGBT couple with three children has been granted asylum in Europe. But the path to safety turned out to be much more complicated.

Alexandra und Tatiana

In Russia, they were simply called Sasha and Tanja. Alexandra and Tatyana have been together for more than eight years. They are among the Russians who categorically refused to accept a military invasion of Ukraine and left their country as soon as circumstances allowed. However, the women say they would have had to leave Russia anyway. Hatred towards "non-traditional" people has increased significantly in recent years in cities that are generally considered liberal, such as Yekaterinburg, where Alexandra and Tatyana lived and worked before emigrating. Together they have three children, three boys. It sounds crazy, but this is precisely why the family faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle on the road to freedom and security.

Forbidden rainbow

The couple made the fundamental decision to leave Russia as early as 2020. Then, at the instigation of Vladimir Putin, a direct ban on same-sex family unions was enshrined in the Russian constitution. This was one of the most striking changes that Putin had pushed through to ensure that he could remain in power for as long as possible. The Kremlin proclaimed the fight for "traditional values" and no longer shied away at all from internal and external criticism of the oppression of those whose lives did not fit into the "traditional" framework. When the amendments were adopted, the obedient Duma enthusiastically began to pass one homophobic law after another. They not only attacked the rights of LGBT people, but also threatened persecution for any, even private, manifestation of their identity.

- It very quickly came to a point where they actually started banning rainbows in Russia. An ordinary seven-colored rainbow, because it supposedly has something to do with LGBT symbols and thus promotes non-traditional sexual relationships, including among children," says Alexandra.

The woman herself has been a member of the Russian LGBT Network for more than ten years, an association that has been working to protect the rights of queer Russians since 2006. UN structures include information from this organization in their regular reports on the human rights situation in Russia and point out the growing risks for LGBT people in the country. It is not surprising that the Russian authorities added the association to the list of "foreign agents" in November 2021, making the organization's work much more difficult.

Allegedly sisters

In recent years, Alexandra (40) and Tatjana (39) have worked together. Their close relationship did not go unnoticed by their colleagues, so the women had to invent a "legend" that they were sisters. But as they say in Russia, you can't hide an awl in a sack. After a while, the secret was revealed.

Tatyana remembers: "We felt the consequences immediately. We were demoted for no apparent reason and our salaries were cut. There was nagging from management and aggressive verbal attacks from colleagues. And when we were the only ones who didn't receive the bonus, the majority of our earnings, several times in a row, it was finally clear: it was time to go."

Tanja's relatives also did not accept Tanja's decision to start a family with a woman. Mom suggested that she seek treatment in a psychiatric clinic. Sasha still received threats: "You'll get acid in your face or they'll just kill you". Sasha and Tanya still can't believe that this happened to them in Ekaterinburg, a city that is rightly considered one of the most liberal cities in Russia. About 20 years ago, the first and few Russian Prides took place here, and the police at the time kept order as the column moved. "Now we understand how much times and people have changed. And that they simply won't let us live even in the previously free Yekaterinburg," says the couple.

When the war began

The attack on Ukraine was a shock, but they could not leave the country immediately after the invasion began, as tens of thousands of protesting Russians did. Tatyana had health problems and it was decided to complete her treatment in Yekaterinburg. They could not remain silent, as millions of compatriots remained silent then and continue to remain silent now. Alexandra wrote anti-war poems, published them online and took to the streets with individual pickets. But it immediately becomes clear that this only brings additional risks for her family.

It was really scary for the children. Tatjana has two boys, Alexandra also has a son. All schoolchildren. Russian schools, which were quickly taken over by the state propaganda machine, are now a real source of danger for families whose trustworthiness could be called into question. It's a matter of time, Sasha and Tanya are convinced.

Alexandra with the anti-war banner in the center of Yekaterinburg

With no time to lose, the couple began looking for opportunities to emigrate to Europe. The choice fell on France, with its experience of issuing humanitarian visas to LGBT people facing oppression and threats in their home country. Collecting and submitting the documents takes several months and then waiting for a decision and an invitation to apply for a visa at the embassy. The expectation of receiving a visa at home was not fulfilled. By the time France was ready to let these Russians in, the women were already forced to flee to the safer Armenia. But when they finally visited the French embassy in Yerevan, the couple received shocking news.

And they can't go back

Only three of the five were granted permission to enter France. The reason Tanja's sons did not receive a visa was the lack of written consent from her ex-husband, the children's father. Although the boys were taken from Russia to Armenia without this consent, they can no longer enter France. For human rights activists who helped the couple collect documents and who were repeatedly told that important papers were missing, this also seemed to come as a surprise. European bureaucrats, meanwhile, are relentless. "Failure to comply with this requirement exposes us to significant legal risks," the embassy said in a letter in response to a request to consider an exception to the strict rule.

"We were sure that we were invited to simply add visas to our passports. We didn't renew our rental apartments and even bought tickets. And now we are in a difficult situation because we didn't even expect such a force majeure financially," - says Alexandra.

However, compared to the deadlocked legal situation, the money issue is by no means the most important. The father did not visit the children often, but flatly refused to agree to their departure to Europe. As he is an ideological supporter of Putin and knows his ex-wife's anti-war stance, he is all the more unlikely to do so. Even the promise to pay off with money, if there was any, would not play a role, Tatyana replies to a cautious question.

Sasha and Tanya did not even consider the possibility of returning to Russia. In this case, the husband immediately imposes a legal ban on the children leaving the country, and then they can't even leave Russia. But other problems can also arise. The management of the Russian school refused to officially exclude the youngest of the boys. After their departure, the couple could not cope. However, on their return, they also face legal consequences from this side - up to and including the initiation of proceedings to remove their parental rights. In addition, the women sold all their possessions before they left. They have practically nowhere to return to.

The law is the law, but it needs to be smarter

In the meantime, several European human rights organizations, including support for queer emigrants, have become aware of the difficult case. The story developed quickly. Initially, Sasha and Tanya considered the possibility of obtaining visas from another European country - Germany, for example. But they feared that the answer would be the same. So the women decided to enter the European Union and apply for asylum at their own risk. Planes, trains, several border crossings and even an abandoned train station. Their fate now awaits the family in a refugee camp in Mönchengladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia.

The answer is indeed likely to be similar, confirms Fatal Flash, founder and director of the Berlin-based organization for queer expats The LGBT Live. In addition, other countries may refuse to process the application altogether because the applicants already have a humanitarian visa issued by France. Now that the family is in a refugee camp, the case has likely become even more complex, Fatal admits.

"This case highlights the shortcomings of European legislation, which aims to offer protection to those who need it. Essentially, it involves a refugee family who are not recognized by the Russian authorities and are fleeing the threat of hatred in their home country. This alone casts doubt on the applicability of the usual procedure for the entry of minors into EU territory to such situations. The legislation needs to be smarter and more flexible, because children are currently suffering from its shortcomings," believes Fatal Flash.

Aleksandr Polozov

Mediamanager The LGBT life e.V.

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