News Queerfest 2014

Yesterday's lecture by Linor Goralik on "How to start a conversation about tolerance" was a huge success. The European University conference room at the European University was full and overflowing. The audience, judging by the warm reactions, was not disappointed with the choice of spending Friday evening in the company of the famous writer and poet.

In the half hour of the lecture, Linor Goralik touched upon very deep and complex topics, but her delivery and choice of examples were so well thought out that she was easily able to convey to the audience her thoughts and ideas.
Linor spoke about aggression, its forms and those functions that it performs in the society. According to her, we now live in a culture where aggression is acceptable, is perceived as bravado and a way to protect oneself and one's group. The situation with "QueerFest" and the challenges that it faces are a good illustration of this idea.

The poet noted in the beginning that she would talk about the things familiar to her, based solely on her personal experience. Working for a long time with different children, she has developed different ways to build dialogue with them, what topics to raise, and what to focus on. She has not offered any universal methods of how to talk to children about tolerance, but outlined a certain scheme that can be used as a basis for such conversations. She noted that before the beginning of the conversation, it is important to keep in mind the socio-cultural context of the discussion, i.e. to account for where, when and with whom the dialogue is conducted.

The most important point in talking about tolerance is that all people have both "positive" and "negative" sides, strengths and weaknesses. To be tolerant does not mean to never experience aggression or hostility. To be tolerant means being able to understand the reasons for these feelings, and, realizing them, to learn to control oneself, one's thoughts and actions. Thus, it becomes important to ask why this or that group causes a feeling of anger, and how it is marked as an object of aggression. It's these questions that Linor Goralik suggests to raise in conversation with children, in an interesting and entertaining form. It's these questions should should also be pondered by adults.

"QueerFest" thanks the European University for providing the venue for this important event.

Russian LGBT festival QueerFest, traditionally a space for celebration, this year resembles a battleground, with each day – a fight for survival.

September 18, QueerFest opening ceremony. Two hours before the event, main venue calls to cancel. Reason: "...compromised integrity of the arch over the entrance, which may result in its collapse." At the same time, all other events continue.

The new venue is attacked by 20 "orthodox activists" accompanied by Vitaly Milonov, insulting, spraying green liquid and unknown gaseous substance.

24 complaints were filed with the police, including one from the St. Petersburg ombudsman's staff member.

September 19. The venue "Etazhi", well reputable for its social projects in St. Petersburg, cancels QueerFest's events, including the event by "Manifesta 10", biennale hosted by St. Petersburg this year. Organizers learn that "Etazhi" received a phone call from the police. Another venue, planned for the next day's event, cancels the same evening.

September 20. The planned "Night of Independent Music", already having moved to a different venue, starts as planned, but mid-way receives a fake bomb threat.

September 24. The police attempts to shut down the press conference themed "Who is Shutting Down QueerFest?" There is now concrete proof that it is not the extremists that scare the venues but the police. Institute of Regional Press, hosting the press conference, is pressured by podpolkovnik and major of police to cancel the event under the pretext that "violations of public order may ensue". IRP becomes the first and only venue that stands up to the pressure, exposing it to the media and the public.

At this point, the organizers no longer openly publish festival venues, instead inviting the wider public to view the event through the online feed, already viewed by hundreds of people.

"In the six years of organizing the festival, there has never been such a consistent and organized attack on our freedom of assembly and expression. Instead of ensuring public order by providing protections, the police use it as a pretext to pressure the venues to shut down the event. Instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice, the authorities look the other way," say the festival organizers. "Every means is used to push us into the "ghetto." Yet, the festival is about dialogue and being open in society, and our best defense right now is to stay visible."

Globalizing Queer: Queer Theory and Activism in Motion

On September 21st was successfully held in the midst of St. Petersburg. The workshop ran in a safe space and therefore in a very pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. Approximately thirty people joined the event organized by Masha, a Russian-German and neo-Viennese activist and scholar and Kathi, a Viennese activist and scholar.

Masha and Kathi investigated into the globalization of the term and concept queer. They talked about the origins of the English term 'queer,' which used to mean 'different, odd, strange' and was used as a derogatory term for homosexuals and other non-normative people. During the 1980s and 90s street kids, homosexuals, trans*gender, sex workers, (illegal) immigrants and others appropriated 'queer' as affirmative label of self-identification.

The group who is strongest connected with queer within history writing is the US activist group 'Queer Nation.' They transported the term from the 'streets' into activism. They used the term that still had negative connotations at that time as provocation, taking 'queer' away from the hands of their oppressors and re-signifying it with pride. "We're Here! We're Queer!

Get used to it!" was their most well known slogan. Queer Nation was very successful in promoting the term 'queer' as positive identification and means of social criticism. Already during the 1990s and especially in the new millennium many lesbian-, gay-, trans*-identified people all over the world started using the term for their social criticism and activism. At the same time the term was introduced into the universities and especially white gay and lesbian scholars started producing queer theory. This transportation, Kathi and Masha argued in their workshop, was often a kind of "whitewashing" of queer. Aspects of queer politics addressing class issues, the unequal distribution of power and wealth, racialization and racism often got lost during the term's and concepts' globalization. In many cases 'queer' became synonym with gay and lesbian identity. Trans* and Intersex issues and people were much less frequently addressed with and included in queer, and the specific discrimination of lgbtiq people of color was ignored. When queer theory was imported into non-English speaking contexts for example in Germany and Austria, those US works that addressed racialization or class were equally ignored and queer theory became a very elitist 'high theory' for a well educated privileged lgbt minority.

The whitewashing of a term 'queer' and its transfer from the street and the underclass into elite circles, however, was not unchallenged. Many activists and scholars try to reconnect queer with antiracist politics and critical stances towards class, within the US as well as at other places.

Kathi and Masha asked critically for the gains and losses of the transfer of queer into different contexts and languages. They were especially interested in the import of queer into Russian contexts. Together with the organizers of Queerfest and the audience they talked about the fact that it can be quite useful that 'queer' does not have previous connotations and meanings in non-English speaking contexts. In a hostile environment the usage of 'queer' for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* activism can allow for subversion, because the foreign term is not immediately rejected, like the terms gay, lesbian, bi, or trans* would be.

On the other hand, because queer has no meaning for the majority of people within the non-English-speaking world it can also be very elitist. Often it functions as a kind of a code word
and signifies belonging to an 'in-group.'

This can be problematic in terms of alliance building. Kathi and Masha suggested that a focus on alliances with other oppressed groups would benefit queer activism greatly. Moreover, queer should not only focus on lgbt issues alone, but also address issues of racialization, racism, classism, gender-based violence and oppression, and agism.

The origins of queer can be a good example of the fact that alliances between differently oppressed people can reach a lot. The history of queer until now, however, also serves as a negative example: it shows that those who benefit from single issued struggle are almost always those who are already most privileged among the not-so-much privileged people. Queer activism worked to support the inclusion of white gay males into mainstream society in the USA, Austria, Germany etc. Trans*, intersex, gays, lesbians and bisexuals of color, the under- and workingclass, (illegal) migrants etc. are still oppressed in the US and beyond.

Unfortunately, the workshop had to stop at a point, where the discussion with the workshop participants about different strategies of queer appropriation within the Russian context got very interesting. We had to leave the space at 8 PM, but some people continued the discussion in an informal setting in a cafe.

"QueerFest", the queer pride event of Russia, opened today in St. Petersburg with a bang. Over 160 people made it, despite the last minute change of venues, attacks by provocateurs, and insults by the usual guest – Vitaly Milonov.

Yesterday, the organizers learned of the planned actions to foil the event by infamous homophobic activists, some of them, such as Enteo and the crew, coming especially for the festival from Moscow.

The police and the ombudsman for human rights of St. Petersburg were alerted.

Today started with a call from the main venue, receiving threats. 1,5 hours before the festival was scheduled to open, the owner of the building (same building that hosts "Manifesta 10" biennale headquarters) informed us through his representative that our contract was annulled. Reason given "compromised integrity of the arch over the entrance into the building, which may result in its collapse". Needless to say, this public threat did not impede all other events in the building to proceed as planned.

Volunteers of the festival moved the exhibition and equipment to a new venue in under 1 hour.

The ceremony was a success. While QueerFest's security barricaded the door from Vitaly Milonov and his friends, who proceeded to insult and push guests, representatives of human rights organizations and European and the US diplomatic missions in St. Petersburg spoke of the importance of respect for human rights and non-violence.

About 20 hooligans sprayed guests with green substance and some sort of stinky gas. At one point, two foreign guests were being pulled into the venue by the security while being pulled out by their feet by the perpetrators.

The police, who carried themselves professionally, were taking numerous statements by the victims, while St. Petersburg ombudsman urged more people to document violations.

Unfortunately, the second venue also ceded to pressures, and most events are now homeless. But the organizers remain optimistic.

"We feel exhausted and exhilarated. Thanks to the work of 40 volunteers, partners, and random kindness by strangers and by passers, our event was a success. People - their rights - but also their light and kindness, is what our festival is all about. And there are more of them around us every day. That is why we will prevail", says Polina Andrianova, one of the festival organizers.

The organizers thank all partners, friends, volunteers, colleagues, and participants for today's support.

Photos here.

Queer Festival of Russia: Celebrating Our Identities!

The time has come for the sixth international queer pride festival of Russia, "QueerFest 2014". This year, "QueerFest" is going back to its original slogan – the Art of Being Yourself – as it is truly becoming an art to be proud and openly express your identity in Russia.

Taking place September 18-27 in St. Petersburg, "QueerFest", one of the largest public LGBT events in Russia, celebrates its sixth year in the context of increasing pressures on civil society and the LGBT community. In view of ever diminishing spaces for freedoms, "QueerFest" becomes an island for safety and self-expression for many.

This year, the audiences will discuss how tolerance can be taught to kids, and will make an excursion into early Soviet homosexual subculture of Petrograd. Special guests of the festival – Manifesta 10 Biennale exhibiting this fall in St. Petersburg – will join us in discussions on queer art, and the interrelation between art, society and politics. Audiences will enjoy dance performances and photo exhibitions. Traditionally, the festival will be closed with a concert against homophobia, this year headlined by the Swedish singer Jenny Wilson.

As always, complications are to be expected. "We expect bomb threats, visits from extreme right group members and orthodox activists, "provocations" with minors, and harassment of the organization. Threats already fill the internet. And yet, it feels that we've already succeeded, as the spirit of celebration and pride is in the air and will be with us these ten days. Everything is so gloomy throughout the year, it feels good to set aside a time when the LGBT community, our supporters and allies, can join together to openly and publicly celebrate our work, our identities, and our lives!" says Polina Andrianova, one of the festival organizers.

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