International Gay, Lesbian Youth Group Report on Belarus Visit "Our fears were needless"

The following article is written collectively by the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organisation (IGLYO) who met in Minsk last weekend.

MINSK, August 2007 - "Only in Belarus will you feel as if the Cold War never ended. Although getting a visa isn't a problem, the government isn't crazy about foreign influences and encourages xenophobia with all-pervasive propaganda," writes Lonely Planet about the country. I could have better left the book at home. Reading it in the airplane in order to truly appear as a tourist - and not an IGLYO board member - the last sentence didn't ease me: "Hide this book."

Information is extremely controlled in Belarus; each publication has to be vetted by the Ministry of Information. And custom officers do not hesitate to take away your Lonely Planet if they want so.

This weekend IGLYO board met in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for its quarterly board meeting. Our mission was to touch base with the live of young LGBT activists in Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, one of the very few countries in the region which is not a member of the Council of Europe as it still practices death punishment.

Not many organisations choose to gather in this country, but choose to support civil society in Belarus in another way. Understandable, since several youth workers and political representatives have been rejected entrance to the country in the past years.

Our fears were needless. All of us were granted visas without any problems. Passing the borders happened probably smoother than in any other country I have visited. Suddenly we found ourselves in Minsk. As agreed there was Svyatoslav Sementsov, from our member organisation TEMA in Gomel, waiting for us. Slava proved to be the perfect host throughout the rest of the weekend, sharing with us the invisible aspects of the country.

We were prepared for grey streets, gloomy post-Soviet squares, cheerless people, little welfare and a regime being somehow visible at every corner of every street. But the Minsk we saw had nothing of that at all.

The contrast seemed big. Prosperity, welfare, happy looking people walking on wide avenues surrounded by stylish classical buildings, the ruling suppression not being visible at all. Solely stories of people would tell you the truth behind the big mask covering this country.

We did not expect to see any public LGBT life. But again it wasn't what we expected. Whereas Lonely Planet writes about a public governmental repression of LGBT people, Belarusian activists talk about their country as being one of the most tolerant in post-Soviet space and a slow but nevertheless sensible change in regards to LGBT acceptance and visibility. There is no active repression of LGBT groups, the government even has opened dialogue with community representatives in the framework of an HIV/Aids project.

At the same time: gay prides were organized in Minsk in 2000 and 2001, without any significant problems. And indeed, Minsk knows a gay-club and some LGBT meeting spaces.

Well, LGBT is not the accurate expression, since the LGBT community consists mostly of G and less L.

In regards to women issues, one can exemplify the conjuncture of homophobia, particularly in the fact that there is no lesbian bar at all in this country and women have to pay a higher entrance fee if they want to enter the gay club.

This leads to the representation of all in all three women at the Friday night's gay party in Minsk. But we have to admit that there were quite some 'butchies' to see, for instance, at a local internet cafe.

The transgender community has been fairly invisible during our stay.

Activists described their lives as rather positive compared to other Asian countries. Most of the people we talked to were out in their friends' circles. Some of them even were out at work.

Generally they managed to live their lives in the way that they wanted. Sexuality isn't the main topic, but if discussed it's not seen as a main issue due to younger generations getting increasingly tolerant.

The intolerance is experienced in particular coming from older generations. Activists identify themselves as 'out the closet,' but when asked whether their families know about their sexual orientation, a fast "No, of course not!" is the reply.

Aleksey, a representative of the Young Social Democrats party informed us how his party wants to work on LGBT issues and other equality issues. Their work is difficult: the one-party government does not accept Political Youth groups to work with minor-aged youngsters. As Aleksey's party is still doing this, the government has threatened to withdraw the organization's registration.

Sasha works voluntarily on the website, a website where mostly gay men issues are discussed. The site doesn't have a dating function, as online dating sites are forbidden by law. But it offers information for community members and has been functioning without problems for years.

Accommodated in a hotel opposite of one of the president's palaces we had the experience of catching three glimpses of Lukashenko. Likewise in other post-Soviet countries entire boulevards are blocked for the countries highest representative to pass by, don't even think of taking a photo of the president in his car.

The third time Lukashenko frightened us. Whilst meeting in a hotel room, a soldier suddenly bounced on our door and ordered us to close the window overlooking the big boulevard where the president was going to pass.

Not understanding the reason, we did not know what this man came to do in our hotel room : soon we learned that no windows can be open if the President is crossing the street with his convoy.

On the question how activists can be supported mostly the answer was that this mostly is by knowledge from abroad. Cooperation with organisations and initiatives located in the post-Soviet space seems very relevant.

The region shares the same social and cultural history. Also knowledge from 'the West' is relevant. Under the strict governing regime no money can be transferred to NGO's, hence a large part of the current activities is supported by activists themselves.

Somehow it is still difficult to understand the contrast between the prosperity at first sight and the actual repression. So we do what we can do: and share our experiences with you.