Moscow- The fifth annual LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference was set to take place on November 9th, but was cancelled early due to volunteers being attacked for the second year in a row.
Conference organizers initially managed to secure a location for the event for free, but funding issues forced organizers to raise money via crowdfunding to hire security for the venue. Unfortunately, the added safety measures weren’t enough to keep participants and volunteers at the event safe.
The LGBTQIAPP+ Family Conference aims to bring together activists, psychologists, therapists, educators and health professionals who would not otherwise have the possibility to receive information as to how to best support the LGBTQIA community.
Same-sex parenting is not explicitly banned in Russia, but LGTBQIA parents face threats under a 2013 law banning the spread of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. If they look for support on parenting or in their relationship, they have “nowhere to turn,” the organizers said when explaining the importance of the conference.
“We managed to provide video seminars on Saturday [November 10] and tried to provide workshops on Sunday. But unfortunately the address got out again and we received direct threats regarding further attacks. Thus we decided to cancel the afternoon sessions for the security of our participants and volunteers,” Nadeshda Aronchik, a co-organizer of the conference says.
“It was devastating that the work of six months just vanished,” she continued. “But I decided not to give up and we are already planning to make one day of the conference take place in December.”
On the morning the conference was to start, November 9, the conference venue address, which had been kept confidential for security reasons, was leaked on VK ( VKontakte, a Russian social media platform) and was rapidly picked up by a number of homophobic groups. Yulia Malygina, director of Resource LGBTQIA Moscow, attempted to file an online complaint with the police, but due to a technical glitch was not able to finalize it.
Around lunchtime, the site started receiving calls and online messages to cancel the conference. When the organizers and volunteers arrived at 3 p.m., management told them it had decided not to host the conference so as to not jeopardize the security of other events taking place there. “It was clear how difficult this decision was for the management,” Malygina said.
Resource LGBTQIA Moscow notified participants about the cancellation, but volunteers remained at the site. At 7 p.m., a group of five or six volunteers left for a shop across the street. Aronchik said at this point, one person ran towards the volunteers and sprayed them with an “acid substance.” The substance hit two people in the eyes, but also affected other people in the group who were also sprayed.
The two volunteers that were injured received hospital treatment and are in stable condition. They are being kept under constant monitoring as the substance may lead to longterm consequences. Malygina said that people at the site told her they had seen the assailant there earlier that day, asking questions about the conference and waiting outside the building.
While the substance is yet to be identified by police, Aronchik told Pink News she was sure it was not pepper-spray, as it has been reported elsewhere.
“They were sprayed with the same acid substance as me and my colleagues last year,” she says. Last year, a group of four men attacked conference guests, organizers and volunteers with an unknown substance, forcing the conference’s third day to be cancelled.
Aronchik believes the person responsible for this year’s attack is related to the far-right group who orchestrated the one last year. Her suspicion is reinforced by messages the conference organisers received after the November 9 attack.
“After the attack, the organisers received threats through calls and SMS saying they should ‘die’ and ‘burn in hell’ and saying, ‘How did you like our present? Last year was only the beginning,’” Aronchik says, adding that they reported the threats to the police.
Immediately after the attack, Malygina called the police, who arrived 40 minutes later. But when they learned who had called them, the police refused to provide any assistance, stating “it wasn’t their territory” and left. They suggested calling another police precinct responsible for that site. Those police arrived two-and-a-half hours later. Aronchik describes the police’s attitude to the LGBT+ activists as “ambiguous.”
“They were as friendly as Russian police can be,” she says. She accompanied the volunteers targeted in the attack to the police. Aronchik recalls: “The policeman was semi-friendly—he had some homophobic and misogynistic statements but not as homophobic as I’ve experienced before, so it was kind of fine. So all in all I’d say, for the Russian police, it was OK”
The violence has been decried by various LGTBQIA organizations. “It is totally unacceptable for activists to face threats and attacks simply for holding a conference,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch “The Russian authorities need to do more to ensure that these threats and attacks stop.”
The organizers’ biggest issue now is funding, as they can’t afford to rent a venue and they also need to provide security . “We are currently looking for donors or any other help in Moscow and outside.” Aronchik says. Their crowdfunding campaign can be found here.