Underground Russian LGBTQI Groups Sharing Aussie Kids’ Book ‘I Think I’m A Poof’

You may remember 23-year-old Sydney writer and director Samuel Leighton-Dore from the heartwarming video we put up yesterday, wherein he talked about his self-published children’s book ‘I Think I’m A Poof.’ Today he tells us of his new LGBTQI blog Homos On Hiatus, through which he’s been in contact with members of the LGBTQI community in Russia. Two members of an English speaking LGBTQI support group, Tatiana and Vlad, are pictured here reading the book in public – an act and possession that are both illegal in Russia. (Both have both given full permission to share their photos). Here follows what more Sam could tell us of their story.

“Hello, my name is Tatiana and I’m writing from Moscow, Russia.”

I receive my first email from Tatiana soon after publishing my book, I Think I’m A Poof – a book that would likely see me persecuted under Russia’s gay propaganda law. Written into parliament in 2013 under President Vladimir Putin, the federal law claims to be “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”.

It’s a mouthful, I know, but while ninety percent of Russians were polled as being in favour of the bill, Tatiana wasn’t one of them.

She’s written to request a signed copy for the queer support group she attends – more specifically, as part of their ongoing English language book club. “It’s important”, she explains, “that the young people we mentor feel a sense of support and camaraderie from the international community.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the current situation for LGBTQI people in Russia,” she writes.

“We live in fear.”

There is desperation in Tatiana’s words, written from within an appalling barrage of ongoing national prejudice, repression, and abuse.

I respond – “Hello! Yes! What’s the best address?” – and befriend her on Facebook, where our conversation continues. I’m taken by the strength of her English (considering less than 5% of Russians speak it). She chats candidly on subjects including international time difference (there are seven hours between us) and the weather (it’s a drizzly sixteen degrees in Moscow, despite it being their summer).

Small talk aside, it quickly becomes apparent that Tatiana is a woman with something important to say.

I learn that the underground support group was founded two years ago in the hope of enabling LGBTQI people in Moscow to form meaningful friendships. Tatiana works with another woman, Julie, who teaches the group English. I learn other things, too – including that Tatiana’s favourite book is Atlas Shrugged, a controversial 1950’s science fiction novel, and that her favourite film is French Kiss, starring Meg Ryan. She torrents television shows including Orange Is The New Black and Australia’s contemporary re-imagination of PrisonerWentworth.

The group usually consists of eight people, she tells me, although this number has the tendency to change often due to the dangerous nature of the situation. With ages ranging from eighteen to forty-years-old (“new members always welcome”), the defiant club endeavours to meet monthly, coordinating their assembly via a closed Facebook page.

“What we’re doing is completely illegal,” she reminds me.

“We are constantly terrified that the police will come for us – that they’ll beat and arrest us.”

“Does that really happen?” I ask. After all, being gay in Russia technically isn’t illegal. There are still gay bars and international tourists are still encouraged to visit, regardless of their sexuality. What is illegal, though, is openly supporting LGBTQI youth or perpetuating a culture of acceptance. It’s a classic case of “what goes on behind closed doors…” or “don’t ask don’t tell” – with the very real threat of people losing their jobs and livelihood.

“Yes,” Tatiana responds after a telling pause,“the beatings happen quite often here.”

Working part-time as a mystery shopper (another layer to her intrigue), Tatiana, 36, manages to live on just AUD$400 to 500 per month; selling preloved books and DVDs on eBay or Amazon to save any additional money she can. This, she reveals, is integral to her escape plan. Most gay Russians have an escape plan.

“I want to move overseas – preferably to Australia or New Zealand,” she says, before pointing out that Moscow and Australia share roughly the same population of twenty-million people.

“But there are very strict immigration laws in place. It’s not easy.”

I ask her if it might be easier to move elsewhere in Europe – somewhere that celebrates LGBTQI culture, rather than criminalising it.

“It is possible,” she hesitates. ‘Possible’ doesn’t mean it’s simple.

“You have to have enough money,” she explains. “There’s a massive language barrier – but if you didn’t need to work, you could move to Spain or Portugal.”

I get the sense that Tatiana doesn’t simply want to move overseas, in the way I might want to move to London, Paris, or New York. She needs to – like a prisoner of war. For most of the LGBTQI community in Russia, life is synonymous with the unrelenting miscarriage of justice and government corruption.

It’s certainly a far cry from the rouge-lipped promiscuity I’ve naively associated with the powerful Soviet nation in the past; the drunken composite of expensive fur coats, taut features, endless cigarettes, and tall vodka-somethings.

Over the following weeks I’m put in touch with Tatiana’s friend and colleague, Julie, 35, who grew up in a bilingual (English and Russian) family and recognizes the importance of storytelling, both personal and fictional, in her community’s campaign for acceptance.

“Everything we do is rooted in narrative,” she explains via Skype. “We don’t just watch films and read books to learn different collocations and idioms. But we don’t do it to relax, either. We do it because the stories really matter – the stories on the screen, in the pages, and the stories of those in our group.”

“A phrase you’ll often hear on internet support groups is “don’t stick out” – the idea that if you flaunt your differences, you’re asking for it. That’s the feeling I have; the nagging fear that someone might physically harm me if I were to speak out.”

I wrap a copy of my book in bubble wrap; tearing off sticky tape, pressing down corners, triple checking the three digit postcode. The process feels different, somehow, suddenly more complex and delicate. I’ve previously sent copies to The United States, The United Kingdom, Argentina, Hong Kong, and Canada, but never to a country that would condemn it as criminal or propaganda.

I slip the book into a protective hard paper bag with a ten-dollar disposable camera. I’ve asked Tatiana to take photographs – raw, honest, non-incriminating photographs – to accompany this piece.

She understands, more than anyone, the importance of sharing her story. 


Oh, and I’ll continue sending them books – suggestions always welcome @SamLeightonDore.

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You can find the book online at www.ithinkimapoof.com and one dollar from every copy sold is donated to QLife, Australia’s first nationally oriented telephone support and counselling service for LGBTQI people.

via homosonhiatus.com