Delicately, in a Moscow apartment, Igor highlights the eye contour of the drag queen Saffron with purple eyeliner and applies false eyelashes. In a few days, all this could well be banned in Russia.
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In mid-November, the Russian Ministry of Justice requested that “the international LGBT movement” be classified as an “extremist organization” and banned. The Supreme Court must consider this request on Thursday.
If the measure is validated, any activity associated with a “non-traditional” sexual orientation – the term used by the authorities – could be punished for “extremism”, a crime punishable by heavy prison sentences.
Until now, LGBT+ people risk heavy fines, but not imprisonment, for non-compliance with existing legislation, already strengthened last year, and which prohibits homosexual “propaganda”. But here, Russian justice could go much further.
“What we are doing is not extremism,” protests drag queen Saffron, dressed in a red jacket and a sequined bra. She speaks to AFP during a make-up session in her friend Igor’s apartment in a suburb of Moscow.
The 20-year-old Saffron, who is a man called Valera when not in character, began performing in drag shows three years ago. Varied services, she explains.
“You can have a person who creates a hypersexualized image (…) Then a very dramatic number that makes people want to cry and question their lives. Then a totally comic number.”
On stage, Saffron prefers “very theatrical numbers” where, she says, she tries to talk to her audience about things that “they would never have thought of before”.
“What scares me the most is that we are losing this diversity of interesting thoughts, of people, this creativity…”, worries the young drag queen.
Saffron also fears for “the safety” of his friends in the drag and LGBT+ community.
Tighten the vise
For Igor — Kate Strafi when he transforms into a drag queen — the current procedure at the Supreme Court is in the logic of things in Russia.
“We can’t hold hands while walking down the street, nor hug each other (…). There was no opening before and, logically, we won’t have one,” says the 29-year-old young man.
The last decade has seen the rights of LGBT+ people drastically limited under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who, with the Orthodox Church, claims to want to eliminate from the public sphere behavior deemed deviant and imported from the West.
Since 2013, a law has prohibited the “propaganda” of “non-traditional sexual relations” aimed at minors, a text denounced by NGOs as an instrument of homophobic repression.
This law was considerably expanded at the end of 2022. It now bans LGBT+ “propaganda” among all audiences, in the media, on the Internet, in books and films.
In July, Russian MPs also passed a law targeting transgender people, banning them from transitions, including surgeries and hormonal therapies.
Mr. Putin also regularly launches into anti-Western diatribes at the heart of which he often places tolerance towards LGBT+ people.
“The only light on the horizon is to leave the country, because they will continue to tighten the noose around us, it is unlikely that this will change,” regrets Igor. These measures aim, according to him, to “distract society from the real problems” of the country.
For him, this repression inflicts “massive trauma” on LGBT+ people living in Russia. “There are a lot of suicides,” he said.
In recent years, he explains that he has taken measures to strengthen the security of his shows. For example, he removed the rainbow flag and banned the public from taking photos during performances.
Saffron says she will refuse to give up, despite the risks. “I would like to have the inner strength to continue to live, to live sincerely,” she slips.
“If you think what we’re doing is wrong, then don’t be interested in drag. Let people live their lives.”