Should I Be Afraid?

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From November 21st to November 28th we’ll be posting writing from Ed Wolf documenting his trip to the Side-By-Side LGBT Film Festival in St. Petersburg.  

I’m sitting here looking at my Russian Visa. Getting it was the final obstacle before flying off to St. Petersburg Russia this coming Thursday morning, November 21. I’ve arranged a ride with Homobile, San Francisco’s LGBTIQQ car service, to come and take me to the airport. I’m thinking I could use a final queer blessing before I get on the plane.

I’ve been invited to attend the Side-by-Side LGBT Film Festival to represent David Weissman’s award-winning documentary, “We Were Here.“ I’m one of the people featured in the film, which tells the story of the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco and focuses on the tragedy of those times as well as the resilience and creativity of the queer community to step up and help the sick and the dying. I’ll provide a brief intro to the film and then be part of the Q&A afterwards.

When I tell my friends that I’m heading to Russia, I can see they’re concerned. Aren’t they beating queer people there? Arresting them for marching? Banning positive images of the gay community and public displays of same-sex affection? I’ve had several of my colleagues come right out and say, “Please don’t go.” 

Should I be afraid? 

I’m doing my homework, trying to stay on top of the ongoing stream of news stories about the latest attacks, homophobic policies, and cruelty toward queers in Russia. There was a shooting last week at an HIV organization for gay men in St. Petersburg and there promises to be a lot of attention on the Film Festival, undoubtedly drawing those who support the rights and freedoms of Russian LGBT community as well as those instigating the hate crimes and calls for ongoing persecution.

For now, I’m staying focused on the festival itself, and the inspiring staff of Side-by-Side, namely Manny, Gulya and Tatiana, and the many volunteers moving ahead, as noted on their website, “in the face of adversity and continued repression from the authorities, to produce this festival, now in its sixth year.“ The oppressive conditions inflicted on the queer communities in Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg in particular) are drawing international attention, especially since the Winter Olympics are will be held three months from now. Queer rights groups in Russia have asked to meet with the Olympic Committee to discuss the situation for the LGBT community, but the committee has refused.

The film festival organizers tell me that there will be a lot of security as well as representatives from foreign consulates. “Local authorities,” they assure me, “do not want a major international incident.” 

And so I sit here and look at my visa.

Two filmmakers who have just returned from St. Petersburg, Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, say that it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. They brought their film, “United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP,” to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were glad to be there, speaking out about the danger that queer people in Russia are facing. I emailed Sarah while she was still there and asked her if she thought I should go. Her response cinched it. 

“It’s not dangerous. It’s not fun. You should go.”

And so I will.