Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Secret Telegram Channels Providing Refuge for LGBTQ+ People in Russia

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Telegram’s prevalence as a far-right hub in some parts of the world and a place for both pro- and anti-LGBTQ+ content in Russia gets at broader questions of moderation and regulation on social media platforms. Any platform that’s not trying to crack down on any type of content, Walter notes, will become “a place where people who are not able to express themselves freely on mainstream platforms are gonna move, because they just feel safer posting there.”

As Russia’s war in Ukraine has continued, it has embarked on a campaign to eradicate what it sees as the West’s influence, including acceptance of queer people. Walter notes that some anti-LGBTQ+ Telegram propaganda campaigns in the region go so far as to claim Ukraine is training its soldiers to be gay. Nine months into the conflict, the country’s parliament passed a law criminalizing attempts to promote “nontraditional sexual relations” in everything from movies to ads to online posts.

“The restrictions, which render life precarious for LGBT+ individuals in Russia, have a much more ambitious purpose—to consolidate conservative support at home and position Russia as the defender of ‘traditional values,’” Graeme Reid, the director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBTQ+ rights program, wrote last year. That precariousness has only increased in the year since.

Before Sozaev fled Russia, his primary organizing tool and social media hub had been Facebook. A Russian court banned Facebook, along with Instagram, in 2022, labeling the Meta platforms as “extremist.” The ruling spared WhatsApp, but for organizers like Sozaev, Telegram has become their meeting place.

Still, LGBTQ+ people remain cautious. Some of their public Telegram channels have been targeted, indicating that the government is watching. Anyone who uses their real name on the app risks investigation. Sozaev explains that people often encourage each other to delete the Telegram app from their phones before trying to cross the border. Their devices could be searched, and the presence of the app could put them in jeopardy and prevent them from being allowed out of the country. Telegram groups also provide tutorials instructing LGBTQ+ people on what they should do if they are being questioned by Russian authorities.

“Just going on our Telegram channel and seeing concrete steps for how people get out” and then finding community with other LGBTQ+ Russians is what is most effective, says Maxim Ibadov, the national coordinator for RUSA LGBTQ+, a nonprofit formed in 2008 to support Russian-speaking queer people in the US.

There are about 1,000 people on RUSA LGBTQ+’s Telegram channel, and although most members are US-based, people in Russia frequently reach out to the organization looking for ways out of the country. Often, people active in the chat connect people looking to escape with organizations like Rainbow Railroad. Others share strategies for where they crossed the border.

Ibadov notes that Telegram is one of the primary ways their organization connects with people trying to leave Russia and community members who have recently arrived in the US and need support rebuilding their lives. “They don’t know where to go, and they might not have the desire or comfort to go to our in-person events at first,” Ibadov explains, noting that being able to follow the RUSA LGBTQ+’s Telegram is a way to build trust and confidence in the organization and its members.

Telegram also helps RUSA LGBTQ+ community leaders know what kinds of support their members need. The organization recently started a Telegram chat for queer-identifying parents after a lesbian couple who made it to the US from Russia reached out looking for opportunities for their children to connect with other kids.

The interactive nature of Telegram also lends itself to community members providing mutual aid to each other. Ibadov says that often someone will come to their Telegram channel to ask about how to access health care or legal support, and before RUSA LGBTQ+ staff or volunteers can respond, numerous community members will have already weighed in.

Ibadov notes that for many LGBTQ+ people in Russia, Telegram is one of the few places they can see people living openly. As a result, they see their organization’s presence on the platform as vital not just for providing resources but also giving hope. “LGBTQ+ people in Russia can’t [publicly] fight; we have to fight for them here,” they say, “so there is hope for them there.”

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