LGBT+ activists in Belarus hope mass protests for democratic rule in Belarus will also help deliver long-awaited gay rights and rid the former Soviet state of homophobia.
But they concede such hopes might be far off in their deeply conservative country, with no anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT+ people.
Even some of their fellow protesters are homophobic, they say, expecting a long fight before glimpsing equality.
President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term at a secret ceremony on Wednesday, sparking new demonstrations by a restive population protesting his claim on power.
“In Lukashenko’s government, under which we have lived for 26 years, the question of LGBTQ rights didn’t exist on a political level,” said Anna Bredova, an activist who organises an annual LGBT+ culture festival in Belarus.
Since the August 9 presidential election, which demonstrators say was won by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, demonstrators have taken repeatedly to the streets and key opposition figures have gone to jail or fled the country.
Lukashenko denies the election was rigged.
ON THE MARCH
The protests have featured women in leadership roles, joined by students, teachers, citizens young and old, as well as gay activists.
LGBT+ people have traditionally lacked visibility in Belarus – closest to Russia of all ex-Soviet republics – but have marched in the hope of winning equality in law and daily life.
“We want a public announcement that LGBT people exist,” said Dasha Churko, who works for women’s rights centre ‘Her Rights in Minsk’.
Gay rights in Belarus are among the worst in Europe, says the advocacy group ILGA Europe, with homophobia widespread.
While only about 30 LGBT+ people marched openly, Bredova said many more demonstrated without rainbow flags or helped behind the scenes, aiding the detained and monitoring courts.
“We needed to document the participation of LGBTQ people in the revolution,” Bredova said in a phone interview.
“We wanted to show that we also support the revolution and we’re also taking part in the protests.”
Andrei Zavalei, who protested under a rainbow flag last month, said visibility was important to ensure LGBT+ people were not erased from history.
“That’s basically what happened in Ukraine,” he said. “Now a lot of LGBT activists fight for recognition for their role in the revolution.”
Alex Kokcharov, a political analyst at London-based think-tank IHS Markit, said equal rights were still a long way off, whatever happens to the president.
“If you look at Belarus’ neighbours … which are members of the EU (European Union), they still have issues with equal rights,” he said.
“Look at Poland or Lithuania or even Latvia. There is still a lot of prejudice in the society and a lot will depend on who will be in power following Lukashenko’s fall.”
After his abrupt swearing in on Wednesday, it was not clear whether Lukashenko would stay; the EU said he lacked legitimacy.
Same-sex relations have been legal in Belarus since 1994 but there are no anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT+ people and some state officials openly express homophobic views.
In 2012, Lukashenko famously said it was “better to be a dictator than gay” after a German minister called him “Europe’s last dictator”.
Earlier this year, the Catholic church and some members of the Orthodox church supported a petition calling on the president to ban the “promotion of homosexuality” among minors.
The president’s press service did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Belarus said the church promotes Christian values, but not at the expense of persecuting others for “their beliefs”.
Some of those arrested since the disputed elections say they were subjected to beatings and torture under the crackdown.
The government has denied abusing detainees.
Activists say violence has been routine in the LGBT+ community for years, and that some police are still abusive.
Kanstantin Chernov, an activist from Mogilev, 182 km east of Minsk, said he experienced this first hand on election night.
Chernov, coordinator of New Regions, which runs LGBT+ events, went into the city centre to protest the result and said he was detained by three people in black who beat him on the street and brought him to a police station.
At the station, Chernov says he was forced to strip and hand over his belongings, which included LGBT+ material.
“They started calling me pidoras (faggot), asking me if I was a top or a bottom,” Chernov recalled.
“(One officer) said people like me needed to be killed.”
Police did not respond to a request for comment
Chernov said he was released after three days with a fine of about $350 – roughly a month’s salary in Mogilev.
Days later, his photo, phone number and personal details were leaked, Chernov said, leaving him petrified.
“I’m scared to go out but I’m even more scared of what will happen if people stop going out there and everything stays as it was or becomes even worse.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation.