When waves of street police violence in Belarus were replaced by systemic repression, NGOs had to invent a new kind of language in order to speak to their target groups. It's as if you are looking for a 'Schrödinger code', which on the one hand describes the factual reality as seen through the eyes of your social group and on the other hand hides you from the 'eye of Sauron', keeping you outside the vague legal prohibitions whose sole purpose became the destruction of the individual voice. But what remains at the intersection of stories of oppression and attempts to make them invisible?
Sometimes I feel like at this moment in time my entire country is going through the experience of the LGBT+ community. Starting from the violence, in which the masculist homophobic logic was clearly evident – to the questions of privilege and loyalty that we ask ourselves today, at the time when solidarity between social groups ends at the point where domestic xenophobia begins.
At the same time, being a part of a vulnerable group and in daily contact with LGBT+ people and their need for recognition of their basic rights as well as their experiences of rejection and systemic invisibility, I can't help thinking that post-revolutionary events have not so much worsened, but rather highlighted the unsightly pattern of intersectional discrimination. On the one hand, the devastation of the activist and human rights sector, the ban on reporting experiences of repression and violence, and, finally, the ban on direct speech and privacy, has set the LGBT+ movement back years, creating a Foucauldian feeling of subservience and forced depoliticisation. On the other hand, when we talk about depoliticisation or symbolic loss in the form of inclusive public rhetoric, are we not really speaking from a point of unreflected privilege? Can we really talk about LGBT+ people in Belarus as being "locked in their flats" by post-revolutionary events in particular, or perhaps the systemic repression and disappearance of activist narratives simply radicalised the gaps in our understanding of solidarity and humanity, the gaps that were with us long before the repressive trigger? And, most importantly, what means of support and mutual assistance we have left when we are separated not only by miles and prison walls, but also by the experience of living through stressful situations, the ability or inability to speak for ourselves, or just the possibility of choice in a life-threatening situation?
This text is simply a string of letters and messages, diary sketches, stories of people near and far to me from the community that I encounter in the process of forced migration – as an activist, as a friend, as a colleague... These stories have no logical conclusion and can also be read differently depending on our political and cultural backgrounds. However there are real people behind those stories, which means that we inevitably have to ask ourselves how is solidarity achievable in the current context, and accept the fact that we will all answer differently.
There is a short and succinct letter from N. in my mailbox: "I'm scared, help me get out of here”. N. is a transgender woman. Legally, she is homeless – after N.’s coming out her family evicted her. Now N. has several psychological diagnoses, one of which – chronic post-traumatic stress disorder – dates back to her childhood living with abusive relatives who inflicted her physical harm.
As an activist, I know very well how difficult it can be to organise a targeted assistance project. In training and strategic planning, we like to talk about the importance of “teaching people how to fish”, giving them tools that would allow them to help themselves. But we rarely talk about what use is knowing how to fish to someone living in the desert. Such questions confront us with a moral and ethical choice: to broadcast the lie about equal opportunities in the world of capitalism or to admit our powerlessness and trust that educational activism will change the world for the better, if not for us, then at least for our children and grandchildren. Incidentally, N. and I met at one of my first outreach events. She likes human rights events, but on closer contact makes no secret of the fact that for homeless LGBT+ people these events are also a chance to have a cup of tea indoors and get a bite of something sweet to eat. N.’s story is one of the "cold cases", an elephant graveyard of activism. This is how intersectional discrimination works.
Not long ago, N. was arrested – she spent several weeks in an overcrowded men's cell at the detention centre. Hearing of this now, I am anxious, but also catch myself being surprised that it only happened this late. I know that N. has taken part in many rallies of the "right-wing" opposition, despite the fact that its leaders have been spreading xenophobic rhetoric for years. She took to the streets against the integration of Belarus with Russia, against the economic decree that discriminated against unemployed people, against rigged elections… When I ask her why she rallies in support of openly homophobic leaders, A. replies that she tries to ignore the hate speech "for the common cause". "You see," she says, "you can't only ask for everything in life, you have to give back too”.
I briefly ponder if I currently have ways to "give back" that would make sense to me, in a foreign country, without a job or legal status. I think about more practical things as well, for example how to send some money to N. – having no documents, N. often finds herself in situations of labour exploitation.
This time, the money is needed to buy medication for hormonal treatment. With a number of psychological diagnoses N. has little chance of passing the state commission and gaining access to prescriptions for replacement therapy, so like many other transgender people in Belarus, she ends up illegally acquiring the necessary medication from dealers. "She just needs to get herself a card in a bank abroad so that she can collect donations from those overseas," I am advised when I share the details of her case with others. "She just needs to survive," I think, knowing that when faced with a choice between buying food or hormones N. always chooses hormones.
I remember that there is a quantity of food left in my apartment after my emergency departure. What an irrational, meaningless, "frozen" abundance, I think to myself. And then ask a friend to go over to my apartment and collect some "rations" for N. While my friend is sorting out my food supplies, I read a post by an acquaintance in which he confesses that he was fired a few months ago while he was in the temporary detention centre and already for six months and counting the combination of transgender identity and politically motivated sentence make it impossible for him to find employment. After deliberating with a friend, we decide to divide the food into two parts.
A message arrives from N. about document checks in the courtyard of her apartment block. These checks are related to chat threads traced to particular courtyards – they are not targeted discrimination against LGBT+ people. But here's the trouble: if the appeals of human rights organisations don't differentiate between types of violence, what additional arguments and protection options are left to me to shield N. from transphobic aggression once the patrol sees her documents issued according to gender assigned at birth?
As part of the global activist community, I know that international contacts and human rights support can be a lifeline for people persecuted in their home countries for their political views or civic activism. This means that my colleagues and I should have transparent mechanisms of assistance in case a person from the activist community needs emergency relocation. And now N. needs help. A person who has been doing voluntary work in Belarus for many years in the form of unskilled and hard physical labour. She helped decorate a huge industrial space for the largest queer film festival in the Commonwealth of Independent States area, did cleaning and renovation work before the opening of queer spaces, helped move things out when the spaces had to close under pressure from authorities or fundamentalist organisations, washed an endless number of cups and set up thousands of chairs at exhibitions, film screenings and lectures. This is more than six years of invisible "women’s work”, which often remains completely unnoticed in activism, because it requires no personal expression, charisma or qualifications. And it is so different from the biographies of many cisgender young men for whom local activism in central Europe has become a springboard for an international human rights career. I was recently asked what contribution N. could make to the human rights movement abroad: could she perhaps propose her own project to improve the situation of transgender people in Belarus? And all the while I still don't know how to explain to cisgender heterosexual men with a good education and European salaries what it means to 'check their privileges'…
Social media has become a way of "checking for life signs" for those with whom you are close enough to write to in prison, but not close enough for daily phone calls. Two weeks have passed until I realise S. has stopped posting pictures of their cats on Instagram. We know each other from educational and psychology themed events, which S. often visits for support or information. S. are in their 30s, and they are a queer person with a disability. S. had a hard time going through the arrest, but even harder was the harassment by colleagues and family members that followed. After their apartment was searched, S. was fired from their job. Currently they are locked up at home, access to their accounts is in the hands of strangers, and S. are worried that information about their identity or partners will be found on the confiscated equipment.
Before the socio-political crisis, I often gave LGBT+ people in a crisis situation contacts to human rights organisations or psychological help services. But when the whole country is in crisis and human rights activists are themselves under investigation, it is difficult to know whose contact one can give and to which organisation a person seeking help can be redirected. At S.'s request, I suggest a couple of "general contacts", although I know nothing about their position towards LGBT+ people. In an era of "important and collective challenges", issues of vulnerable groups are disappearing from the front page and the LGBT+ agenda is often perceived as "provocative" or even "disadvantageous".
However, given S.’s state and the exorbitant strain on the country's remaining psychological and legal services, I doubt it will ever come to contact. In a situation where opposing sides alternately use homophobic language against each other, a person from the LGBT+ community would have to be incredibly resourceful to discuss the damage they endured from being forcibly outed alongside the damage from the apartment search – and all that with an unfamiliar person. While we correspond, S.'s personal details are being circulated through pro-government channels.
The question of outing and public acceptance of homophobic or transphobic aggression in times of political repression becomes a “Morton's fork”, a type of false dilemma in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion. As a result of public homophobia, families of arrested people often see ‘outing’ as a problem, not because someone threatens the privacy of their loved ones, but because such personal details "cast a shadow" over the public image of the victim of violence. We have lived side by side with state homophobia for so long that today many people sincerely feel that a victim of police violence does not deserve our protection or sympathy if they violate our heteronormative expectations.
However it is equally difficult to address the issue of public recognition of a person's identity from the perspective of the human rights sector. I recall one of the cases related to the cruel treatment of detainees in a temporary detention facility. In order not to expose a person to an additional risk of bullying, none of the LGBT + human rights organizations came forward with public support for a closeted trans* person, although it was obvious to everyone that the difficulties and dangers that this person faced in prison, have, in addition to general dehumanization, also a transphobic background. It is strange for me to think about this case and realise that after so many years of working for the benefit of civil society, LGBT+ organisations still have to seriously consider whether their involvement will strengthen their campaign in support of victims of violence or damage it, because "society is not yet ready" to recognise our equal right to protection from torture.
At night N. calls me – after the arrest her anxiety disorder intensified. She recounts to me the details of her arrest. Before being transported to prison, N. spent more than a day in a so-called “glass”, a small and completely silent cell in a pre-trial detention centre in which it was only possible to sit or to stand. All this time she was not allowed to go to the toilet, was not given food or water; the guards were constantly beating on her cell door with a truncheon… Even as she recounts the humiliating and violent actions of the guards, N. mentions several times that she was "still lucky" and recalls being glad that she didn’t get around to painting her nails before the arrest. "Don't worry, afterwards, once I was in prison, everything was fine. They just didn't realise I was a woman." N. tells me that she doubts whether she has enough internal resources to tell strangers at a humanitarian visa applicant's interview the details of her day in the “glass” cell. "It’s embarrassing, you know,".
In a few days time, N. will be denied a visa because "there is nothing in the history of her detention and imprisonment to suggest any additional risks associated with arrests for trans* persons". In a few days time I'll find myself worried that if there are random searches in N.'s apartment block, they might find her papers to be submitted to a medical commission in order to start a transgender transition, and it would be that, and not the photo of her with the opposition leaders, that would send her on a journey to hell... In a few days time, homophobic fundamentalists are going to inform the power structures on me and my loved ones not just on the grounds of protest activities, but also for the "promotion of homosexuality". In a few days time I will read a colleague's report on the behind-the-scenes political talk that has once again raised doubts about the necessity and timeliness of discussing the gender identity of the victims of repression. In a few days time, we will all continue to wait for changes – already aware that changes are to be found at very different distances for each of us.
You can find more Information about the Solidarity Belarus Updates here: at.tranzit.org