Russia’s biggest LGBTQ organization, the Sphere Foundation, has been resurrected less than a year after it was liquidated following Vladimir Putin’s government suing the organization for acting under “foreign influence” as part of a crackdown on gay rights.
The organization’s head, Dilya Gafurova, told the Daily Beast that Sphere Foundation, the legal entity that operated the Russian LGBT Network, is now back up and running. She says it will have to operate unlicensed or the government would refuse to register the group, which was established as a new body on Jan. 1.
“As a consequence of our legal entity’s liquidation, we faced a choice: we could either go our separate ways or buckle up and look for solutions,” Gafurova told the Daily Beast. “As somebody heading Sphere, I really would not have blamed anyone at the time who’d wanted to leave—we already had put up a good fight, had a good run while we could; I mean, we were the ones who supported the LGBT+ movement across Russia for over 11 years, and some members of our team had been public, doing advocacy and awareness-raising work, and therefore were running high personal risks. But very few did leave, our core team is preserving itself.”
Despite the inability to pay salaries for the last three months and having an uncertain future, Dilya and her team have continued their work under the radar since September. In a blow to Putin’s homophobic agenda against, the Sphere Foundation is now expanding once again with all of its previous programs and projects intact. The organization has been supporting LGBTQ movements in Russia for many years and it will now include feminist initiatives too.
On Dec. 5, Putin signed a law that expanded Russia’s restrictions on what it calls “LGBT propaganda.” According to the new law, any action or spreading of any information which is considered an attempt to promote homosexuality in public, online, or in films, books, or advertising, could result in a heavy fine.
Revamped Russian LGBTQ organization, Sphere Foundation, is ready to take the fight against the new law. “Bring it on, we say,” Gafurova said.
The LGBTQ community in Russia feels incredibly vulnerable as Putin’s regime has given a green light to hatred towards the community.
“We were the ones that had been running a campaign against the previously existing ban on ‘LGBT propaganda’ among minors. The previous law was not used much, wasn’t really applied—mostly to curb activism and the work of such organizations as ours on awareness-raising,” said Gafurova. “We see the new legislation as an expanded version of that—the wording is so vague, the government may use it as it pleases them if they’re willing to target one’s activity. What is ‘LGBT propaganda’ anyways? They have this set of bills that now touches upon so many spheres, like media, book publishing, streaming platforms, stores and e-commerce, and yet ‘propaganda’ isn’t even clearly defined.”
Sphere Foundation has already been working against the new legislation and encouraged people from different regions to write to their members of parliament (MPs) asking not to pass the bill. Over 15,000 letters went out to Russian lawmakers and 84,000 people signed a petition before Putin’s LGBT propaganda law was adopted anyway.
“We want to continue encouraging people to voice their discontent over this, to make it known that the queer community in Russia cannot be muzzled—and that the way the government perceives LGBT+ people and the way that the actual Russian society does are very different,” Gafurova said. “Many are asking us why the Russian government would pass such legislation now, when it’s grappling with enough issues as is. In fact, it makes a lot of sense—it’s a part of an ideological confrontation with the West. Being LGBT+, in the eyes of Russian MPs, is the result of harmful Western influence, a ‘hybrid war,’ as they call it.”
According to Gafurova, the new law does not prohibit the Sphere Foundation from providing psychological and legal assistance to the LGBT+ community in Russia. But she expressed concern while talking to the Daily Beast that without spreading awareness on its social media about their work, nobody would come to the organization asking for help. She is concerned that the organization is public and they could label its very existence as ‘propaganda.’
Gafurova said that the organization wants to preserve its advocacy work and raise awareness about the harmful aspects of the ‘LGBT propaganda’ legislation—that certainly qualifies as ‘propagandizing non-traditional relations.’
“We made our peace with it,” said Gafurova. “We will not change a thing, so the LGBT+ people will not be made feel as if they are on their own with what’s happening.”
Sphere Foundation was established in 2011 and soon grew to become Russia’s biggest LGBTQ organization. With its partner organizations and activists, it focused on helping the queer community in the North Caucasus, who came under attack from the repressive regime of Chechnya in particular. Sphere also led the campaign against the nationwide “2013 propaganda law,” which outlawed homosexuality being treated as normal or “promoted” to minors.
Since 2014, Sphere has also been providing emergency support to the LGBTQ community and their families in life-threatening situations across Russia.
Gafurova told the Daily Beast that for the Russian government Sphere’s liquidation was almost like cutting off the dragon’s head as much of the support to the LGBT+ movement in Russia across the regions came from Sphere over many years.
“We were also behind assisting queer people in the North Caucasus after 2017 until 2022,” said Gafurova. “They definitely had an ax to grind with us. Maybe they thought it’d be enough. But it’s now becoming apparent it wasn’t.”
As the organization moves to support LGBTQ Russians against Putin’s homophobic law, it is cautious as the government may watch its activity very closely. Deteriorating human rights conditions in Russia and concerns raised by anyone could leave them facing harsh punishments and fines. Gafurova also talked about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and said she doesn’t believe it’s possible to be a human rights activist and condone such actions of the Russian government.