When Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, homosexuality was illegal. In 1994 after Belarus gained independence, the parliament amended Article 119-1 and homosexuality was legalised. But despite this and generational shifts towards tolerance and acceptance, homophobia and prejudice remain and the Orthodox Church is strictly against homosexuality. As a result, many Belarusians today still hide their sexuality, even though same-sex partnerships are allowed. It is still common for Belarusians to believe that homosexuality is a psychiatric illness. Those who are “out” often face harassment, abuse and physical violence.
Equality for All began in 2010 in Minsk. It was triggered by police brutality towards participants in a Gay Pride march, though BFT’s commitment to spotlighting LGBTQI+ stories has been part of the company’s DNA since its genesis in 2005.
In 2008 the British playwright, Mark Ravenhill, travelled to Minsk to see a trilogy of BFT shows entitled, Hidden Voices. Writing about the experience in The Guardian, he explained: “the first is a piece compiled from the childhood memories of the cast, the second from interviews with “outsiders”: the gay, the disabled, the mentally ill – all of whom do not “exist” in the official Belarussian culture”.
#iamnotfake (2018) timeline
17 May, the UK Embassy in Minsk flew a rainbow flag outside its building on the International Day Against Homophobia.
20 May, Belarus’ Ministry of Internal Affairs released a statement calling same-sex relationships “fake”.
21 May, a public petition was launched demanding an investigation into the legality of the ministry’s statement.
21 May, Interior Minister Igor Shunevich called the gesture (17 May) by the UK Embassy propaganda of an “unacceptable” way of life.
22 May, social media users began to publish protest posts tagged #янеподделка (#iamnotfake), protesting against the ministry’s statement.
30 May, the head of the BPF Youth (the youth wing of the opposition Belarusian People’s Party) criticised “imposing the LGBT agenda” and using LGBT symbols in public spaces.
16 June, Igor Shunevich’s portrait was spotted at a Gay Pride Festival in the US.
28 June, BFT performed Burning Doors at Toronto’s Luminato Festival, and participated in the city’s Pride Parade with the slogan: “Shunevich you are fake, and we are real”
In June 2019, Shunevich resigned from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In a statement he said: “I have been a minister for a rather long time. I may start to lose touch. Maybe, I just need to try something new.”
Fortinbras provocations & performances
In 2018, three Fortinbras students – Olga Romashko, Nadezhda Krapivina and Dmitri Efremov, staged a stunt in support of LGBTQI+ rights calling on the ministry to “transcend prejudices and protect the rights of LGBT people.” They organised a visit to the Ministry of Internal Affairs where they placed flower pots at the base of a police statue outside the building and painted rainbow footsteps leading away from it. The statue is not supposed to be touched. Along with journalist Andrew Shavygo, the three students were arrested on 28 June for staging the stunt and were subsequently held overnight in police custody. The next day they were released without charge but fined around 70 BYN or 40 USD each for “disobeying police.”
Another stunt, also led by Olga Romashko, saw students visiting some of Minsk’s many bars and cafes to ask the bar staff if they supported gay rights and were prepared to signal with a sticker that their venue was LGBTQI+ friendly. The stunt received mixed reactions – only 5 out of 30 bars agreed. Whilst some agreed with the aim, most were too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, especially since the stunt was being filmed. Others deferred to their managers to make the decision.
On 28 November, Fortinbras students created a performance piece called LGBTQI Police Patrol, where they dressed as police officers with rainbow epaulettes and danced in public spaces. Patrol members stopped passers-by for “being in an inappropriate mood”, asking them for “a smile” whilst performing a dance. After the action BFT issued a statement saying that the stunt sought to deconstruct the intimidating image of the police and turn “fear into love”. Ten days later one student was arrested and detained for three days without food or water, charged with “participating in an unauthorised event.” He was brought to court soon after and fined USD189 or £150. The two other students went into hiding, but were eventually tracked down by police and arrested.
BFT said, “these arrests are meant to intimidate us and all human rights defenders and ordinary citizens into silence and to remind us that the police and the laws in Belarus are not there to protect the people but to protect the state from its own citizens. However, we will not be silenced and will continue to call out human rights violations, wherever they happen.”
Other artistic provocations included a kissing flashmob. Inspired by the kissing Oscar Wilde monument in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Fortinbras students took turns to kiss and embrace the police statue – a Tsarist-era policeman – positioned outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whilst calling for ‘more love’ and ‘less fear’. A police officer swiftly intervened saying that his “bosses” asked them not to touch the monument; he was unable to confirm which law prohibits interactions with the statue. Svetlana Sugako, who was filming the performance, said to the public: “Don’t be afraid. It is a statue of a policeman that is not supposed to scare you. There’s too much fear in this city. Let’s love each other. We stand for love…”
In 2019, BFT’s filmmaker, Kolya Kuprich, was brutally attacked at the hands of a violent homophobe in Minsk. He had been working on a documentary, Pussy Boys, about the LGBTQI+ communities in Belarus. On the night of his attack, Kuprich had been talking with friends when he was physically and verbally attacked for associating with gay people. He received a broken nose and multiple superficial wounds.
Speaking at the time, Natalia Kaliada, co-founding Artistic Director of BFT, said: “We are utterly appalled and horrified by this attack. The assault of a highly valued friend and colleague is shocking and highlights how desperate the situation is for the LGBTQI+ community in Belarus. This is an ongoing issue where innocent people are routinely harassed, assaulted and even murdered and the authorities turn a blind eye.”
After an outcry from the media and human rights organisations, the police authorities in Belarus investigated the attack and arrested the culprit. He received a sentence of two years in prison.
Music-making & further campaigning
Emelia Cunt, originated by BFT’s Yulia Shevchuk, was created as part of Equality for All. Yulia raps about LGBTQI+ issues as well as other taboo subjects imposed by the Belarusian regime. The track General P spotlights people in positions of power who attack LGBTQI+ people in public speeches.
Under the banner of Equality for All, BFT ensemble member, Vadim Kaloshnikov, has created an interactive LGBTQ tour of Minsk; a ‘Traditional Values’ folk duo; the LGBTQI-friendly, restaurant review platform, and an ‘invisible’ performance.