Last week, I returned from a journey to Samara, Russia. Including myself, three members of Pride St. Louis had the opportunity to participate in this exchange. I was honored to experience this with Wolf Smith, Director of Development, and Andrew Bennett, Youth Coordinator.


In short, the project’s goal was to “pave the way” for future international collaboration between LGBTQ+ organizations. We encounter the frustrations and setbacks, document them, and disseminate them, so that people in the future can collaborate effectively. I’ve been asked so many questions about the project, everything from, “Did you feel safe?” or “What was the most significant thing you took away from the experience?”It’s difficult to know where to begin with answering these questions, because in many ways, I think I’m still processing everything that’s happened. I’ve learned more in the past few weeks than I ever thought possible.

 Samara18a
The project afforded me the sobering experience of feeling what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in Russia. This is a country where even the things you post on social media can result in fines and imprisonment under the national “homosexual propaganda” law. Every day, I policed the clothes I wore – posing questions to myself, like, “Is this ‘straight enough’ to not draw unwanted attention?’” More than once, I found myself looking over my shoulder, worried of being followed. I was stopped at random by several military and police officers – checking my documents for any impropriety or suspicious items.


Yet these frightening occurrences are but a small taste of the hardships experienced every day by those who live in Russia and serve the LGBTQ+ community there. Our colleagues have been arrested, gone to court, and been imprisoned. They’ve rescued people from the Chechnyan death camps. Their very lives have been threatened for nothing more than speaking their truth, standing up for the marginalized, and defending the oppressed.

 Samara18d
One statement that stood out from everything else was a response to the question, “Why do you do this? Why have you given up your life for this work?” The question was asked of the chairperson of Avers, Oksana. There was a short pause. She relayed her response to the translator. What was said sent chills up my arms: “If not us, then who?” What a deeply powerful statement this was. I must admit that too often, I’ve wanted to quit my activism because it’s too difficult, or because the work is never-ending. I’ve rationalized that someone else will take my place. But her response struck me to my core; if I don’t do this work, who will? It’s not just about a sense of duty to one’s community, although that’s certainly a piece of it. More so, though, it is about a simpler thing: love. A love for one another. A love for our community. A love for humanity.


Margaret Mead said it perfectly in her quote that is familiar to many: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

 Samara18c
I witnessed firsthand how a few committed people truly can change the world. The astonishing bravery, commitment, and tireless diligence of our Russian colleagues is inspiring and invigorating. It is a reminder of why we do what we do.


We must realize that “our community” is not just St. Louis. It’s not just Missouri. It’s not the United States, even. Our work does not stop in our city, our state, or our nation. It’s easy to forget about the countless others existing around the globe, and the difficulties and challenges they face every day. But we must remember this above all else: we are one community, made up of a myriad of beautifully diverse people, intertwined with one another, striving towards a common goal. And when we believe this and work together, who could possibly stand in our way?


Editor's note: In February, a group of LGBTQIA+ activists from Samara, Russia were the guests of Pride St. Louis. For more information on the STL + Samara LGBTQ exchange program check out  http://stlsamara.org/


Landon Brownfield is the Secretary of the Board for Pride St. Louis, and Co-Chair of PrideCenter, the region’s LGBTQIA+ community center. For more information on Pride St. Louis and their work in the community, visit www.pridestl.org and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the handle @pridestl.

 

Share..

INstrgram circle Facebookcircle twittercirlce2 tubblrcircle3 linkedincircle2 redditcircle2 youtubecircle3VimeocirclePinterest Circle Icongooglepluscircleello-logo