Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a bill forbidding the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” LGBTQ youth, now hopeless against emotional and physical abuse under this “gay propaganda” law, are considered sick, sinful and abnormal. Psychologists, teachers and even parents can be fined or imprisoned for supporting them.
"In Russia, it's always homophobic," Justin Romanov, one of the gay teenager features in the harrowing new documentary about Russian LGBTQ youth, "Children 404," told me last week. "It's every day. It's every minute. It's all homophobic. When I came to school, I was always late. Because if I came to school before the lesson starts, people would harass me in the hall. They would call me 'fag' or throw stuff at me or spit at me. And they're told it's okay to do that. It's a normal reaction against gay people."
Justin now lives in Toronto, where "Children 404" had its world premiere at Hot Docs last week. He considers himself lucky, and not a typical example of Russian LGBTQ youth.
"My mother understood me," he explained. "And she was willing to help me. She helped pay for my apartment and she helped pay for college and she helped pay for the visa to Canada. Because if you're Russian and you want to come to Canada, the government gives a visa only if you have the money. They don't want immigrants from Russia. And LGBTQ teenagers are often poor. Especially because a lot of them were kicked out of the house when they came out. I think this festival will get attention for this problem, because I'm talking about it everywhere, when I can."
Justin's mission was certainly aided by how exceptional the film -- directed by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov -- is in itself. Featuring 45 Russian teens and tweens (though Justin was the only one able to attend Hot Docs) who share their stories through anonymous interviews and video diaries. They detail horrifying humiliations and discriminations, but also their remarkable defiance against bullies. Their testimonies are collected online as the Children 404 project, named after the common “error 404 - page not found” web message.
Justin got involved in the film when one of the film's directors saw him at a protest in Russia waving a rainbow flag.
"He told me about the film, and I became involved," he said.
The film ends up largely centering on his quest to move to Canada from Russia, which he did last October. But it's not so easy for everyone, as many Western governments haven't exactly opened their arms to Russian LGBTQ youth seeking asylum.
"The most important thing about coming to this festival for me is helping the LGBTQ teenagers who are still living in Russia," he said. "I don't feel like a hero. Yes, I did some activism in Russia and I had a difficult life. But I came to Canada and I think what's most important now is to continue my activism from here and help the LGBTQ Russians who can't get a visa to come to countries like Canada. They're just kids who want a good life and want a chance at love. Because they continue to live in Russia, they'll just die. It's a great thing to give these kids a chance to have a life in Canada. They can be great Canadians. They can study English. I've only known English for six months."
So how can we help Justin in his quest?
"I think everyone can help," he said. "First, by just talking about this problem. Because a lot of Americans and Canadians are not talking about it. But it's a big problem, and maybe people like yourself can help get it attention."
Another good start might be watching "Children 404." It has yet to announce post-Hot Docs screenings, but it will surely be popping up at both doc and LGBT film festivals all summer.