Life for LGBT youth growing up Russia is filled with physical and emotional abuse in a society that rejects you completely. LGBT teenagers are isolated from their peers and the adults around them to pretend that they simply don’t exist. There’s no support network for these children and teenagers, there’s no school counselor or psychiatrist for them to talk with about their issues and most of them can’t turn to their parents and relatives for fear that they will abandon them. This makes the internet one of the only outlets for LGBT youth in Russia to express themselves and openly talk about their lives and experiences.
The online project children 404 is a vital online support group for LGBT youth where they can share their stories, their experiences, and receive kind words of support. The group was founded by Lena Klimova in 2013 in response to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law.
The group name is a play on words of the error 404 Page not found message your computer receives when it can’t access a webpage online which conveys how many of LGBT teenagers feel in Russian society that treats them as if they do not exist. The group is present on Facebook and its Russian equivalent vk.com.
Since its inception the group has come under attack from the Russian media and members of the government for violating the anti-gay propaganda law. In January 2014 Elena Klimova was on trial for violating the propaganda law but the case was later closed due to the lack of an offence. This year Klimova was on trial once again and she was found guilty of violating the propaganda law which means that the website and the vk.com page being shut down in Russia. Klimova was charged by Roskomnadzor, the Russian media watchdog. Roskomnadzor claims that Children 404 “promotes nontraditional-sexual relations among minors” because the material can give children an impression that being LGBT means being a strong persevering person with a sense of dignity and self-respect. Thus Russian LGBT teens are going to lose one of the only safe spaces they have to be themselves and express their feelings.
Of course, the real reason why the Russian state is so desirous of shutting down Children 404 is that the project has the potential to garner a whole lot of sympathy for these teens from the general public in Russia. Even a cursory look through the website could melt the heart of even the most diehard Russian homophobe. Most people would naturally feel empathy for these teenagers and want to help them in some way; at the very least, their life stories would act as a sufficient discouragement from judging and ostracize them even further and this is why the state wants this project closed. Children 404 does have the potential to ratchet up the debate on homosexuality and homophobia in Russia as even a conservative heart cannot help going out to the ostracized teenagers and seeking to alleviate their suffering in some way, and that could gradually spill over into an entirely different take of the Russian society on LGBT-rights. A debate held from a position of empathy and understanding instead of attacking LGBTQ for ‘attempting to subvert the country’s tradition values’ could quite easily lead to re-framing the whole narrative, however entrenched. And that is the threat Children 404 is posing to the government; and this is precisely the reason the project should be kept afloat.
As Russia grows more isolated internationally it becomes much harder to help LGBT teens from outside. Realistically, there is little that can be done to influence the Russian government and society from outside and help LGBT teenagers. The least we can do is ensure that these teens continue to receive support and that they are not forgotten. The Russian state cannot hope to control the internet and social media and that is where a lot of people can make a contribution. Even the small act of liking the Facebook page of Children 404 is as a show of support for these teenagers.