News (World)

Russia’s LGBTQ+ community is turning to Telegram as the government cracks down on them

Vladimir Putin, Russian President, Ukraine, annexation speech, LGBTQ, bigot, homophobia, transphobia
Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: Shutterstock

Russia’s LGBTQ+ community is using Telegram as a means to find one another in the midst of intense state persecution, WIRED reports.

“Telegram is now an empowerment tool for Russian LGBTQ+ people,” Activist TImofey Sozaev says. “It gives them the opportunity to feel and see that they are not alone. This breaks down isolation and restores people’s belief in their strengths.”

Roughly half of the country’s population uses the app, and by virtue of the encryption built within, many in the LGBTQ+ community are able to build up channels for one another.

This is essential for the community. Crackdowns on sites that host LGBTQ+ content have left people with the option of either Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which route a users’ traffic to appear as though they are coming from another country, or apps like Telegram. And Russia could eventually crack down on VPNs.

The app itself still requires some security knowledge to navigate. Some members of the community suspect that the Russian government is surveilling these chats and have often used them to spread anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda.

Kyle Walter, global head of investigative research and innovation at Logically, told WIRED, “Because they’re able to utilize Telegram so significantly in their propaganda and disinformation operations there’s less of an onus to crack down on it.”

However, Walter knows that the Kremlin may have access to backend data from Telegram, adding additional layers of risk for the LGBTQ+ community.

Some examples of the propaganda include claims that the Ukrainian government, with which Russia is currently at war, is training their soldiers to be gay. Ukraine’s comparative acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community has been one of the key motivators in Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, which includes laws that ban gender-affirming care for trans people or eliminate queer people from the media.

Graeme Reid, the director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBTQ+ rights program, wrote in an article last year, “The restrictions, which render life precarious for LGBT+ individuals in Russia, have a much more ambitious purpose—to consolidate conservative support at home and position Russia as the defender of ‘traditional values.’”

Telegram is even still used in much of the Russian LGBTQ+ immigrant community in the United States, with users giving each other advice on how to flee the country and recommending resources. Much of the advice with Telegram includes how to get rid of it – keeping it on your phone while crossing the border can mean getting caught by immigration officials.”

“They don’t know where to go, and they might not have the desire or comfort to go to our in-person events at first,” says Maxim Ibadov, the national coordinator for RUSA LGBTQ+, a nonprofit helping Russian LGBTQ+ people in the United States.

“LGBTQ+ people in Russia can’t fight; we have to fight for them here, so there is hope for them there.”

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