Eastern Europe Project: LGBT+ lives in Russia (Part 2)

Our choir project for 2021 is focused on Eastern Europe. We kicked off the project a few weeks ago by watching the film Welcome to Chechnya  and followed up with a round table discussion to help us better understand the situation in Russia. The film is about LGBT+ persecution in Chechnya and is currently available on BBC iplayer. You can read more about the film and discussion in Part 1.

In Part 2 we hear from Misha Tumasov, head of the Russian LGBT Network. Misha gives us a brief summary of events which have eroded LGBT+ rights in Russia over the last few decades, and highlights how the current situation is still not improving. 

Misha Tumasov

Russia – whether tsarist, imperial, Soviet or democratic – has always had a very complicated attitude towards those seen as ‘different’, including LGBTI people. Like Ireland, Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, but what divergent paths these countries have had! Back then I was 18 years old and people were open and ready to listen. There was a heightened interest in sex and everything connected, there were TV shows including “Pro To” (About it) led by Elena Hanga, and the “lesbian” pop group Tatu.

Since 2003, however, there have been periodic attacks on LGBTI rights. A bill to ban gay propaganda, which amongst other things denied the registration of LGBTI organisations, passed in 2006 in the Ryazan region and was adopted at the federal level in 2013.

Pop group “Tatu”

On the one hand, this has led to an increased anxiety within the LGBTI community. The emergence of organised gangs, whose goals were to search for and harass LGBTI people, led to a surge in crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), in some cases with fatal consequences. On the other hand, the persecution of activists and organisations has led to the growth of a dynamic civil society and stimulated a professionalism in Russian activism. Gradually the Russian human rights community has accepted that LGBTI people have equal rights to privacy. Even amongst well-respected human rights defenders, this was a very new concept, which is not universally agreed upon even now.

Today, Russian LGBT activism involves a wide range of individual actors from small new groups to large established organisations, each with different goals and ambitions. A lack of co-ordination means that groups are competing for limited resources. 

For example, some groups are focused on the “vote of the amendments to the Constitution” which is prioritising activism around marriage equality, currently exclusively seen as a relationship between a man and a woman. At the same time others are pursuing a campaign against the legislative initiatives of conservative and anti LGBT politician deputy Misulina which would erode LGBT rights further.

Autumn begins, and it remains to be seen how this next attack on LGBTI people in Russia will unfold.

Throughout 2021 the Pink Singers will be working on our Eastern Europe Project, centred around building relationships with choirs in Poland and Russia and understanding what it’s like for them in their respective countries. Watch this space for more information #PSEasternEurope.

Eastern Europe Project: LGBT+ lives in Russia (Part 1)

Our choir project for 2021 is focussed on Eastern Europe and throughout the year we will be collaborating with two other LGBT+ choirs: Voces Gaudii based in Warsaw, Poland, and Obochina, based in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

To kickstart the project off we took some time to understand what it’s like to be LGBT+ and living in Russia. Pippa gives us a summary of our first #PSEasternEurope event

A few weeks ago, the documentary Welcome to Chechnya (dir. David France) was released on BBC iPlayer. Under the Chechnyan regime, LGBT+ people are routinely kidnapped, tortured, and forced to turn other LGBT+ people in. The documentary tracks the story of a group of Russian activists, working to get people out of Chechnya to a safehouse in Moscow, in the hope that they will be able to go to other, safer countries from there.

Following the release of the documentary, the Pink Singers set up a roundtable discussion with Russian LGBT+ activists for members of the choir, to gain a better understanding of what the situation is like in Russia at the moment. Attendees were instructed to watch the documentary beforehand, and join in the roundtable via video link.

The roundtable was chaired by Ali and Hsien in the choir, with the participants Misha Tumasov  of the Russian LGBT Network, Misza Czerniak of the Poland-based Voces Gaudii choir, Paul J Dillane of Rainbow Railroad. Because of technical difficulties, Максим Дрожжин of Obochina choir could only join for the last couple of minutes, and Olga Baranova (who features in the documentary) of the Moscow LGBT Center was unable to join at all.

While the documentary is beautifully made, it is also incredibly harrowing. Being faced with the direct footage of people committing homophobic violence, and hearing the terrible stories of torture, made it very difficult to feel like there is still any good left in the world at all. On the one hand, this is absolutely necessary: real people are being subjected to this government-sanctioned violence, and we cannot simply pretend that this isn’t the case, just because it makes us uncomfortable.

However, on the other hand, the panel felt a necessary extension of the documentary. Being able not to only see the work that activists do, but also be able to have a conversation, felt central to my understanding of what we can do to stand in solidarity with people in Russia, and Chechnya in particular. One specific discussion that stayed with me, was the discussion around the role of the UK in this issue. Misza Czerniak noted that Russians living in the UK are arguably the richest Russian diaspora in the world, and he voiced his hope that this group, as well as UK-based politicians more broadly, can use their international leverage to make demands of Russia, as well as impose sanctions on the country if it is seen to violate human rights.

Misha Tumasov added that the Dublin III regulation, which covers asylum claims, needs to be updated for a contemporary context. One of the factors taken into account when processing asylum claims is the family unit. However, when someone is in a relationship or a family that doesn’t have governmental recognition, it means that there is no proof to substantiate this claim: a gay Russian couple will not be able to show a marriage certificate to prove that they are a family.

Paul J Dillane added to this that in his work with UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) that Britain is the only country in Europe which has no time limit on detention of refugees. This means that the UK’s answer to people fleeing inhumane treatment in their countries of origin, is often to lock these people up indefinitely, for the ‘crime’ of seeking a life free of fear and torture. Indeed, there is much that can be done in the UK to provide a safe and dignified haven for LGBT+ migrants, including Chechnyan migrants.

Look out for more posts about our Eastern Europe Project. The ‘Storyville – Welcome to Chechnya’ programme is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000kjnt

A Learning Journey

David Allerton talks about his Pinkie learning journey culminating in an amazing virtual performance.

David Allerton

Joining the Pink Singers during lockdown is very different from joining us in “normal” times. And creating our first virtual performance of Fix You was a challenge for all of us and we’re very proud of the results. Newbie David tells us about some of the technical challenges and how he overcame them. 

I joined the Pink Singers in February of this year and had five consecutive and immensely enjoyable Sunday afternoons of rehearsals and drinks afterwards in the pub. All the while the viral menace was looming ever larger, eventually forcing us all, and the Pinkies too, into lockdown.

Here the learning really began. I am a teacher, and I had to learn how to deliver lessons purely on-line. And then to work out Zoom in order to continue to rehearse with the Pinkies. But the steepest curve came when we were instructed to record ourselves singing Coldplay’s Fix You. 

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For existing members this was a familiar piece, but unfamiliar to almost all of us is how our voices sound when recorded singing alone. It takes you by surprise, when there is nowhere to hide, no other voices to blend with. It was a rude awakening and I almost threw in the towel after the first take, but the great thing about lockdown is you have acres of time to fill, and I forced myself to persevere. I recorded a take, then listened carefully, winced, made notes, and set out to improve. Certain things – notes, words, breathing, just required practice. Other things – a lack of control when beginning a new phrase, or sounding reedy in certain parts of my range, or just the mental stamina required to stay at performance standard for the whole take – well, over two evenings I worked harder than I ever have before on my singing. 

David’s improvised video recording setup!

I am so proud of the improvements I made, and will remember those intense, solitary hours as something almost beautiful. The take I submitted was far from perfect – I desperately wanted to splice my best three takes together, but time was up. I like to think I can hear my own voice in the mix, here and there. Perhaps with each imperfection. 

It has been a great experience being able to contribute and harness ubiquitous technologies like mobiles and laptops, to transform your living room into a home studio.

David Allerton, Bass

“Fix You” and my trans journey

Cel Smith

As we can’t perform live at the moment we’ve had to move online and find innovative ways of creating and sharing music. For our first virtual choir performance we chose Coldplay’s Fix You. Cel tells us about what the song means to them

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We sang Fix You at my first concert with the Pink Singers, ‘Sing!. I joined in Autumn 2016, and as a newbie and a French speaker, I was asked to make a speech, introducing our guest choir Equivox from Paris, with whom we would then perform this as a joint song. I have always shied away from public speaking, being a quiet person, and this challenge filled me with fear and apprehension. To this day, I associate the preceding song Youll Never Walk Alone with uncontrollable nerves, and the song Fix You with breathing a sigh of relief, having given the speech. 

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The four years I have been part of the Pink Singers represent a very important period in my life, because soon after joining I started to take my first real steps in coming to terms with being trans. That is no coincidence. The choir was an open and welcoming group, and I was able to begin exploring my identity at a time when I desperately needed to start dealing with those issues. When we met again to start the new season in early 2017, I was ready to start using a new name, and I found a way of finally expressing my non-binary identity, in this safe environment initially. That summer, for the first time I had the opportunity to attend Pride with a group of friends, to march and to perform. It’s a happy memory for me, filled with sunshine, song and celebration. 

This summer, things are a little different and marching at Pride was one of the things I missed the most. The first Zoom meeting for the Pink Singers was emotionally charged, with all of us still trying to process the sudden arrival of the virus that would rip through our lives and our community almost overnight. A few days earlier we had been forced to cancel our album recording, a project that the choir had invested in and been preparing for for months (this would have been the second time my French skills were being called upon – this time I was filled with even more nerves at being asked to rap in French!) Some of us were thrown into instant isolation, some fearing for our jobs or the health of our loved ones, others facing the grim reality of working on the NHS frontline. We came together for a few hours in mid-March and shared a moment. Acutely aware of being apart, we held onto a sense of togetherness, and knew that we were there for each other. 

Cel on stage at Cadogan Hall

Many weeks on, we have continued to meet once a week, sometimes more, and attendance has been strong. Our Sunday ‘rehearsals’ have meant so much more to me than just singing. In fact, one might argue that the singing has become somewhat questionable. Nobody really knows, given that we can’t actually hear each other. We still persevere and have made slow but steady progress in learning some of our new rep. But these Zoom sessions have offered us the chance to look back at our prior performances, share our experiences during the lockdown, see each other perform individually, and learn about the choir’s long and fascinating history. While there is so much to be missed from our time before the pandemic, we have also found that there is much to be gained. 

Singing Fix You again for our video project has brought me back to that first concert, and that sigh of relief I breathed as I stepped away from centre stage after my speech. It has helped me to reflect on my personal journey over the last few years, and the important role that the choir has played in that journey. I may always be a quiet person, but I’m finding my voice – unfortunately, that voice no longer hits the high note near the end of the song; apologies in advance if you can hear me! Perhaps that’s due to the lack of practice in the last few months, or maybe it’s the testosterone. In that concert back in 2017, when we reached that climactic moment in the song, everyone on stage made some form of physical contact with another person, for example by holding hands or putting an arm around someone’s shoulder. That’s the moment I’m hit with a pang of sadness as I sit alone at home, singing into the computer. Yet despite being away from our community in the physical sense, indefinitely, I know that I’m not really alone, that I can be myself now. And that’s a sigh of relief that I can’t begin to describe. 

Cel Smith, Alto

Art fixes us and The Pink Singers Fixed Me

Keri Seymour
Keri Seymour

Like all choirs lockdown has left us unable to get together to sing and perform. So we moved online and this season’s concert was replaced by a virtual choir version of Coldplay’s Fix You. Keri tells us about her emotional journey of choir life in lock down and the positive impact doing this project had on her. 

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Watch our incredible performance here!

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Let’s start by stating the obvious. Lockdown sucks for everyone. It is horrible. The world is hurting, black lives matter, all over the world our politicians aren’t doing enough, and I haven’t hugged my friends in nearly 4 months. Not to mention feeling that at times I’d have given my left arm for a freshly poured pint. (Not the right as I need that one to lift the glass to my mouth.) Yet, one thing has simultaneously broken my heart and carried me through and that was my choir. The Pink Singers were my community salvation before corona became a thing and they’ve kept me sane while corona wreaks havoc on my psyche and my bank account. The group pulled together, and together we walked through these times. We’ve had ‘socials’, quiz nights, watched drag queens together, distance cooked pancakes. The altos talked me off the proverbial ledge one day when loneliness and uncertainty became too much. Hell, a section member drove 2 hours to wave at me and give me strawberries from a distance. 

Now, although we’ve never stopped our rehearsals by moving them onto Zoom just like the rest of the world, they haven’t been quite as fulfilling as the live interaction rehearsal. They aren’t perfect but they have been something. Every week I can see some or most of my community striving to maintain not just our connection but our Art. Art with a capital ‘A.’ Now, this isn’t going to be a blog entry about the importance of Art or how it brings us together, or how it changes the world, or how it makes most days worth the trudge. It is a blog entry on the moment I heard my choir sing again. While we had moved our choir online, the one thing Zoom couldn’t give us was the possibility of singing together. Corona robbed us of making collective music. The collective heart strings. I will hate corona for this forever. I’d give up all those possible pints for that moment of sitting in a room and listening to when all our voices melt into one. After two months of being online, I began to lose my faith and my mojo. I started to feel disconnected from one of the things that had so much meaning to me. I began to just show up but I couldn’t feel the music. 

When it was suggested that we contribute to a ‘virtual choir’ performance I went along with it. I had already slumped into a ‘what does it matter’ attitude; I couldn’t imagine it would achieve anything or fulfil me. But I went ahead and recorded my piece, singing by myself in my flat with no worries of being overheard (I live alone) but desperately needing someone to hear me. To hear the love of music and the love of my community and feel the joy coming through me. Tears ruined my first three takes. I sent the fourth with complete certainty that it was awful and unusable. 

A week later the mix was released. I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. There was no way it could fill my heart, it wasn’t going to change anything. Or worse, it was going to be awful and ruin the beauty of the Pink Singers for me. This is what happened when I listened: the music started, Shauna starting the solo, then my and Ali’s voices join. I choked. As the song says, the tears came streaming down my face. I listened to 4 minutes and 41 seconds of my soul piecing back together. Listen, I’m an artist and that makes me a bit poetic when speaking about hearts, but damn it, each crescendo glued my broken little hurting heart back together. Each harmony cleansed the staleness from my spirit. I had been floundering in isolation and lack of direction and there it was – the ‘ooo’s’ and ‘ahhh’ of our collective voices melting into one again. All the pain, all the missing, all feeling of a hole in my heart filled and eased by the sound of our voices. By the sound of Us. 

Art fixes us and The Pink Singers Fixed Me. 

Keri Seymour, Alto