Russian Gay Man Answered Kids' Innocent Queries — Now He's on the Run

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday November 26, 2019

Russian authorities have opened at least two investigations - one of them criminal - into a YouTube chat show for having featured an openly gay man answering innocuous questions from children, reports CNN.

Maksim Pankratov, 21, could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison simply for having chatted with the kids about his daily experience living in the deeply anti-gay nation. The questions had nothing to do with sex or physical contact, media sources noted; as Pankratov put it, "It was a normal conversation about my life and they want to put me in jail,"

CNN described the setting for the interview:

The format of the video is simple: Pankratov and his interviewers face each other in chairs against a blue background, and the children ask simple questions: "How did you know you were gay?" and "Are there guys who like other guys?"

Human Rights Watch also reported on the show's format, noting that the series is modeled on an American show "Kids Meet," on which children interview people with different life experiences, asking them unscripted questions."

Added HRW:

"Real Talk" previously featured children interviewing a woman with anorexia, an African man, a person of small stature, and others.

But "others" are not penalized in Russia for giving any indication of who they truly are. That special rule exists only for LGBTQs.

HRW's Kyle Knight spoke out against the investigations, saying, "The perniciousness of the 'gay propaganda' law apparently knows no boundaries. A criminal charge of sexual assault of children for a YouTube video that contained no sexual content is as outrageous as it is terrifying."

Pankarov said that he has received threats online and narrowly avoided a beating — or worse — when two men chased him in the street. He is now in an undisclosed location, fearing for his safety — as is the video's producer, media reports said.

Stressing that "there was no discussion of sex," Pankratov told CNN that the chat "was about what it's like to be a gay man in Russia and how I live. We wanted to show society that you can be tolerant."

Under a fiercely homophobic 2013 law that purports to ban "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors," the producer of the interview could, like Pankratov, face a decade or more in prison.

Tellingly, even the children in the video seemed to grasp that the country they live in is irrationally draconian in its treatment of sexual minorities. Reports CBS:

One of the boys asks Pankratov why he doesn't like Russia. Pankratov, dressed in a black turtleneck, responds calmly: "I can't fully open up here and feel protected here."

"Let's hope Putin doesn't hear this," the child jokes with a smile.

But it's no laughing matter. Last month Russia's Interior Ministry began an investigation into the video interview under the provisions of the 2013 law. That investigation was followed by another, launched this month, that claims the interview was a "possible sexual assault against minors," the CBS report noted.

The mother of one child told CBS that Russian authorities were quick to deploy one of the main weapons in the arsenal of totalitarian governments — the threat of taking her child away from her.

The mother said that authorities wished to interrogate her son, and she told them no. Them, "they started intimidating me by saying that my child will be moved into foster care."

Russian's brutal crackdown on LGBTQs has been linked to social violence targeting non-heterosexuals and rumors have emerged from Chechnya recently to the effect that gay men are being arrested, tortured, and put into prison camps.

American evangelicals have worked to bring terrifying anti-LGBTQ laws to nations around the world. One particular foe of equality, Scott Lively, claimed in 2013 that Russia's then-recently passed law targeting any expression of sexual difference was one of his "proudest achievements," reported the Huffington Post at the time.

Lively faced a lawsuit in 2017 that accused him of "crimes against humanity" for his role in allegedly helping bring about Uganda's harsh anti-LGBTQ laws. The suit was dismissed due to "lack of jurisdiction."

Closer to home, the Trump administration has worked steadily over the last three years to deliver on a wish list dictated by religious hardliners, including judicial nominees to the federal courts and the Supreme Court and new provisions that effectively allow government agencies, government contractors, and taxpayer-funded groups such as adoption agencies to openly discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and their families.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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