In November, Anastasia was a well-respected teacher giving music classes at a school for disabled children in St. Petersburg.
By December, she was unemployed and battling a nervous breakdown, her teaching career in tatters.
The young woman, who gives her name only as Anastasia, was fired from her job after being exposed as homosexual by an antigay activist.
"I couldn't understand why I was being dismissed, because I hadn't done anything wrong, I hadn't violated any laws," she tells RFE/RL. "I don't shout about my [sexual] orientation at the top of my lungs, I don't go around carrying a banner. I just live my life, I work, I play music, that's all."
Anastasia's plight underscores what gay-rights activists say is deeply entrenched homophobia in Russia, where a controversial law banning the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" has been in place since 2013.
A poll released by the independent Levada Center in May showed that a majority of Russians either despise, are irritated by, or are suspicious of sexual minorities. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they perceived homosexuality as a disease, and another 18 percent said homosexuals should be prosecuted.
Rights campaigners have criticized the antigay law as an attempt to further marginalize Russia's already-embattled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
At the same time, they argue that the legislation has spurred Russian homosexuals to take a bolder stand, disproving recent claims by Vitaly Milonov, a notoriously homophobic St. Petersburg lawmaker, according to whom all gays have been "squeezed out" of the city.
Milonov, who has suggested that gay people "rape kids," was the driving force behind the legislation.
Shaking The System
Anastasia herself was summoned by her school director after he received photographs showing her embracing her girlfriend. The pictures, collected from her private account on a social-networking site, were sent to the school by a Russian antigay activist who claims to have "outed" more than 30 teachers across the country.
In a letter posted online, the activist called Anastasia "a sick lesbian teacher who presents psychiatric abnormalities."
Fearing a scandal, the school director demanded that she immediately resign from her job on the grounds that her homosexuality made her unfit to have any contact with children. He also reportedly told Anastasia that people like her "should be burned at the stake."
After her refusal to step down, she was swiftly fired for "immoral behavior" -- a phrasing that effectively puts an end to her teaching career in Russia.
Anastasia, however, is determined to restore her professional standing and right what she feels is a stinging injustice. She has sued her school at a court in St. Petersburg and, after losing her case, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. A decision is pending.
Anastasia has since unwittingly become a gay-rights activist. She says she is contacted almost every day by Russians pushed out of their jobs for being gay. "It's not so much the school I'm fighting as the politics," she says. "I want to shake this system, even just a little bit. I want to give hope to those who are being forced to resign."
Not 'Squeezed Out'
As pointed out by Milonov, several leading gay-rights campaigners have indeed left St. Petersburg for the safety of Europe. But they, too, insist that their departures don't herald the demise of the gay-rights movement in St. Petersburg and beyond.
"The country doesn't belong to Milonov," says Irina Fedotova-Fet, a prominent LGBT campaigner who moved to Luxemburg several weeks ago. "There are many Russian activists, including young ones who are flourishing, fighting, and taking action. I'm not handing the country over to Milonov, I'm simply giving way to the younger generation."
Fedotova-Fet chose to leave after being badly beaten up close to her home in downtown Moscow last month. A photo posted on her Facebook account shortly after the assault shows her face beaten and bleeding.
Fedotova-Fet has now applied for political asylum in Luxembourg. After a decade fighting for more tolerance of sexual minorities in Russia, she says she has “done her bit."
|t. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov (right) was awarded a medal last week by President Vladimir Putin for "service to the Fatherland."|
St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov (right) was awarded a medal last week by President Vladimir Putin for
St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov (right) was awarded a medal last week by President Vladimir Putin for "service to the Fatherland."
"I fought as long as I could," she says. "When I could no longer fight, I left."
A number of LGBT rights groups currently operate in St. Petersburg, including Vykhod, the Coalition for Civil Equality Together, the Russian LGBT Network, and Side by Side, Russia's first LGBT film festival.
Vykhod says a new generation of activists determined to face down intolerance is emerging in the city. In May, they were able to convince local authorities to let them march at St. Petersburg's May Day parade, an unprecedented victory for Russian homosexuals and one of the few gay-rights rallies whose participants didn't end up being assaulted.
Hundreds of people joined the LGBT march, carrying banners with slogans including "We were, we are, we will be."
Milonov was there, too, shouting slurs at the marchers and waving the flag of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. "Let me rip his head off!" he shouted, pointing at one marcher.
Activists, in turn, handed out lollipops of Milonov's face with a speech bubble saying, "Don't suck in St. Petersburg!"
Some of the march's organizers chose to sue Milonov for his comments at the rally.
Aleksei, 23, became active with LGBT rights groups last fall and was one of the march's organizers. A court in St. Petersburg is scheduled on September 23 to hear his lawsuit against Milonov, who faces charges of discrimination, hooliganism, libel, and incitement to hatred. "If we want things to change, such actions must not go unpunished," Aleksei tells RFE/RL.
Aleksei acknowledges that some prominent Russian gay-rights campaigners have moved abroad over the past year, but he says LGBT discrimination was not their sole motive to leave Russia.
“One person leaves," he says, "several others take his place."