Maryia Vaitovich, pavel hadzinski, andrej mamaj
How parents in Belarus live after their kids come out
"People don't know how to understand and accept."
17 May is International Day Against Homophobia. Although Belarus positions itself as a tolerant country, it is ranked among the most homophobic countries in Europe. Young representatives of the Belarusian LGBT community unite, open their faces and fight against stigmatization together, but parents often find it too hard and lonely to cope with the coming out of their children. Euroradio journalist Maryia Vaitovich spoke with the parents of a lesbian, a gay man, and a transgender person. Only one of them agreed to tell openly how his family perceived the news about his daughter's homosexuality.

Story 1. My son is gay

I found out that my son was gay when he wasn't even 20. He is 26 now. He graduated from the university, worked in Minsk, then went abroad. He currently works there. In our family, his sexual orientation is known only to me and him.

Mom, I don't like girls

Our relationship is close to perfect. When we write, we sometimes even use the same words to react to something. So, it's hard for me to understand how I didn't immediately notice that he liked boys. He didn't play with guns and cars when he was a kid, but he didn't play with dolls either. At school, he was mostly friends with girls, and he had some male friends in high school and at university. He loved to draw, then he got interested in music, we went to the theaters together... As a teenager, he took great care of himself. I used to notice that, but there are always straight men for whom appearance is very important.

One day after work I had come home, when he said he wanted to talk to me. He was clearly excited, trying to collect his thoughts. I got worried. There was a lot going on in my head! And suddenly he said a simple phrase, "Mom, I don't like girls." I understood what he meant. I answered that I had probably guessed it.
Tears ran down my face. Then there were much more tears. I was distracted at work, and when I came home, I cried in the bathroom and while washing dishes. I was afraid my husband would notice, and I didn't want to upset my son. He felt sorry. He said he shouldn't have told me.
I was living with the hope that everything would fall into place

I wasn't particularly interested in homosexuality before, and I hadn't read any special literature. Thus, I was hoping to find a specialist who would help to put everything in its place. I found out on the Internet that there is a border-line state center in Minsk on Mendzeleyeu street. At that time there worked Aleh Khimko, chief sexologist of Minsk. We met with him two weeks later. He listened attentively to me, asking about my son's childhood, who he was friends with, what games he played, what role in the family his father played. I told him everything.
We have a two-parent family. However, my husband and son had no common interests. Except for going to a country house for BBQ. When my son was growing up, his dad was busy with his own things.

The doctor talked to me very gently, he made a good impression. Then he told me to ask my son to come to his office, but he warned me not to force him. I didn't have to talk him into it. When I came to the center after their conversation, the sexologist said that my son had a nuclear [congenital - Euroradio] form of homosexuality. He asked me not to try to change anything. He understood this at once. Apparently, there is some method for this, even though my son said that he hadn't taken any tests, they just talked.

While before that I had lived with the hope that everything would work out, I then had to get used to it. The center offered me psychological help, but I was not ready to talk then. I was mostly talking to myself inside. I was calming myself down: the main thing was that he was alive and well, not a drug addict, a good person, I loved him, he loved me. At the same time, I constantly reproached myself, saying that at some point I did something wrong...

Grandmothers used to ask him when he was getting married

His dad never asked questions about our son's personal life. Maybe by virtue of his character he had figured out what was going on and tried not to think about it. But there were also grandmothers who constantly asked when their son was getting married. I had to take the heat then. It lasted for several years. I asked my son if his colleagues or friends knew about his homosexuality. I advised him not to be too honest. I was afraid they wouldn't understand. At work, some people knew and were okay with it.

A school buddy once said he wanted to talk to someone from LGBT community. My son said to him, "I'm sitting next to you!" The son opened up to him. The guy took it well.

I know that before he left, he was afraid to talk about his personal life with a university friend. He was of Caucasian ancestry and son was afraid he would not understand. But he also took it well. I think he was lucky to have had those people around.

Father never knew

I've decided that if my son wants to tell my husband, I wouldn't forbid him. At the same time, it may be easier if my husband doesn't find out. A year and a half ago my son went abroad. Many people say that when children leave their homes, their parents may not have anything left holding them together, but we, on the contrary, became closer. Perhaps, I'm afraid the news will cause some confusion in our relationship.
Now, when we visit our son, mostly traveling, admiring architecture, we do not talk about his personal life. There are many other topics. After his departure it has become easier in the sense that now I don't have to constantly shield him from the grandmothers. I suppose that my mother-in-law could take it normally. As for my mother, she is a religious person. She may not only shake the air with oohs and ahhs but may also keep repeating that something needs to be done. I would have to take the heat myself. I don't want to do that; I have just managed to relax a little bit. I am not telling my friends and colleagues either. I think many people would have gloated over it. When my son was growing up, people around us saw that we had a good relationship, but I often heard that he wouldn't hug me anymore when he grows up...

I went there, I got it out of my system, but I didn't feel good

My son knew I kept it all to myself and it was hard for me, so he signed me up for an appointment with a psychologist. I went there, got it off my chest, but I didn't feel good about it. On the Internet I tried to find parents who faced a similar situation to talk to them. I only found Russian forums where communication reminded me of useless conversations in the kitchen.
The articles I've seen spoke about the treatment of homosexuals with electroshock. I didn't finish reading them. I imagined that treatment was possible, but not in this way…
Once I came across an article about a Belarusian mutual support group of parents. I came there. They cried together, told their stories, all the relatives blamed themselves at first. After I found out that one of the mothers was raising a transgender person, I thought that it wasn't that bad our end. There was a mother who was very worried that her son decided to come out to her relatives at the birthday party. She was just shocked and didn't know what to do. But all the guests were understanding. Another mother, who was brought there by her son, just sat there for 15 minutes and left. Those who aren't ready to accept the situation, don't visit the group sessions.

I can tolerate the thought that he will live with his beloved man

I think in less than seven years I've accepted my son's orientation by 90%.
Foto / Andrik Langfield Petrides / Unsplash
I can tolerate the thought that he will live with his beloved man, but for me it would probably be another blow if he wanted to raise a child in a same-sex family. I know it happens, but it's hard for me to understand.
When my son was leaving for Poland, he was hoping that the guy he had been dating for about five years would come join him, but they broke up. It was painful for the son, this breakup. The psychologist who coordinates our meetings, talked to him. I wasn't asking for details; it was important to me to know if he had any suicidal thoughts. She said he didn't. This is the most important thing. We regularly talk on the phone now. I am glad that my son does not live in Belarus. It seems to me that "there" the attitude towards homosexuals is better than "here." I tentatively ask him about his personal life there. So far, he has answered "We'll see."

Story 2. I am the mother of a transgender person

When my husband and I found out we were going to have a baby, it didn't matter if it was a boy or a girl. A girl was born. Now I can't even call him daughter.

He liked being with his dad more than being with me.

As a child, he did not like dresses, did not play dolls, in role-playing games with children he always pretended to be either the father or his son. He didn't want to be a daughter or sister. Not for anything. He got into the boys' company. Even the boys said, "Actually, we don't take girls in, but we will take you." He was so happy!

As a teenager, he was completely indifferent to cosmetics. During puberty, when a person is supposed to somehow relate to their gender, he didn't care about his appearance. I remember when he had severe cramps during periods, I called an ambulance. The doctor gave him a shot, then said: "It's okay, you will grow up, get married, give birth to a child everything will pass!" The doctor hardly left the apartment when the son got hysterical. But he didn't understand anything.

He grew up to be a leader, active and sociable. I always liked it. I was a mouse at school, and my child was totally different! Overall, he liked being with his dad more than being with me. We used to build a barn together. I thought it was great that he was growing a handy person. He could weave a bead ring, embroider a napkin, and help build a barn. What's wrong with a woman also knowing how to nail? He graduated from music school in piano class, was good at technical subjects... I thought he would go far. We always want children to be better than us, to achieve more: build a career, have a family - the usual stuff, you know.
This video is based on a real story of transgender girl Valeria Shandera from Minsk. The author of the idea is Aleksandr Smirnov, creative director of TABASCO. With this video the musicians from the SHUMA band and Case Pi_ campaign want to support all the people who have been and are still being harassed for being different. Lera's story inspired them to launch the #superparents campaign, which focuses on LGBT children's parents and other vulnerable groups.
I hope you're normal

The problems began when after the ninth grade my son entered the technical lyceum with a view to enter the technical university. It's easy to be a leader at school, but it's harder to be a leader among strong students from all over the city. His grades suffered. And then, as I now understand, there was a personal life drama, which he couldn't at the time. He simply didn't understand what was happening to him. I tried talking to him about it. I suggested seeing a psychologist. He said, "You need to see a psychologist, so go. I don't need to."

Usually, I am a scaremonger. Emotions are ahead of me. Of course, this also worried him, he did not want to burden me. He reminded me how I used to shake him as a child, looking at him with big eyes and saying: "I hope you're normal." It was probably when he asked me to call him a man's name, asking me to play with him as if he was a boy. It happened...

The first year at the university went well, and then he was lagging behind, his grades fell through and he dropped out of school. He was 19 at the time. He just couldn't fully prove himself, because he couldn't feel real at all.

Living in someone else's body was scary

He stayed in his room all the time. I was behind the door at night listening. He talked to someone on Skype, calling himself a man's name. At first, he said it was a role-playing game. Then he told me that he fell in love with a girl, she lived far away in Russia, and he wanted to go visit her. Well, I thought she was a lesbian. I heard about such things. The love story continued. I remember he ran up to me with a laptop, his eyes shining. He asked me to say hello to her, congratulate her on a holiday. At the same time, he was scanning me for reaction. He knew I could react differently. I couldn't change his mind. Then it all ended, he didn't go to Russia: she perceived him as a girl and not as a man. It didn't suit him.

Six months passed. He called me and said he had signed up for an appointment with a specialist at the border-line state center in Mendzeleyeu street (he was advised to do it on the helpline). He asked me to come along and said he seemed to have gotten to the bottom of what was happening to him.
There was a small hope that perhaps biology had taken over. While he was talking to the sexologist, I walked around the church in circles and prayed. Then I was told that my child was transgender. That's how the world opened up to me in a way that was more diverse than I had imagined.
I was shocked. I thought I was having a dream and it was about to end. My son was registered with the facility. Then there were a lot of screening, tests, and he even spent two weeks in the Navinki hospital to rule out any pathology or mental illness. My friend was reading a lot of literature and informing me. I was afraid, I didn't want to believe it. I asked her what to do, how to behave. I was told: "Don't dig into yourself and don't ask yourself who is to blame, don't blame yourself. Do your best to make your child smile more often. Remember that in such situations there is a high risk of suicide." I know that my son had thoughts of leaving this life.

I was held back by the possible inscription on the grave that I wasn't myself

While at first, I asked them to help me get my daughter back, a year later when there was a committee meeting, I prayed that my son would be allowed to be what he felt like. He was allowed to change his gender and passport details. It was a real celebration. When he brought his passport, he said: "That's why I didn't die. I was held back by the possible inscription on the grave that I wasn't myself." Can you imagine what it's like for a mother to hear it?
Foto/ greg williams
What can I say, just live and be as happy as you can be... Then he got a military service record book which said that he was not fit for service. He told me that even in the military enlistment office everyone reacted to him regularly. Basically, we were lucky to get an adequate reaction.

When my husband found out, he cried

The doctor advised me to tell close friends and relatives about everything, so that the son could quickly socialize. I first told my mother. She understood everything, even reacted with a certain amount of humor. My father said: "We cross him out. I don't have a grandson." Then my Mom made it clear that she would support me and her only grandson, and if Dad wanted to be alone in his old age, he could. He had nothing to do but accept it. Over time, he got used to it, even shakes the son's hand when he says hello.
My husband cried, when he found out. The first time I saw him cry was when his Father died. It's one thing to know that your child is special from the very start, and to find out when your son is 20 something is different.
Now he is married. He did a breast surgery

Is he happy? You should ask him. From the outside I see that he is living. Before his sex change, he simply existed. It was a pathetic existence in someone else's body and under someone else's documents... He had a relationship with a girl for a year, then they went to the Civil Registry Office. I would call their marriage a guest one, but I'm glad they have it. She is a good girl. I don't know what my son thinks about children. He used to say that he would prefer not to have them. He didn't work for a long time, it bothered me. Now he is in the crafts business. I'm happy about it.
Foto /
He did a breast surgery without telling me anything. He came to me and asked me to help him take off the coat. I saw that it was hard for him to raise arms. Everything was bandaged up in the chest area. He was again scanning for my reaction. I freaked out. I asked why he hadn't told me. He answered: "What's the point? What would you do to help? You would panic! I did it and that's it! He knows how to bring you to senses. It's natural with him.

I couldn't accept it for a long time, and it's hard for me to tell if I completely accepted it. My son was worried about me. He told me that in Minsk there are meetings of parents who face similar problems. He took me to one. I like the fact that you can be yourself when talking to other moms there. You don't have to control anything, think about whether they will understand or not.

Information about LGBT persons has to be included in the biology curriculum

The public is ill-informed, so most people treat LGBT persons negatively. Many do not talk about it, hide under the beautiful word "tolerance." Although I think it is gross. It's easier to live when everything is swept under the carpet, as long as "there is no war." It is important not to stand out, not to behave aggressively, because this can also make you visible.

In order to change attitudes, it is necessary to include information about LGBT persons in the biology course, at least in high school. Why do we know from childhood that a person can be born with a ponytail or a hairy face like a monkey, but textbooks do not contain information about transgender people? Ignorance is the problem. I deny what I don't know. I am afraid of what I don't know. And I am just like everyone else. I am afraid that if someone finds out, they will point fingers.

Story 3. Aleh Haieusky and his lesbian daughter

I'm 84 years old. I graduated from the military academy, worked as an engineer, now I am retired. I have a dacha, a workshop, a sauna all built by myself. I am fond of repairing LED lamps, I want to understand how computers work. I always knew how to learn. How to learn and discover the world. I have been married three times. I had two children: a son and a daughter. I gave them unusual names. I thought the name made a person. Stella is my youngest one.
She travelled around the world and settled in San Francisco

Last June, Stella turned 40. She finished school with distinction, then the studied at the Linguistic University. She travelled around the world and settled in San Francisco. I think she chose this city because LGBT people live there easily and freely. I don't snoop into her personal life. She never shared anything, acted as she saw fit. I let her go a long time ago she does what she wants to do with no guidance from my side. I know her mind is a miracle!

Where else would you see a man who understands LGBT? Here's one in front of you!

She tried it with men. She sent me their photos; I didn't like them. And then there were lesbian connections. She knew that her father was a man who thinks, you can't make me cry. I had to dig deep into it all. I found the work of Dick Swaab, an important LGBT theorist, a physician. I learned from him that 10% of humanity has this. I studied the life stories of famous people - Tchaikovsky, Smoktunovsky. They were so smart! They were aware of this [homosexuality - Euroradio]. But it wasn't easy back then... People are often very rude, just like children: they fight and, of course, hate. They think it's all [attraction to same-sex people Euroradio] can be instilled in a person. Or not. But it all happens by itself: it was there already in the mother's womb and never stopped acting ever since.
Our daughter's homosexuality did not come as a shock to us. This is the kind of family we are. It doesn't happen very often, and of course, I think it's hard for people to understand, especially for men. Where else would you see a man who understands LGBT? Here's one in front of you! That's it. To do this, you have to see the world, to think about it, to be a philosopher a little bit. My wife sometimes says: "Aleh, why are you telling this?" She tries to hide it. People don't know how to understand and accept. I don't have long to live. I just have some time left to enlighten these people.

I want to meet other parents of LGBT children

It's rare for me to tell anyone that my daughter's a lesbian. And before I do that, I have to weigh whether a person's brains will be enough to accept something, to understand it. But I will fight this [homophobia Euroradio] until I break. And how to fight it? You just have to talk to people. They will understand everything.

I want to meet other parents of LGBT children. I heard that there are such groups, but there are only women, men don't get in. They are lazy or can't think. I don't know what's going on. I would have enlightened them too, but I need to see their eyes light up. Men are affected by the public opinion; they like to dumb themselves down with vodka. I don't like it.
It is the duty of all people who understand to enlighten. In other countries they do this, for some reason they are always smarter than we are. My daughter sent me a link to the news about a black lesbian becoming mayor. I need these facts very much. She knows I'm struggling with LGBT misunderstanding. She approves of that.
I'd like to live to see a stadium speech about it. That's probably what I was born for to toll that bell. Stop being vulgar and get smart! It's new for people to realize that about 10% of humanity make use of their sexual preferences in a different way than most people do, and that's natural. Just as it was new to take the earth off the elephants and let it rotate.
The situation is consistently bad

On 13 May, the European division of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association published an updated homophobia rating. Over the year, Belarus has dropped from 42nd to 43rd place with only 49 countries in the ranking. The authors of the study point out that there is still no anti-discrimination legislation in our country, while officials of the highest rank allow themselves to publicly call same-sex relations a fake. Registration of an LGBT organization in Belarus, which could protect the rights of LGBT people, is out of the question.

"The situation is consistently bad, but there are a lot of people who start to do something for themselves, their friends and relatives," comments LGBT activist Andrei Zavaley. "We come to an understanding that there is no hope for anyone else but ourselves. We are beginning to interact with each other, to strengthen ourselves. Basically, this is how civil society develops. I find it very inspiring at the moment."
According to Andrei, while in some countries the acceptance of LGBT community by society is hindered by religion, intolerance in Belarus is associated with a range of problems.

"Recently, the Misha Pishcheusky Memorial Campaign conducted a survey among women within the LGBT community. It was taken by 300 people. 71% of them admitted that they associate the greatest risk of discrimination with the family. This shows that we cannot feel safe not only in public space, but also at home. In Belarus, discrimination can be called systemic. Many people have to feel constant stress, pressure, fear and shame. It is commonly believed that there are fewer hate crimes in our country than in other countries. But it is also connected with the fact that people either cannot turn to the police or even if they do, the motive of hatred will not be considered in court. We saw this at the trial of Misha Pishcheusky, where the judge ignored the homophobic motive".
Mikhail Pishcheusky was hospitalized in a coma in May 2014, after he was beaten by former PE teacher Dzmitry Lukashevich. According to witnesses, the reason for the beating was the homosexuality of Mikhail.

The court found Lukashevich guilty of causing injury and sentenced him to 2 years and 8 months in prison. On August 20, 2015, he left the colony on amnesty. He spent 11 months behind bars.

After Pishcheusky hit his head on concrete, he underwent an operation to remove part of his brain. He died after a long stay in the 5th Minsk hospital. To remind the public that hate crimes within the LGBT community are not a myth, the public campaign Case of Pi_ was created.
Representatives of the Belarusian LGBT community unite, create groups in social networks, projects on gender and sexuality. But what about their parents?

People need to be enlightened, but they won't do it in schools

"A few years ago, a center of comprehensive support for LGBTQ+ and their relatives Community Centre opened in Belarus," says psychologist Ina Salenikovich. "A group of parents' self-help groups has been set up on its basis. This is the only place in our country where they can freely share their feelings and experiences about the sexual orientation of their children. We meet twice a month on weekends. The duration of each meeting is three to four hours.

According to the psychologist, currently only 10 mothers visit the group. Some come to the first meeting and never come back. Others those who are ready or at least want to understand their children, to talk, to find support go there constantly. Absolutely everyone feels guilty and asks: "What have we done wrong?"

"Each family has a different story," the psychologist continues. "Some people tell us that relatives know, but close their eyes to the orientation of children, pretend that nothing has changed, and the topic of relations becomes taboo. Some husbands reproach their wives for telling them. Out of sight -- out of mind. In other families, parents are free to talk to their children about their privacy and orientation, and all close relatives, including grandmothers, may be aware of it. The worst thing that LGBT people can face is the hostility of their loved ones. There are no such mothers in our group, but this is not uncommon."

Ina believes that there are some positive changes, and they are related to the opportunity to discuss this topic openly. Although this does not prevent society from remaining "terribly homophobic."

"People need to be educated, but they won't do it in schools," says Ina. "How can we talk about, when the law on domestic violence is not even adopted in the country?"

The story is co-produced with the support of Russian Language News Exchange.
Producer: Masha Kalesnikava
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