Sasha Kazantseva is a blogger and journalist from Russia. She’s 32, lives in Saint Petersburg and identifies openly as a lesbian. In her country, being LGBTQ+ comes with a great deal of stigma – the promotion of homosexuality to minors, for instance, is illegal. Sasha tries to erode this stigma through educating people about sex, and by creating online and real-life communities for queer people. In 2017 she started the lesbian blog Washed Hands, which aims to demystify lesbian relationships and offer information and advice about sex for lesbians, trans and nonbinary people, tackling topics like consent and healthcare. In 2018, she teamed up with 21-year-old gay Ukrainian journalist Dima Kozachenko to start O-Zine, a magazine spotlighting queer artists and publishing positive stories about queer people all around Russia. Below, we talked to her about why her work is important.
A year and a half ago, I started my blog Washed Hands on lesbian and queer sexuality – because I had dreamed about a blog on queer women’s issues in Russia, and couldn’t find one. It’s on Telegram, a blogging platform and messenger service that’s become popular in Russia and some Asian countries in recent years because bloggers can stay anonymous and there are no comment options available; you get more safety and less aggression than on other social media. I don’t anonymise myself as being openly queer is important for me, but I really appreciate the "no comments" policy – it minimises possible hate. Nowadays, there are lots of different LGBTQ+ blogs on Telegram, but when I started, there were very few.
I’ve been especially interested in queer women’s sex education and our sexual health because the topic was totally unrepresented here. For example, there were no proper materials about safer sex for queer women. I have also had vaginismus for the majority of my life, and I had no problems with it; I just practised non-penetrative sex and explained it to my partners. But Russian sexology considers vaginismus a pathology which should be treated invariably – no one cares what a particular woman wants, they just stigmatise her body.
The same goes for the stigmatisation of 'non-penetrative orgasm' (which has a special term that could be translated as 'myotonic orgasm' in Russian sexology) – if a woman has this type of orgasm and tries to google it in Russian, all she would find is lots of advice on how it is important to 'correct' this.
I consider it to be nonsense; nobody should tell a woman what she should 'correct' in her body or sexuality in spite of what she herself wants, but many sexologists and doctors in Russia still work according to patriarchal norms. In Russia it’s really hard to find friendly doctors, and if you somehow find one they may not have enough relevant experience, because you cannot learn anything about queer women and their sex life in a university. For example, a lot of gynaecologists have told me and my friends that if you’re lesbian, you can’t get STDs. Other underrepresented or misrepresented topics I’ve written on include the masturbation experiences of different women, nonbinary and trans people, and talking to disabled people about their sexual experiences. I seek out queer-friendly gynaecologists, sexologists, psychologists and other specialists and collaborate with them.
For me, Washed Hands is about legitimising the idea that a woman’s body belongs to her completely, and she should not do anything that she doesn’t want to. It has become popular not only within the LGBTQ+ community, but among lots of straight people who use it as a sex ed resource. Sometimes I cross-publish on a mass media feminist magazine called Wonderzine; my first publication for them now has more than 90,000 views and is number one for "lesbian safer sex" request on Russian Google. Another, "How to do cunnilingus" has 170,000 views. Despite me writing articles on queer topics, many of my readers are straight and I think that it’s important for queer representation: many queer people in Russia try to learn sex ed with the materials which are produced by straights for straights, but now it can be from queer people to straight people. The idea of reclaiming our personal bodies and sexuality and acknowledging our differences is revolutionary in the context of Russia, whatever your sexuality or gender identity.
As well as running Washed Hands, I also work on a platform called O-Zine. Last summer, I woke up in the middle of the night, instinctively grabbed my phone and saw a message: "Hi Sasha, my name is Dima and I’m planning to run a Russian lifestyle queer magazine. I’ve read some of your articles, would you like to write something for the mag?" I’d dreamed a lot about the possibility of creating a lifestyle mag about LGBTQ+ culture in Russia, like Autostraddle or Them, but I didn’t think it possible so soon. "Wow, it looks incredibly cool," I replied. And so we started O-Zine. There was very little information about LGBTQ+ people in Russian mass media, and nearly everything that you could find on it concerned violations of human rights and hate crimes. These topics are incredibly important, but when you are queer and you can’t find anything but crimes, it’s hard. So we wanted to make a lifestyle media outlet that would cover cool projects that queer folks in Russia do – our art, our daily lives, sex and relationships, and which would also introduce us to each other. It’s not easy to be an LGBTQ+ person in Russia, but we still deserve to have some fun.
Mostly Russia consists of small towns, and it’s difficult to live there even for straight people, but in small towns homophobia is crazy. In big cities, I’d say that we’re only starting to get our spaces. In Moscow or Saint Petersburg you can get lost in the crowd and feel more at ease. Of course, we are not talking about complete freedom – for example, we cannot kiss in the streets, queer men cannot even hold hands – this might provoke insults or assaults, and queer spaces are often underground. We do have some clubs in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but most of them are for gay men, we still have nearly nothing for queer women. The perfect inclusive place in Saint Petersburg is HW Club; in Moscow, LVBZ female parties. They seem similar to queer parties I attended in Berlin, but with a local spirit. Open-minded people gather there, there's an atmosphere of freedom and acceptance, and I find them very comfortable – so we are seeing a new wave in LGBTQ+ culture emerging right now.
Being a woman in Russia means living under pressure permanently, and being a queer woman adds yet another level of tension. I know female queer couples in small towns who have to hide themselves and pretend that they are sisters. I know female queer couples that live under great pressure but support the current political regime — just because like many people in Russia they don’t have enough info about alternatives. I also knew some privileged female queer couples that said that they see no problems. Tinder made meeting each other easier for us, and recent feminist discourse affects us positively and helps us to be more confident about ourselves and our choices. Queer females with children are one of the most unprotected groups within the community. The 'propaganda law' passed in 2014 made a lot of them fear that the government will take their kids away, and also means that some brands don’t want to include LGBTQ+ people. But representation is growing right now and I’m sure, for example, that global brands are going to start representing LGBTQ+ people in their advertisements. I recently participated in a local marketing conference where I talked about these opportunities. Of course it is capitalist, but in Russia it could be a good way to gain LGBTQ+ visibility.
As for my own experience as a queer woman, I feel I stay alert automatically in lots of situations in which, for example, straight men would feel relaxed. I suppose that this stress affects me permanently, but at the same time I may even not notice it, because it’s chronic and I get used to it. I live in a big city and here I can choose to hold another woman’s hand or kiss another woman in some streets that we find safer. It’s important for me to do it (of course if the other woman doesn’t mind) because for me, displaying my homosexuality openly is about making a statement, reclaiming my right to be myself. I know many women who do the same, and I suppose that none of them take it as something neutral — we are all aware of the political aspect of manifesting our queerness in the streets (I also know many women who never show their feelings or relationships in public and I respect their safety and care). For these reasons, I think that every LGBTQ+ person in Russia can be considered an activist because they have to cope with these realities constantly, to fight external and inner homophobia and other 'phobias' and take lots of risks daily. If you live as a queer person in Russia, you just know that you may be attacked any day, that corrective rapes happen, and the police will not protect you. For me, labels are not important and I don’t identify as an activist, because I am sure that being an activist for queer folks here and now is just like being human, it is very natural.
That said, it was hard for me to talk about things that are not talked about around me; to come up with an opinion which contradicts the mainstream one; to share my very personal and intimate experience with a big audience. I was afraid a lot (and still am!) but I learned that I can take risks and it will pay off, or that I will get lots of feedback from people who write to me to say that this new info is important for them or this viewpoint is supporting them. The more I learn about people’s diversity, the more I get amazed by it. I wish every person could feel comfortable and safe with their own uniqueness, and each uniqueness be respected, accepted and celebrated. Some LGBTQ+ people in Russia want to fight, some want to hide, some want to escape, some prefer to judge others. But each of us has experience of sensitivity, experience of shame, experience of feeling lonely in their own body. Sharing such experiences, familiar to everyone, is a way to feel contact and alikeness, to better understand each other, and better understand ourselves.