Reportasje

Russian «Sergei»: Spent Three Years in Homo Therapy at Christian Centre

CONVERSION THERAPY: Gay «Sergei» claims to have spent three years at a Christian centre in Russia where he was subjected to so-called conversion therapy. An activist group has revealed how doctors and psychiatrists in Russia offer to «treat» gays and transgender people.

Homoterapi R/Kovdor

Sergei (23) was only 17 years old when his mother, with the help of the local Pentecostal church, placed him in a treatment centre for drug addicts and alcoholics. Here, he was supposed to get help to get rid of his sexual orientation. Now, several years later, he has difficulty breathing when he talks about his stay in the Murmansk region. He no longer has any contact with his mother.

This story is revealed in a recent report about conversion theapy in Russia, conducted by the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives activist group, who work to improve the conditions for LGBT+ people in Russia. The report is the first documentation of so-called conversion therapy in Russia, and Vårt Land is the first western news outlet to get access to it.

The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov was one of the recipients of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has also written about the report. In 2017, the newspaper disclosed how gay men in Chechnya were imprisoned and severely mistreated.

Conversion therapy is not illegal in Russia. Nor is it in Norway. A bill to regulate the use of conversion therapy was put out to public consultation in the autumn of 2021. The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (Bufdir) is planning to assess the extent of its use in Norway, which is little known.

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Conversion Therapy

  • Conversion therapy is broadly defined by the UN as «interventions that purport to achieve a change in a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity».
  • In a 2020 report, the UN concludes that conversion therapy is unethical, non-scientific, and in some cases to be considered as torture.
  • The UN calls for a global ban on conversion therapy.

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Purported to Need Help

The Moscow activist group has collected a wide array of examples and stories from people who claim to have been told that their sexual orientation and gender identity can be cured, changed, or overcome through therapy, medication, and prayer.

  • One psychiatrist asked the parents of a young gay boy to get him a girl to sleep with in order to turn him straight.
  • In Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya, a girl was stabbed in the side and muslim prayers were shouted in her ear in order to drive out «the homosexual» in her.
  • Some therapists have said that trans people don’t exist, and one has suggested to homosexuals to say 50–60 prayers a day. Another therapist has suggested that lesbians should wear more feminine clothes and think about men.

The group behind the report asked LGBT persons to tell them about the conversions and attempted «cures» they have been exposed to. They received 74 answers. In-depth interviews were held with 17 of these.

The activist group also contacted sixteen different doctors, psychologists, and congregations, under false names, and asked them for help to change their sexual orientation. The consultations, whether they were held in the office or by telephone, were recorded. All those who were contacted are listed by name in the report, and in the web version recordings of the conversations can be listened to.

The group expected to be sued by the doctors an psychologists who responded, but so far nothing has happened.

– As long as a patient is willing to pay, there are psychologists, doctors, and others who will offer therapy and medication to change sexual orientation, often topped with condemnation and moralizing, says psychologist Valentina Likhoshva to Vårt Land.

She is the one who has compiled the report.

– It was very challenging and mentally exhausting for many of the gay volunteers who contacted the therapists to hear from a doctor that they are ill, she says.

The group has decided to sue three of those who offered «treatments», among them the centre in Kovdor, which Vårt Land describes in this article.

Homoterapi R

Therapy in No Man’s Land

Sergei’s mother was furious when she disovered that her son was gay. For many years, she had belonged to the Murmansk Church of Christ (MCC), a protestant free church, and her son told an American pastor who was a there at the time about his orientation. «Fight your homosexuality», was the message from the pastor. This is what Sergei says in the report.

– I was scared, and I was a believer. I was in touch with people whom I assumed were smarter than me, men of rank and status in my church. I told them about myself, and they hugged me but said that my orientation is a sin and that I was never going to Paradise… When you are a believer, like me, it is not only painful to hear this, it is also shameful, because you’re not good enough for the eternal life, Sergei tells Vårt Land.

Sergei talks about his experiences at a Christian rehabilitation centre – Kovcheg Spaseniya (The Ark of Salvation) – in the mining town Kovdor, 300 kilometres from Murmansk.

The report shows that it is largely the mothers who are the driving force behind conversion therapy for their children.

This was the case also for Sergei. His mother took him to several therapists, and she got the name and number of the Kovdor centre. She arranged to bring her son there.

– The conversion therapy has made me emotionally unstable. I don’t trust people, I can’t be in a relationship, and I have sudden moments when I explode in anger.

Prayed to be healed

At the centre, located in a remote area, Sergei and the other «guests» had to hand over their telephones and other means of communication, he says. He was told to forget his former life and participate in what he describes as «typical religious practices», such as praying in groups.

– One does not pray for not being gay or trans anymore, one uses other words. One may say that we «pray to be healed». Sometimes we had to wear white clothes, because that was supposed to symbolize that one became clean and had a new life. It was virtually impossible to refuse to participate.

– To what extent did you remain at the centre because you thought it was a sin to be homosexual?

– In the beginning I think it was about my faith, but I was also afraid to live away from the centre. Much like it is difficult for people who have been in jail to adapt to life outside the walls, says Sergei.

He says that when he turned 18 years old, he negotiated himself into being allowed a phone.

Confirms that there are gay people at the centre

Alexander Mikhailovich Molchanov is a pastor and the one who has established the centre as the Rehabilitation Centre «Ark of Salvation» (registered as: ANO SPRIAG «OUR CITY»).

Vårt Land interviews him on the phone through an interpreter.

– Are there, or have there been, homosexuals or trans people at the centre?

– Yes. Everybody who come to us have different problems and they feel that they need help to solve them. They turn to the centre, which handles it with complete understanding and tolerance, he answers.

But at the moment there are no homosexuals at the centre; they may be ashamed, according to the pastor.

He clarifies that it is voluntary to come there, and that they don’t talk about “private problems with other guests, so that no-one will feel exposed”.

– Is it possible for homosexuals to change their orientation and become heterosexual?

– It is not possible for humans, but God is able to change people.

– Why is it important for them to change their orientation and become heterosexual?

– Because it is a Christian dogma. Some people are fine with being homosexual, and we accept that. But there are also people who think it is a problem and want to change. And then we meet them with understanding, he explains, and adds that they expect that when people come to them for help, they must also accept the values and the methods of the centre.

When asked if they have managed to «change orientation», Alexander Mikhailovich Molchanov claims that they have treated around ten homosexuals at the centre.

– I can say it with certainty about two of them. One lives in Moscow, and we are still in touch. One lives near Murmansk.

He confirms that the guests at the centre are not allowed to use cellphones during the first months, but that they can write letters on paper. He thinks that that is a nice way to reestablish the connection with their families.

Portrett av Valentina Likhoshva (russisk aktivist til hovedsak om Russland).

Surprised by the disclosures

To Valentina Likhoshva, who has compiled the report, the number of offers of conversion therapy was surprising news.

– We were not aware of this, or we didn’t believe that it existed to such an extent, at least not in the middle of Russia. Doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists have a long education. They should know better, Likhoshva says.

She lives as an openly bisexual LGBT activist in Moscow. Likhoshva does not want to hide who she is, and she usually wears the rainbow flag on her backpack. As a consequence, when she’s at a restaurant people at the next table may get up and leave in contempt when they notice the flag, she says.

The psychologist works at the Moscow Community Centre for LGBT+, a hub for various LGBT groups. She is a human rights activist and works with victimized groups in Russia: LGBT+, AIDS patients, immigrants, and indigenous peoples.

She is also a co-arranger of the Barents Pride, organized by Foreningen Fri every autumn in Kirkenes, Norway, with support from the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

Earlier this year she was awarded the Thorvald Stoltenberg Prize for her work for the Barents Pride and for justice, equal rights, human rights, and health in the Barents region. After the prize ceremony, she received death threats.

The psychologist hypnotized her: Went into treatment

Valentina Likhoshva herself was among those who visited therapists in order to disclose who offered conversion therapy. One psychologist wanted to hypnotize her and charged 200 Euro for each session. The two hours she spent in his office in Moscow turned into an unpleasant experience, she tells Vårt Land.

– He was much too close to me physically. Then he asked me to close my eyes. One feels really vulnerable in that situation.

The psychologist tried to hypnotize her, but failed. Still, he maintained that Likhoshva in a trance had told him about a sexual assault she had been subjected to when she was four. That was the reason why she is a lesbian, according to the psychologist.

When she claimed that the hypnosis hadn’t worked, he still insisted that it had. When Likhoshva asked what she could do about the alleged trauma, the psychologist answered:

«You simply have to come here often for treatment.»

I understand how crazy it sounds. But when someone is looking desperately for a solution, they are capable of believing anything. They think there’s something wrong with them. It is so sad, she says.

—  Valentina Likhoshva, activist and psychologist

He also claimed that she was under the influence of some kind of spiritual transmission from an aunt who lived 100 years ago. He advised her to start relationships with men and recommended some books that she should read.

– I understand how crazy it sounds. But when someone is looking desperately for a solution, they are capable of believing anything. They think there’s something wrong with them. It is so sad, she says.

Not all the therapist who were contacted offered conversion therapy: two psychologists dismissed her and said that sexual orientation is not something that can be treated.

Homofile i Russland

Psychiatrist: Pray 70 times

A young girl contacted a psychiatrist who runs his practice on a religious, orthodox foundation. The path toward mental health goes through the orthodox faith, he maintains. During the consultation he claimed that gay sentiments are usually the result of a combination of several emotional disorders, which according to him are fully reversible.

The girl was encouraged to go to church and pray, preferably 60–70 times. She had become a lesbian because of the divorce of her parents, he suggested.

Vårt Land has tried to get in touch with the psychiatrist, but he has not responded.

A Christian centre called Territory of Responsibility Family Academy runs educations and seminars on sexual purity, family issues, etc. They offer courses to people with «an undesirable attraction to their own sex». They offer «spiritual and psychological therapy for homosexuality and LGBT people».

«Over the past few months it has become increasingly evident how a spirit of homosexuality is spreading its influence almost all over the world,» they write on their website.

Those behind the undertaking call it an «interreligious advisory centre». They intend to educate priests and church officials to treat people who have «undesirable attractions».

The American pastors Winn Cameron Thompson and Brett Martin have held courses for the centre, they inform on their website.

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LGBT Russia

  • Illegal and criminal until 1993
  • Classified as a mental disorder until 1999
  • Marriage is only legal for man/woman – this was written into the constitution in 2020.
  • Marriages from outside Russia between two of the same sex are not recognized.
  • In 2013, a ban was passed on spreading propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations to minors.
  • Gays, lesbians, and trans persons are constantly being harassed in Russia. Trans people in particular live in danger.

Sources: NRK, Amnesty International, NTB

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Homofile i Russland

Putin distances himself from «non-traditional sexual relations»

Ever since his return to presidential power in 2012, Vladimir Putin has shifted Russia in a more nationalist direction. He has also given a more prominent place to the Orthodox Church, supported «traditional gender roles», and strongly distanced himself from «non-traditional sexual relations, including homosexuality».

The changes to the constitution that were passed last year state among other things that marriage is a union between man and woman.

Four years in a row, most recently in 2021, Russia has been measured to be the forth worst country for queers in Europe, according to ILGA, an umbrella organization for LGBT+ groups.

In 2013, a ban was passed in Russia on so-called propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations towards minors in Russia. In practice, this makes it impossible to provide positive and neutral information about LGBT topics if it can be accessed by persons under 18 years of age.

Hate crime against LGBT persons has increased since the law was passed in 2013. The victims usually don’t report it to the police in fear of further harassment.

Differences between town and country

The Russian society is lagging far behind with regard to societal attitudes towards sexual minorities, compared to the development that has happened in western countries over the past 50 years, Bernhard Mohr tells Vårt Land.

He is a publishing editor, author, and journalist, and he has been living and working in Russia. In 2020 he published the book What do the Russians want with Norway?

At the same time, Russia is divided between the old, conservative people in the countryside and the young people in the cities, who stay up to date on social media.

– The difference is significant, he says.

The 2013 law enjoys broad support in the Russian population, whereas young people between 18 and 30 are more positive and have more liberal attitudes towards sexual minorities, according to a survey by the Russian research organization Levada.

– This is one of the few agencies that are being used and quoted and considered trustworthy also outside Russia, he points out.

Examples from the news show how LGBT+ people are being treated:

  • Soldiers mock-execute a gay person from a stage.
  • A food chain who had used a same-sex couple in an ad had to withdraw it, and the couple in the ad had to move to the USA.
  • A literature festival was cancelled after pressure from an anti-LGBT group because a lesbian author was on the panel.
  • Several times the anti-gay group Pila («saw» in Russian, named after the Saw franchise), has circulated a list of names of queers, with a call to “hunt” them.
  • The LGBT activist Elena Grigoriyeva was killed shortly after her name was on such a list in 2019.
Portrett av Mina Skouen (Helsingforskomiteen) ved hennes kontor og Slottsparken.

The Helsinki Committee: serious consequences from «diagnoses»

The report from the activist group in Russia is not a quantitative study but a collection of stories that give a glimpse into the LGBT community’s encounters with religion and health service in Russia. But Mina Skouen, senior advisor for the Helsinki Committee, still thinks the report is very important.

– Why is it important?

– So far, these issues have not been up for public debate in Russia. This is a small sample from a reality we know very little about. But when so much can be found in the small sample the group has made, this says a lot about the conditions for LGBT people in Russia, she says:

– It is gripping to read these stories and to see how it affects those who have taken part in the study.

Skouen is responsible for the LGBT work in the Committee.

These are some of the most important issues to emerge from the report, according to Skouen:

  • It shows the consequences of not having any legislation regarding conversion therapy.
  • Several of the examples from Chechnya must be defined as torture and degrading treatment. The Helsinki Committee also knows of cases that are even worse than what is described in the report. Vårt Land will soon publish a separate article about LGBT in Chechnya.
  • In some situations, people are being diagnosed medically on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, according to Skouen. These are diagnoses that create problems for them later in life, e.g. when they apply for jobs.

Another consequence of the so-called Propaganda Law is that there is very little research on LGBT+ issues at Russian universities.

– It is therefore frequently actors from civil society who develop and publish reports and who thereby become the most important sources about the reality of queers in Russia, she points out.

Homofobi/homoterapi

– A diagnosis

The journalist Tatiana Britskaya calls the report «a diagnosis of Russian society». While writing about the report for Novaya Gazeta, she called one of the psychiatrists who are mentioned and whose consultation is recorded in the report. He claims to have «cured» at least 78 gays and eight trans persons with a special method.

– I called in and said I was a lesbian, which I’m not. He promised to help. If I consulted him over the following months, I would change my orientation, love various men, and I would eventually be able to marry.

Tatiana Britskaya is surprised that licensed psychiatric and medical clinics actually offer conversion therapy. That such things happened during the Soviet era is not so strange, but that it still happens is surprising, she thinks.

– The doctors charge huge amounts of money. It is criminal to make money from curing conditions that don’t exist, she says.

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Russia

  • Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of size and ninth largest by population. The country is located in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, and borders 14 countries and two breakaway republics (from Georgia).
  • Russia covers nine time zones.
  • Constitutionally it is a federation of 85 terretorial units with a varying degree of local self-government.
  • 81 prosent of the inhabitants are ethnic Russians. The rest are of different ethnicities, the Tatars being the largest group (3.9 prosent).
  • There are about 24 million ethnic Russians living outside Russia, most of them in former Soviet republics, but also in countries in the EU and in North America. Russian Jews are a prominent group in Israel.

Source: Store norske leksikon

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Return to the centre

The activist group in Moscow decided to return to the Christian rehab centre near Kovdor, where Sergei had stayed for three years. A young man whom we call Andrej purported to be seeking help and was admitted voluntarily.

Among those he was in contact with and audio recorded conversations with, was the previously mentioned pastor Mochanov Alexander Mikhailovich.

When Andrej arrived at the centre, he was told not to have any contact with anyone, and to not go on the Internet. They would be able to help him change his circle of friends and his way of thinking so that his attraction to boys would be replaced by an attraction to God.

In the audio recording, which Vårt Land has heard, Mikhailovich says that they do not offer treatment, but help.

– This is quite simple. You are of sound health, there is nothing wrong with you, but you must understand that you have one problem and that is one of a mental kind, the pastor says, before he continues:

– We help people think right

– Your attraction to men will be must be replaced by attraction to Christ. This is the right method, and one that doesn’t require medication. We help people think right, make their priorities in life and stick with them.

Mikhailovich also tells Andrej that God can’t do wrong, and that if «one is born a man, God has a purpose with men».

– Why is it a sin? Because it is in conflict with your purpose as a man. A women cannot give birth without a man’s semen. Why is that? Because God has made it so. You understand?

—  Pastor Mochanov Alexander Mikhailovich

– With regards to attraction, sexual attraction too, one thing is sure: Men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men, the pastor says, among other things.

In the recording, Mikhailovich also says:

– Why is it a sin? Because it is in conflict with your purpose as a man. A women cannot give birth without a man’s semen. Why is that? Because God has made it so. You understand?

At the centre they told Andrej: «We offer no physical treatment, everything is based on the Word of God and on prayer. This means that we will read the Word of God and pray. But don’t tell anyone about your problem,» he was told, according to the report.

Andrey stayed at the religious rehab centre for three days. That’s all he could take. Sergei stayed there for three years. When he left the centre, he thought of homosexuality as «filthy and ugly».

– Initially, I didn’t understand what the centre was. But now I recognize them – they’re sects.

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How they did it

  • Since January 2021, the activist group/organization «Moscow Community Centre for LGBT+ Initiatives» has gathered information about how so-called conversion therapy is practiced in Russia. In September they issued a report in three parts:
  • A questionnaire through social media in LGBT+ circles in Russia. All the 74 respondents are anonymized.
  • 17 In-depth interviews with people who have undergone conversion therapy.
  • Undercover volunteers contacted 16 private physicians/psychologists, government offices, congregations. They asked for help to change their sexual orientation. Contact was made either by phone or meeting. One volunteer let himself be admitted to a Christian rehab centre for three days.

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Une Bratberg

Une Bratberg

Une Bratberg er utenriksjournalist og kommentator i Vårt Land.

Per Åsmund Reymert

Per Åsmund Reymert

Per Åsmund Reymert er journalist i religionsavdelingen til Vårt Land.

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