Russia: Gay student expelled over ‘LGBT propaganda’ law after posting makeup tutorials online

Pictures of gay Russian university student, Max, in makeup and just looking to the side in front of the white, blue and red stripes of the flag of Russia

Earlier this year, Max was studying architecture at a Russian university. Now, he has been expelled from his studies and fled the country after being accused of promoting so-called ‘LGBTQ+ propaganda’.

His crime? Sharing his love of makeup online.

Max is part of a steady stream of people escaping Russia, following the invasion of Ukraine and president Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights. 

In 2013, Russia passed a law banning “LGBTQ+ propaganda”, restricting the distribution of information about queer people among minors. In December 2022, the government expanded the legislation to ban any mention of LGBTQ+ people in the media.

In July, a stringent law was passed preventing trans people accessing gender-affirming healthcare, changing their gender on official documents, and dissolving marriages where one partner later transitioned. 

According to the UK Ministry of Defence, more than 1.3 million people left Russia in 2022. Many were young people like Max.

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The 21-year-old gay youth tells PinkNews – through queer Svit interpreter Anna-Maria Tesfaye – that he’s terrified because it’s “dangerous” for him in Russia, which is openly hostile to queer people, and that the authorities are “looking for” him. 

Max studied architecture and urban planning at Kuban State University, in Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia, for three years. In his spare time, he shared his passion for the artistry of makeup on Instagram and YouTube. 

His latest beauty video was posted online about a year ago because he wanted to focus on his studies, but his plans to finish university ended when he was kicked out of after someone reported him to police for supposedly promoting LGBTQ+ propaganda.

‘They told me that I was promoting sex-change among minors’

On 16 June, Max was confronted by officers when he came home from an exam and taken to the police station, where he was questioned about his online content. 

“It’s nothing unusual,” he tells PinkNews. “Just concealer, some BB cream, brows are a bit done – but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual everyday makeup.

“They told me I was promoting ‘sex-change among minors’ because some of the makeup I did on my video tutorials were artsy, kind of extra. Some of them were like drag as well because I would wear wigs and stuff. 

“Basically, how they explained it is that I was promoting sex-change because, ‘Well, he’s a man, and he’s dressed like a woman and it’s forbidden in Russia and putting it on the internet means that you’re promoting it among minors’.

“It was a Q&A with my subscribers, and I answered the questions. 

“There were some basic questions, but some were a bit provocative, about sex or kissing guys and all that stuff. 

“I didn’t reply directly like: ‘Yes, I have sex with men’, or ‘I kiss guys’, but I basically tried to answer – I just joked, which would make it unclear and [said], ‘If you know, you know’. That kind of thing. 

“Because of that video, they said it’s LGBTQ+ propaganda.”

gay Russian university student, Max, poses as he walks outside
Max says it’s ‘dangerous’ to stay in Russia after being accused of promoting ‘LGBTQ+ propaganda’. (Supplied)

While detained at the police station, Max was subjected to homophobic slurs and “emotional torture” as people from other departments would come and shout abuse at him.

After being released, Max was confronted by officials from the university, who found out about his arrest from a newspaper, on 21 June. The article claimed Max was “promoting homosexuality”.

The gay beauty blogger says they also asked about another social media post where he was “wishing Ukrainians to be free”, what he thought about Russia’s government and his arrest. 

“I understood that something [was] cooking and probably they [wanted] me to be suspended from the uni,” Max recalls. “But I was actually a very good student. I did everything well.

“Usually, at first, you get a couple of warnings, and I never had a warning. I thought this would probably be a warning. So, I tried to basically write [a statement] that they wanted me to write, as neutral as possible so I wouldn’t get into trouble and be able to continue my studies.”

Just a few days later, Max received a call from the university’s library, asking if he was going to return borrowed books because he had been “kicked out”. 

gay Russian university student, Max, holds a makeup palette as she does a beauty tutorial
Max loves ‘expressing [himself] with makeup’, making jewellery and listening to music. (Supplied)

Max’s story attracted the attention of news outlets in Russia, and he felt “people would point fingers” at him. The hyper-visibility was “really stressful”, and Max feared police could find and arrest him just for being queer.

“There was a possibility that someone would report me to the police again, and if it happened all over again, it would be a crime,” Max explains.

“In Russia, at first it’s like a small claim – it’s called administrative, which is not such a big deal. But if you do the same thing a couple of times, you can actually go to jail. It’s not going to be a fine … It’s very dangerous for me now.

“So, to be in Russia in general and the fact the cops were looking for me, it’s pretty terrifying.”

A vicious Kremlin anti-LGBTQ+ regime

Russia’s LGBTQ+ propaganda laws have sparked a wave of abuse towards the community, with queer people telling PinkNews that they’ve been subject to homophobic and racist abuse by authorities. A trans woman said she’s “scared s**tless” over the government’s open attacks on transgender people. 

However, politicians remain silent.

The Kremlin has even attempted to justify its war on Ukraine by pushing the anti-LGBTQ+ narrative that it must defend Russia against Western “propaganda” and its attack on “traditional values”. 

Max was targeted by anti-LGBTQ+ individuals. One person broke his hand because he’s gay, and he’s endured others shouting slurs at him on the street. 

“To me, it’s like air,” he says. “I got so used to it that I don’t think I’d know that there is another way to live.”

gay Russian university student, Max, sits on a table as he poses in front of a picture of a city
Max says experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ hate in Russia is ‘like air’ because he’s become so used to it. (Max)

He still loves makeup amid a turbulent and frightening time for the queer community in Russia.

“It’s very important to have something and to just be like: ‘This is my way of grounding myself’.

“I love makeup. I really like expressing myself with makeup, but it’s not the only thing. I make jewellery, and I like different music, from Elvis Presley to Cardi B.” 

But Max is haunted by the attacks he faced after the police accusations, compounded by the growing incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ hate.

He also feared being conscripted into the Russian military as Moscow seeks to replenish its forces on the frontline in Ukraine.

But Max is hopeful that, because he’s young, he has the power to escape the situation and adapt to a new home abroad. 

It’s a hard decision, but “it had to be done”, he said.