This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades
Nadya wrote: “Hi. I want to thank you for your article ‘The perverse state’. I no longer want to die. Everyone has told me that I’m abnormal, a freak. I wanted to end it. I didn’t have any strength left. I’m so lonely, nobody around me will understand. But I’ve understood that I’m actually normal. Thank you.”
– What if I had died?
Lena contacted fifteen–year-old Nadya and asked if she would allow her to tell her story, about falling in love with the girl in the parallel class, Vera. About bullying and violence, and about her parents, who pushed her away. About the fact that reading the article about Lena, made her understand that she was completely normal.
“I don’t know why I haven’t felt like this before”, Nadya said. “I understood that there are people who could’ve supported me, just that they weren’t here, where I am. And suddenly I became terribly scared: what if I had died?”
Lena started collecting stories. She sent out questionnaires about being young and gay, hoping to collect five or six stories. Which she did, during the first minute. Then stories started flowing in from all over Russia. The first stories turned into a collection of articles on the internet. Then slowly but surely, into a big project that became known all over the world: “Children-404”.
«Children-404, we exist»
At the same time as Lena collected the stories and started writing her articles, the debate roared regarding the introduction of legislation in Russia, supposedly aimed at protecting children against homosexual propaganda. In 2013, the law against “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” was passed at the federal level.
Under the legislation, it would no longer be allowed to say anything positive about homosexuality to minors, or at all if there was a risk that minors could come across this information. Brochures containing information aimed at suicide prevention had to be marked with 18+ age limit. Information about safe sexual health as well. Same-sex parents feared that their children would be taken away.
While Lena was making her research for the articles, she discovered the obvious: LGBT youth were invisible. Non-existent. Just as they were hidden behind that indifferent message: Page Not Found, Error 404 – when you search for a website online that cannot be found.
“Nobody was talking about them on TV, nobody was writing about them in the newspapers, nobody talked about their lives, their problems and concerns”, Lena says.
Her research finally turned into the article “404-children, we exist!”, which was later turned into an internet project under the same name. LGBT youth could send letters to this website and have them published, comment on each other’s stories, discuss, comfort and support each other, and find just the kind of information that might mean the difference between life and death. Several psychologists were involved in the project to assist those in need of it.
In spite of intense resistance from the authorities, the project published letter number 5000 already back in 2016.
404 – Page Found
As part of the campaign “12 women on the barricades”, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee will publish Lena’s book “404 – Page Found” in Norwegian. The book is a reflection on what the many thousands of stories in the project are about. It’s a guide book for adults, and a way of honouring youth who shared their story.
The first thing she talks about in the introduction, is the letter from Nadya. That was the short, little reminder that in the same way that access to information can save lives, the absence of information may lead to the opposite thing: “What if I had died?”, as Nadya simply put it.
Nobody was talking about them on TV, nobody was writing about them in the newspapers, nobody talked about their lives, their problems and concerns
This is a campaign about women on the barricades. Since 2014, Lena has fought a continuous battle for Nadya and the rights of other LGBT children, for access to information, the right to expression, the right to health and life.
The book will be published in Norwegian in 2020 and we look forward to readers outside Norway having the opportunity to read this unique collection of stories about modern Russia, accompanied with Lena’s wise reflections about how to prevent an entire generation of youth from becoming invisible.