Russian LGBT artists find sanctuary in Paris

For many LGBT Russian artists, the invasion of Ukraine and the accompanying political crackdown was the final straw. Helped by a Paris charity, they have found a new home in France.

Russian LGBT artists find sanctuary in Paris
Participants gather at the Place de la bastille, in Paris, during the annual Pride Parade on June 25, 2022. (Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP)

Alexei, a 23-year-old composer, used to believe that he could ride out President Vladimir Putin’s regime, but watching his friends being arrested or fleeing the country in the wake of the war, he felt he had been naive.

“The war caused me pain, shame and guilt — you tell yourself that you haven’t done enough against this regime,” Alexei, who did not want to give his full name, told AFP.

He knew he had made the right decision to leave when he heard that police had visited the St Petersburg music school where he was a teacher, accusing it of promoting “LGBT propaganda” over a photo of Alexei kissing his boyfriend on its Facebook page.

He came to Paris with the help of a support group, the Agency of Artists in Exile, and was joined by his boyfriend soon after.

The agency set up a hotline for artists from both Ukraine and Russia following the invasion and has helped around 100 artists from the two countries, providing them with studio space, as well as help with visas, language training and psychological support.

As he plays Rachmaninov — a Russian composer — in one of the agency’s practice rooms, Alexei says he is relieved but daunted.

“Here, I have some freedom,” he said. “I just don’t know what to do with that freedom.”

Ukrainians, Russians together

Others have found the transition difficult, too.

Having lived in constant fear of being beaten up back home, Angelu, a non-binary fashion designer, said they were too traumatised to leave their new apartment in Paris when they arrived.

It was, perhaps fittingly, a Ukrainian neighbour who approached them and helped them gain confidence to explore the city.

That relationship is mirrored around the agency’s workshops, where Russians and Ukrainians work closely together, and recently held a joint exhibition.

“The war stops at the doors of the workshop,” said Judith Depaule, who co-founded the agency in 2016.

It is a strange mix, she said, since the Russians have lost all sense of patriotism and the Ukrainians are in the midst of patriotic fervour.

Gena Marvin, 23, arrived in late April.

Back in Moscow, the transgender artist was working on “trash art”, using discarded items to create costumes and sculptures, as well as performances such as wrapping her body in tape that evoke “a country where there is no freedom and where the freedom of my body was not permitted”.

Still listed as male on her official documents, Marvin was terrified of being called up to fight in Ukraine, and decided to leave after being arrested at an anti-war demonstration.

“I don’t feel the same fear in France, but I am still on edge because once you’ve been accustomed to fear, you never totally lose it,” she said.

She has thrown herself into her new life. Over the weekend, she could be seen wrapped in rainbow-coloured tape for the Pride March in Paris.

Alexei, who is working on the soundtrack for a film about Ukraine, still holds out hope of one day being able to go home.

“It is not Russia that is homophobic — only the Russian state,” he said.

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‘Save the Kévins’ – French film aims to rehabilitate the much-mocked name

Did you know that people named Kevin are regarded as a bit of a laughing stock in France? One French Kevin is fed up with negative clichés surrounding his name, and is making a documentary to try and change people's minds.

'Save the Kévins' - French film aims to rehabilitate the much-mocked name

In 1991, France saw one name top the charts for baby boys: Kevin (or sometimes Kévin). That year, at least 14,087 Kévins were born. In the 1990s, the cultural zeitgeist was filled with Kevins, from the lead character in Home Alone to movie stars like Kevin Costner or Kevin Bacon.

The American sounding first name has unfortunately not been met with widespread love and appreciation in France, as elites looked down upon the name and it rapidly fell out of favour. Since then, many of France’s Kévins have had to endure mockery and judgement for having what many view as a ‘trashy‘ name. 

The clichés about the name ‘Kévin’ even inspired a not-so-kind phrase, “Faire son Kévin,” used to describe someone who is immature or childish. 

READ MORE: French phrase of the day: Faire son Kévin

Now most of these French Kévins are in their thirties, and the name has fallen out of popularity in large part due to the negative clichés surrounding it. But one Kévin is seeking to take on the stereotypes. 

His name is Kevin Fafournoux, and his project is a documentary titled “Sauvons les Kevin” (Save the Kevins). He wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the popular 90s name by shooting a documentary “about Kevin, for Kevin, by Kevin.” By trade a graphic designer, Fafournoux has been financing the film via crowdfunding. You can watch the trailer HERE

According to The Guardian, the film will also look into the origins of the name Kevin, “from its roots in Ireland to its connotations in Germany, where the term “Kevinism” is sometimes used as shorthand for giving your child an exotic name that might mark out their social class or hamper their future.”

Regarding the socio-economic status of the name in France, Baptiste Coulmont, professor of sociology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, told Radio France: “Kevin is a name that was born in the working classes, and died there as well. It was rarely given to [children of] executives or Parisian elites”.

It is also those groups who have been most likely to mock the name, according to the professor, who explained that negative stereotypes about ‘les Kévin’ often come from “the intellectual bourgeoisie who found that this name embodied bad taste.”

Fafournoux told Radio France he has received over 200 testimonies from other Kévins about their experiences with the name, many being lumped in with reality TV and other markers related to class.

“Employers don’t take them seriously during interviews or when dating girls, there is sometimes a prejudice when you have this name,” he said.

READ MORE: We need to talk about Kévin: Why France fell in (and out of) love with a name

With his documentary, he hopes to change people’s mentalities. “The idea is to show that you can hold positions of responsibility, succeed in your professional life, and do well in your studies while still being called Kevin,” said the filmmaker.

Filming is set to begin in a few months.