Online, “404” indicates an error – usually, a message accompanied by the postscript “not found.”
It’s no coincidence that this is the number also assigned to Children 404, an online community for Russian LGBT youth founded in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s 2013 bill banning “the promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” (read: being “out” while underage), effectively vanishing an entire generation of LGBT-identifying young Russians.
An eponymous film, directed by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov and set to premiere at Hot Docs next week, tells their story. Its standout character is Pasha Romanov, 18, who discusses plans of moving to Canada where he hopes to eventually start a family and find work as a journalist. Now six months into a student visa in Toronto, Mr. Romanov (who goes by Justin, an homage to a certain Canadian pop idol of whom he's a serious fan) is all the more convinced that Toronto is where his future lies.
“Toronto is one million per cent more open, more liberal, more free than Russia,” Mr. Romanov says from a student common space at the International Language Academy of Canada, where he’s enrolled in a year-long intensive English study program. The lanky, long-haired activist – who in the film good-naturedly jokes that he has “homophobic shoelaces” when his shoes come undone – expected as much.
In one poignant scene, he returns to the site of a memorial to Lenin where, as a schoolboy, his choir would give performances of Russian patriotic hymns. Reading lyrics from the screen of his smartphone, he launches into an endearingly clumsy but heartfelt rendition of O Canada.
“I could no longer sing patriotic songs about Russia, but about a country where I could feel freedom and equality,” he explains.
Mr. Romanov isn’t alone. Lisa Gore-Duplessis, director of Newcomer Settlement Services at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, estimates that about 200 LGBT newcomers from around the world come through the centre each year for housing referrals and community support.
“Nowhere in the world is free from homophobia or transphobia, but yes, I’ve had the chance to talk to people abroad and Canada – and Toronto in particular – has the reputation for being a place where LGBT rights and freedoms are being protected,” says Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu.
Mr. Beaulieu points to the 2005 Civil Marriage Act, which legalized same-sex marriage across Canada, as a turning point for the country’s reputation as a safe haven for LGBT-identifying individuals facing persecution in their homelands. Ontario, and the City of Toronto, has been issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples since 2003, and the city will host the World Pride festival this summer.
Indeed, Mr. Romanov cites the option of marriage as one of Canada’s strongest selling points. Toronto, in particular, struck him as a city imbued with an ethos of acceptance – in stark contrast with Moscow, where every outing carried the threat of verbal taunts, arrest, or worse.
But, Mr. Beaulieu says, it isn’t always easy for newcomers – especially those who arrive with high expectations and limited means. “There could always be more resources,” he admits.
For Mr. Romanov, a shaky grasp on the English language made for a social network that was initially confined to fellow Russian immigrants, many of whom, he says, brought their homeland’s homophobic attitudes with them across the ocean. A vocal activist back home, Mr. Romanov has yet to make connections with Toronto’s LGBT community. But as his English improves and his circle of friends expands, Mr. Romanov remains convinced that his decision to relocate was the right one.
“In Toronto, I feel very comfortable,” Mr. Romanov said. “I see different people of different nationalities, different races, different skin colours, different sexual orientations who are respectful with each other. It’s like travelling from Russia to the future. It’s a different world.”