Student Spotlight: Andrew Dolinar (GSAS, HR '16)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Andrew Dolinar (GSAS, HR ‘16) was a sophomore studying sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, when he received a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study Russian in Kazan. It was summer 2012, and Russia’s second largest and most cosmopolitan city, St. Petersburg, had recently passed a law banning the “propaganda” of LGBT relations to minors. “Being a queer American in Russia while all this was happening was fascinating,” says Dolinar. While in Kazan, he made an effort to meet people in the queer community. He remembers venturing down a hidden alleyway behind a McDonalds, getting his ID checked at a halfway point, just to reach what turned out to be an ordinary, small-town gay club. The more queer people he met, the more Dolinar, who has a longstanding interest in identity politics, was struck by the differences in how he and his Russian counterparts perceived themselves.

The following fall, Dolinar returned to Russia for a five-month study abroad program in St. Petersburg sponsored by the Council for International Exchange. Arriving just months after the Russian Duma passed the “propaganda” law on a federal level, Dolinar embarked on his senior thesis research, which focused on queer identity in Russia and how it influences participation in activism, “how the local context in Russia interacts with the global social movement of LGBT rights,” he explains. Dolinar visited various organizations, talked to activists, and scoured social media for queer Russians, making special effort to seek out non-activists, too. Not everyone was willing to talk, and, after contacting dozens of people, he ended up interviewing about sixteen.

Throughout the process, Dolinar was surprised to discover that many of his interviewees did not feel threatened by the new law. Sexuality for them was a private matter, and they wondered why anyone would want to display it on the streets. Many people did not describe themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and preferred to use “queer” instead. “Some, though they had same-sex relations, opted to stay away from identity labels altogether,” says Dolinar.

At the time, there were many Western NGOs working in Russia, helping Russian LGBT groups to mobilize in the fight for LGBT rights. While some members of Russia’s LGBT community appreciated this, many felt that the Western LGBT rights narrative of protests and pride parades was not the right course for Russia. “These concepts were alien to them and they preferred to focus on private endeavors of community building and education instead,” says Dolinar. The idea that there was no dominant international human rights narrative intrigued Dolinar, and, in the fall of 2014, he enrolled in Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He wanted to explore the broader theories of human rights “from the perspective of non-Western values.”  He complemented his study of human rights with  region-specific courses at the Harriman Institute, where he is currently pursuing a certificate.

Dolinar’s Harriman certificate essay, which grew out of his undergraduate thesis, examines how Russian LGBT activists localize queer identity. Since the law’s inception they have started support hotlines; an online forum for gay teenagers; educational seminars; and a new effort to look at Russian literature through a queer lens. The one unintended consequence of the law is that it brought LGBT issues to the surface. “Coming out of the Soviet Union where any mention of sex was extremely taboo, the fact that this is being talked about in the public sphere is a big step,” says Dolinar.

The programming of LGBTI-themed events at the Harriman has had a direct impact on Dolinar’s certificate work. Last year, he attended a panel on LGBTI rights in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, where he met one of the event’s panelists, Anna Kirey, an activist whose work he had been following for years. “She is one of the only voices on transgender rights in Central Asia,” he says. “It was amazing to be able to reach out to her and have this communication.” Kirey gave Dolinar helpful advice and introduced him to contacts for his research.

While at Columbia, Dolinar has expanded his human rights work beyond LGBT rights. Thanks to the Harriman Institute’s Civil Society Graduate Fellowship, he spent last summer interning at Penal Reform International’s Tbilisi office, organizing a conference on non-custodial sentencing and helping with a report on prison monitoring systems addressed to the Georgian Ministry of Justice. This year he received the Harriman Institute’s Pepsico Junior Fellowship and spent the fall semester interning at Human Rights Watch, where he monitored Russian social media networks to track activity during the bombing campaign in Syria. After graduation, Dolinar hopes to work as a human rights researcher. “I really enjoy talking to people, hearing their stories, and turning it into writing.”

Masha Udensiva-Brenner

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