Barret Stern: 'Love is the Highest Law'

  In May 2013, Vlad Tornovy, 22, paid the ultimate price for being openly gay in Russia. After having his genitals slashed, his face bashed in with a rock, and two and a half beer bottles forced into his anal cavity, he mercifully died. This sort of terrible event has become common in Russia, where rampant homophobia can make lethal to speak about LGBT people as equals. Discrimination and violence against homosexuals are condoned, even encouraged, by the Russian government.

Among a series of laws passed by the Russian  parliament in 2013 is one that "prohibits propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations  directed at minors”. The law’s text is so vague that any public pronouncement of feelings between same-sex partners can constitute an infraction. Another law banned the adoption of orphans by same-sex partners. As for couples who have already adopted children, they will soon lose their parental rights.

The documentary Love is the Highest Law looks at three human destinies, linked not only by the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, but also two historic changes in the summer of 2013 in the United States: the overturning of the federal anti-gay-marriage Defense of Marriage Act and the end of the similar Proposition 8, in California.

The movie tells the story of Vadim, of Georgian background, who was born and raised in Moscow, where he developed the dream of becoming an actor. His dearest wish is fulfilled when he starts his studies for a master of fine arts in acting degree at the New York Film Academy. There, he meets Jonathan, who, fully accepting his sexual orientation, at 14 decided to leave his home in conservative Oklahoma to become an actor in Los Angeles. The two fall in love, and Vadim, despite the psychological damage from his Russian past, finally finds the strength to admit his sexuality to both himself and his family.

This is a story about courage, doubt and culture-shock. It shows two people and two countries separated by the deep ocean. It is also about love, which overcomes some of the obstacles. The movie celebrates the main characters’ irresistible desire to share their lives, set goals and fulfill their dreams.

Sandro, a famous designer from Russia, is the third principal character. As a star of Project Runway, Sandro escaped the persecution he faced in Russia and found political asylum in New York. But there, watching archived materials full of violence and harassment in Russia, including by the police, painfully brings back to him events from his past.

Both Sandro and Vadim are still distraught about having to leave Russia. While the United States offers them the security they so desperately lacked in Russia, their move to the America does not end their lifelong struggles. Fame and money seem transient. And Sandro's experience shows the psychological damage he faces daily in his parallel acceptance by strangers and rejection by those whose love and support he needs most.

The film includes the exclusive commentary of famous members of the LGBT community, such as Gilbert Baker, an artist and a civil-rights activist who designed the Rainbow Flag in 1978, and Aaron Morris, the legal director of Immigration Equality, a pro-bono asylum project that provides technical assistance and mentoring on LGBT immigration issues to lawyers around America.

This documentary is intended to change hearts and minds. It encourages people to speak frankly about their feelings and life events amidst radically opposed changes in gay rights and equality in Russia and the United States.

Barret Stern is the pseudonym of a Russian rights activist.