Crimean gays fear life under Russia
Russian navy seamen are seen in front of a Tarantul-III class Missile Boat moored in the bay of the Crimean port of Sevastopol on April 1, 2014 - by Olga Maltseva
Since the Black Sea peninsula broke away from Ukraine and pledged allegiance to Moscow last month, the 38-year-old has been dreading the impact of tough Russian laws on her and her family, she says.
"There are serious concerns that children can be taken away, and there could be problems at work," Yelena told AFP in Crimea's main city of Simferopol, speaking on the condition that her last name not be published.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year signed a law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.
Its wording is so vague that experts have said it could be used to persecute homosexuals.
Rights activists say the law has contributed to anti-gay sentiment and hate crimes.
Russia has also passed a law banning adoption by same-sex couples.
Yelena, a slender woman with short hair, metal-rimmed glasses and no makeup, said the legislation essentially outlawed her way of life.
"Generally speaking, the very existence of these people is propaganda," she said, referring to gays.
Yelena calls her partner of seven years her "wife", although there are no laws in Ukraine to bless their union.
Both she and her partner, a doctor, were previously married and together are raising four children aged 10 to 18.
The soft-spoken teacher says she has spent years fighting for her right to be different.
She has given television interviews and weathered pressure from Ukrainian regional authorities with support from her employers and relatives. She commands respect from her pupils' parents, who have grown to trust her.
But after Crimea's annexation by Russia -- a move condemned as illegal by both Ukraine and the United Nations General Assembly -- Yelena says she fears she will have to go back "in the closet".
"Our children consider us both mothers and call us both moms," she said.
"They are not aware of the laws adopted in Russia. I can't even imagine how I'll be able to explain this to them, and that you cannot talk about this."
- 'Nothing good awaits us' -
There are no precise numbers for gays and lesbians in Crimea, home to more than two million people.
Yelena estimated there could be several hundred homosexuals in Simferopol, whose population is about 300,000. She is friends with two same-sex couples with children.
There are a number of gay bars on the peninsula and the resort town of Simeiz, not far from Simferopol, has long been known as a summertime playground for gays from all of Ukraine.
"Nothing good awaits us here," said openly gay theatre director Anton Romanov, sporting silver rings on his fingers.
Like Yelena, the 29-year-old ethnic Russian chose not to vote in the referendum, in which nearly 97 percent of voters opted to split from Ukraine.
Romanov said he was planning to leave the peninsula and was considering a number of job opportunities in Ukraine.
"I have no desire to live in Russia whatsoever," he told AFP.
"It seems to me the words 'tolerance' and 'the Russian Federation' are antonyms."
He said the pro-European uprising in Ukraine that ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych had given him hope that one day gays and lesbians would be allowed to marry in Ukraine.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he said with a smile. "In Russia there's no such light."
- Laws rally Putin's base -
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, Putin has sought to play up conservative values to rally support from blue-collar workers and middle-aged voters, his core constituency.
He has defended the legislation on gays, arguing that Russia has not banned homosexual relations.
Some in Russia have already said Crimea should be turned into an "oasis of morality".
"The whole world is watching what Russia will bring to Crimea," wrote Yury Ryazanov, head of the conservative groups Our Children and Morality Police, in a recent blog post.
Perhaps surprisingly, some gays said they were in favour of Crimea joining Russia.
A Simferopol-based gay activist who goes by the pseudonym Artyom Lovesky said he agreed that minors should be protected from gay "propaganda" and that the issue had been "exaggerated".
But as someone with no children of his own, "I personally have not dealt with the issue," he said.
Yelena said she did not want to take any chances and had begun looking for ways to leave.
But she and her partner have discovered that receiving refugee status is not easy, and selling their apartment next to impossible because local property sales have been put on ice.
"Every day we are pulled hither and thither," she said. "Should we leave or should we stay?"