TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE
LGBT rights in Russia
“The knock-on effect of the legislation has seen homophobic hate crime more than double in the last couple of months”
Imagine if all of the gay equality legislation for which we’ve fought so hard over the past four decades suddenly came tumbling down around us. That Pride marches were banned and that just by turning up to one you run the very real risk of being beaten unconscious by the police, before they arrest you and throw you in prison. That adults suddenly find themselves unable to come out at work for fear of losing their jobs and youngsters can’t come out at school because teachers are successfully preaching to peers that being gay is disgusting and unnatural. That LGBT teachers are being forced out of their jobs in a widening witch hunt.
Suddenly trying to meet fellow gay people becomes a terrifying and paranoid prospect. Is the person you are chatting to in the clandestine underground bar really gay, or a member of a gang sent to lure you into a violent ambush? Is the hot date you arrange to meet on a chat site actually a trap by a far right group who are planning to kidnap you and film you being tortured, before posting the film on the internet without fear of prosecution?
Same-sex marriage is out of the question, while gay adoption is swiftly banned outright. Not only that, but the government is planning to introduce terrifying laws that mean they can remove children being brought up by same-sex parents. Gay organisations like Stonewall could be shut down at any second, while the publication of LGBT magazines like this one are effectively outlawed. Books with gay references could soon be edited or banned, while the existence of famous gays from your nation’s past might soon be erased from history books.
Sounds like some sort of dystopian Orwellian nightmare? Welcome to life for gay people in Russia in 2013.
Of course, none of this is news to anyone who is even vaguely politically aware or spends even the odd moment on Twitter or Facebook. While Russia is just one of dozens and dozens of countries where gay people are being persecuted across the globe, the seemingly dire situation in the former Soviet Union has received a huge amount of coverage over the last couple of months thanks to the power of social media.
People from across the globe have been genuinely shocked by the stories pouring out of Russia, not only because the new anti-gay law introduced in June of this year coincides with the country hosting the Winter Olympics at the start of next year, but also because they are graphically witnessing gay liberation working in reverse.
While gay sex was actually decriminalised in Russia back in 1993, an equal age of consent introduced in 2003, and transsexuals have been able to change their legal gender since 1997, it has been claimed that gays were better treated back in the Soviet Union era when homosexuality was illegal.
The law in question bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, a particularly biting turn of phrase, as the law itself is in effect a nasty piece of propaganda that makes that age-old and unfounded link between homosexuality and paedophilia. The law has been compared to the old Section 28 in the UK, although the Russian legislation is much worse.
The law also makes it an offence to “hold any sort of public demonstration in favour of gay rights, speak in favour of gay rights, distribute material related to gay rights, or state that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships.” As a result of the legislation, civil rights activist Peter Tatchell started a campaign called Love Russia, Hate Homophobia aimed at opposing and defeating President Putin’s escalating authoritarianism and homophobia and showing solidarity with the LGBT community in Russia.
Tatchell has had first hand experience of homophobia and violence in the country, having been bashed and arrested for participating in successive Moscow Pride parades from 2006 to 2011, including being beaten almost unconscious in 2007 when he was left with minor brain and eye injuries. He calls President Putin the “Czar of Homophobia” and describes the legislation as one of the most sweeping and harsh laws against LGBT freedom of expression anywhere in the world.
“In practice, LGBT marches, festivals, posters, magazines, books, films, welfare advice and safer sex education are likely to face criminal prosecution,” Tatchell explains, “as will individuals who identify themselves as gay in public. Any statement that homosexuality is natural and normal will become criminal, as will the provision of gay-affirmative counselling or safer sex information to LGBT youth.
“This law is effectively a blanket censorship of any public expression of same-sex love, gay identity and LGBT human rights. It could result in the purging of books, films and plays with LGBT characters and story-lines from libraries, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including many classic works of art and literature. Putin seems hell-bent on forcing LGBT people back into the closet and locking the door.”
The knock-on effect of the legislation has seen homophobic hate crime more than double in the last couple of months, with vigilante groups feeling emboldened as they see the new law as both justifying and protecting their actions. Sickening videos of gay teenagers being tortured, including having urine poured on them and being raped by beer bottles, have appeared online. The vast majority of homophobic attacks go unreported, as Russian law doesn’t outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Understandably, Russia has received widespread condemnation from around the world for the anti-gay laws that are not only a violation of the Russian constitution, but also the European Convention on Human Rights, which the country signed and pledged to uphold. Everyone from the United Nations to Amnesty International has called for the law to be repealed, while the legislation is clearly incompatible with the Olympic Charter, which prohibits any form of discrimination.
Civil rights and gay activist groups have been incredibly effective in their protests calling for a boycott of the 2013 Winter Olympics next February in the Russian resort of Sochi, so much so that major sponsors like McDonalds and Coca Cola are said to be getting increasingly jittery about the backlash.
Other creative protests have included a zebra crossing being painted rainbow colours outside the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painting her fingernails in rainbow colours at the Moscow World Athletics Championships, and drag queen Dolly Bellefleur singing a brilliant parody of Boney M’s Rasputin at an Amsterdam demonstration: “Stop stop stop Putin — Drop your law at the Kremlin — Love is no crime, it’s not a disease.”
In September this year protests took place in 43 cities across the world, from Buenos Aires to Budapest, and hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition against Russia’s anti-gay crackdown. Protests have included the boycotting of Russian vodka with many gay bars pouring it down the drains, as well as Coca Cola — although banning both vodka and Coke simultaneously may be a step too far for many gay people! If nothing else, these protests have garnered huge amounts of international attention.
Celebrities have also been quick to use their international profiles to support the cause. Actress Tilda Swinton made a very public protest when she held up a rainbow flag in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, risking up to 15 days in jail. Meanwhile, Madonna was sued for £7 million by anti-gay groups in Russia last year for violating a local gay law in St Petersburg when she spoke out in favour of gay rights in a concert. The lawsuit was later thrown out of court.
Lady Gaga used her concert last December to say, “Tonight, this is my house, Russia. You can be gay in my house.” She later took to Facebook to say, “The rise in government abuse is archaic. Hosing teenagers with pepper spray? Beatings? Mother Russia? The Russian government is criminal. Oppression will be met with revolution. Russian LGBTs you are not alone. We will fight for your freedom.”
The question whether stars should perform in the country is a similar one to whether we should completely boycott a country like apartheid-era South Africa, or influence the country by continuing to travel to it, showing our solidarity for the LGBT community within. It’s the Cher or Elton debate. Cher has apparently turned down an opening ceremony performance at the Winter Olympics in protest against the legislation, while Elton John says of his December concert, “I’ve got to go.”
“I’ve got to think about what I’m going to say very carefully,” John explained in the Guardian. “There’s two avenues of thought: Do you stop everyone going, ban all the artists coming in from Russia? But then you’re really leaving the men and women who are gay and suffering under the antigay laws in an isolated situation. As a gay man, I can’t leave those people on their own without going over there and supporting them. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve got to go.”
Elton John has a unique relationship with the country, being the first western rock star ever to perform on the other side of the iron curtain in a series of concerts in 1979. The resonance of what he could say on stage could therefore be huge. Other stars have taken a different approach. Stephen Fry wrote a typically intelligent and thought-provoking open letter to David Cameron asking for the Olympics to be relocated to Vancouver.
Ultimately, political leaders like Cameron and Obama have been decidedly noncommittal on the topic, perhaps worried about further tensions arising on the back of the Syria crisis between them and the fifth largest economic power in the world. And the country that controls a rather important gas pipeline. Obama did meet gay activists during a decidedly frosty G20 Summit, at least suggesting some solidarity, while Cameron tweeted that he “raised concerns” during a 2am meeting with Putin.
Other political leaders have shown more balls on the subject. The Mayor of Reykjavík Jón Gnarr is planning to break off the capital’s political and cultural relations with the Russian capital — Moscow and Reykjavík were made sister cities in 2007. There is currently no news on whether the Mayor of the delightful Gloucestershire town of Cheltenham Spa will break ties with their twin city of Sochi, fondly known as Mafia-On- Sea.
Meanwhile the International Olympic
Committee (IOC) and Russia seem to have become uneasy bedfellows. Both have been caught on the back foot by the growing protests. Putin underestimated the impact of the gay rights issue on his pet propaganda project, while the IOC seems more concerned with warning athletes that they can’t protest during the games (in violation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter) than they are with upholding the part of the Charter that promotes tolerance. For both of them, putting on a triumphant and financially successful spectacle seems to be more important than the spirit of the Olympics and upholding basic human rights.
It took lengthy negotiations with UN representatives to persuade Russia to reword its version of the symbolic Olympic Truce. Russia’s draft promised to include “people of different age, sex, physical capacity, religion, race and social status,” but not sexual orientation. While the Olympic Truce hasn’t previously mentioned gay rights, the UN wanted this included in light of the recent homophobic legislation in Russia. While still not explicitly mentioning LGBT people, the revised text now promises “promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind”.
Sadly, this is just the introduction to what promises to be an ongoing saga in Russia. We can only hope that it has a happy ending rather than becoming a story that is wiped out of the country’s history books. Because we all know where the destruction of books can lead.
Please consider making a donation to All Out and their Russia 4 Love campaign. The first half will go to help people in Russia pursue prosecutions of antigay attackers and reach out to young people who most need support. The rest of will grow their massive global campaign to stop Russia’s anti-gay crackdown. www.allout.org/Russia-4-Love
“Lady Gaga: ‘ Tonight, this is my house, Russia. You can be gay in my house.’”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP FAR LEFT: TILDA SWINTON IN MOSCOW; DEMONSTRATION AGAINST RUSSIA’S ANTI- GAY LAWS; PETER TATCHELL
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP FAR LEFT: “KISS IN” OUTSIDE THE RUSSIAN CONSULATE IN ANTWERP, ONE OF MANY AROUND THE GLOBE; DEMONSTRATION IN LONDON; PETER TATCHELL IN MOSCOW; PETER TATCHELL INJURED IN MOSCOW; PETER TATCHELL WITH PAUL O’GRADY IN LONDON; TO RUSSIA...