Please go to More Links for updates since I wrote this.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time and after a loooong writing break, am finally getting around to it. It’s long, but I hope it’s worth it.
I went to Russia a few years ago. It was a great holiday, and I was hopeful about a return trip someday. However, developments since Putin somehow managed to retain his presidency have basically removed that option.
It is hard to say exactly why the “Gay propaganda law” has been put in place. A common (but not universally accepted) suggestion is that one goal of a ruler who wants to keep their power is to suppress views they do not like, and that’s precisely where these laws come from, pandering to the “traditional” views of some of the people, and the church. Create scapegoats that aren’t you, but some imagined “other” that are a real threat to your livelihood. In this case, it’s “protect children from things that might make them gay” – obviously based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both sexual orientation and what’s important for young people*.
These laws don’t just affect gay people, but the whole LGBT+ community; anyone who is found to be interested or engaging in any form of non-heterosexual relationship (or protesting the laws) is at risk of violence (up to, quite possibly, murder) and arrest. Russia has a well-known problem with racism and violence generally; the officially-illegal-but-generally-ignored violence of the skinheads now seems to be joined by the tacit approval of homophobic violence.
It has come to more people’s attention now because of the planned Winter Olympics in Sochi, February 2014. So there are several angles to look at here; the laws themselves (which admittedly I don’t fully understand, and I’m not sure the lawmakers even do), their effects on non-hetero Russians, international views, Olympics issues (such as boycotts and protests, the IOC’s pronouncements and implications of this), Russian citizens’ views and my personal views. I’ll start with the latter.
My views and Russian views
Personally I do have the privilege that my sexuality is generally not obvious to people who are just looking. This can be annoying at times, but overall it probably saves me from some negative experiences. But that doesn’t mean I want to hide in plain sight in a country that would quite happily lock me up just because of who I am or might be attracted to. I don’t want that for me, my friends, or people I don’t even know. Because it’s not right.
Yes, that means I also do not wish to visit places like Egypt, Moldova, Dubai, Iran, plenty of African countries… if I’m aware of laws that restrict my basic human rights and those of my friends, I don’t want to spend my money there, or risk being there at all.
That probably leaves me with a very limited travelling itinerary and I’m aware there are many other human rights abuses occurring globally (against women, children, poor people, the politically active, atheists and people of the “wrong” religion, LGBT+ citizens etc.) but let’s focus on Russia for now.
I have some Russian friends and they are lovely people. Their views do vary – the population, while small for the immense size of the country and homogenised in certain ways because of its history, like any other holds diverse opinions. Their age, what they remember of Russian government from childhood and current locations also naturally influence these views.
One friend admits to largely ignoring politics, and it is clear that many of their views are influenced by what they hear from others and they’re not in the practice of questioning hearsay. Their condemnation of gay people has mellowed into a kind of received disapproval, with standard comments like “I don’t have a problem with it, but I wouldn’t want my children to be gay, and I don’t see why people need to do things in the street”.
It is genuinely a revelation for some people when they are told that the goal of the gays is not to be able to have sex in the middle of the road in front of everyone (maybe it is for some people, regardless of their sexuality, but hey), but just to be treated like the human beings they are, instead of being singled out for punishment because they happen to love and/or sleep with people of the same sex.
Some of this view is bolstered by the idea that the population needs to grow, so if you can’t have babies together, don’t be together. Or something. Then there’s adoption of course – millions of children need families, but gay parents won’t do – that’ll make the children gay, of course! Convincing people that sexuality is innate – just as heterosexual people do not choose this, nor does anyone else. [Edit: might have to retract this; if we accept that sexuality is fluid and changeable, our choices can and should be our own, still. Choosing our lifestyles is an important right to have, and we should be mindful of how we use the evidence we have, and what we lack. Good article here.]
Yet many are still convinced that a liberal attitude towards sexuality will make teens experiment, and possibly stick with the gay thing, thus destroying the world. I think that’s the argument, anyway.
The idea that maybe young people just don’t want to fear for their lives because of expressing themselves physically with others doesn’t seem to get through. “I know lots of gays in Russia, they are fine” – but without experiencing the situation from their perspective, that’s not really something you can insist upon. It’s up to the people these laws are affecting to explain it to the rest of us, if they can.
The European Parliament condemned the laws back in June as a result, being not only restrictions on free speech, but also putting the LGBT+ community at risk. Vera Kichanova reported a violent assault on her and some friends in a bar, complete with anti-homosexual slurs and death threats, which was reported by the Financial Times’ Neil Buckley. Also have a listen to Anita Anand’s interview with the Russian minister who drew up the laws and with a gay resident of St Petersburg who explains the fear people like her are living with every day; simply for being in love.
There are more reports coming of possible murders, suicides, horrific assaults and torture, sometimes filmed and put online. But the insistence is that these things are make-believe or Western anti-Russia propaganda [linked article likely to be upsetting].
The minister in the interview displays the unfathomable hysteria about the “sick” gay people who want to force others to view their naked bodies (?!) and repeatedly insists that gay adults are safe in Russia; they simply wish to protect children from the damaging influence of sexually liberal attitudes. It might be convincing, were it not for the implications of this and the reality for gay Russians, some of whom are trying to leave as a result. And I don’t blame them.
What was shocking to me was when my friend who clearly wants there to be reason and justice behind these happenings in her country – which they are largely unaware of – is taken in by things they have heard that make very little sense. They believe that Pussy Riot were naked and cavorting in the church, not just playing music (this might be a confusion with the Voina performance art group who staged an orgy as an election protest). While I won’t get further into this issue, it is worth noting that a priest who supported them was recently murdered. And let us not delve into the Navalny affair.
They also believe that the law restricting adoption is in response to a reported case of a gay couple in America abusing their adopted Russian son; tragically they happen to also be paedophiles. The facts that paedophilia is largely the domain of heterosexual men and abuse is about power, not attraction seem to have escaped Putin’s notice. But because of these stories and others, they believe it is right to protect children from homosexuality. Explaining how this could affect them or people they love just doesn’t seem to hit home… yet. I hold out some hope.
What about the Olympics?
The question of boycotting/protesting/banning/moving the upcoming event is not simple to answer, and I’ll try to provide some information on that here. I’m not sure what the best thing to do is, but I do know it’s good that the issue is gaining more international attention, and it will be interesting to see how the situation develops.
It wouldn’t be the first time that countries have been banned from events for violating human rights. There was also some protest against holding the current World Athletics Championships in Moscow. Russia’s legal stance violates some of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism but for some reason this appears to be confusing the organising committees.
At the beginning of the month, the Russian sports minister confirmed the laws would be enforced during the Olympics; no-one would be allowed to be open about their sexuality, if not heterosexual, during the event. This despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) being told it wouldn’t affect the games.
Some high-profile voices have spoken out. President Obama criticised Putin’s stance on The Tonight Show and “postponed” an upcoming meeting, while All Out delivered a petition for Putin to repeal the laws (with over 300,000 signatures) to the Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, along with an open letter from Stephen Fry calling for the games to be moved and likening the country’s crackdown to that of Hitler in Nazi Germany. But the Russian sports minister implored people to just “calm down” about it.
However, despite loud calls for a ban in some form, it is important to note that local activists’ views often differ, instead asking for a display of solidarity with Russian LGBT+ people, using the prestigious event to deliver this message.
International activism has also occurred, including a huge protest when Putin visited Amsterdam and an excellent demonstration (despite the slight colour mix-up) outside the Russian embassy in Stockholm.
The IOC recently demanded Russia clarify exactly what the law meant and how it might affect the games, around the same time that David Cameron and Sebastian Coe disagreed with calls to boycott the games.
A Russian minister then confirmed that anyone found to be “promoting” homosexuality in any way would in fact be arrested. This is far from the requested confirmation that people would not be at risk in Sochi during the games.
Some people thought it might be a good idea instead to boycott Russian vodka, but Stolichnaya quickly pointed out that it is in fact a Latvian product and to do so would harm the LGBT+ community there instead. Others have suggested targeting Olympic sponsors, as similar campaigns have seen success.
What do we do now? I’m not sure, besides continuing to be vocal about the rights of these people to lives that are not blighted by fear instilled by misguided legislation and a violent culture.
See also Alex Gabriel‘s take, picking up the problems with Fry’s otherwise excellent letter and reiterating the need to listen to Russia’s LGBT+ voices on this issue.
This post also criticises the hypocrisy and “white saviour” mentality around such issues. Agree with most, except for the idea that LGBT rights have been made “superior to” other human rights; I’d say that’s nonsense.
“7 things you need to know about Russia and the 2014 Olympics” – a short run-down by Steve Williams.
The Daily Mash wonders if some latent homosexuality might be behind the whole affair.
Here’s a petition from @scottwylie7 to have small rainbow flags added to athletes’ uniforms.
21/08/13: Orthodox activists also begin action against “atheist extremism”
22/08/13: Disturbing information about the skinheads’ torture of young gay men and cultural complicity
22/08/13: A reporter was cut off during a (govt-owned) Russia Today broadcast for protesting the laws
22/08/13: Mic Wright acknowledges that homophobia is a global issue, but that doesn’t mean we can’t focus sometimes.
24/08/13: Vice interviews a Russian teenager who posts about his life as a gay person on Twitter. Very sad insights.
27/08/13: @ru_lgbt_teen also gives Mic Wright an interview.
28/08/13: People now being encouraged to report (suspected) LGBT neighbours, and another activist’s home is raided.
29/08/13: Former US no. 1 tennis player criticises laws in his retirement speech. Russian athletes decline to comment in detail.
03/09/13: Protests in London, Madrid and elsewhere to show support for affected Russians
04/09/13: News that Alexander Ermoshkin, a geography teacher, was fired because of his orientation, while Putin insists there is no discrimination. Putin says he will meet with LGBT activists, but has not received requests. One activist has now publicly asked for a meeting.
05/09/13: Plans to make homosexuality a reason to deny child custody
07/09/13: More on the misguided Stolichnaya boycott (it’s Latvian)
04/02/14: A long wait, and a lot has happened. We’ll see what happens in Sochi. If you can, read this harrowing 6-page account on how the lives of LGBT people are affected by this state-sanctioned hate.
*Research shows that children growing up with gay parents are just fine – if not better than those in “traditional” families. What matters for us in our lives is love, pure and simple. Being looked after, protected, supported, encouraged and taught. It does not matter where that comes from, but that it is there. Gay people are just as capable of giving that as anyone else, and when you have to jump through hoops to start your family, rather than just doing a simple, fun thing and ta-da! Then you can be sure that love is there; that child is wanted and will receive the care and attention it needs.
PS. Thanks to Morgan for title ideas!