What is happening in Russia is horrible. The introduction of Putin’s laws, making so-called ‘gay propaganda’ illegal, is obviously a significant blow to both the country’s LGBTI population and to any concept of Russian democracy.
It is made worse because the laws are not some idle threat – they are being actively enforced against brave protesters who have the temerity to stand up and say that “To be gay and to love gays is normal. To beat gays and kill gays is criminal” as Dmitry Isakov did (just this week Dmitry was fined 4000 roubles for doing so, the third Russian to be prosecuted under the laws after Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko).
But, if it were ‘just’ these laws (and yes, I know that it is almost impossible to use the word ‘just’ in this context), then what is going on in Russia would probably not stand out in a world where homosexuality remains criminal in 77 countries (and where, despite these laws, Russia still does not technically criminalise homosexuality).
However, the sad reality is that the laws criminalising gay propaganda seem to be just the start. They have been accompanied by a wave of homophobia affecting many aspects of Russian society.
Legally, a threat hangs over rainbow families that their children will be taken away from them (as an Australian, the idea of children being stolen because of their parents’ social group is especially poignant).
There have also been widespread acts of physical violence and intimidation against LGBTI Russians, including numerous hate crimes and, tragically, murders. Gay clubs have been attacked, with bullets and with fire.
And the cultural debate has degenerated to the point that a Russian actor, Ivan Okhlobystin, can say that “I would have them [gays] all stuffed alive inside an oven. This is Sodom and Gomorrah, as a believer, I can not remain indifferent to this, it is a living danger to my children!” – and be applauded.
It is not just that last comment which has made many people think back 80 years to political developments to the West of Russia, in Italy and, especially, Germany. While I do not throw the word fascist around lightly (and we are, thankfully, still some distance away from the worst of Hitler’s regime), the scapegoating of a minority group in the way Russia is doing now certainly brings fascism to mind.
Part of what makes this a difficult subject to write about is that, as an Australian LGBTI activist, it is hard to work out what the best response is. So hard, in fact, that it is almost tempting to forgive the initial ‘kneejerk’ reaction of some people who indicated their disgust at the actions of Putin & co by boycotting Russian vodka (‘vodka revolution’ anyone?).
Others have concentrated their advocacy around the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi from February 7 to 23. While most calls to boycott seem to have died down (it was always going to be an unlikely outcome, especially in the apparent absence of a united position from Russian LGBTI groups calling on us to do so), there will be other ways to draw attention to the state-sponsored homophobia of Putin’s Russia during that fortnight.
In particular, the campaign by @allout and Athlete Ally, focusing on Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter (which states that any form of discrimination is incompatible with the Olympics), seems like a sensible way to go about it (especially because it allows athletes to take a political stand without falling foul of the Olympics rules against ‘politicising’ sports).
But the problem, with this and other campaigns, will come in the days and weeks after the closing ceremony, when the spotlight of the world’s media turns elsewhere. Because it will be very easy for the Russian Government to ensure that nothing negative happens for a couple of weeks, especially to the athletes, tourists and reporters converging on Sochi.
It is far more important to focus on what is happening to Russia’s LGBTI population now, in the days leading up Sochi, what happens elsewhere in Russia during the Games, and what will happen in the months and years that follow.
We must make sure that we don’t avert our gaze just because the global media caravan moves on. We must continue to pressure our own Governments to take action on this issue, raising it with their Russian counterparts. And, above all, we must continue to communicate with Russian LGBTI groups to learn from them what we can do to help them in their fight.