Sunday, September 29, 2013

Russian homophobia -- from the inside

When I first heard about Russia's new law criminalizing "gay propaganda" -- any positive or neutral portrayal of LGBT people -- I thought: uh-oh, the Russian authorities are about to discover that this will cause more revulsion in much of the world than supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

This surmise has proven true. Sure, it is still usually possible anywhere to whip up xenophobia by attacking supposedly "alien" gay folks. But cosmopolitan global opinion will speedily condemn those who do this. A new global red line has been set. People and whole countries that pride themselves on their modernity and liberalism don't take kindly to political gay-bashing. Twenty-two percent of the world's population may still be struggling to survive on less than $1.25 a day, but we're living the gay rights moment in the sun,

The web portal Open Democracy has published a couple Russian gay activists' observations on their sudden visibility. We'd probably do well to listen to the people whose lives are actually on the line while we shout our outrage.

Here's Sergey Khazov: explaining how the anti-gay law has backfired:

… in Russia these days you have to be pretty lazy not to have an opinion on LGBT issues; in intellectual (and other) circles, it is your attitude to gays that defines you. It used to be anti-Semitism that was the dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’; now it’s homophobia. 

… the new homophobic law itself that has made the difference: it has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before … people who have never thought about it before are now making a choice…

The ostensible reason for the law was to protect children from ‘gay propaganda’. But even here it has had the reverse effect. A couple of months ago a friend of mine, a Moscow poet, was putting her son to bed and they were imagining how when he grew up he would live in a big white house with cats and a pool to swim in. ‘I’ll have a wife,’ he said, ‘and I’ll love her – it won’t matter whether she’s thin or a bit plump.’ And then he suddenly added, ‘Of course there are gays as well; that’s when a boy loves another boy. And lesbians. Granny and I saw gays in a café, and they told us about lesbians at nursery. But that’s not my thing…’  This child is six years old, but he is already on the right side of the acceptance dividing line. And that is the most important achievement of parliamentary homophobia.  

Igor Yasin thinks the law shows that Russia needs its own Stonewall: He is very aware that Russia's gays are being used as pawns in a political effort to invigorate the Putin regime's shaky legitimacy.

We never wanted this battle. Some members of the LGBT community are even nostalgic about ‘the old days, before all your parades’, when politicians weren’t interested in gay people, and many of them were even quite happy in their closets.  But then the politicians, first at a local and then at a national level, started drafting laws against ‘gay propaganda’ – they needed some nice quiet scapegoats before the elections, and decided we fitted the bill. After the elections we came in handy as well: exploiting public prejudice is a cheap and easy way of splitting opinion and distracting attention from real social and political problems.

… our lives are simpler than those of our predecessors in the west. The gays at Stonewall couldn’t draw on any support from LGBT people in other countries. It was the very beginning of the rights movement, so they had no experience, no success stories to inspire them. But thanks to them we can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.  

…given that the Kremlin likes to present sexual minorities as a ‘fifth column’ of ‘foreign agents’ who are trying to force alien values on Russia, any attempt to involve western governments or organizations in the battle for our rights will only reinforce these myths and give the Kremlin and the ultra-right an extra excuse to stigmatise us. 

Let Putin be greeted by Rainbow demonstrations when he goes abroad… the LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.  The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott.

We don't help Russian LGBT people by posturing. We do help by completing our own rights "revolution."

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