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Russia needs its own Stonewall, not Western sanctions

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As Western sympathizers call for a boycott on the Sochi Olympics, Igor Yasin wonders if this is quite the best way to help Russia’s LGBT community win their fight for equality. 

Russia's anti-gay own goal: see Sergey Khazov's contribution here

Igor Yasin
27 September 2013

Not so long ago there was a showing and discussion in Moscow of a film about the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations by members of New York’s gay community in 1969 (after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village), which triggered the beginnings of a movement for gay rights.  Even showing the film in Russia is risky enough these days, but what shocked some of the people who took part in the discussion was the vivid and horrific picture it gave of the situation in the USA at that time – a long way from our understanding of LGBT rights in the west. Before Stonewall, the situation of gay men and women was terrible – worse than it is in Russia today. The circumstances were completely different, of course, but America’s supposedly advanced ‘justice system’, ‘Constitution’, ‘human rights’ and ‘democratic traditions’ held no justice for its oppressed LGBT population, whose lives were ruled by popular prejudice. 

New York then, Moscow now…

Many gay people in Russia today believe that there is no future in fighting homophobia here, and are pretty depressed about the situation, thinking they’ll have to either get used to it or emigrate. But back in the 60s, at the time of Stonewall, American gays and lesbians had nowhere to go; they had to fight. And we need people ready to fight in Russia today as well. Our turn has come: the front line in the battle with prejudice has reached our streets, whether we like it or not. 

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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. And public prejudice helped the Kremlin break up the protest movement.  

It’s unlikely that many people today understand or even remember the idea of Gay Pride – what gays have to be proud of and why they should advertise it. For most people Pride is just a parade, a carnival. But the first gay pride marches were protests - in the USA it was Stonewall that set it off. Russia today is not the place for an LGBT carnival, and that’s precisely why we need to remember the history of the fight for equal rights, which didn’t start with carnivals either. But it’s thanks to that rights movement that our lives here in Russia are now both simpler and more complicated.  More complicated, because we can theoretically choose to give up the struggle and just move to some place where others have won the battle for LGBT rights for us. But most people can’t just emigrate – or don’t want to. And even if we all went, there’s a new generation of lesbians and gays growing up, so we can’t just give up the fight. The time has come: we can’t expect anyone to do it for us, and nothing is going to change unless we act. 

Different times, different tactics

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. It’s hard to believe today, but for a short period after the 1917 Revolution Russia was considered a progressive country in its attitude to sexuality and sexual minorities. There was no anti-gay legislation, and no rights movement, for that matter. Social revolution, the defeat of the clerics and the promotion of women’s rights were top of the agenda, so for a while the issue of sexuality was ignored by the state, until Stalin came to power and reaction set in. And now we need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash. 

It’s hard to believe today, but for a short period after the 1917 Revolution Russia was considered a progressive country in its attitude to sexuality and sexual minorities. Then Stalin came to power and reaction set in.

On the other hand, 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.  

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. 

When President Obama met NGO representatives in St Petersburg, he made it clear that human rights weren’t top of the agenda in his relations with Russia.         

But there’s no way they can expect any support from Congress or Obama, who’s busy getting ready to attack Syria. The hypocrisy of world leaders is too well known. It’s naïve to imagine the rights of the LGBT community in Russia, or, say, Shiites in Saudi Arabia, taking precedence over oil and gas. When President Obama met NGO representatives in St Petersburg, he made it clear that human rights weren’t top of the agenda in his relations with Russia.  And 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. 

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but it hasn’t helped ordinary people at all.  

So the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. Let those homophobic sleazebags of officials travel to the west; we’ll out them as hypocrites and liars. 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. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it. 

Today, the post-Soviet space is on the front line in the global battle against prejudice. We need to develop an effective strategy for checking the forward march of the homophobes and moving forward ourselves. We have to stop the spread of anti-gay legislation to Ukraine, Armenia and other countries. International public solidarity, if combined with sensitivity to the realities of life in Russia, can make a real difference to the effectiveness of our movement. We may have lost the battle against this homophobic law, but we must win the war against prejudice. 

Russia's anti-gay own goal: see Sergey Khazov's contribution here

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