Westerners are talented in proclaiming themselves experts on Russia. This did not start with Pussy Riot, it’s been happening since Catherine the Great. The strangeness of Russian politics is attributable to it being very, well, Russian. The international uproar against anti-LGBT laws is in danger of ignoring, and mistranslating, the realities in which Russian LGBT people live. By talking about Russia as uniquely homophobic and transphobic, there is a danger of ignoring how homophobia and transphobia manifest.
The survival of LGBT teenagers and HIV+ people is best ensured by legal protection, but they are targeted by the discourse of ‘national survival’ that dominates Russian politics. National survival has long dominated Russian politics. Having lost at least 25 million people to the Nazis, the fear of NATO incursion on their borders during the Cold War was understandable. When NATO has attempted to expand to Georgia and the Ukraine, it is seen as an aggressive act, as is nuclear missile defense and support for Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. Russia had good reason to assume the end of the Cold War would and should not result in NATO’s eastward expansion.
The other dominating factor in Russian politics, and these anti-LGBT laws, is the ever enigmatic Vladimir Putin. He is a focal point for the opposition in a country with a proud history of dissidence. In the West, many promote individual dissidents that fit a narrative of an authoritarian Russia with a few lone, liberal holdouts. Though Pussy Riot are anti-capitalist anarchists, they fit such a Cold War narrative. Putin was severely rattled by the 2011-12 opposition protests. When needing to consolidate his power, he has tapped into hyper-nationalism. He used the narrative of a global war on terrorism to secure domestic and international support for crack downs on Chechnyans and dissidents after the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and 2004 Beslan school siege. Following the protests, he had to pander to the nationalist right for survival. The neo-Nazi gangs torturing gay youth in Russia are not new: in a country where perhaps half the world’s neo-Nazis live, nationalist gangs have been torturing and murdering immigrants from Africa and the Caucasus for over a decade.
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LGBT rights can not be separated or seen as an aberration from human rights abuses in Russia. It is impossible to talk about these anti-LGBT laws without talking about crackdowns on journalists, blasphemy laws, or the occupation of Chechnya. Russian LGBT activists recognise their movement requires coalition-building, and can’t be separated from other human rights struggles. LGBT people’s conditions are distinct, but not separate. Russian LGBT groups have thus been sceptical of boycotts of both the Sochi Olympics and Russian goods. A clumsy attempt to recreate the US gay community’s boycott of Coors has been a campaign to boycott Russian vodka. Because it mostly appeals to the symbolism of the Coors boycott, and vodka as a core symbol of Russia, it abstracts it from the Russian LGBT community’s activism. Many Latvian and Russian LGBT activists say a boycott of Russian vodka is doing active harm to their coalition-building efforts. Incidentally, the Circassian community have called consistently for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics as they are staged on their ancestral homeland, and have created massive corruption and ecological damage in the process. LGBT rights will not improve in Russia amidst declining human rights or the Putin regime’s massive corruption, with up to $30 billion already disappeared from the Olympics budget.
Comparisons to Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa abstract LGBT Russians from Russian society. Attitudes in Russia are more complex. It is hard to have a consistent conversation when all discussions of gender and sexuality were curtailed for several generations, but polling suggests a majority of Russians simultaneously believe homosexuality is a disease, but against anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace. Russian LGBT activists best understand the context they are operating in, achieving goals such as ending the blood donation ban for gay and bisexual men. Knowing the political context is vital. The reason the sporting boycott against South Africa worked was because there was a South African-led movement demanding the end of apartheid. A campaign led by Jewish athletes to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics was prominent, and efforts were organised for a counter-Olympics in Republican Spain. A boycott may have been more useful than the challenges Jessie Owens placed to white supremacy, but a black American boycott in 1968 wasn’t as effective as the stand Tommy Smith and John Carlos took.
The analogies drawn to the 1936 Olympics show a larger problem with Western LGBT movements. Comparing every struggle to one of LGBT ‘equality’ can be misleading. Comparing homophobia with antisemitism equates two different oppressions; homophobia works by pushing gays into the closet while antisemitism works by pushing Jews out into the open for targeting. While homophobia and transphobia are distinct oppressions, eliminating them can not be separated from other movements. The calls by many Western activists to tie international aid to Uganda to their record on LGBTI rights was deeply unhelpful for Ugandan activists, as it furthered a narrative in which LGBTI Ugandans were separate from wider communities instead of having similar needs in accessing resources. When there were international calls for aid withdrawal after the proposed ‘Kill The Gays’ bill, the bill advanced. When Ugandan activists have been quietly allowed to lobby against the bill, it has stalled in committee. It is worth bearing in mind the bill appeared after lobbying by American evangelical activists.
The conflation of international LGBT struggles with Western ‘rights’-based LGBT movements more broadly reveals a lack of ability or willingness to listen to people of colour’s experiences. LGBT movements often only consider the voices of cis, white, upper-middle class gay men, in much the same way Western feminist movements often only show ‘solidarity for white women’. The overwhelming victims of homophobic and transphobic violence in the US are people of colour. Queer activists of colour realise combating violence requires engaging with communities to ensure safe spaces for LGBT people, as well as undocumented immigrants, those with HIV etc. But many white LGBT activists unfamiliar with communities or even individuals of colour, do not know how to build coalitions. Many focused blame on black people after the passage of the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage in California, 58% of who voted for the 2008 ban (as did nearly 53% of all voters). Unexamined was the absence of queer people of colour in LGBT leadership, and the lack of substantive mobilisation efforts. Left unexamined was why saying “gay is the new black” or “this is the new civil rights struggle” was deeply unhelpful in a context where most victims of anti-LGBT violence are queer people of colour.
When expressing solidarity, it is best to listen to the people who operate within their own political context and spaces, and engage from there. It also involves taking a greater sense of responsibility and agency. The best way to effect change as a movement is to investigate and do something about complicity in events where they have more control. In the UK, this would involve addressing the legacy of empire and colonialism in creating anti-LGBTQI laws internationally. The act of engaging and listening to different communities and their needs is more powerful than a reactionary urge to ‘do something’, whether in Russia, or among queer people of colour at home.