The Russian government has introduced new laws banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. These laws essentially outlaw any positive mention of homosexuality. The government is pretending the laws are designed to protect minors. In reality they are just a trick Putin is using to deflect criticism away from his government, scapegoat minorities and cement power.
Last year tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the Putin regime. These demonstrations were the largest in Russia for many years and startled the government. Putin is trying to divert attention away from his government’s failings by scapegoating LGBT people. He has linked two issues together – ‘gay propaganda’ and foreign adoption of Russian orphans – to play on people’s nationalism and imply Russia is under some sort of threat from outside forces. Homosexuality is painted as being part of a foreign threat on ‘Russian tradition’ and is being linked to paedophilia.
These laws have not been introduced because Russian people are backwards and religious. Putin is manipulating some existing prejudice to inflame tension among ordinary people and turn their attention away from the corruption and hardship that exists in Russia today.
He has also skilfully given more influence to the Russian Orthodox Church in order to help facilitate neoliberal counter reforms. For example, in order to cut spending on public housing, the government is now saying the ‘Russian tradition’ is for entire families to live under the one roof! These cynical examples show that tradition is a very flexible concept in today’s Russia.
Putin is also scapegoating other groups and minorities. Women’s rights are constantly being curtailed, and immigrants are especially singled out as easy targets. In Moscow police have rounded up thousands of immigrants and detained them in open air prisons in the past few months. The roundup was scheduled to tie in with the Moscow mayoral elections in September. Putin is hoping this ‘tough on migrants’ approach will help get his party’s candidate elected.
Political activists have also been persecuted. Members of activist group Pussy Riot have already been in jail for almost two years now and around thirty other activists – including an LGBT rights activist – who took part in last year’s protests are currently on trial for inciting ‘mass public disorder.’
While at the time of writing very few people have actually been charged under the new ‘gay propaganda’ laws, Russian LGBT activists have described them as a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. They are designed to intimidate LGBT people and cut across their struggle for equal rights.
The laws have emboldened far right forces in Russia. Homophobic violence is escalating dramatically. In a particularly revolting trend, far right homophobes are tricking gay teenagers into meeting up through social media then bashing and sexually assaulting them, and posting the footage on the internet. Far from ‘protecting’ young people, as Putin has claimed, LGBT teenagers have really borne the brunt of these new laws. There have even been rumours of government-funded scientific experiments on teenagers designed to try and ‘treat’ homosexuality.
Despite such a difficult situation facing activists the LGBT movement has remarkably been able to gather some support over the past few years. During the mass anti-government protests last year it was not uncommon to see rainbow flags on the marches. When far right homophobes attacked some of these protests groups of trade unionists and others physically and politically defended the LGBT bloc.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Russia has been at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights arguing that LGBT struggle must be linked with the fight for democratic socialism, against authoritarianism and for social change.
The CWI has helped found Equality March, a campaign of workers and minorities designed to counter the toxic ultra-nationalist ‘Russian March.’ When a biology teacher was fired last year for providing LGBT sexual health information to his students, CWI activists in the independent teachers’ union Uchitel helped build a campaign that saw him reinstated. It is campaigns like this, linking the question of LGBT inequality to questions of class inequality which show how gains can be made in Russia today.
CWI activists Igor Yasin and Zhenya Otto have been prominent national figures making the case for LGBT rights. As a result they have also become targets of far right violence. Far right activists recently attacked the CWI office in Moscow, among other things covering the walls with anti-Semitic and homophobic slogans. Masked neo-Nazis also attacked Equality March activists at Dostoevsky train station, throwing one man onto the train tracks and bashing others. One of the masked men was shouting ‘Death to the CWI!’
Unlike in Australia, the broader left in Russia is very reluctant to tackle the question of LGBT inequality. All too often the middle class leaders of last year’s protest movement have pandered to nationalism and xenophobia, or simply declared the issue of LGBT rights to be ‘too difficult.’ Protest leaders like Alexei Navalny, who is contesting the Moscow mayoral elections on an anti-immigrant platform, often have politics almost indistinguishable from that of government politicians!
With the Sochi Olympics fast approaching, people all over the world are debating what should be done. Many people are wondering what kind of tactics LGBT people and their supporters in Russia and around the world should use to fight Putin’s repression.
The CWI in Russia argues that the Winter Olympics in Sochi will shine a spotlight not just on Russia and Putin but on the whole question of homophobia and LGBT equality. The CWI and Equality March are calling on people in Australia not to boycott the Sochi Olympics but during the time of the Olympics to build the biggest international anti-homophobia movement the world has ever seen.
More specifically, CWI and Equality March activists in Russia are calling for:
-Protests in front of Russia’s embassies and consulates on the day of the opening of the Olympic Games in Sochi
– Sports fans to organise solidarity actions when attending the Olympics
– Athletes competing in the Olympics to express their support in statements or symbolically
– Activists and allies in different countries to organise campaigns demanding protection against persecution for the athletes who choose to protest against homophobia and neglect of human rights in Russia from the Olympic committees
– People all over the world to demand a change in the rules of the Olympics that limit the right to protest against discrimination
-Support for the activists facing persecution in Russia, including those who have to seek asylum in the EU and other countries
– Protests during international visits of Russian officials or celebrities known for their homophobic views
Here in Australia the LGBT struggle has been mainly centred around the fight for marriage equality. This struggle is important because if we let any government get away with denying equality to LGBT people it only emboldens other regimes like Putin’s to do the same. Activists in Australia should also seize this opportunity and strive to link the different struggles that LGBT people are waging across the world together.
That said we need to broaden out the campaign for marriage equality in Australia to include issues like homophobic bullying and other forms of discrimination. Ultimately the best way to fight homophobia is to fight the capitalist system that creates it.
By Chris Dite