UPDATED: Since publishing the original article, the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda has passed. LGBTI activists still say the best course of action is not to cut medical aid for example, as already LGBTI people are being prevented HIV resources in hospitals. It would be more effective to cut US military aid which is a lynchpin of US control in East Africa (and has also created space for Evangelicals to influence policy, whether anti-Kony campaigns or lobbying for the anti-homosexuality bill). This version is different from the original version republished by Truthout.
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 of Russian LGBT people. By talking about Russia as uniquely homophobic and transphobic, Westerners are avoiding tackling the roots of homophobia and transphobia.
The survival of LGBT and HIV+ people is best ensured by legal protection, but they are targeted by the discourse of ‘national survival’ that 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. NATO’s attempts to expand to Georgia and the Ukraine are seen as aggressive acts, as is nuclear missile defence and support for Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. Russia had good reason to assume the Cold War’s end would and should not have resulted in NATO’s eastward expansion.
The other dominating factor in Russian politics and these anti-LGBT laws is the ever enigmatic Vladimir Putin. Many Westerners promote individual dissidents that fit the narrative of an authoritarian Russia with a few lone, liberal holdouts. Pussy Riot fit this Cold War narrative despite being anti-capitalist anarchists. But there is broader opposition – Putin was severely rattled by the 2011-12 opposition protests. When needing to consolidate power he has tapped into hyper-nationalism; he used the global war on terror narrative 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.
Russian LGBT activists recognise their movement requires coalition-building and can’t be separated from other movements – LGBT people’s conditions are distinct, but not unconnected to other struggles. Russian LGBT groups have thus been sceptical of boycotting both the Sochi Olympics and Russian goods. A clumsy attempt to recreate the US gay community’s Coors boycott has been a campaign to boycott Russian vodka. Because it mostly appeals to the symbolism of the Coors boycott – and vodka as a Russian cultural symbol – it is abstracted from the Russian LGBT community’s activism. Many Latvian and Russian LGBT activists say boycotting Russian vodka is doing active harm to their coalition-building efforts. It is impossible to organise against these anti-LGBT laws without talking about crackdowns on journalists, blasphemy laws, or the occupation of Chechnya. Incidentally, the Circassian community have called consistently for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics as they are staged on their ancestral homeland and 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 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. While a consistent conversation is difficult when all discussions of gender and sexuality were curtailed for several generations, polling suggests a majority of Russians simultaneously believe homosexuality is a disease, while against anti-LGBT job discrimination. Russian LGBT activists’ best understand the context they are operating in, achieving goals such as ending the blood donation ban on gay and bisexual men. A full understanding of 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 Jesse Owens’ challenge 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, their elimination cannot be separated from other movements. Western activists’ calls to tie international aid to Uganda to their record on LGBTI rights was deeply unhelpful for Ugandan activists – it furthered a discourse 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 evangelicals.
The conflation of international LGBT struggles with Western ‘rights’-based LGBT movements 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, able-bodied, 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 and/or trans activists of colour realise combating violence requires engaging with communities to ensure safe spaces for LGBTQ people, as well as undocumented immigrants and those with HIV. 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 voters after the Prop 8 gay marriage ban in California – 58% voted for the 2008 ban as did nearly 53% of all voters. Unexamined was the absence of queer and/or trans 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 and/or trans people of colour.
When expressing solidarity it is best to listen to the people who operate within their own political contexts and spaces, and engage from there. It requires taking a greater sense of responsibility and agency, to investigate and do something about complicity in events where Western LGBT movements 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’ – not just in Russia, but among queer and/or trans people of colour at home.