The problem with Russia’s “gay problem”

I find it interesting reading about Russia’s anti-gay legislation and the country’s homophobic culture, especially in light of the strides the LGBT community has made in the United States and throughout Western Europe. While countries are legalizing same-sex marriage and the United States struck down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as well as gutted DOMA, Russia has passed some gay-related legislation itself.

First, it should be noted in all fairness (and this is the last time on this post that I’ll be “all fair” with Russia), homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, but there hasn’t been any profound legislation to protect the LGBT community, and in fact, the country has gone backwards when it comes to gay rights.

Recently we’re hearing about the “gay propaganda” law which bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Not only has this Neatherthal law been adopted but the day-to-day lives of gay citizens in Russia have been intolerable – members of the LGBT community have been victims of anti-gay violence and discrimination that the government has done little to curb. Pictures have been spread throughout the Internet of gays being pelted by rotting eggs, being beaten and dragged by their hair. What’s also disturbing is that the posters of the pics aren’t always the victims or activists – some of the most violent anti-gay demonstraters have also proudly posted their handiwork.

So, here in the United States, many in the LGBT community are trying to figure out what’s the best approach in tackling this issue. Dan Savage – famous for his “It Gets Better” campaign – called for a boycott on Stoli vodka, one of the most popular brands of vodka, served in many gay bars. The ban has been embraced by many, but also criticized for its questionable effectiveness.

I agree with what many boycott critics have said – boycotting a brand of vodka owned by a Russian businessman isn’t necessarily the best way to address an issue. In fact, it smacks of lazy activism – you know the kind, where folks think they’ve done something by clicking “like” on a FaceBook post. Others have called for the United States to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympic games in 2014. There are some who also suggested boycotting travel to Russia.

It’s a difficult question, right?

I always get a little wary and nervous when I hear about boycotting, banning, or sanctions. I know lots of LGBT folks have suggested we cut off our aid to Uganda until that country stops abusing its gay citizens. I also know that cutting off aid to Uganda would plunge the country into a humanitarian catastrophe – a disaster that would also affect millions of Ugandan gays.

But we can’t do nothing. We can’t sit quietly while the LGBT community continues to be victimized by thugs, who feel empowered by bigoted legislation. But what can be done?

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton made LGBT rights one of the major points of her profile during her tenure. She’s angered countries when affirming gay rights in public, international forums, including the United Nations. Now, we’ve got an equally competent secretary of state, John Kerry – who should be the person that we should look to. It’s going to be up to Kerry to perform that awfully delicate diplomatic dance which will confirm our country’s revulsion for these heinous acts, yet at the same time, not piss off a powerful country that has had a tense relationship with us.

This goes back to an earlier argument I made months ago about reviewing candidates’ positions on foreign policy. A way to ensure that our state department pushes a pro-equality foreign policy is to make sure our elected officials – which includes senators, congressmen and the president – are behind a pro-equality foreign policy.

But to many, Kerry’s a mile-high goal – after all, he’s not on my speed dial. Another important thing American LGBT folks can do is listen to their Russian counterparts. Too often when Americans hear about awful things that happen in other countries, a weird, creepy, nationalism settles in. The LGBT community is not immune to this, and in fact, many members have the most virulent in their xenophobia, dredging up Cold War-era slams against Russia, dehumanizing its complex and diverse population.

Also, too often when Americans want to get to the bottom of an issue, they suddenly get ensnared into the White-Savior Industrial Complex. This is when Americans – often white Americans – get sentimental about how sad and miserable life is in other countries, and how wonderful it would be to descend into these undeveloped nations, wave magic wands and fix all. For one day.

Now, I’m not slamming folks who do good work in poorer countries – after all, it’s all good work. But the issue is rushing in and feeding people is great, but it doesn’t last. And I’m not pulling one of those bullshit, “Feed a man and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats forever.” That’s rugged individualistic crap that is nonsense. What I’m arguing is that we can’t simply go there and fix superficial symptoms of larger problems of poverty, war, corruption, and famine.

The problem with all this thinking is that however well-intentioned, our help tends to “otherize” the folks we’re supposed to be helping. It infantilizes them, and removes any autonomy as well as dignity that these people have.

And when we try to address Russia’s “gay problem,” we have to remember that there is a mobilized LGBT presence in Russia that is fighting the good fight. If we want to help Russian gays, we need to listen to them and ask what they need. Some have supported the boycott, but others – including prominent LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseev – are calling for concerned U.S. citizens (as well as UK, French, and other gay-friendly countries) to push their government to deny entrance visas for certain Russian politicians, including those responsible for the “gay propaganda” laws – of course, this action would have some serious diplomatic consequences, and before any steps are taken, the State Department should review and decide any kind action. But banning certain politicians from traveling to the United States or Great Britain would be a great way highlight not only how inhospitable Russia is to gays, but also how despicable these laws and attitudes are to the rest of the world.

It’s distressingly depressing to see photographs of gays and lesbians being beaten by thugs and abused by the police. And it is disconcerting that the Russian government doesn’t feel it necessary to protect its gay citizens from these kinds of abuse. The solution will be a large network of solutions – activists, politicians, private citizens (both gay and straight) – that will hopefully bring more attention to this issue, which will then shine a harsh and unforgiving spotlight on this growing human rights crisis.

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