Russian Queers Under Attack

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | Unless we get involved, US athletes will participate in the 2014 Olympics in Russia, where naked authoritarian rule has returned after a trial in democracy that only lasted long enough for the Eastern Orthodox Church to regain and consolidate its power and for a vicious free market capitalism to create a few obscenely wealthy oligarchs.

The rest of the population is comprised of a handful of pro-democracy resisters, like the feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, a lumpish and alienated majority, and a sizeable minority increasingly nostalgic for the bad old days when sacrificial victims might have disappeared (we won't speak of them), but at least there was order.

Part of that returning, Soviet-era order is the oppression of queers. The Church had done it before, but the Communist secular state got in the business when it turned out that faggots didn't disappear along with the filthy upper classes. Like in Cuba, this state-sponsored homophobia became particularly virulent after a few years in the authoritarian swamp when it crossbred puritanical Christian morality with the macho, authoritarian cult of the Commies' New Man.

Queers, of course, are its natural enemy, dykes subverting the idea that things must be the way they are — with women submitting to their sharply bearded men, citizens bowing to the power of the state, and journalists regularly eating their words or having convenient and fatal accidents. Two men are just as bad because either you have a male abdicating his God-given supremacy or a pair of them asserting the chaotic power of erotic democracy.

The worst Russian laws came in 1960 when queers were punished not just for having sex, but banned from working any job that had to do with kids or playing any role in public. Plenty of gay men ended up in prison or worse. Dykes were more routinely sent to the nuthouse to have their queerness electro-shocked out of them.

That famous anti-gay article 121.1 of the 1960 Soviet Criminal Code was only repealed two decades ago in 1993, less as a sign of a newfound commitment to civil equality than a little early pinkwashing to help Russia court the European Union. Up until late in '92, hundreds of gay men were still being convicted and imprisoned every year, while dyke activists like Alla Pitcherskaia not only risked repeated arrest, but threats of permanent imprisonment and electrodes.

When I was co-editing the Gully online magazine from 2000 to 2006, the Russian queers we worked with were reluctant to use their names. As it turned out, they had good reason. Like Putin's authoritarian government, unapologetic homophobes have re-emerged mouthing both nationalistic and religious arguments in their attempts to recriminalize homosexuality.

They've been increasingly effective, shutting down some Pride Parades, and in June, as lesbians and gay men in the US won federal recognition of their marriages, the Russian parliament voted almost unanimously to ban “pro-gay” propaganda. This incredibly broad law not only prohibits any positive portrayals of LGBT people but also criminalizes even straight people who dare acknowledge our existence in public or speak the word gay. For all intents and purposes, it officially outlaws queers and attempts to erase us.

They're not stopping there. A new law bans gay couples from adopting, and another makes it legal to toss tourists into jail for a couple weeks if they're gay. Four Dutch tourists were recently arrested for “promoting homosexuality to children.” More laws are in the works to remove children from lesbian and gay parents. Forget marriage.

Ultranationalists, acting with the state's approval, if not their funds, don’t just want to erase us socially and legally, but also erase us from the face of the earth. As new stadiums are built and Olympic platitudes mouthed, the most popular sport in Russia is forming lynch mobs to attack queers in the street. Other far-right psychos are using social media to lure young gay teens into private spaces where they humiliate and torture them, then proudly post videos of their horrifying acts of patriotism on the Internet. According to an online poll, since this anti-gay crackdown intensified, 15 percent of LGBT folks in Russia have been physically attacked for being gay or transgender. There have been grisly murders.

Russian queers are in real danger without major outside pressure or a civil earthquake. Because homophobia's only half the problem. Cultures can be changed, eventually. But there’s little they can do without the tools of civil society and democracy — persuasion and protest and speech. As outsiders, we can only vote with our money and by withholding the prestige Russia longs for. Unlike in the US, where we can also vote at the ballot box and agitate, at least for now.

Although we're heading in a better direction on LGBT rights, we're moving in tandem with Russia when it comes to destroying the tools of social change like free speech and a vibrant media. In the long run, it may be less significant to have a gay-friendly president than one more determined than George W. Bush to attack the press and make examples of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, rightly disgusted by their government's abuse of power to erode our precious democracy. Putin must be really amused to have Snowden as a houseguest.