The Right to Be
Text by Yuri Pushkin
It is hard to feel at home in your own country when the popular expression of who and what you are is “unnatural”. Such is the reality for gays and lesbians living in Moscow and all across Russia’s eleven time zones. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has certainly turned into a more democratic and free nation. Along with a more open society came the legalization of homosexuality. Still, free speech appears to be more of a privilege than a right, denied to anyone whose opinions or lifestyles vary from what is considered normal, including gays and lesbians.
Such was the case on May 16 when dozens of gay and lesbian rights activists attempted to stage a protest rally on top of Moscow’s Sparrow Hills to bring attention to the human rights violations in the country. As in years past, the city’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov banned any demonstrations from taking place claiming that homosexuality is “satanic” and “helps spread the AIDS virus”. Led by Russia’s prominent gay rights activist Nikolai Alexeyev, UK human rights activist Peter Tatchel and American Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, the event was less a parade than a game of cat and mouse. Riot police seized any participants talking to the media. All three leaders were arrested within minutes of their arrival. “This shows the Russian people are not free!” yelled Tatchel as he was carried off into a police car.
Since homosexuality became legal on paper fifteen years ago, very little has actually been done by the government to provide equal rights and safety for Russia’s gays and lesbians. Same sex marriage is still illegal, as is adoption for gay and lesbian couples. In 1996, several new LGBT-themed publications appeared but quickly folded due to lack of funding as well as legal and social harassment. Today, no such material is visible on magazine stands around the capitol. State run media channels feature almost no homosexual content providing no voice to the gay community. To date, no basic discrimination laws exist to protect individuals from hate crimes. Two years ago police stood by and watched as Tatchel and others attending the 2007 Gay Rights Parade were attacked by neo-Nazi protestors and severely beaten. In response, gay rights groups sued the city, all unsuccessful.
“The federal and city authorities have refused to meet representatives of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They will not introduce laws to tackle anti-gay violence and to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Faced with this intransigent refusal to engage in dialog or legislate, what are Russian queers to do?” wrote Peter Tatchel in an open letter published on gayrussia.ru and UK’s The Guardian after the parade in Moscow.
In order to get the governments attention, Russian gays are following examples they have from other nations and leaders who fought for human rights, such as Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S. “First, they need a right to speech and protest and at the moment, they don’t even have that,” said Andy Thayer to me over the phone after he was arrested during the gay parade. “It’s one thing to change the law, but it’s another to change the attitude of a nation.”
It is this barrier which will be hardest to overcome. Unlike United States, where racism was in fast decline in most of the nation by the time Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington in 1963, the majority of Russians are still very much against homosexuality and gay marriage. In a poll taken by Moskovsky Komsomolets prior to the gay parade, 75% of people questioned agreed that it should be banned under all circumstances. Only 14% of the population supports legalization of gay marriage in some form. With such strong views from the general public, it will be hard for Alexeyev or anyone else to change the country from the inside.
Aside from the government, some in the gay community also show skepticism in tactics used by Alexeyev to bring international attention to the issues at hand.
“Why bring attention to ourselves, especially in such a negative way? If people see less violence at gay pride parades, maybe the overall attitude will start to change then too,” said a gay stylist in Moscow in an interview, wishing to stay anonymous.
Alexeyev is aware and disappointed about such views, “People care about their own personal welfare much more than going to a demonstration and fighting for whatever is right.” Both Tatchel and Thayer disagree with blasé views of gays not willing to stand up for their peers. “Our protest was more than gay rights, it’s about the rights to protest, the rights to free speech, the rights for all, not just gay or straight.”
If not internally, Nikolai and other activists must try to get pressure from outside Russian borders in order to change what goes on inside. When then-President Boris Yeltsin legalized homosexuality in Russia, he was not supported by any of the political parties or the voters. Still, he was pressured by the West to do so in order for Russia to become a member of the Council of Europe. Today, Europe is showing little interest in Russia’s human rights issues, indicating that the initial pressure may have been more of a symbolic move. Currently, there are fifty or so cases in front of the International Court in Switzerland regarding discrimination and human rights violations in Russia, with no decisions being made. Some see it as a weakness from the European Union governing body before Russia, perhaps fearing some retaliation from the nation which still has a strong hold on gas and oil supplied into Western Europe.
But despite large and clear problems that still exist for gays in Russia, progress has been made since 1993. Gay clubs, gyms and other places to hang out at are opening up more frequently around the city and younger generations, influenced by their foreign counterparts, are slowly becoming more accepting of homosexuality. The country, as a whole, may be far behind other progressive nations but change is clear in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most importantly, thanks to the wide spread of information via the Internet, Russian gays are no longer alone in their fight for human rights. In the end, isn’t that what we all want – to not be alone?