A few months ago, I mentioned to work colleagues the attacks in Russia. As someone relatively tuned into current affairs, especially in relation to LGBT issues, I was quite shocked to hear that they knew nothing at all about this. Though the gay press was widely covering the widespread increase in gay-related hatecrimes in Russia, the mainstream media was yet to catch up. However, with the Sochi Winter Olympics just around the corner, all eyes are now focused on Russia and due to the efforts of western LGBT groups and outspoken support of celebrities like Stephen Fry, Wentworth Miller, Sir Ian McKellen and many sportsmen and women around the world, the issue has been thrust into the spotlight.
While homophobia has decreased in Britain and attitudes have changed considerably in the last two decades, the same cannot be said in Russia. With the legalisation of homosexuality only twenty years old, the level of homophobia hasn’t decreased at all. In fact, due to changes in legislation, the exact opposite can be said.
The Russian government recently passed a law that bans the promotion, or even taking a neutral stance about “non-traditional” relationships to under 18s. While this kind of a law would cause uproar in the UK, in Russia it was wholly uncontroversial and the bill passed unanimously. While its supposed intention is to protect traditional family values, the result has been the persecution of anyone or anything considered to be unconventional. Because the interpretation of “promotion” can potentially mean simple visibility, gay people are being forced to live in secret, in the closet and unable to seek support from within their own community. And as there is no such thing as a gay hatecrime in Russian law, they have no support from the authorities either.
Less than 1% of Russian gay people are open about their sexualities. Coming out means public humiliation, estrangement from families and can frequently lead to the loss of jobs, income and homes. And for gay people already with children, just their parents’ mere presence can be seen as promoting their lifestyle to them. Gay parents are having their children taken from them by the authorities and there’s nothing they can do to fight it.
Dispatches infiltrated a group, who claimed not to be targeting homosexuals, but were instead looking for paedophiles . “It just happens that nearly all of them turn out to be gay,” they said flippantly. We then witness the way they trap people: posing on gay websites/apps, the group tempt people to come and meet them, who then walk into a mob of angry people, determined to intimidate, terrorise and hurt them. Throughout the documentary, we get the impression that what we are seeing has been toned down and sanitised in front of the cameras by the group. The victim is detained and interrogated on camera, with threats of violence levelled at him from all angles. He is forced to identify himself, giving his name and address and admitting to his sexuality on film. The video they make will be published on their website, which will mean exposure of his sexuality to friends, family and the homophobic public at large. One member of the group asks if they will pour urine over the man, which is apparently a standard form of humiliation in these videos. On this occasion, their leader stops them. At no point during the entrapment or interrogation is there any evidence there is even any suspicion that this man is a paedophile.
In the UK, this kind of activity would be criminal and come with a hefty prison sentence for everyone involved. In Russia, there is very little the law could actually do, even if they want to. The problem in general is this caveat of “if they want to”. Twenty years ago, the UK was the same. Homophobia was ingrained in our national psyche, from the slangwords right through to bare-bone culture of masculinity, but through the efforts of Gay Rights groups, changes in legislation and the hypervisibility of LGBT people in the media, attitudes have slowly but effectively changed. The culture of homophobia in Russia could not change without this happening there too and at the moment, their government is wholly and contentedly regressive in their opinion toward Gay Rights.
In Manchester, we are ready and willing to show our support. If you live in the area, Pride House Manchester are staging an alternative ceremony to the Sochi Olympics’ Opener tomorrow night (Friday 7th February) – ‘To Russia With Love’. An event staged to show solidarity toward the Russian LGBT community, the evening includes a procession, a mass same sex hand-holding event and the It’s A Gay Winter Knockout competition. Starting at Taurus on Canal Street at 7pm, please show your support and come along, though if you are unable to attend and wish to be involved, please tweet pictures of you and your friends of the same sex holding hands and post to social networking sites with the hashtag #SSHHI – it’s only through mass-participation events like these that we can project the message of support worldwide. Though we cannot intervene directly with the people in Russia, we can at least keep the beacon of support burning.
As we saw on Dispatches last night, this isn’t a short-term issue that’s going to just fade away. Just as the very foundation of our society has shifted to bring about acceptance in the UK, so too does the mood need to change in Russia. Any real change is a long way off, but the least we can do is provide external pressure toward their government to lead the way. The more the world becomes aware of the atrocities Russia is perpetrating on its own citizens, the more pressure can be applied from outside. Change happened here because our government amended its policies; it’s time for Russia to do the same. Please show your support in any way you can.