It’s hard to believe it has been over five years since I was attacked on the streets of Moscow while filming a gay rights demonstration for my documentary Beyond Gay: The
Politics of Pride. It is the only time I have ever been physically gay bashed, so it’s no wonder the memory of those days in Moscow still gives me shivers – and fills me with anger and frustration. They were, without question, the scariest days of my life. What is even more scary and shocking, is that for the activists we met and friends we made in Russia, things are much more dangerous today, than they were in 2008.
Thankfully the media attention of LGBTQ rights outside Russia finally seems to have broken through anecdotal reporting and this week it reached an all time high, with more people than ever lending their voice to the outrage. Personally I have written my MP many times, and the minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, twice back in February and March of 2012. He was kind enough to get back to me last August with a letter explaining how he had spoken out about it in the House of Commons and:
“Upon my request, Canada’s concerns have been conveyed to Russian authorities, and a travel advisory has been placed on the website of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advising Canadians of the implications of this law. The promotion of Canadian values will continue to feature prominently in our ongoing dialogue with Russia.”
- John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs
I haven’t noticed that dialogue figuring prominently with our government, or anywhere for that matter, other than in LGBTQ media. I’ve signed countless petitions, posted hundreds of articles and discussed Russia at several dozen Beyond Gay screenings in North America and Europe over the last five years. Only to see the situation worsen and my colleagues repeatedly assaulted, arrested, fined and generally victimized by this government’s policy of state sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ people.
I’m not the least bit surprised by prominent activist Nikolai Alekseev’s frustration and disdain with the call for a Boycott of Stoli vodka. Generally speaking OK, bring attention to the issue by every means possible, but it’s pretty sad that the best we have come up with in five years is a travel advisory and the notion that ”Gee Honey, we should really switch to Finlandia.” Here’s a news flash, Putin hates us, he probably doesn’t want us drinking his vodka anyway. In fact I imagine that most Russians are happy, or don’t care that the gays are no longer drinking Stoli. The majority don’t believe homosexuals should be accepted by society, and have a deep resentment towards the West in general. They don’t like us. So it’s great that this vodka boycott has brought widespread media attention to the human rights issue, and has stirred up debate about who owns Stoli and the relevance of boycotts, but I agree that it’s not really helping LGBTQ people in Russia in real political and legal terms. I applaud those who have initiated the boycotts, every little bit helps, but I am going to ask you to do a little bit more. We need to pressure government leaders in the West, and the IOC, to call on the Russian legislators to reverse all its recently introduced homophobic legislation.
In particular Alekseev and recommends literally embarrassing the Russian politicians responsible for introducing the “propaganda of homosexuality” laws by imposing visa bans restricting their travel. Elena Mizulina is the State Duma deputy responsible for the federal law banning gay propaganda to minors and the law banning foreign adoptions of Russian orphans by gays and lesbians, and Vitaly Milonov is St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy responsible for the law banning gay propaganda to minors there. Alekseev is convinced that the international embarrassment of these travel bans will pressure lawmakers to rethink their positions. You can sign the American Petition here and the Canadian Petition here. Indeed almost immediately these petitions began causing the media storm Alekseev desired, but they are a long way from reaching their point of critical influence. Family friends and allies of all kinds, we need your support on these efforts, please take a few moments to make the world a safer place for everyone.
Over the weekend the debate changed focus from vodka, to boycotting the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. While I agree with the idea of a boycott in principle, I have never really been a fan of this proposal for two main reasons. Number one is the athletes. Of course the Olympics is a huge corporate machine fuelled with elitism, but I fail to see the justice in stripping the athletes of their right to compete in something that in some cases they have been training their whole lives for. They are not responsible for the human rights violations of the Russian government or the IOC’s failure to choose a suitable host for the games. Out LGBTQ American figure skater Johnny Wier has this to say about a boycott:
“To have a boycott would not only negate the career of some athletes who have only one chance at competing at the Games, but also the over-time shifts an exhausted father takes to make ends meet, or the social acclimatization of a brother who can’t go on spring break because his brother needed another costume, or the mother who works part-time at a job far beneath her, just so she can afford to watch her first born perform for the world. The Olympics are not a political statement, they are a place to let the world shine in peace and let them marvel at their youthful talents.
There isn’t a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics. I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia’s stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof. I beg the gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world.”
Secondly, a boycott is simply highly unlikely because any country that boycotts the games is also permanently disqualified from all future Olympic games. The cost is simply too high for individual nations, and the outcome only further isolates Russian LGBTQ and could incite further violence against them for derailing the games, causing an international embarrassment the inevitable financial disaster that would follow. Other, more effective, solutions must be found and I was thrilled when I saw Alekseev’s announcement that he and his colleagues were planning Winter Pride Sochi 2014, on the same day as the opening ceremonies. This is real activism, sure to illuminate on an international stage, the injustices and violence faced by Russian LGBTQ people, and as Alekseev stated, “expose the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee which went into discriminatory agreements with the Russian regime.”
On Friday the IOC addressed the issue of safety for LGBTQ people attending the games.“The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games. This legislation has just been passed into law, and it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi. As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media.”
Personally, I have no confidence in these assurances, and believe that it is inevitable that LGBTQ people will be verbally and physically assaulted at the games. Here are some important things to remember: the majority of the Russian population agree with Putin’s stance on gay rights. He has been cultivating a climate of hate against the queer community for years. Even if they aren’t prosecuted under the law, who will protect visitors from the citizens of Russia who believe it is their right and moral obligation to attack any expression of LGBTQ rights, including simply wearing a rainbow pin or publicly admitting one’s gender identity? I also believe there will be Russian extremists that will head to Sochi specifically to seek out LGBTQ foreigners and assault them. How does the IOC imagine it can ensure this won’t happen? Furthermore, how can they claim “it remains to be seen whether and how it (the legislation) will be implemented.” Alekseev has already been arrested, charged and fined under these laws. Pussy Riot, a Russian queer punk band, remains in prison, and a foreign documentary team has been arrested and deported. The IOC is either incredibly naive or intentionally misrepresenting seriousness of the situation, or both. Seriously, how can the IOC claim the games can take place without discrimination with these laws in place? It seems inevitable that the hypocrisy of the IOC will also be revealed at the expense of the LGBTQ community.
Just to make matters even more complicated, on Sunday another group of 23 Russian LGBTQ activists released a statement to Queer Nation in the USA, calling for a boycott of both Russian goods and the Sochi games. I applaud the efforts and moreover the courage of these individuals, particularly because even putting your signature to a document like this is sure to have unfortunate if not painful and life threatening repercussions. It will be interesting to see if they are all charged under the propaganda of homosexuality legislation. Whether you are pro-boycott or not, their central point is familiar, and difficult to oppose: we must be very vocal with our dissent of current state of LGBT rights in Russia, and all efforts to pressure governments and draw attention to these injustices are worthwhile.
So what am I suggesting should be done?
1. Sign the petitions to prohibit the international travel of homophobic Russian politicians Elena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov.
2. Insist Sochi Winter Pride 2014 be permitted by Russian authorities and Support Gay Russia’s efforts to host the event by finding sponsors outside Russia that can contribute either financially or symbolically to its success.
3. Pressure your government to insist your national Olympic committee and the IOC, have these laws repealed before the Sochi 2014 games, or reschedule them elsewhere. This pressure should include trade sanctions against the Russian Federation.
4. Insist the IOC get a statement directly from Putin, or similar a government source, to the people of Russia that any violence against LGBTQ persons attending the games will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Sadly, I think a boycott, or re-locating of the games, is highly unlikely, however I am pleased to hear the suggestion they return to Vancouver, the previous host of the winter games. Unless the IOC is made abundantly aware of the real threat of violence LGBTQ people face in Russia, they will not prepare adequately for their protection. We must ensure that reports of the injustice and violence taking place in Russia remains in the mainstream media, and is impossible for the IOC to ignore. Re-post, be vocal, and do not accept empty assurances everything will be OK. I can tell you from experience that it is not safe to be LGBTQ in Russia. The games cannot be free from discrimination in this country at this time. The population of Russia needs firm guidance from its government that the safety and security of all people attending the games is required. Without violent actions against LGBTQ publicly criticized by Russian authorities, there will certainly be attacks against us. Even with such assurances I, and many Russian activists believe, they are, in fact, inevitable.
It is possible that in the coming months a crime too heinous to ignore could make the IOC rethink Sochi, but I doubt that will happen. I think the most we can hope for is the safety of athletes and visitors, and a peaceful Sochi Winter Pride that makes very public the injustice faced by Russia’s LGBTQ community and the hypocrisy of the IOC’s claim that it promotes these games free of discrimination.
One last thing – what the hell is the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights doing about this disgusting display of bigotry? Certainly not enough.
Oh, and Happy Pride Vancouver! Don’t forget, no one is free until everybody is free.
Watch the trailer for Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride