Today, the Opinion pages of the New York Times give us this story, by Mark Gevisser, a fellow of the Open Society Foundations, Life Under Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban. Arkhangelsk is on the Barents Sea, but, as the map shows, it is not all that far from St. Petersburg or Helsinki.
Gevisser tells us the story of Varya, a 22 year old bus conductor and a lesbian. To refresh your memories, this is the problem LGBT people in Russia, and specifically Arhhangelsk, are facing:
Six months ago, Russia adopted a nationwide ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which makes it a crime to so much as mention homosexuality around minors. The ban was piloted in two provinces: Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, in 2006, and then Arkhangelsk, in the north, in 2011.After rehearsing the causes of all this, which Gevisser identifies as "traditional values" (making nice with the Russian Orthodox Church) and backlash (as in Anita Bryant-type activity), he discusses Rakurs (which means "Perspective"), a group founded by Tatiana Vinnichenko, who teaches Russian language at Arkhangelsk State Technical University. He observes that its office is in a reasonably visible location in a highrise downtown, which he takes as an indication that the LGBT center has not been marginalized, at least not yet. But there are signs that all is not that well. The case of Varya again:
There have been only a few prosecutions, but the law has begun to bite in other ways. In Arkhangelsk, it has been used to refuse authorization of street demonstrations. And the father of Varya’s child, heretofore absent, had begun using it to threaten a custody case. Varya contacted Rakurs, the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization, and after they sent a letter, the man backed off. “But something else will happen,” she told me. “We know we are vulnerable.”
She showed me a sticker she had found on her route that morning: “Stamp out faggots,” it read, depicting a jackboot squashing the head of a pink-haired youth. “It’s the neo-Nazis,” she told me. “The stickers are everywhere. They can do what they want because they know the authorities will not stop them.”Probably because LGBT people ARE visible in Arkhangelsk. Gevisser tells us about Varya's friends Vadim, who is planning to go to Moscow
to begin the process of becoming a woman, and Sergei, who recently held a spontaneous one-man protest, yelling “Arrest me! I am propaganda!” to a passing patrol car. The police officers obliged, but decided to charge him only with littering. They seemed more interested, he said, in his involvement in the alt-music scene, or nefor (“neformaly” means “alternative”), than in his sexuality.Alt-music! Subversive! Goth! If you feel different, there's a place for you.
And Gevisser observes that there's a BIG alt-music community in Moscow and online that has responded to the propaganda laws. Flash mob actions. Meetings in parks where other alt-music groups hang out (for camouflage).
An online initiative called “Deti-404,” or “Children 404” (“404” being the error code that appears when a web page can’t be found), gathers testimonies from queer youth all over Russia — precisely the minors the propaganda ban is meant to protect. The accounts of these isolated kids are harrowing. But, like Harry’s activism, they are shot through with such purpose that they suggest an inevitable dynamic: Even as the rise of a queer rights movement provokes a backlash, the backlash undermines itself — by strengthening the resolve of the movement and by publicizing (even if through hate) the existence of a group of people who were so long invisible.Strengthening the resolve of the movement. One group in American history is always described in those terms: the abolitionists, both white and black, who worked tirelessly to bring about the end of slavery no matter how much they were vilified, especially in the 1830s and 1840s, before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. But I digress.
Professor Vinnichenko tells Gevisser that Arkhangelsk is a tolerant city which the state's actions are undermining. But Rakurs is not alone in the city:
Ms. Vinnichenko introduced me to a journalist, Aleksey Filatov, who has been covering Rakurs for a local news website. He saw no reason the issue should not be covered “objectively, just like any other subject.” He added: “Whatever one’s personal feelings, one must acknowledge that the world is changing.”And Sochi?
Everyone I met at Rakurs was emphatic that Western activism on their behalf should be escalated before the Winter Olympics start in February in Sochi, if only to shine a light on their predicament. Still, actions like mass boycotts against vodka or Coca-Cola (an Olympic sponsor) carry a double edge: They reinforce the official line that lesbian and gay rights are an obsession of the decadent, commercialized West, from which Russian values must be protected.This is an anti-modernizing effort by the Russian state, pure and simple. They can't go after Jews, and the McDonald's in Red Square is the highest grossing store in the chain WORLDWIDE, so LGBT people. We have our marching orders. And then there's this, once again vindicating the earliest gay liberationists and Harvey Milk. When Russians speak out for LGBT rights , what's important about that
is the counterpoint they give, by their very existence, to the official narrative that homosexuals are dangerous outsiders or, worse, child molesters.It's not good. But the more time that passes that we don't hear about arrests or other atrocities is time that's letting our stories, EVEN IN RUSSIA, do their work. Now, what I'm afraid of is what's going to happen after Sochi, but don't expect my attention to flag just because the Olympics are over.
4:09 PM PT: Yep! Don't write about Russia for a few months, people lose interest. I see I have my marching orders as NBC ramps up to the Sochi Olympics. Thank you, my Kossack friends, for remembering.