Solidarity with Russian LGBT movement: Neither Washington nor Moscow but international queer liberation!

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by Ian Anderson, Fightback (Wellington).

Russia was arguably the first country to legalise homosexuality.

In the ferment between the revolution of 1905 and the revolution of 1917, liberal reformers argued that homosexuality should be decriminalised. A number of prominent men were open about their attraction to other men (as in most countries, lesbianism was never strictly illegal, although women attracted to each-other were forced to pursue their desires privately).

With the seizure of mass workers’ power in 1917, the entire Criminal Code was repealed. History was open to be written through popular struggle and debate. After the Civil War and the formation of a new defensive state, the new Criminal Code of 1922 removed the crime of muzhelozhstvo (‘men lying with men.’)

Drawing from medical and legal literature of the time, historian Dan Healey has documented this period in his work Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia. Healey argues that the removal of sodomy from the 1922 Criminal Code was no accident, but rather an attempt to “secularise” gender relations.

This was a period of debate. Medical persecution and anti-gay attitudes persisted, alongside struggles for gender liberation.

It wasn’t until 1933, with the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy, that homosexuality was legally forbidden again. This was connected to a project of nation-building involving the reassertion of the nuclear family, prohibition of abortion and other gendered restrictions.

This history is necessary to understanding the current struggle over Russia’s anti-gay laws; it is not a clash of ‘Western’ and ‘Russian’ values, but rather a more complex historical struggle of oppression and liberation.

putin obama

Putin regime clamp-down
Jumping forward nearly a century, it wasn’t until the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s that gay relationships were again legalised. The current attack on queer rights, through both street violence and anti-gay laws, is a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back.’

After nearly a decade of both legal and extra-legal violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has introduced laws forbidding ‘propaganda for homosexuality,’ protecting ‘religious feeling’ and scapegoating minorities as ‘foreign agents.’

Vigilante gangs bait and assault queers, with tacit support from the government. Although the new laws theoretically target gay paedophiles, all gender non-conforming folk are targets. The gang torture and murder of a young gay teenager has received particular attention.

The Putin regime’s introduction of anti-gay laws is part of a more generalised nation-building project. The growth of violent fascist groups with tacit support for the government, strong links between the regime and the Russian Orthodox Church, repression of progressive social movements, attacks on ethnic minorities and queers, are all part of a broad cultural assault.

No clash of civilisations
In endorsing the call to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, British commentator Stephen Fry argued that the “civilised world” could not associate itself with homophobia. Fry argued the Five Rings of the Olympics would be “forever besmirched” by endorsing homophobia.

The last Winter Olympics, held in Vancouver, caused controversy because it was held on stolen land. The 2012 Olympics, held in London, saw reports of prison-like conditions for staff. All ‘civilisation’ requires some bloodshed.

Although Fry’s references to the ‘civilised world,’ and ‘civilisation’ are passing phrases, these phrases reference a colonial East-West, Clash of Civilisations narrative. In this narrative, the civilised West must liberate the backwards East.

However, liberation of Russian queers can only come through struggles in Russia, not imposition from without.

Barack Obama, current figurehead for US imperialism, recently snubbed Putin for a one-on-one meeting. Obama cited the regime’s decision to house US whistle-blower, and now refugee, Edward Snowden.

One liberal commentator bemoaned that Obama mainly snubbed Putin over human rights abuses in the US, rather than human rights abuses in Russia. However, those of us who stand with Russian queers must be wary of any attempts to link their struggle with the pursuit of US imperialist power.

It is worth noting that human rights abuses in countries that rival, or challenge, the US often receive more attention than abuses in countries fully backed by the US.

For example, while the abuses of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe are widely known, the vicious atrocities of US-backed oil baron Teodoro Obiang (President of fellow African republic Equatorial Guinea) receive little attention.

Meanwhile, unsurprising cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that in Europe, US agents pursued a deliberate strategy of highlighting women’s oppression in Afghanistan in the leadup to the war, in an attempt to win over European public opinion.

This is not to say that the visible oppression of Russian queers is a lie concocted by Western conspiracy. However, we must be wary of any attempts to co-opt such struggles into a pro-US narrative.

Protest outside the Russian embassy in Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ

Protest outside the Russian embassy in Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ

International queer liberation
Russia’s LGBT movement is visible and tenacious. Alongside images of brutalised queers in Russia, images of public rainbow flags and protestors confronting vigilantes circulate globally.

Western progressives must take a lead from the Russian LGBT movement. This is never a simple matter, as gay men in Russia do not agree on everything, let alone agreeing with all lesbians, transfolk and queers combined. However, there is a real movement in Russia with real voices, and we ignore those voices at our peril.

At the end of July, the Russian LGBT Network released a statement opposing a boycott on the Russian Winter Olympics. This Network reportedly combines 13 regional branches and 10 regional LGBT organisations, so it represents significant forces on the ground. Instead of a boycott, the Network argued for visible opposition by participants:

“Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways.”

Previous attempts to boycott Olympic games – including Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, and Los Angeles in 1984 – have proved largely ineffectual. By contrast, the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics resonated globally as part of a broader upsurge against imperialism, and remains an iconic, inspiring image.

In recent days at the World Athletics Championship, two female Russian athletes defied repression by kissing each-other on the podium. A Swedish athlete caused controversy by painting her nails in rainbow colours. These actions must be supported and amplified.

The Queer Avengers, an activist group in Aotearoa/NZ, contacted the Russian LGBT Network informing them that QA planned to hold an action outside the Russian embassy. Although the Network had discouraged international groups from an Olympics boycott, they responded “It’s highly appreciated by us – do it and be noisy!”

Tactics to confront repression can and must be debated, and boycotts are worth considering. The call for skepticism about boycotts is not a call for inaction, but rather for action that amplifies, stands in solidarity with, and considers the specific situation of the existing LGBT movement in Russia.

Crucially, liberation for Russian queers will come not through Russian adoption of ‘Western’ or ‘civilised’ values. Liberation can only come through the struggle within Russia – and the global struggle acting in solidarity.

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