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Six ideas about Russia's anti-gay laws

U of T expert explains the fallout from Putin’s latest legislation

(photo by valya v via Flickr)

Recently enacted anti-gay legislation in Russia and a resulting surge of anti-gay violence has the international press reeling.

Politically critical op-eds and revealing photo galleries of attacks against the LGBT community in the world’s largest country continue to go viral through social media. And many in North America and Europe are calling for boycotts against the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics and Stolichnaya Vodka in protest of Russia’s increasingly repressive anti-gay culture. But will Russia heed the protests of Western activists—or politicians, for that matter?

Brenda Cossman is a professor of law and Director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. She argues that:
Bullet list reading: • The media is giving so much attention to Russia's anti-gay stance because it's so close to Europe, the Olympics • Olympic boycotts might not help Russia's LGBT community • Vodka boycotts probably won't change Russian law, but they still might still be a good idea • The West should ask Russians how best to support their protests

... and more. Cossman explained the issues at stake to U of T News.

1) These laws are part of a trend in Russia

It’s both surprising and not, both shocking and not. These kinds of laws banning homosexual propaganda have been popping up for quite a long time now in different Russian regions-- I think there are 10 such bans-- this latest one just took it to a new level: it’s now a federal law and Putin has actually signed it. But there’s been tremendous amounts of evidence of quite rampant homophobia in Russia for some time.

2) The media is giving so much attention to Russia's anti-gay stance because it's close to Europe, the Olympics

When Uganda passed an anti-gay law recently, it made the news. Now, granted, it’s a much more Draconian law [ed: making same-sex relations punishable by death or life imprisonment], but there was certainly a lot of talk and criticism about it in the media. With Russia, though, I think there are a number of factors at work:

First, the fact that it is partially Western. Russia defines itself culturally as being almost in opposition to the West, though it’s still part of Europe geographically. It seems such an outlier from Europe on the question of gay rights. And yet I think that’s also exactly what’s going on here: its anti-gay movement really is a deliberate statement of Russian difference from the West and from Europe.

Also, obviously, the Olympics are making it a really big deal. Sochi is upon us, and there are very real questions about what these anti-gay policies mean for the Olympics, what they mean for athletes, what they mean for gay athletes and what they mean for advertisers. All these things are making it deeply newsworthy.

3) Olympic boycotts might not help Russia's LGBT community

The Olympic committee is trying to extract promises from Russia that no athletes will be prosecuted under the new laws. So a number of athletes have said, “That’s really great, now we can go.” And other folks say, “Well, good for you that you can go and not get prosecuted— but what about everybody else?”

The boycott in question is a complicated one and I think you’re going to see a range of positions. The Russian LGBT network is against an Olympic boycott. Their position is, "Speak up, don't walk out," and they are calling for Sochi Gay Pride at the Olympics. They want to use engagement with LGBT pride as a form of resistance, celebration and protest.

Other folks— mostly in North America— are really critical about that and say, “We shouldn’t be going, our athletes shouldn’t be going, our corporations shouldn’t be sponsoring this.”

It’s a complicated issue amongst those who are trying to promote LGBT rights in Russia and who oppose this law—they’re not all agreed on whether or not to boycott. I’m sure there’s an awful lot occurring in the Russian media that isn’t translated into English, and we may not be getting all sides represented in the translated media, but the view coming out of Russia seems to be that LGBT folks there are saying, “Don’t boycott.”

4) Gay pride protests are powerful, but dangerous for activists

This kind of censorship and this kind of repressive state action is always a double-edged sword because the more repression there is, the more resistance there is to it. But, having said that, the more repression there is, the more real people get hurt. Real people get prosecuted. Real people go to jail. Also, in the case of Russia, there’s the official state policy, but then there are also the actions this official state policy seems to sanction. There’s been a tremendous rise in anti-gay violence. It’s not legal, but what are the consequences of it for people engaging in it? Not very much. That’s creating a culture where this violence is acceptable. While these repressive laws create a lot of protest and resistance, a lot of people are going to get hurt.

5) Vodka boycotts probably won't change Russian law, but they still might be a good idea

Again, it’s complicated. It’s pretty clever all around. The activists from Russia say boycotting Russian vodka isn’t going to make a difference in changing the position of the Russian government. I’m sure that’s true.

But, having said that, I think it’s a way to raise awareness of these homophobic laws here in the West. Anyone who’s concerned about these policies, and wants to boycott Russian products because of them—well, the only Russian product that seems to be readily available is vodka. It’s accessible.

And then the fact that Stolichnaya responded-- that corporation wouldn’t have previously stood up and supported LGBT rights, I’m sure. But it really forces their hand to say, “We stand in solidarity.”

Is it going to change the Russian government’s position? Probably not. Was it a useful strategy? It might just be, because it gets people involved, and talking about it, and now you have a big corporation who’s prepared to say, “We stand in support of LGBT rights.” That wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

6) The West should ask Russians how best to support their protests

Myself, I’m looking for indications from LGBT folks on the ground in Russia for direction on how international allies can best support them.

Harvey Fierstein recently wrote an op ed in the New York Times. I think that article was great in that it really raised awareness and kickstarted an important debate. But I don’t know that we in the West should be running off, deciding what’s best for the folks there.

I don’t think boycotting vodka hurts people inside Russia. But I do think there are other things that we could be doing that we think are supportive, but could be actually hurting the folks inside. For example, if part of this anti-gay sentiment is in reaction to the West, then it’s unclear to me how folks lobbying from the West or calling for Olympic boycotts is actually going to help. There’s also a movement to get the U.S. State Department to put heavy pressure on Russia around this, but I’m not convinced that’s helpful. I think Russia knows that the West thinks about this, and, frankly, they don’t care.

On the other hand, a number of LGBT activists in Russia, like Nikolai Alexeyev, have supported a petition asking the U.S State Department to put Russian lawmakers who spearheaded the homosexual propaganda law on the visa ban list. Just stop these folks from being able to travel to America. This is a Russian activist asking for a very specific Western intervention. Again, I am not sure how broadly supported this initiative is on the ground amongst Russian LGBT activists. But, that needs to be the question. 

Trying to be supportive and trying to be an ally on international affairs that raise sensitive cultural issues—it’s not always obvious how best to do it. So I’m looking for indications for the activists inside Russia on how we can best support them.

Brianna Goldberg is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.