Sunday, August 4, 2013

A picture of us all

Take a look at the picture on the left.

Unless - like the two individuals in black - you are a psychopath, you might find that difficult. It's ghastly.

I actually hope that you find it difficult to look at. I hope it unsettles you to your core.

Take another look. Who is the young man kneeling on the floor, forced to pose obscenely with leering apes either side of him?

I don't know the young man's name, and I don't want to know it. I'd like to apologise to him - symbolically, it's all I can do - for using this picture. In fact it's all over the internet. It first arrived there after the two individuals in black, or their supporters and colleagues, posted it on to a Russian social network. Understood to be a young gay man, he had been lured into making contact with a vigilante Neo-Nazi called Maxim Martsinkevich. Martsinkevich has made it his business to entrap gay men by posing as a date on contact websites. His prey go to meet him, where they are humiliated, beaten or tortured. Sometimes in public, with passers by ignoring what they see, or even condoning it. It's often filmed and uploaded - the purpose being to out the individual to school, to friends and to family. The victim sometimes commits suicide afterwards.

This is happening in Russia. 
Right now. 

It's just one manifestation of a situation that some are likening to the Nazi Germany of 1935. That's the year the Nuremberg Laws were enacted there, a sweeping range of legislation designed to start the process of formally excluding Jewish people from society. And 1935 was also the year before the world gathered for an Olympics in Berlin, looking the other way as a whole country geared up towards the unthinkable. 

The Russian police, say activists, are fully aware of this thug's actions, and those of others like him. But Russia is now a country which has enacted a law so broad that it is illegal to even talk in public about being gay, to share information about it, for gay people to wear any insignia, or use any emblems (the rainbow flag, for example) in public. It is illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, for an individual or media organisation to support gay rights, or for a Russian child to be adopted abroad by a gay couple, or even in a country where equal marriage exists. 
St Petersburg Pride 2013
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Homosexuality, decriminalised in Russia in 1993, is now moving towards being a criminal offence once more, in all but name. The State, and the police, are effectively on the side of Martsinkevich.

Earlier this year, St Petersburg police beat up and then arrested LGB&T activists who courageously held a (banned) Pride march, after watching them be showered were with bricks, eggs, and other missiles. 

More recently, the day the law was enacted, a small group of protestors held a 'kiss in' outside the Parliament. Police stood and watched as those who took part were violently attacked, and then moved in to arrest all the participants. It's not confined to locals either. The other week, four Dutch tourists were detained under the new law. 

St Petersburg Pride 2012
Alexnader Demainchuk / Reuters
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Russia are facing the biggest disaster of their lives - certainly since the end of the USSR. One recent report suggests that more than one in seven gay people have been physically attacked in Russia in the last ten months - a desperate expression of growing hate in a country where 85% of the population opposes same sex marriage, 38% of the population believes that gay people should either be isolated from society and/or compulsorily 'treated'. And one in twenty believes that gay people should be 'exterminated'

In a country of 143 million, that's 7 million people who actively want to kill you. How do you think that feels?

The situation has been worsening. Not one of the 436 deputies in the Russian Parliament voted against the draconian anti gay laws. The Kremlin, using the well known 'internal enemies' device with which Putin and his ex KGB/NKVD buddies grew up, is happy to see the hate gathering pace as it offers a focal point for discontent that can take the national eye off the misdemeanours of the government, the vast corruption, the mafiose strong arming of business, the protection of vested interests. 

Police break up a kiss in protest
outside the Duma 2013
Kirill Kudryavtsev  / Getty Images
Next year Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, a city on its Black Sea coast. The debate is raging  - not least amongst Russia's LGB&T community - about how the world should respond to these appalling developments and whether the games offers a focal point for protest. 

There have been calls for a boycott - immediately of Russian vodkas, and one next year of the games themselves. Others have rejected that approach, saying that avoiding Russian goods will go unnoticed and that a boycott of the games could even be counter productive. 

The point, some say, is best made by being there - and by being out and proud. The Russian government has 'reassured' the International Olympic Committee that LGB&T tourists and competitors will not be arrested, though Russian law says they must be if they do anything which identifies their authentic sexual or gender orientation in public. Parliamentarians are saying different things, calling for the detention of foreigners - though whether the country's leaders are prepared to have the biggest public relations disaster since the 1980 Moscow games on their hands if they do so remains to be seen. 

On balance, it's hard to see what a boycott would achieve. Even at a national level, Olympic boycotts before have had mixed results. The US absence at the 1980 Olympics didn't get the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and was widely seen as just a piece of political rhetoric which resulted in the Soviet bloc pulling out of the 1984 games in LA and little else. 

And were it just the LGB&T participants and tourists who failed to show next year...well nothing presumably would make the proto-Nazis in the Russian Parliament happier, nor, perhaps many of the Russian people as they are taught by their leaders to deepen their prejudice.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
1968 Mexico Olympics
Though obviously understanding would be total if individuals felt unable to do so, our LGB&T athletes and tourists should go - open and unbowed. As Dave Zirin recalls here there were calls for black athletes to pull out of the 1968 games in protest at continuing racism within the US and elsewhere, a consciousness coalescing at the time into the nascent Black Power movement. When attempts to organise came to nothing, many black athletes went, and the world remembers not the hesitancy with which they were there but this photo (right).

But we must do more. The Sochi Olympics provides a convenient focal point for protest, but it's one moment in an ongoing spiral of disaster for a beleaguered community in Russia. Attempts we make to support them should not just be about salving our own liberal consciences but about helping to deliver actual change in a society which is degenerating into barbarity for some of its citizens. 

Which brings us back to the picture at the top of this page. 

I, like everyone reading this page, must face up to the challenge it puts. As preacher and academic Charles Aked said, 

"For evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing

And as many of us sit comfortably in the West, celebrating equal marriage for lesbian and gay people in a growing number of countries, we must see that picture at the top of the page as one of ourselves. It is a picture of you. And of me. But who we are in that picture is down to us. There are only two available positions. We must take sides.

My life, and the lives of some I know, make me understand just how close I could easily be to kneeling on that floor with that young man.

He is there simply because of who he is. Nothing more. I am him.

Please don't imagine that you, whether you are gay, straight, trans, cisgender, black, white, male, female, rich, poor or anything else - are somehow magically immune from being him too.




Go here to express your support of LGB&T Russians

1 comment:

  1. I was sorry not to see an equivalent of the Black Power salute at the recent athletics. Unless there was and it had been suppressed?

    And you are right - it is too easy to do nothing :-(

    And next they came for me.....