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Fighting the gay fight in Russia: How gay propaganda laws actually only help

Fighting the gay fight in Russia: How gay propaganda laws actually only help
I can hardly be called an admirer of the current Russian government, or a supporter of the recent political and social policy of the Russian authorities.

This comes as no surprise due to the fact that I was arrested many times for peaceful protests and held in dirty police cells. I was beaten in front of the cameras and without them. I have been denied every single application to hold a public event since I started to organize them in 2006. Nevertheless, for more than eight years I have dedicated my entire life to LGBT activism and human rights, trying by all means to avoid any politicizing of the Russian LGBT movement. But since 2005 times have changed.

Our methods originally turned out to be new and effective in this country. Not just protesting homophobia and fighting for LGBT rights at dozens of public events, including the annual banned Moscow Prides, we also found clear and transparent legal means to challenge human rights violations in Russia.

Thus, while the political opposition movement was just protesting on the streets, the Russian Human Rights Project, GayRussia.Ru and the Moscow Pride Organizing Committee sailed all the way through the Russian court system to win the first ever case on LGBT human rights violations in Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. On  October 23, 2010, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that the bans of Moscow Prides in 2006-2008 were contradictory to the European Convention. Surprisingly, this was also the first ECHR verdict on the violations of the right to freedom of assembly in Russia under the current legislation on assemblies. All other cases now pending before the ECHC, including the bans of the marches of fierce opponents of gay rights in Russia, are being tried through the precedent in the case of "Alekseyev v. Russia".

Participants in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists next to the Yury Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Square in Moscow. The sign reads "Love is Stronger" (RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

However, that is not all, it was just the beginning. We have always shaped the future of human rights in Russia and our campaigns are aimed at bringing change in future years, even if these changes are a long time coming. But without actions today there is no future tomorrow.

2013 turned out to be the year when the international community finally "found out" about the long lasting human rights violations of LGBT people in Russia. But what helped them in this? The federal law banning so called propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is seen as the most outrageous piece of legislation in the world since Adolf Hitler came to power to exterminate Jews. Maybe around the world people are convinced or being convinced that this law is horrific, which means we can use any means we have to protest it, by calling for a boycott of the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi and dumping Russian vodka. Ironically, if the Olympics were not awarded to Sochi, the outcry would hardly be close to what we see today. But are boycotts the effective way forward?

In the United States one LGBT group, Queer Nation, even drafted a list of "33 prominent Russian LGBT activists" who support the idea of the Olympics boycott, even though a few signatories already said they were duped. This was clearly done to persuade the world that such a tactic is the best way forward and is supported by the Russian LGBT community. The authors of this letter forgot to explain that most people on their list are Russians living abroad, are absolutely unknown in the LGBT movement in Russia, and never organized any campaigns or public events in Russia itself. The list is headed by journalist Masha Gessen, an American citizen who, being also a Russian national, is threatening to leave Russia for several months and claiming that the Russian authorities are taking children from their homosexual parents, which of course has nothing to do with reality.

Police apprehend participants in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists next to the Yury Dolgoruky monument on Tverskaya Square in Moscow.(RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

Where was she or any other of those "prominent Russian LGBT activists" in 2009, for example, when we launched the campaign against the law in the Ryazan Region banning propaganda of homosexuality to minors? Where have they been since 2006 when this law was for the first time implemented in Russia? I searched hard, but found they were silent. At that time they did not consider gay propaganda bans as a horrific legislation. One of those Russian LGBT "celebrities", Vyacheslav Revin, compared activists of GayRussia.Ru and Moscow Pride, Irina Fedotova and Nikolay Bayev (both, surprisingly still living in "Middle Ages" Russia) who went to protest in front of children’s libraries and schools in Ryazan in March 2009, as no different from pedophiles. Revin, who also publicly criticized Moscow Pride held on Children's Day on June 1, 2008 (the only year it collided with this date due to the event always being held on the weekend closest to May 27), just asked for political asylum in the United States, citing the current perceptions of the LGBT climate in Russia by the international community. Just a few years ago his priorities were the rights of children over the right to freedom of expression for LGBT people. Or was it something else?

If Revin has just arrived in the United States, another Russian "gay activist" and photographer, Aleksandr Kargaltsev, has already obtained his asylum there by conning US immigration authorities that he participated in Moscow Pride in 2009 and was attacked by the police and homophobes. It’s very surprising to hear this in the light of the fact that the location of Moscow Pride during the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow was known only to organizers who brought the activists to the event by bus, in order to protect participants from skinheads. And once again, I searched hard but could not find his name on the list of those who checked in on that day. But for Kargaltsev to say he was there turned out to be enough and the US authorities believed in it.

A week ago I received a message from one of my Facebook friends who lives in the US. He quoted me the letter he received from a Russian gay guy in Moscow preparing to leave Russia to ask for political asylum in the States. The plan is already being actively fulfilled. A fake police protocol as a sign of prosecution by the authorities is ready, the door of the flat is painted with the word "pidor" (faggot). Looks like this will be enough for him to get his asylum. A small bribe, a direct air ticket - that is all one needs to fulfill the dream. There is another such gay family which I heard about and who recently moved to San Francisco, not even bothering to collect any evidence of prosecution in Russia. They will surely be granted asylum, their cat included. Like the Russian mafia scam that organized fake asylum for straight people in the US a few years ago, we will soon see crowds of straight people - most of them homophobes - being granted asylum on gay grounds. I only feel pity for the genuinely persecuted gays in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe or Uganda, who are in many cases being sent back to their countries to face possible imprisonment or even death.

And now back to our 2009 protest in Ryazan, which got almost no real attention outside Russia at the time, even from LGBT media who rarely care about the cities they cannot identify on the world map. But young and old gays and lesbians have been living in this Russian region under the "horrific" gay propaganda law for more than seven years. Widespread application of this law has led to… what do you think?... two convictions. Fedotova and Bayev were fined US$50 each and appealed this in court, finally taking their legal challenges to the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights.

The result was that GayRussia.Ru and Moscow Pride won a second major victory on LGBT rights in Russia in the international courts. In October 2012 the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in favor of Irina Fedotova and proclaimed the Ryazan gay propaganda law as discriminatory, calling Russian authorities to repeal it.

Police apprehend a participant in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists outside the building of the Russian parliament in Moscow.(RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin)

Both verdicts, Alekseyev v Russia and Fedotova v Russia, will ultimately be implemented in Russia, because it recognized the jurisdiction of both instances. It will take time and we are continuing our fight for this final step in our battle. On top of that, we have three dozen other cases pending at the European Court, covering virtually all aspects of LGBT rights violations in Russia - widespread bans of public events, denials to register NGOs, including "Pride House Sochi" and "Marriage Equality", hate speech, gay propaganda bans and marriage rights. But prominent figures in the West think they have their own understanding of the situation in Russia and the way the LGBT movement should proceed.

They think the strategy of boycotts when dealing with Russia will work, like it sometimes works in their own countries. So, they want to export them. After all, it is an easy way forward, just gather the media and start to do something eccentric, like dumping vodka on the pavement. At the same time, I personally do not understand why a private company producing it has to bear the consequences of being held responsible for the policy of the Russian state? Would those dumping this vodka (and in many cases it was just water in vodka bottles) like it if they came to their own workplace one day to be told that they are fired due to the boycott of the company and its financial losses? I don't think so. Meanwhile, as soon as I dare open my mouth against this boycott I am branded as a Western enemy and moreover accused of being paid by the owners of the Stolichnaya vodka company in Luxembourg, which, by the way, is produced in Latvia and not in Russia. The leading Latvian national LGBT organization, 'Mozaika' begged Western activists to stop the 'Stoli' boycott but without much success.

The same goes for the Olympics. The Russian LGBT community and its major organizations, including GayRussia.Ru, Moscow Pride, Equality, Vykhod (Out) and the Russian LGBT Network, dismissed the idea of the boycott but it is still being actively promoted by Western activists. Like 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles, the only victims of such a boycott in Sochi will be the athletes, most of whom have nothing to do with politics and whose active career is in fact very limited in time. As we said, the Olympics is a unique possibility for the Russian LGBT community and the world to be present and have their voice heard. Despite the fact that there will be no official Pride House, unlike in Vancouver and London, and no authorized Gay Pride march during the forthcoming event in February, the Sochi Olympics have a chance to become the gayest ever in the history of the Olympic movement, and the bans on Pride House and the introduction of the gay propaganda laws has actually only helped.

Police apprehend a participant in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists outside the building of the Russian parliament in Moscow.(RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin)

Looking back at the world athletics championships in Moscow, where some athletes expressed their discontent with the Russian law, it makes us think that in Sochi such tiny gestures will make an even bigger difference - for the benefit of all, not just the LGBT community but for Russia’s future as a more tolerant and democratic society.

A Sochi Olympics boycott will only serve those who do not understand that their goal will only further isolate the LGBT community in Russia and make the lives of its representatives living in the country (and not in New York or London) even harder. Or is this boycott nothing more than Cold War nostalgia lead by some who today regret that they ran away from the Soviet Union or Russia? After all, who will the ordinary Russians (who might not be as homophobic as they are portrayed), blame for the disruption of this event? I think you know the answer. Will it make lives better for the millions who will stay? Will it lead to the repeal of the federal law banning gay propaganda? In both cases, definitely not!

The international community would be much more effective if it listened to the activists on the ground, and brought to justice those who are directly involved in stirring up homophobic hysteria in Russia. For many years I have been calling for entrance visa bans for those Russian officials who are personally behind the implementation of gay propaganda laws. No one wanted to support an action that at first could be seen as administrative, because no leading organization will ever support an action on which they cannot earn their share of fame and future grants. Yes, it would have been very complicated for All Out to get signatures for a petition to deny visas to Russian politicians versus a petition to the International Olympic Committee. And proof is that the petition I launched with US activists to President Obama raised only 8,000 signatures against over 300,000 for the All Out petition to the IOC. But what have 300,000 signatures and one photo in front of the IOC Swiss headquarters changed? Nothing! The IOC has not moved one finger in our direction. They only swallowed the Russian official position on gay propaganda law, which will stay in force during the Olympics whatever is being said.

Now think, what would a visa ban for two of the most prominent Russian anti-gay politicians lead to. If you don't know, or if you are unsure, then step back and check the outcry the Magnitsky List has created in Russia among politicians, leading to serious consequences such as the adoption ban of Russian children by Americans. Yet it is easy to understand that you must hit the politicians where it will hurt them the most. Prevent MP Mizulina from entering Belgium and she will have to think why a country like Belgium, which legalized gay marriages and gay adoptions, and where her own son lives and works in a gay-friendly company, no longer wants her. These wounds will be nothing compared to the irreparable loss of gay teens who decided to commit suicide after being harassed by mentally disturbed skinheads whose anti-gay hatred was fueled by the same politicians.

Police apprehend a participant in an unauthorized rally held by gay activists outside the building of the Russian parliament in Moscow.(RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin)

The example of those politicians on the visa ban list would make others think. After all, many of them have their direct interests abroad, including real estate, holidays and children studying in the best institutions in the world.

The other very effective way was to lobby the European Court, publicly and privately, to open the gay propaganda law cases which we launched. This would have been a very effective legal way to move forward, without drawing more political division lines between Russia and the West. But once again the cases are pending with no prospects of seeing a final decision before a couple of years, when this debate will probably be over in the West because until 2018 (when Russia will for the first time host football World Cup), there will be no major sporting event to boycott in Russia. Can you believe what would have been the effect of the same 300,000 letters to the European Court calling to open and consider the case of Russian gay propaganda laws?

Russia’s 'horrific laws', which are being used by a growing number of Russians to secure asylum and a better life in the West, are actually rarely applied. They were used against two activists in Ryazan, once in St. Petersburg against me, and three times in Arkhangelsk for the same solitary pickets. They will not be applied in Sochi during the Olympics. Whatever happens, I am more than convinced that the Russian authorities will not allow this to happen.

These laws, especially the one passed at federal level, actually gave a boost to the LGBT fight in Russia. More activists are now protesting in various cities. Look at St. Petersburg, Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Kostroma and Syktyvkar. The topic is being widely discussed in the media. This was unthinkable in 2005 when we started. The effect is directly opposite to what the authors of those initiatives wanted to reach. They are promoting gay propaganda in Russia more than any LGBT activist.

As I always said, the consequences of these laws will be mostly social, not legal. We already see the creation of groups which harass younger and older gays while publishing their videos on the Internet. They probably see the gay propaganda law as carte blanche for their crimes. This should be investigated by the authorities. In fact, this has already started. Those people should be brought to justice.

For sure some genuinely and falsely prosecuted LGBT people from Russia will continue to get political asylum abroad using the current climate. But this is a drop in the ocean. Millions of Russian LGBTs have to and will continue to live in their Russian reality and it is them who need help in their fight for equality and better life. And we will continue this fight on the ground, with or without the support of the international community. The laws banning homosexual propaganda will be repealed, as they are now on the wrong side of history.

Nikolay Alekseyev

President of GayRussia.Ru and Moscow Pride Organizing Committee

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.