Opinion: Are Celeb LGBT Activists Neocolonial?

Photo: Flickr/David Shankbone (2011)

Despite good intentions, tone-deaf support from abroad often hurts more than it helps the cause of the Russian LGBT community, writes Caroline Hill

This past September, during a visit to Ukraine to discuss LGBT rights in the country with President Petro Poroshenko, British singer Sir Elton John expressed a desire to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discuss what he called Putin’s “ridiculous” position toward gay rights.

What followed was a whirlwind of social media posts and press representatives’ statements in which Sir Elton posted a message on Instagram thanking the Russian president for reaching out to him – but the call from “Putin” was later found to be the work of a pair of pranksters named Vovan and Lexus.

Soon the real Vladimir Putin called Elton John and offered to meet with him; Sir Elton accepted, relaying to the press that he would “try and sort things out” with the Russian president over the country’s controversial “anti-gay propaganda” law, which was adopted at the federal level and signed into force by Putin in 2013 after similar legislation was implemented in a number of oblasts (provinces) and federal territories.

This chain of events belies a greater problem for the LGBT population in Russia than phone pranks on Western pop stars. Those working to further gay rights are often stuck between a small, loud minority with Western connections, and the silent reality of the overwhelming majority of LGBT individuals in a country where, according to the Channel 4 documentary “Hunted,” only 1 percent of gays are completely open about their orientation. This situation reinforces a widespread perception of homosexuality as a Western import, and the LGBT community as foreign and suspect.

This is not the first time in Russian history that homosexuality has been considered an alien phenomenon – and the LGBT population treated as rogue ambassadors of hostile outside forces and ideas. Middlebury College professor Laurie Essig notes that “In Soviet Russia, the homosexual was seen as a sign of foreign pollution, a temporary aberration…that [would] disappear in a more socialist future”. Homosexual acts were classified as “crimes against the state” associated with rival political systems, with Soviet writer and activist Maxim Gorky declaring, “Eliminate homosexuality and you will make fascism disappear”. In the post-Soviet era, the liberal Western view of LGBT individuals as “born this way” continues to clash with mainstream ideas about homosexuality in Russia, where in 2013, a the majority of Russians surveyed by the Levada Center (an independent polling and research organization) identified homosexuality as either “an illness that needs to be treated,” “the result of a bad upbringing, promiscuity, a bad habit,” or “the result of molestation.”

While the fall of the Soviet Union led to a series of reforms that saw homosexual acts decriminalized, homosexuality removed from the official list of psychiatric ailments, and the growth of a largely quiet network of LGBT NGOs in Russia, the way in which gay activism developed in the 1990s may have hurt the community’s prospects for acceptance in the longer term. Essig notes that in an age when Russia was flooded with new goods, capital, and ideas from abroad, this influx included exposure to “a gay international activism that was in fact always a Western one”. This East-West divide can be felt if one examines ways of speaking about the LGBT community. Among printable terms used to describe homosexuality, “homosexualism” prevails in the mainstream Russian press and public speech, the “-ism” indicating a way of thinking as opposed to an orientation. Journalist Nicole Disser notes that the more friendly words gei and kvir (gay and queer, respectively) are “borrowed terms” that entered the Russian language with other imports such as chizburger, which “only adds to a sense that homosexuality itself is foreign to Russia”.

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Protesters in Berlin, 2013. Are they really helping the cause of LGBT Russians? Photo: Marco Fieber.

In this climate, overtures in defense of the Russian LGBT community by Western politicians, celebrities, and human rights groups are often framed by conservative politicians and non-governmental entities such as the Russian Orthodox Church as a cultural and physical threat to the Russian nation as a whole, and the “traditional” family and children in particular. Following the adoption of “anti-gay propaganda” legislation in the Arkhangelsk region in 2011 (a precursor to the federal law), Head of the Union of Orthodox Christian Citizens Valentin Lebedev connected what he called the “anti-human and infernal phenomenon” of LGBT organizations and “Western-style propaganda of pedophilia.” This sentiment was reflected in the text of the 2013 federal law, which made changes to the Russian Administrative Code prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” and included special provisions for penalizing foreigners and stateless persons, including “removal” from Russia (in contrast, the article of the Administrative Code forbidding prostitution makes no mention of these groups).

The sliver of the Russian LGBT population that has gone public regarding their orientation (Disser notes that “Selective honesty is quite common, even among activists”) are often accused of Western ties in order to smear them. Activist Lena Klimova, who founded the online psychological and social support project Deti-404 (a fusion of the word “children” in Russian and the HTTP “Not Found” error message, in acknowledgement of the invisibility of the country’s LGBT teenagers), maintains a public gallery on her page on the Russian social networking site VKontakte titled “Beautiful People and What They Say to Me” that features other users’ abusive and/or threatening messages to her superimposed on photogenic images from their personal pages. These include multiple references to a perceived link between her status as an openly lesbian activist, Western funding, and sinister behavior; a user named Lina queries, “How much does the [US] State Department pay you for propaganda of pederasty?” Writer, activist, and dual Russian-American citizen Masha Gessen referred to a 2012 law regulating activities of NGOs that “perform the functions of a foreign agent” when she stated that in this environment, “LGBT people were the country’s biggest threat: the quintessential ‘foreign agent,’ the ultimate Other.”

Gessen and Nikolai Alekseyev, an activist whom the BBC dubbed “leader of Russia’s gay rights movement” and the leader of multiple foiled attempts at Pride marches in Moscow that began in 2006, have raised ire for their high profiles and foreign ties – not only in mainstream Russian society, but within the LGBT communities of Russia and her neighbors as well. Gessen, who once pondered whether it was ethical to “out” gay public figures in Russia, decamped from Moscow to New York in 2014. Citing fears that Russian social services would seize her children and threats to her family’s safety, Gessen admitted that the move was facilitated by paperwork and financial resources unavailable to the majority of gay Russians. After a legal case was opened against Alekseyev in May 2015 for allegedly insulting two female MPs for their support of the 2013 “anti-propaganda” law on his Twitter feed, he announced his plans to apply for Swiss citizenship – plans facilitated by his existing marriage to a Swiss citizen. Gessen and Alekseyev’s capacity to head for the exits has allowed them to mitigate the effects of any legal or social penalties that could result from their activism.

The comparatively nomadic and affluent lifestyles of Gessen and Alekseyev have called their ability to represent the interests of the silent, visa-deprived majority of Russia’s LGBT community into question. Russia Today anchor (and US national) Anissa Naouai was quoted by Disser as advising the global LGBT community to “reach out to the activists, not to the darlings of the West, not to the Masha Gessens, but to the real Russian activists” (my emphasis). Alekseyev’s provocative style (his first attempt at a Pride Parade in Moscow included a thwarted effort to lay flowers at the World War II-era Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin, a place of historical reverence for most Russians) and connections abroad discredit him in the eyes of many within the LGBT community in Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space – Ukrainian NGO worker Anna Dovgopol dismissed him with the words “He’s quite abrasive and everybody knows he lives in Switzerland”.

Many within the LGBT community find the prospect of being open about their sexuality off-putting. Despite the fact that homosexual acts were a criminal offense in the Soviet era, the community’s underground status afforded its members a measure of safety in their anonymity. As Kent State University professor Brian Baer put it, many Russian gays objected to open discussions of homosexuality “because now people know we exist. Beforehand we had our lives, and people were completely oblivious”. While the Sir Elton Johns, Masha Gessens, and Nikolai Alekseyevs of the world may mean well, their public manifestations in support of gay rights may not only put the community under suspicion by other Russians as being bought and paid for by the West, but may be unwelcome by the majority of LGBT individuals who lack the finances and connections necessary to leave the country, or prefer to stay in Russia and under the radar.

If the aforementioned public figures want to do right by gay Russians and others living in countries where LGBT individuals’ rights are infringed upon (such as US ally Saudi Arabia), they must first come to terms with the fact that while select countries in the West have experienced dramatic social change in terms of attitudes toward sexuality and gender over the past 50 years, negative attitudes toward homosexuality in other regions are unlikely to soften as new generations step forward. In 2012, the year prior to the passage of the “anti-gay propaganda” law, a survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 83 percent of 18-24-year-olds favored it (as opposed to 86 percent across all age groups). When the overwhelming majority of a country favors a law, the spectacle of rich foreigners such as Sir Elton asking to meet with their president in order to “sort things out” smacks of neocolonialism, and will perpetuate the notion that LGBT rights activism is a top-down Western import as opposed to a grassroots initiative.

Second, a more effective course of action for the motley crew of international celebrities and activists that have criticized the Russian government for its stance on LGBT rights would be to lobby heads of states in the West to expedite asylum procedures for individuals subject to discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, a step that would give the rest of the Russian gay community a stab at the mobility that Gessen and Alekseyev have benefited from for years. The next step would be to pressure Western states to promote energy-efficient technologies in order to reduce dependency on natural resources from countries where LGBT rights are restricted. Another worthy pursuit would be “housecleaning” in terms of addressing the West’s own sticky human rights issues, such as drone warfare and extrajudicial killings, and the denial of basic rights to food and affordable health care to citizens. In addition to offering real assistance to victims of prejudice instead of grandstanding and impinging on Russia’s domestic politics, this would give the country’s LGBT community the right to chart their own path – wherever it may lead.

By Caroline Hill

The Uppsala Association of International Affairs is politically independent. Views expressed in articles published by us reflect the opinions of their writers and should not be interpreted as the views of the Association of Uttryck’s editorial board.