(picture via Vice's coverage of the recent London protest)
I didn’t want to write about the current Russian situation because it’s not about me. I am a white western queer man and really my opinion on the subject is not relevant. As a ‘community’ (lol), we queer people should be deferring and listening to LGBT Russians themselves: their wants, their opinions, their needs, their stories.
Believe it or not queer people in Russia have their own opinions and ideas (someone on twitter the other day suggested I was lucky to live in a country where I was allowed to have an opinion, as if in Russia, queer people’s minds are policed and they are forced to be opinionless automatons…).
But no. I had to break my well-intentioned silence because I have seen too much ignorance to keep quiet. If you find this too garbled and rantesque, there are plenty of great eloquent posts by people a lot smarter than me that explain these points in greater detail. Go on, search for them, western gays. Show that you actually give a damn.
The rest of this article will take the form a list because my anger is obscuring my ability to write in coherent, well-expressed sentences and paragraphs and also because then nobody can accuse me of being elitist in my attempts to disseminate information on the internet:
- There are two things that I have seen most western queers (and let’s be honest here, it’s mostly white cis gay men) getting really upset about: the recent homophobic laws and a slew of videos and photos of neo-nazi skinheads torturing and degrading ‘gay teens’.
- Both of these are troublesome to me.
- First of all, I get the sense that the only reason these anti-gay laws are particularly upsetting to western queers is because of recent American and British legislation regarding gay marriage (and let’s be honest, it’s not equal marriage if it throws trans people under the bus, is it? It’s marriage for cis gay people).
- This is problematic to me because legislation does not directly correlate to attitudes or behaviour of the people living in the country in which it is enacted.
- SO, whilst, legally, being queer in Russia might be a bigger problem, this doesn’t necessarily mean that things are worse for queer people. There is no evidence to suggest that homophobia and violent homophobia have worsened since these laws came in.
- In fact, my boyfriend who speaks Russian and has an interest in Russia that extends beyond social justice posturing, informed me of the announcement of some of these anti-gay laws up to a year ago. No one made a fuss or cared. Gay media was pretty much silent about it and if it was reported, there was no great outcry.
- My boyfriend has also spoken to actual gay Russian men themselves (yes they do exist, they’re not just symbols for you to make a fuss about on facebook) to ask what the current situation is like and one reported that, in actual fact, things have not changed, Russia is as homophobic as it always was, and things are not as bad as the western media is making out.
- This is anecdotal evidence and just the experience of one person, obviously, but should not be disregarded.
- I’m also troubled that nobody seems to be asking where these photos and videos of ‘gay teens’ (in fact a significant proportion of the men depicted are not teens, not even close) being tortured and degraded are coming from.
- As this article eloquently and thoroughly explains, the videos and images aren’t quite what they seem. They are depictions of skinheads torturing and degrading men, some of whom are gay, but they are not all teenagers and the movement is actually more complicated (it claims to target paedophiles and gerontophiles specifically, but actually seems simply to target anyone remotely effeminate or not heterosexual).
- Some of the videos and images have been online for a fair while but only received publicity recently, when they ‘went viral’.
- Some of the same people responsible for these videos and images were also responsible for a previous campaign of public hate and violence against people of colour in Russia on the basis that they were ‘immigrants’.
- Where was the public outcry about this? Extreme violence against ethnic minorities in Russia is not new, and it continues, but no one is pouring alcohol bottled in other countries down drains for these people of colour or screaming outside government buildings and embassies.
- And why the panic and outrage now? Is it specifically linked to the Winter Olympics? Are people ok with violent homophobia in a foreign land so long as that country isn’t allowed to host international sporting events?
- Buzzfeed recently posted a list of 76 Countries Where Anti-Gay Laws Are As Bad As Or Worse Than Russia’s, but none of these countries are hosting the winter Olympics, and all of these countries have a majority population of people of colour, so are the queer people being locked up, beaten and killed in these 76 countries not as important as the white queer Russians currently being oppressed?
- As HowUpsetting explained in his excellent post on the subject, Russia is not the only country hosting an Olympic competition that is guilty of human rights abuses. China has a terrible track record with regards to human rights, but ignorant white western queers were not boycotting what they thought were Chinese exports, Dump Stoli-style, or protesting in Westminster.
- Even the UK, which Stephen Fry had the GALL to refer to as part of ‘the civilised world’ in his simpering, self-centered open letter to David Cameron (which I refuse to link to) is guilty of human rights abuses: disabled people thrown onto the street, driven to commit suicide with unfair tax legislation, the unemployed forced to work for free, rape and hate crimes still prevalent, enforced eviction to make way for corporate-sponsored sports events…
- And yet any cry of outrage with regards to the summer 2012 Olympics held in London was met with silencing, derailing and derision.
- Much of the rhetoric surrounding homophobia in Russia from white, western queers seems to be centred on the idea that something must be done and that we have the power to change things for those poor trampled foreigners.
- Neither of these things are true. Like most countries and human beings, Russia and Russians are very proud. They are an enormous country, a superpower in their own right. They are not going to bow to international pressure or internet petitions or boycotts, and even if they did, and legislation was changed, this would do nothing to stem the violence against queer people in that country or anywhere.
- And what then? Are these white westerners going to dedicate their lives to eradicating homophobic violence in Russia specifically? Or will they forget about it in the next couple of months, when or if something is done, and turn their attention to a different slacktivist cause?
- Russian LGBT people are capable of organising their own protests, of activism themselves, they do not need privileged white people in New York pouring Latvian-made-vodka down drains or printing tshirts and signs in their honour or reenacting abuse outside embassies or signing boycotts that they have not asked for or whose goals contravene their own
- My boyfriend got into an argument with someone he knows on facebook where he told them they were in full White Saviour Complex mode, to which they replied that this was patronising.
- White Saviour Complex is ingrained in white people and pointing it out is not patronising, it is necessary. It is the first port of call for white westerners in any situation regarding the rights and lives of people in other countries and of other cultures.
- The fact that people are reposting images, videos, petitions, calls to boycott, open letters and whipping themselves up into a frenzied panic without even doing the minimal amount of research into the subject is indicative of just how deeply entrenched this White Saviour Complex is.
- The first port of call should be to read the stories and opinions of queer Russians themselves, to offer support if it’s asked for, to pressure or boycott or petition if Russian people call for it, to do research and try to discover what is actually going on instead of diving head first into morally superior panic.
- I have seen people who do not give two shits about social justice the other 363 days of the year suddenly don tshirts and go protesting as if their life depends on it. I tweeted before the protest “don’t be surprised if all you end up with is a new facebook profile pic”, and sure enough, the people I know who attended achieved nothing more than a new profile pic, smugly brandished as if this is irrefutable evidence of their moral character.
Finally: do not misunderstand me. I am wildly angry about the homophobia in Russia and the anti-gay laws that are attempting to silence and repress queer people, just as I am equally wildly angry about ALL human rights abuses and all homophobia.
BUT, it is not my job, or your job, as western white queers, to step in and decide what’s best for Russian LGBT people, ESPECIALLY not without having done the minimal amount of research. It is not responsible to misrepresent evidence or media in the name of appearing on-the-button and socially conscious. It is not ok to ignore the opinions and stories of Russian queer people - to not even consider them or bother searching them out - because it might inconvenience your moral crusade.
Finally, as an intersectional queer feminist, it disturbs me to see the ‘gay community’ (that hierarchical, racist, transphobic, misogynistic, slut-shaming, fatphobic bastion of morality) focussing so specifically on the human rights abuses facing people like them. I know human beings are shallow and selfish and they often need to be able to relate to something to get enthused about it, but if you are a decent human being and you purport to care about the lives of oppressed people, stop averting your gaze and turning your back on other forms of violence against marginalised people just because it doesn’t suit your narrative and agenda.