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I am not your typical LGBT activist. I don’t usually cry. Yet here I am with the faint after-ache of tears pressing against my eyelids having just watched Channel 4’s Hunted, a harrowing insight into the increasingly volatile existence of Russia’s LGBT citizens.
I am devastated; I write this through tears.
The Dispatches documentary took its audience beyond the usually distant world of rhetoric and vodka boycotts to the lived, inescapable reality of a homophobic Russia where only 1% of its LGBT citizens feel comfortable enough to live openly with their sexuality. What followed was an utterly unwatchable, yet truly necessary exposé of the vigilantism and hooliganism encouraged by Russia’s widely criticised “Anti-homosexual propaganda” laws. The accepted, casual violence and persecution levelled at the country’s LGBT community, and its subsequent championing by grassroots bigots, served to burst many an ignorant bubble and raised serious questions as to how a government seemingly so resistant to addressing homophobia can be seen fit to host not only this month’s Winter Olympics, but the 2018 World Cup.
Under the ever-questionable guise of “family values”, the social agenda promoted by the featured anti-gay groups heavily connected homosexuality with paedophilia, a sentiment encouraged by both Russia’s government and religious institutions. As previously explored by James Bell for Vada, The Anti-Paedophile Movement “capitalises on cultural ideas that are as current on the streets of Moscow as they are in Russia’s houses of parliament: that homosexuality is morally and culturally damaging and is basically the equivalent of child abuse.” In an interview with a leading figure within the Russian Orthodox Church, Hunted captured the hatred of parts of the institution on this particular issue, summed up through the dismissive statement “even cattle don’t engage in this.” The equating of homosexuality with paedophilia and bestiality was shown to be an ethos that took on a much more violent state when words turned to action.
Russia’s LGBT citizens were shown to be under the ever looming threat of siege, both culturally and physically, as predominantly gay men were hunted down, taunted, abused and violated by homophobic vigilante groups. Whilst the day’s previous news reports showed a lesbian couple defiantly walking around the streets of Sochi arm in arm, Hunted spoke to the darker side of this existence, exposing a subculture that seemingly fed on subjecting homosexuals to misery and persecution.
Led by the sinister Katya, the Occupy Paedophilia group were filmed carrying out “safaris”. They were shown to lure homosexual men to their flat, where on entry their targets were confronted by a group of 15+ homophobic men who then subjected them to abuse and humiliation. Imagine going to meet someone off Grindr, only to realise that it was a trap. Imagine. In this instance the presence of the Hunted camera reduced the severity of the beating and humiliation, yet other footage showed incidents of sexual and physical violation, with one particularly harrowing encounter relayed where a man was forced to rape himself with a glass bottle in front of his torturers. Just imagine.
These hunts were all prefixed with the chillingly casual attitude of the groups towards victimization and violence as they pursued their homophobic cause with impunity. Katya in one instance laughed as she stated “we’ll destroy his life as usual.” The trophy mentality on show whereby Occupy Paedophilia entrapped, humiliated and captured their victims on camera, spoke to the societal homophobia at play outside of these extreme scenarios. To be publicly outed and to confess to being homosexual on camera was to risk losing a job, a home and a family, a destruction of the individual that these groups actively pursued. Hunted equally shone a spotlight on other homophobic groups who continuously fought for teachers who encouraged equality on this issue to be sacked and have their teaching licenses revoked. The most resonating moments of Hunted came in these instances where the homophobes chillingly saw no disjuncture between the persecution they were advocating and the ideal Russia they were pursuing for their children.
The physical violation on show in Hunted spoke to how alien a scenario this level of discrimination is to a liberal, free-thinking audience. If I was to be handed a “gift” with the words “kill yourself and cleanse the world of your wickedness” on, there would no doubt be hefty criminal repercussions. Yet in a country where there is no such thing as a gay hate crime, LGBT individuals were routinely subjected to this and much worse from a whole host of directions. One particular scene introduced us to Dima, whose experience of homophobic violence had left him blind in one eye. The powerless state of LGBT in Russia that Dima spoke of was one where you cannot defend yourself, and where the authorities are at best ambivalent to your suffering. This is in stark contrast to the relative security that the majority of our readers will no doubt find themselves living in. Whilst we can truly appreciate the stability and acceptance that define many of our bubbles, Hunted served to burst this and show how far there is to go on a global scale, and how challenging the fight ahead to change such attitudes will be.
Since the programme’s airing there have been justified commentaries stating that this is nothing new, and moreover that there are places around the world which host an even greater level of discrimination. Whilst this is true and speaks to the necessity of a wider awareness of attitudes to LGBT, this does not diminish the pain, suffering and humiliation of Russia’s LGBT population. The mantra of bigotry repeated throughout the show of “Homophobic Russia – They should get used to it,” should serve as a call to social and political arms that such attitudes should have no place in today’s world. Yet sat here, safe in my bubble, I can’t help but feel I’m paying lip service to a cause and a people who are in need of more than words. Hunted, in a similar vein to Stephen Fry’s striking ‘Out There’, illustrated the problem and illuminated the extremes. Whilst we cannot advocate a direct interventionist approach, the political weight of the free-thinking world should descend on Russia to declare this unacceptable.
Whilst the contention that these measures act as a smokescreen to the economic and social domestic issues of Russia is a valid observation, let us make no mistake or allowance, as the extremism such legislation encourages is a variant of neo-Nazism and should serve as a worrying indicator of the social turn towards fascism in the country. Whilst we are to an extent removed from the suffering on show in Hunted, pressure should be applied and awareness raised that to support, or even share a podium with the Russian government, is to be complicit in legislation and a societal system that allows such acts of homophobic violence to be exercised with relative impunity. For the little good it will do, boycott the Winter Olympics whilst it is in the spotlight, but once it has passed let us not forget the social crimes that have been highlighted over the past few months, and the lack of governmental action on this issue.
As long as this man can shoot a homosexual directly in the face on film and receive no jail term, as long as Occupy Paedophilia can continue their violent hunts and abductions without the fear of criminal repercussions, there are stark obstacles to equality. These start and finish with the state. Talk about it, write about it, march about it. Once the focus has shifted from Sochi, the state of LGBT in Russia will remain the same, so let us not be as fickle as the modern world of 24 hour rolling news expects us to be. Let’s keep this struggle on the agenda. Let’s not forget.
You can watch Dispatches – Hunted here.