So this weekend I deviated from my usual Saturday activities (sitting in the library; weeping into a stack of notes) by putting on my best stompy shoes and going to a protest outside Downing Street. If you have been living under a rock these last few weeks or made the sane and sensible choice never to join Twitter, then you may have missed out on the news that Russia recently passed a law to ban “homosexual propaganda”.
Effectively you can be fined for mentioning or implying in any way that homosexuality isn’t completely wrong and abominable, this applies to Russians as well as tourists and visitors. The law, like much Russian legislation, is kept purposefully vague so police and officials can essentially fine you for anything that might look remotely like promoting homosexuality; from holding hands in the street to promoting safe sex.
In response there has been quite a well publicised campaign to boycott Russian vodka. I have to say that I as a bit sceptical about that particular type of activism, not least because some of the brands that were boycotted were not produced in Russia. Instead, I figured that attending an actual protest would be more useful and would make me feel like I was actively supporting a cause rather than just whinging to my friends. Except the smug feeling I was looking for never materialised.
The protest itself was well attended. Both Peter Tatchell and Stephen Fry made an appearance and it got a decent amount of media coverage, so for all intents in purposes it can be considered a success. However, while I was actually there it just felt vaguely empty and meaningless. Part of that may have been the fact that for health and safety reasons we had to stand outside Downing Street rather the Russian embassy. Essentially this meant that we spend two hours waving signs and occasionally chanting, in a very polite English sort of way, at passing tourist buses.
Maybe that is how all protests feel at the time. After all, life is not some Guardian sponsored Disney film where the evil politicians end up apologising straight away if only you shout loud enough and make particularly witty banners. Social change takes a long time to achieve and laws certainly are not changed overnight, no matter how unjust they feel. But then on Sunday I read Masha Gessen’s article about having to leave Russia or risk losing custody of her children and suddenly I realised why I was sceptical about the Vodka boycott and why the protest that day felt kind of aimless: the new Russian law scares me.
It gives me that kind of unspecified panic I get from reading articles about the rise of pandemics and global warming. It’s that futile urge to horde canned goods, call all my loved ones and make an escape plan for when the worst happens. Don’t get me wrong, I am completely aware that this is entirely irrational and in no way related to the actual threat level. People getting fined for being gay in Russia has little impact on me sitting in front of my laptop in East London, but something about it unsettles me on a level that I find hard to explain. I have the same reaction when I heard about trans people in Greece being rounded up by the police and every time another Bishop says something stupid about gay marriage.
Maybe I am a hopeless optimist or just fatally deluded (feel free to let me know which one in the comments) but deep down I believe that things are getting better. Even when there are debates about whether we should be allowed to get married, I assume that is just us as a society trying to figure out the fine print when fundamentally we have all agreed that gay people should be treated equally. The “homosexual propaganda” law serves as a nice reminder that a lot of the time that simply is not the case.
At the moment we do not know enough about the law to see how it affects LGBT people in Russia directly, but there have already been anecdotal reports about a rise in hate crimes and several murders have featured suggestions that the victims were targeted because they were gay. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that passing a law banning all positive mentions of LGBT people sends a clear signal to society that we are second class citizens, unworthy of legal rights and protection.
The question facing us now is, how do you essentially force a country to change its deeply discriminatory legislation? Stephen Fry very eloquently called for moving the Winter Olympics to a different country; Pride House International has argued that countries that discriminate against LGBT people should not be allowed to host Olympic events. Realistically I doubt either of those things is going to happen. I think the best we can hope for in regards to the Olympics is individual athletes taking a stand for human rights, similar to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
As a lawyer, my immediate instinct is to suggest that this needs to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights, but quite frankly Russia finds itself there so routinely that they might as well have their own office. Perhaps all we can do as individuals is to keep signing petitions and to keep going to protests no matter how futile they feel. I think it is time to remember that the fight for equality has not been won yet. Maybe we need to make Putin’s worst fear come true and actually create some homosexual propaganda.
I assume this issue will disappear from the news soon enough, but we have to keep painting rainbows outside embassies. We have to keep reminding our politicians and politicians in countries like Russia and Greece that they are being watched and that outlawing us will not simply stop us from existing.