September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system
None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.
Yesterday there was a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev — “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.
This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?
One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:
We all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first. Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.
Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves. That’s wrong.
The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.) It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying “Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”
A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread “materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent.
Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook:
The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.
The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.
When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.
Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”
The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:
Dear Mr. Nutter.
As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.
I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.
I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.
I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.
On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.
By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.
Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.
What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.
But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.
Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):