The special investigation into the anti-LGBT policies of Exxon, the report on the assault on minority rights in Arizona, the work of the Hollywood juggernaut at play in Ender’s Game and in the comments by Roseanne Barr — all these scenarios present opportunities for us to boycott or engage in direct action to effect positive change. But Russia seems to me a problem more dire by an order of magnitude.
By now the horrors inflicted by the Russian government and its people upon LGBTs in that country are well known. The government has adopted multiple antigay laws — legislation that had the full support of the increasingly vile Russian Orthodox Church — and in a couple of prominent recent examples, racists, priests, and veteran military thugs are harassing, beating, or torturing LGBTs, often in public, and often in full view of the police. While assembling this issue I read a report that an Uzbek victim of the neo-Nazi group Occupy Pedofilyaj had died from injuries suffered at their hands, in their practice of “curing” him of being gay.
Naturally, we want to spring into action and attempt to right the wrongs perpetrated on any part of our LGBT global community. But what can we do? Do we boycott iconic Russian vodka and caviar? Do we end American sister city relationships with Russian cities? Do we protest Russian embassies? Do we boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, or attend the Games and then protest on the world stage?
In an effort to do more than simply feel good for skipping the vodka, we must think on multiple levels of impact: Which of these strategies will materially aid LGBTs in a country where it’s not only the government that hates gays? Vladimir Putin is a megalomaniacal autocrat who likes to thumb his nose at the world; and three out of four Russians found homosexuality unacceptable in a recent Pew Research Center study. No European state—not even Poland—came close to that level of societal disapproval. This deplorable situation looks, as President Barack Obama said to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, a lot like parts of Africa.
The change will only happen when Russians change their perspective. Perhaps that can begin to happen when they, and the whole world, see families and supporters of LGBT Olympic athletes defy the law and face detainment and expulsion by holding up rainbow flags in the spectator stands, or maybe they’ll see out and ally medalists defy Olympic rules and risk losing their medals by demonstrating on the podium.
Changing Russian minds may mean more convictions and imprisonment of protestors like feminist punk band Pussy Riot. It may mean more LGBT film festival organizers are arrested and charged under “gay propaganda” laws. It may mean the public scorn of those who challenge fundamentalist religion’s tightening grip on a nation that has for such a long time outlawed religion that it’s now sweeping across the country like air rushing into a vacuum. It may mean the detainment and expulsion of pro-equality foreigners, and struggles that happen between nations when their citizens are mistreated.
Long-lasting change won’t be quick to happen, and this battle will have many casualties. Skip the vodka if you wish, but let’s not kid ourselves that we can stop there.