The blog of Monty Moncrieff
London Friend Chief Executive
8th August 2013 - Russia, LGBT Rights and my life in the USSR
Over recent weeks concerns have mounted regarding the safety of LGBT people in Russia, prompting calls for action ranging from boycotting Russian vodka to the relocation of the 2014 Winter Olympics. We’ve seen new and well-publicised legislation that includes a ban on spreading ‘propaganda of non-traditional relationships to minors’. A ban on what? Well, precisely; nobody seems to know quite what this actually means, although the implication of non-traditional relationships is widely interpreted as those involving LGB & T people.
The confusion is a key aspect of this and resonates with Section 28, the clause in the 1980s Local Government Act in the UK which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality as a pretended family unit’ by local authorities. Then as now this pernicious addition to UK law left people baffled, and fearful of discussing LGBT issues. It led to local councils refusing to fund support services for LGBT people, and to schools (wrongly) thinking they couldn’t take action against pupils bullying other students because they were perceived to be gay. An early Stonewall report into education found that whilst over half of schools had reported homophobic bullying only 6% of them had implemented policies to address it. The reason was their uncertainty as to whether they’d be breaking the law.
Russians are now faced with the same uncertainty: what constitutes ‘propaganda’ under this new regime? The displaying of LGBT-affirmative symbols such as the rainbow flag in a place where a teenager could be? A factual discussion of same-sex attraction in the media that might be viewed or read by a 17-year old? Almost certainly it will apply to schools and teachers who will be left unclear as to how to support any pupils who thinks they might be gay. And what about sexual health information? With a legal age of consent at 16 – and of course the full legal right to BE gay and have sex with other people of the same sex – we have a two year gap until a gay man at 18 might legally be informed how to protect himself with condoms – a potential public health disaster in a country with rapidly rising rates of HIV.
Putin claims his laws have widespread domestic support, but when speaking out carries the risk of criminalising yourself how many are brave enough to do so? The perfect storm, if you like. The impact is to leave LGBT Russians, and those exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity, with the knowledge that their identities and relationships are not tolerated, valued or welcomed by their government.
Not an anti-Russian response
My interest in developments in Russia is highly personal. As a 20 year old I went to live and study in the Soviet Union as it collapsed around me. I experienced firsthand great social, economic and political change. Being gay was, at that time, illegal, although I was still battling my own internal demons and struggling to accept my identity as a gay man. Part of that was fear, and that fear was increased by the knowledge I knew my own country disliked me being gay so much that they had actively legislated to limit the support I could be offered – or at least created the climate in which my teachers and lecturers believed they were legally forbidden to help.
Living in Russia was an exhilarating experience for me as a young man forming my identity. It had an enormous impact on my social values, teaching me the importance of considering the circumstances people found themselves in that were less fortunate then my own. The Russians I met were incredibly welcoming, generous in action and thought, inviting me and my friends into their homes and sharing the food and drink they must have struggled to find amid empty shops and spiralling inflation. It’s a welcome I found once again over two decades later as I travelled to the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan last year, despite fears that the mass of LGBT people descending for Eurovision would face violence from extremist groups and hostility from the average local. We didn’t, and it was a pertinent reminder to separate assessment of a state from that of its people. My hatred of this legislation is not a dislike of the country and its people I loved so much.
My interest also relates to our work at London Friend. We support hundreds of LGBT people each year who have struggled with their identity and faced reinforcement through others’ contempt of LGBT people whilst growing up. We hear of people facing intolerance from their families, their school friends and even from health professionals; of feeling omitted from education; of lacking positive LGBT role models; of being excluded from their faith communities; and of being subjected to verbal abuse and violence. We deal with the impact, the same impact that this legislation could have on generations of Russian LGBT people. We also deal with the consequences: poor self image and belief; periods of depression and anxiety; unhealthy relationships with alcohol or other drugs; risky sex and sexual exploitation.
London Friend’s work centres on directly supporting LGB & T people in the UK, but that does not stop us standing in solidarity with our Russian LGBT friends and allies. Deciding the most appropriate action involves understanding the sometimes complex relationships the UK and other countries have with the Russian government, and also the specific cultural issues for LGBT people in Russia. I believe this should be the responsibility of national governments, NGOs, and international human rights organisations with a remit to do so. I also believe that individuals who are concerned can pressure their MPs and governments to maintain pressure and dialogue, and show support for those agencies campaigning for improved human rights globally. I will be supporting the demonstration in London this weekend.
If you choose to write to your MP you might like to remind them of the commitments the Government has made to improving LGBT rights internationally. In the 2010 statement Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Equality, and two subsequent detailed action plans, the Coalition pledged they would “use our relationship with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights” and to “encourage more countries to support the UN statement which calls on states to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties”. The Government will undertake a call for evidence of the impact of their action plans later this year: we need to let them know that their performance on these points will be of particular interest.
As the spotlight falls on Russia as a result of the recent passing of this legislation and the forthcoming Sochi Games it is important not to forget that LGBT rights remain of significant concern in many other countries, including 42 within the Commonwealth. Our solidarity needs to be with LGBT people in all of them.