Friday, February 7, 2014

Jeff Sharlet on Life Inside Russia's Iron Closet: A Must-Read Report

As Peter Montgomery says in his recap of global LGBT stories this week at Religion Dispatches, Jeff Sharlet's GQ report on being gay in Russia is a must-read article. It's chock-full of powerful first-hand testimony about the lives of LGBTI Russians. And it explains in detail how and why Putin has chosen to hand these citizens over to the wolves in order to consolidate his power--and the role being played in that cynical, cruel process by the Orthodox Church and the American religious right.

Here are excerpts that spoke to me. I encourage you to read the entire article:

I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that "homosexualism" is a threat to its "sexual sovereignty," that "genderless tolerance," in Putin's words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of "traditional values," a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.


Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don't advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of "family values" churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight "globalization"—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror. 
In Russia, the process is accelerating. In 2006, a bill similar to the law was laughed out of the Duma, dismissed by the then deputy prime minister as "a row of mistakes." In June it passed, 436-0. Alex the cop says 2010 was the best year, a new club or café opening every other weekend. New LGBT groups were forming all over. "It was like a party," one activist told me. What happened between then and now has as much to do with the unstable price of oil and Putin's eroding popular support as it does with actual queer people. The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills. Putin, says Patriarch Kirill, the church's leader, is a living "act of God." Forget about the price of bread and what you can't afford. Putin has come to save the Russian soul.


There are three faces of homophobia in Russia: that of the state, that of the Orthodox Church, that of the fringe. And yet they're one—a kind of Trinity. The state passes laws; the church blesses them; the fringe puts them into action. The state is the mind of hate, the church, now, its heart; the fringe is made up of its many hands. Some use the courts; some use fists. There are street fighters, and there are polished men and women who attend international conferences on "family values."


Explaining her view of Russia's rising homophobia, she [Elena] dictates to Zhenya: "Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it's not kosher. We—" she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya—"are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don't look different, but we are."


In Russia, things are not falling apart, they're coming together, isolated attacks developing into a pattern, the id of the street ever more in line with the Kremlin's growing ego. My last day in Russia began with the news that Cossacks had vandalized two theaters in the night, neither of them gay but guilty of showing plays with homosexual characters. One got graffiti; the other got a bloody pig's head at its door. Humor. Russia's first queer film festival was to open that night—Gus Van Sant was coming to show Milk—but it was shut down by a bomb threat.

See also Sarah Posner's videotaped interview of Jeff Sharlet at Religion Dispatches, from which the screen shot at the top of the posting is taken.

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