It is very easy to mistake what is happening in Russia as something unique, but it actually represents one of many international issues for LGBTI people. That this one captures our attention, as opposed to any of the others, deserves some contemplation. The magnitude of this issue cannot be understated, and for many it is overwhelming. To completely convey the scope of these issues is not something possible within a single article. However, I will attempt to synthesise their disparate elements to give them some context.
One of the factors at play in the way we attend to these issues, is the issue of cultural capital. That is, the plight of certain people resonates more strongly with us than those of others, by sheer dint of the fact that there exists a common cultural narrative. Granted, a former-Soviet Russia entails a history that diverges from the West somewhat, compared to the common history of other former British colonies (of which Uganda is one). However, Russia is still a European nation, and so the plight of its people is more likely to resonate with the West, than say the plight of those in the Middle-East, Africa, or Asia.
However, it would be remiss of me to ignore the impact of the Winter Olympic Games: it entails a global force that is undoubtedly bringing inordinate levels of global scrutiny upon these issues. If only because of the immense influence the Olympics holds, financially, symbolically, and politically. Indeed, in order for the hosting city to host the games, they must establish an agreement with IOC to allow expanded police powers. It happened in Sydney (the civil liberties curtailed have never been repealed), and London. So given that Russia will not suspend these laws for the Winter Olympics, we are likely to see an exacerbation of police brutality and repression of political dissidence in this arena.
Silence is complicity, which leads to death, torture, and greater rights violations.
Coming In From the Cold
Context aside, this still doesn’t get us anywhere closer to solving the problems on the ground in Russia. Even setting aside the complexities of global politics, there is a sense of immensity in challenging one of the largest and most powerful nations in the world. Probably one of the more ominous aspects of this shift in politics is the actions of civilians on this issue, having lead to the incidents of extra-legal action designed to torture and humiliate gay youths in a rather systematic fashion. The laws are being permissible of this conduct, particularly since the Russian authorities are not responding to such conduct. Sadly, these types of actions falls outside of the purview of human rights, because they are the domain of criminal law instead. So until the Russian Federation enforces these crimes, there is little to no formal mechanism under human rights law that can respond to them.
Likewise, there is almost no shortage on commentary on how we are to respond to this particular issue, as well as vast discussion what instruments to use from our repertoire of contention: from boycotting Sochi (or not), to standing with the Olympic athletes; to various demonstrations outside Russian Embassies and Consulates in San Fransisco, in Vancouver, in New York; as well as such calls to action like Stephen Fry’s highly evocative letter, to Dan Savage’s call to boycott and why this might be a bad idea; as well as Madonna’s more overt form of outspoken condemnation and Tilda Swinton’s more subversive dissent.
However, in spite of the significance of these actions, other nations have equally hostile political climates, which are potentially even worse: there are still detention camps for sexual dissidents (among others) in Greece; the death penalty still hangs like the Sword of Damocles over Uganda; and there are still no homosexuals in Iran. What we see is a trend in Eastern Europe, as even as recently as two days ago, there was a report of Armenian Police proposing a ‘Gay Propaganda’ ban, like in Russia.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
There is no small coincidence that the push for LGBTI human rights by Western advocates has been met with a virulent backlash from nations outside the West. Their entanglement with globalisation has contributed to the perception that LGBTI civil liberties as being synonymous with Western imperialism.
What is happening in Russia, Greece, Uganda, and Iran, to name but a few, are all symptoms of a world struggling to find a place for a highly dissident and subversive set of communities, all loosely affiliated across the globe. So yes, they constitute incredibly blatant breaches of human rights, but at least the Global North is finally reconciling with the issue that they are human rights issues – mostly.
In the past decade, the spectrum of LGBTI minorities falling under the purview of human rights starts after half a century of resilient silence. This change is in no small part due to the Declaration of Montreal (2006) and the Yogyakarta Principles (2006), which formally articulated a vast range of issues affecting these minorities from many parts of the globe. Yet, despite their formulation, the advocacy of LGBTI human rights remains inescapably Western. Partly, because human rights emerged as a Western phenomenon and partly because LGBTI (as both a sense of identity and community) has an equally Western origin. Moreover, both have been exported to spaces outside of the West along the same lines as the forces of globalisation.
It is no small coincidence that the push for LGBTI human rights by Western advocates has been met with a backlash from nations outside the West. Their entanglement with globalisation has contributed to the perception that LGBTI civil liberties as being synonymous with Western imperialism.
The Grecian Question
… and then there is Greece. As an ostensibly Western nation, it seems puzzling that it doesn’t generate as much attention as it should. In the last few months, there has been an increasing series of problems affecting a number of vulnerable minorities in Greece. This includes instating powers to arrest and detain people who are suspected of being HIV+ and forcing them to undergo testing under the mantra of public health. Admittedly, HIV rates have skyrocketed since 2011, but there is a strong correlation between this issue and the closure of public health services as a result of austerity measures.
However, that doesn’t seem to help explain the lack of attention to the Grecian issue, whose European legacy is one of the foundations to Europe. The seeming contradiction of the West’s attention to Greece may actually speak to a certain readiness to respond to the torture and deaths of gay youths by Neo-Nazis, rather than to respond to the concentration of trans people, sex workers, and HIV+ people: they are both subversive, but the former likely titillates a much broader audience. Nevertheless, these are all incredibly charged issues, so perhaps we can be forgiven for being irrational about them.
The Standard You Walk Past
This brings us back to the Australian context. Given that our Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, announced that LGBTI issues would become a core part of Australian Foreign Policy, the lack of comment on these issues from Minister Carr is inconsistent with that position. However, this inconsistency conforms to his response to one other major LGBTI humanitarian issues in Australia foreign policy: namely the settlement of LGBTI asylum seekers into a country that criminalises homosexuality. Minister Carr has effectively dismissed the issue with the statement that there should be no problem. This demonstrates the diplomatic stance being adopted by Australia’s foreign office, which is exemplar of the gap between what is being said and what is being done.
This position stands starkly in contrast to American foreign policy, as articulated two years ago by Hilary Clinton as the Secretary of State, and also reflected in President Obama’s comments and actions. However, it even falls behind the more milder reactions from the United Kingdom and Venice.
Silence is complicity, which leads to death, torture, and greater rights violations. This echoes the words of Australia’s own Chief of Army, David Morisson, on the subject of sexual harassment in the Australian Military, evoking his highly memorable phrase “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.