Russia may seem a distant place from Singapore. We have very little trade with it; the language and culture vastly different. But on Saturday, 24 August 2013, a protest demonstration will be held at Hong Lim Park aimed squarely at something that’s happening there.
We need to join many other countries in expressing our outrage at the rising homophobia in Russia. Encouraged by the Putin government, intolerant mobs have taken to lynching anyone suspected of being gay. Two men are known to have died, one of whom might not even have been gay.
The police have either been standing idly by (see photo at left) or not investigating hate crimes, and have even rough-handled and arrested those protesting the current situation (photo below). The pictures on this page give a snapshot of incidents in Moscow, St Petersburg and elsewhere.
Worldwide, a boycott of Russian vodka is being called. Some, including actor Stephen Fry, have called for a boycott of the coming Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi.
While not going so far, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, has asked the Russian government to explain how it will implement its controversial anti-gay propaganda law and detail its impact on the games.
The law in question is a June 2013 amendment to a child protection law making “the propagandising of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” an offence. The loose wording can mean that all gay-affirmative speech and expression is now a crime. If someone says he is gay and isn’t ashamed of the fact, is he “propagandising”? It can very easily be made out to be so if prosecutors and courts are of a mind to.
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Even before this law was passed, police were arresting gay protesters liberally. On GayRussia’s Facebook page is the story of Nikolai Alekseev, Alexey Kiselev and Kirill Nepomnjaschij, three activists who travelled from Moscow to Kostroma, about 200 km northeast of the capital. They went there to protest a local bill (obviously a precursor to the national bill) which outlawed propaganda of homosexuality to minors. Their intent was to organise a picket in front of a library, a form of public action which does not require a permit from the city authorities, GayRussia says.
The moment the three men arrived at the train station, they noticed that they were followed by undercover agents. When they raised the placard “Homosexuality is normal” at their protest, they were arrested.
Said Alekseeyev: “It shows that in Kostroma like in many other cities in Russia, LGBT people cannot express themselves. He added: “you see the effect of this law on people who live here and in other remote areas where similar law exists or where they are being discussed: gay people cannot express themselves or their life will become a nightmare.”
Four months later, a similar law is in effect across the whole country. Effectively the state has declared open season on LGBT Russians, and intolerant groups have felt free to identify and physically attack anyone they suspect of being gay. For example, on 29 June 2013, about 60 persons who attended a gay pride parade in St Petersburg were beaten by anti-gay mobs while police looked on (see photo below). In the end all 60 were also arrested by the police; no word on what, if any, happened to the bashers.
The two recent deaths — and there may be more not reported — illustrate the extremes that can be reached.
On 9 May 2013, Vladislav Tornovoi was drinking with a group of friends. As reported on the website Vocativ.com,
The 23-year-old’s dead body was found naked the next morning in the courtyard of an apartment complex in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. His skull had been crushed with a piece of broken pavement. His genitals were mutilated, his ribs broken and he had been sodomized with beer bottles with such force that they damaged his internal organs. Before they left, his assailants set fire to his battered body.
Tornovoi’s drinking companions have since been arrested. Originally described by police as a “drunken brawl,” Russian authorities now list the incident as an anti-gay crime, perhaps owing to an interview given by one of the suspects in a striking legal-defense strategy that consists of blaming the victim.
Another report at Russia Today said one of the suspects bashed Tornovoi’s head eight times with a 20-kg rock.
You can see a disturbing video clip (in Russian) wherein the suspect appears to be re-enacting the events. According to a translation on Vocativ.com, Univosti News reported the answer he gave:
Univosti News: “Why did you shove a bottle up his rectum?”
Suspect: “Because he said he was gay.”
U News: “How deep did you shove it in?”
Suspect: “All the way through.”
U News: “What did you do after?”
Suspect: “I started stomping on his ribs.”
U News: “And after?”
Suspect: “I took a brick and dropped it on his head 5 or 6 times.”
Vocative adds this comment by a gay-rights spokesperson highlighting how the killers think that just saying the victim was gay would excuse their actions.
“It’s part of a very alarming tendency,” Olga Lenkova, spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg-based Coming Out advocacy group, tells Vocativ. “But the people who killed him, or are accused of killing him, really thought they could get away with it by suggesting he was gay.”
However, Tornovoy’s friends say he wasn’t gay at all and had been in a number of relationships with girls throughout his life. He was also unknown to the local gay community.
A month later, another murder took place, this time in the remote village of Zaporozhye in the Far East peninsula of Kamchatka. Reuters and Towleroad reported that three men stabbed and trampled the unnamed victim to death. They then put the 39-year-old’s body in his car and set it on fire. The Investigative Committee said in a statement that the motive for the killing was “because their fellow villager had a non-traditional sexual orientation,” using a euphemism for gay. The suspects have been arrested. Interfax news agency reported the victim was a deputy director at an airport.
A comment below the Towleroad story mentioned that according to gay.ru, this is the seventh gay-bashing murder in 2013, but no link was provided.
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That the state is fanning this wave of murderous homophobia can be seen from this videoclip of Dimitry Kisilev, anchor of the leading news show in Russia, Vesti. There is little doubt that a major channel like Rossiya 1 (which broadcasts Vesti and the recent show from which the clip below comes) is a Kremlin-controlled channel, and Kisilev’s words should be seen as endorsed by the very top. I’m not sure exactly which day this broadcast was made, but it was around 10 August 2013.
His reference to “automobile accidents” with no prior context clearly encourages people to go out to kill people; as does his remark “unsuitable for the continuation of life”. The reference to burning implies approval of what happened in the two murders mentioned above.
A very plausible theory making the rounds is that Putin is unconcerned about violent homophobia surfacing. In fact he is making political hay from it. Ever since he encountered unexpected opposition to his March 2012 reelection as president, with continuing protests thereafter against his strongman rule, he has found it convenient to court the Russian Orthodox Church. Like so many conservative churches around the world, this church promotes the idea that spreading hate is a great marker of Christian piety, and there is no easier target group than LGBT people.
The parallels with the situation in Singapore hardly need to be spelt out: a highly discriminatory law, powerful churches and a government willing to make pacts with the devil if need be to cement its power.
Granted, homophobia in Singapore takes the form of censorship and psychological abuse rather than violence, but just because it is less overt does not mean we should look the other way when others have it worse off. Just as we see a moral case for those who are better off, even those who aren’t rich by objective measures, to help those poorer and less fortunate than themselves, so too should we speak up for gay Russians.
Jolovan Wham and organisers of Indignation — Singapore’s annual LGBT Pride Season — are organising a protest on Saturday, 24 August 2013 at Hong Lim Park. They will put together a letter to be sent to the Russian embassy. Join them.