How we can halt Putin's war on gays

Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church. And we must keep paying attention to it.

Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg. Image: Getty

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist”: so begins Martin Niemöller’s haunting critique of the German intellectuals who looked on while the Nazis rose to power. Who, 80 years later, is speaking out while Russia comes for its LGBT population?

There’s clearly a voice for gay rights within Russia, as harrowing images of bloodied activists are becoming increasingly common. Since Stephen Fry’s impassioned open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, calling for the fastapproaching Winter Olympics to be pulled out of Sochi, protesters have been piling pressure on the Games’ sponsors to withdraw funding. One online petition, demanding that Coca-Cola speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws, gained 350,000 signatures in October.

It’s hard to say whether Fry’s letter acted as a catalyst for the ongoing condemnation of Russia’s right to host the Games but his comparison of the crackdown on gay rights with anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazis was certainly powerful. Comparisons to Nazism are usually idle and misplaced, but in this case likening the dead-eyed Putin to Hitler couldn’t be more apt.

In Russia, supposedly a progressive democracy, new anti-gay legislation is opening the way for a state in which LGBT people are tortured to death, while the authorities do nothing. In a series of bills pushed through the Duma, Putin has criminalised “homosexual propaganda”.

You need only to Google Putin and take a look at his devastatingly camp shirtless photos to see the irony in this (in Russia anyone who “looks gay” – cough – is committing an arrestable offence). With their perpetrators safe from prosecution, homophobic attacks have become routine in Russia.

Many of these are carried out by neo-Nazi gangs who are leading a campaign called “Occupy Paedophilia”. (Russia has a bizarre history of confusing love between members of the same sex with child molestation; in 1933, Stalin outlawed homosexuality for this very reason. Mind you, this is a man who also thought that Holland and the Netherlands were two separate countries.)

Homosexuality was first outlawed by Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th century. It was decriminalised by Lenin shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, then recriminalised by Stalin. In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin decriminalised homosexuality for the second time. The common factor in Russia’s intermittent scapegoating of LGBT people is a desire to buddy up to the Orthodox Church – even in the case of Stalin, some historians have argued. Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church.

All calls to withdraw the Winter Olympics from Sochi have been ignored and the games are set to open in February next year. When it comes to gay rights abuses, Russia is in effect a truculent toddler being handed a lollipop by a dishevelled and jaded parent. We fought, we lost.

On the other hand, the international movement against homophobia is now more vocal than ever. As Desmond Tutu said, in response to Russia’s legislated gay hate, “I’d rather go to hell than worship a homophobic God.”