How conservatives hijacked the gay movement

The focus on gay marriage shows how the movement has lost its teeth.

Despite some hemming and hawing from the Tory backbenches, the coalition government looks likely to - eventually - pass same-sex marriages in England and Wales into law. The “consultation” stage of the process continues until 14 June, but whatever the outcome, gay marriage is definitively on the political table. Senior Anglicans write letters in favour of it. David Cameron supports it  “not despite" but "because” he is a Conservative. The Times writes openly in favour of it, as does ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie.

There are also plenty of conservative opponents, of course, the odious “Coalition for Marriage” and Cardinal Keith O’Brien being among the most vocal, but every minority cause will have its detractors. There are still some people who believe in creationism (indeed, a venn diagram depicting creationism belief amongst Coalition for Marriage supporters would be illuminating).

The government’s commitment to gay marriage, in one sense, reflects a great gradual shift in public opinion. If there are equal marriage supporters amongst even those with conservative or orthodox religious inclinations, we’ve come a long way. Wonderful news, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people will finally have the rights allocated by default to those of a heterosexual persuasion! The early activists of the Gay Liberation Front would be thrilled with the progress we’ve made.

Except on this matter, they wouldn’t. The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 have passed into legend as the catalyst for the modern Anglo-American gay liberation movement; in 2012, we’ve forgotten what the fight was originally about. The image of racially mixed drag queens, dykes and poor street queers fighting back against police brutality is about as far from the contemporary ideal of the well-off assimilationist gay as you can get. The matching Volvos and semi-detached houses of buttoned-up 21st century gay(-friendly) conservatives are representative of a different, diluted era, and rather a saddening one.

Equal rights as an end goal reflect an understandable desire for an easier life. There’s a strong logic in the idea that normalising same-sex desire entails less stigma, trauma, and violence directed towards LGBT people. But a quick search for “gay marriage” on most-read British LGBT news website Pink News returns 3617 results, compared to 1247 for “violence”, or for “poverty”, a measly 178. Make no mistake, this is not because violence or poverty have ceased to be issues for LGBT people. More likely, the coverage reflects the dominance of the interests of white, middle-class, educated, and dare I say it, conservative gays and lesbians in the movement.

The trend towards gay conservatism and assimilation into the straight, respectable  mainstream was first flagged up by queer theorist Michael Warner in his 1999 book, The Trouble With Normal. Far from being about “love” or “recognition”, marriage, according to Warner, is a method of state regulation, used to expand the rule of law into the sex lives, in particular, of the unmarried. Thirteen years later, anti-normative politics within queer and trans* communities are ever more strong and sophisticated, but such radical voices go largely unheard by the LGB mainstream.

From asserting a powerful political critique of the heterosexual organisation of society - to which monogamous marriage between two people is central - the loudest, strongest sections of the gay movement have set their sights on becoming just the same. Apart from the small matter of sexual gender preference, which, they are now saying, doesn’t really make any difference whatsoever. We’re just like you, honest! Please like us!

Moreover, prioritising equal marriage as a cause has actively meant the exclusion of other important approaches. Where are the campaigns against the poisonous ideology which supports financial and political reward for those who are married? If, as is often suggested, children with two married parents are happier and “do better”, what about some research unpicking the impact that politically privileging one family model has on children’s happiness and success? How about questioning the Disney-esque ideal of life trajectory as “true love”, marriage, and happily ever after?

Dogmatic belief in the magic power of two, conveniently ignores the existence of alternative family models - cohabiting parents, non-sexual parental friendships, multiply-partnered families, familial communities. Queer relationships are invisible under such a system, but where marriage is a declining practice, these other ways of relating are burgeoning.

The “Conservative case for gay marriage” is spot on. If you want to reinvigorate social conservatism for the austerity generation, it makes sense to support equal marriage. The pity is the gay movement is buying into it. Hijacked by those we used to stand in political opposition to, today’s gay movement has lost its teeth.

Same-sex marriage advocates at the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade on 3 March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot