In Lithuania there’s a very strange theme park. For anyone who’s been to Alton Towers and was disappointed by the lack of jackboots and rabid attack dogs, there exists Soviet Bunker, a USSR-themed “survival drama” experience in the wooded outskirts of Vilnius. Here, tourists pay to be screamed at and degraded by uniformed guards. Of course, these guards are actually actors and their Alsatians are probably big, friendly rugs, saving up to bound off to Hollywood. A couple of hundred miles further east, in Mother Russia, a similarly authoritarian “experience” has just been made available to tourists. Now open to us lucky LGBT travellers is the “being arrested for being gay” adventure.
But the USP of Russia’s latest attraction is that it doesn’t involve actors and drama school mutts, but real life police officers and actual jail cells. New legislation, signed at the end of last month by that renowned homo-hugger Vladimir Putin, allows for “out and proud” tourists to be detained by the police for up to fourteen days. Arrestable offences include holding hands with a member of the same sex or flying a rainbow flag. Shitty news for overly-affectionate heteros who happen to enjoy bright colours.
Just to be clear, Russia being a horrendous place to be gay isn’t news to me. Up until last week, when reports of the new homophobic legislation hit the papers, I had a “My, how sad, but how does this affect me?” attitude towards Russian gay-bashing. Reprehensible, I know. I mostly put this position down to impotence. I’m constantly signing petitions like this, in the hope that my homeopathic approach to activism – watered down to negligibility – might stir something, somewhere. But things just got personal. As a potential visitor to Russia, it’s now hit me: what if I want to go and be really dykey in Moscow? I can’t. In fact, as someone openly gay in the media, it’s a possibility, since they still have a visa system, that I wouldn’t be let into the country at all. This seems particularly unfair as, having spent weeks fruitlessly gnawing my way through Dostoevsky as a student, Russia has punished me enough already. But what I’ve realised is that safe in my liberal, Western European bubble, my ears only truly prick up at the sound of foreign, legislative gay hate when I’m potentially affected by it. My outrage at Uncle Vlad’s decision to discriminate against tourists should have been directed at the Russian government’s treatment of its own LGBT people right from the start.
In legislating to treat tourists the same way as nationals, Russia is actually giving cushioned Brits like me a taste of what it’s like to be Russian and gay. Or Egyptian and gay. Or Jamaican and gay. It’s so easy to forget that homosexuality is still illegal in great chunks of the globe. Laws like those just passed in Russia are a stark reminder that we who can openly love whoever the hell we want at home are so often criminals abroad. Obviously, Russia isn’t the first country to extend its anti-gay laws to tourists. I could no sooner be openly gay in Russia than I could in Uganda, Burma or Saudi Arabia. Although this doesn’t detract from the fact that there’s now another 6.6 million square miles of the planet on which I badly need to keep schtum about that digging muff thing I have going on. Easier said than done; concealing a full-on lesboner can be tricky. Trust me on this one.
Perversely, in making visiting gays equally culpable to its home-grown ones, Russia has brought us together. So, in homage to the country’s communist past, I say this: homos of the world, unite! Ideally, hundreds of thousands of us would gather in Red Square and mechanically combine like genetically modified Transformers to make one gargantuan, part meat, part robot über-gay that shoots rainbow lasers out of its eyes. Working together as Optimus Dyke, we’d chase a cowering Putin out of the Kremlin. Oh, and free Pussy Riot while we’re at it.