Peter Tatchell on a coach to the Slavic Pride conference.
(Pic by Andy Thayer)
Moscow’s mayor tried to crush the city’s gay pride parade last weekend. In so doing, he did the cause of gay rights in Russia a huge service, writes British activist Peter Tatchell.
Russian gay rights campaigners are toasting Moscow’s homophobic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, after he ordered the banning and violent suppression of last Saturday’s Slavic Gay Pride Parade in the Russian capital – just hours before the Eurovision song contest was staged in the city.
“Luzhkov has done more than anyone to publicise gay rights in Russia,” beamed Nikolai Alekseev, the gay parade organiser, as we chatted on Sunday afternoon following his release from nearly 24 hours police detention.
“By stopping the gay parade he has provoked massive media coverage of our fight against homophobia. The Russian media has been full of reports about gay issues for the last week. This has hugely increased public awareness and understanding of gay people.
“Slowly, we are eroding homophobic attitudes. Through this media visibility, we are helping to normalise queer existence. After our successive gay protests in Moscow since 2006, people are less shocked about homosexuality. We have a long way to go, but gradually we are winning hearts and minds, especially among younger Russians.
“We ought to give Luzhkov an award. His violation of our right to protest has given us a remarkable platform, with day-after-day of publicity about lesbian gay human rights. It is the equivalent of about 200 million roubles (four million pounds) in free advertising,” noted Alekseev.
After spending five days in Moscow, helping prepare for the parade and then participating in the brutally curtailed protest, I am awestruck by the masterful strategy and tactics of the organisers.
They had previously tried writing letters and seeking meetings with the Russian government in a bid to get action against the homophobic discrimination, harassment and violence that is widespread in Russian society. Every approach has been rebuffed. Both the federal and city authorities have refused to meet representatives of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Pride protestors are arrested by police. (Pic by Andy Thayer)
They will not introduce laws to tackle anti-gay violence and to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Faced with this intransigent refusal to dialogue or legislate, what are Russian queers to do? Stay silent? Do nothing?
The gay parade organisers realise that the conferences, glossy reports and low key vigils of other Russian and international gay organisations have little or no impact on the government – or on public consciousness.
It is only visible and challenging actions, like the gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda.
The same has been true all throughout history. It has been direct action by radical campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice.
By adapting their tactics, the Moscow Slavic Gay Pride coordinators ran rings around the Russian and Moscow governments and put them on the defensive.
“Luzhkov walked into our trap. We offered to meet him last week to work out an amicable solution. He refused. His refusal and the subsequent police repression of the parade gave us masses of publicity and made him look aggressive and tyrannical,” said Alekseev.
As well as being full of admiration for the organiser’s tactical savvy, I was also immensely impressed by their ingenuity in out-witting the Moscow police and the Federal Security Service (the successor to the Soviet-era secret police, the KGB).
Moscow’s gay parade was planned like a military operation and executed with more than a whiff of James Bond-style daring and evasion.
Nicolai Alekseev celebrates his release.
(Pic by Andy Thayer)
The authorities were determined to stop the protest before it happened. They put activists under surveillance and planned to pre-emptively arrest Alekseev. To prevent this, he went into hiding a few days before, moving from house to house, switching cars and trains and changing mobile phones.
Over 60 gay activists joined the parade, with others acting as logistical support, arranging transport, accommodation, food and security. They came from far-flung regions of Russia, plus a 15-strong delegation from Belarus. Most were in their early 20s. There were a few older veterans from the underground Russian gay rights movement in the 1980s, including a member of the Academy of Sciences and a nuclear physicist. Their bravery and fearlessness was totally inspiring. All of them were ready to risk being arrested, beaten, jailed, sacked from their jobs and evicted from their apartments.
On the day of the parade, we converged on the protest location – the gardens in front of Moscow State University. To fool the riot police, we arrived in limousines, disguised as a wedding party, complete with bride and groom (Alekseev).
There were three successive protests, one after the other. First, the Belarusians kicked off with chants against homophobia, which is when I was arrested for holding a placard with “Gay rights” written in Russian and English. After we were dragged off, another group unfurled a 25-foot banner: “Gay Equality. No compromise.” Then, finally, Alekseev and his “bride” were bundled into a police van. Several people were arrested for simply speaking to the media. Nearly all those detained – including myself – report being arrested with excessive force.
All-in-all, it was a PR disaster for the Russian and Moscow authorities, ensuring that Eurovision 2009 will be forever associated with police brutality, government homophobia and the suppression of a peaceful protest.
It is good to know that Russian gay campaigners are having the last laugh. In March, the then Moscow police chief, Vladmir Pronin, had promised there would no protests at all. No gay demos would be allowed to mar Eurovision. He boasted of “tough measures” and that protesters would be “torn to shreds.” No person would be brave enough to risk the wrath of his riot police, Pronin warned.
He was wrong. There was a gay protest. Gays had the guts to defy his uniformed thugs. By so doing, they not only defended gay human rights, they were also defending the right to protest of all Russians, gay and straight.
Originally published in The Guardian – Comment is Free – London on 19 May 2009.