Moscow’s Slavic Gay Pride protest last Saturday was a huge success, even though the police harshly suppressed it. Timed to coincide with the Eurovision song contest that was also being hosted in Moscow the same day, the protest itself was not so important. It was a means to an end — to challenge Russian and Belarusian government homophobia and to provoke media coverage and public debate about gay and lesbian issues. On both counts, the protesters won hands down.
In March, the then Moscow police chief, Vladmir Pronin, promised that the gay parade would never happen. No gay demos would be allowed on the day of the Eurovision final, or any other day. 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. Slavic Gay Pride went ahead last Saturday, not far from the Eurovision venue and just a few hours before the contestants came on stage. Russian and Belarusian queers had the guts to defy Moscow’s riot police. By so doing, they not only defended LGBT human rights, they also defended the right to free speech and peaceful protest of all Russians, gay and straight.
The protest was planned like a military operation and executed with echoes of James Bond-style secrecy, daring and evasion. How amazing it was that the organisers were able to outwit the Moscow police and the Federal Security Bureau (the successor to the Soviet-era secret police, the KGB).
The authorities were determined to stop the parade before it happened. They planned to pre-emptively arrest Nikolai Alekseev and other key organisers. To prevent this, the protest leaders went into hiding, moving to different locations, changing mobile phone numbers and switching between cars, trains and buses.
Over 60 gay activists were involved in the protest, 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. Some were only teenagers. There were a few veterans from the underground Russian gay-rights movement of the Soviet era 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.
The Slavic Gay Pride organisers had three major organizational concerns: to gather all the participants safely together in one place, to ensure that they could meet in secret in advance and prepare freely for the protest, and to prevent them from being swooped on by the police and arrested at their accommodation on the morning of the parade.
To solve these problems, three days before the demo all the protest participants made their way to a secret rendezvous point in Moscow, from where we were collected and taken by bus to a large country house in a forest on the outskirts of Moscow. We had to trek the last mile on foot, as the pot-holed dirt road was impassable by bus. In this quiet and beautiful setting, we hid out and rehearsed our protest plans.
The house was very crowded, with only three showers and toilets for 70 people. We also had to make do with just 25 double beds, which meant lots of three-to-a-bed squeeze-ups. But everyone happily made do. We all messed in together to make meals and organize evening entertainment. There was great camaraderie.
On the morning of the gay parade, we set off for central Moscow in a bus. A couple of people were sent ahead in cars to scout the route into Moscow. They discovered the police had set up roadblocks to check for protesters. So, our bus made a detour to a railway station. Exiting from the bus, we continued by train to the next station past the roadblock, where we got into a hastily hired fleet of cars and vans to continue our journey to the protest location — the gardens in front of Moscow State University. They are high on a hill overlooking the city, which is a popular photo spot for newly married couples.
To fool the riot police, we disguised ourselves as a wedding party, complete with bride and groom. Lots of us carried bridal flowers to make the deception complete.
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 marched a short distance with a 25-foot banner: “Gay Equality. No compromise.” Then, finally, the protest organiser, Nikolai Alekseev, appeared dressed as a groom, together with his “bride” (a fabulous, beautiful Belarusian guy in a blonde wig and full white bridal gown). They stated their gay equality demands and were promptly bundled into a police van.
Several people were arrested for simply speaking to the media. Nearly all those detained — including myself — were arrested with excessive force. I had my arms severely twisted up my back and my wrist crunched to pinch the nerves.
All in all, this heavy-handed policing 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.
Despite the crushing of the protest — or perhaps because of it — the Slavic Gay Pride organizers see it as a great success and are, somewhat perversely, rather grateful to Moscow’s homophobic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, for banning and quashing the demo.
“Luzhkov has done more than anyone to publicize gay rights in Russia,” beamed Nikolai Alekseev, the gay parade organiser, as we chatted on Sunday afternoon following his release from nearly 24 hours under police detention. Together with other arrested protesters, he had been held in an overcrowded and freezing cold police cell that stank of vomit, feces and urine.
“By stopping the gay parade he (the mayor) 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 normalize queer existence. After our successive gay protests in Moscow since 2006, most people are less shocked about homosexuality. We have a very 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 days of free publicity about lesbian gay human rights. It is the equivalent of about 200 million roubles (approximately $2 million) in free advertising,” noted Alekseev gleefully.
After spending five days in Moscow, helping prepare for the parade and participating in the brutally curtailed protest, I was struck by the brilliant strategic thinking of the organizers.
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. All their approaches were rebuffed. Both the federal and city authorities have refused to meet representatives of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. They will not introduce laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and to tackle anti-gay hate crimes. Faced with this intransigent refusal to dialogue or legislate, what is Russian queers to do? Walk away? Stay silent? Do nothing?
The Slavic Gay Parade organisers long ago concluded that although private conferences, authoritative reports and small vigils are worthwhile, they have little or no impact on the Russian and Moscow authorities — or on public consciousness. Because they rarely get reported in the national media, few people ever know about them happening. This means the ability of low-key campaigns to erode public ignorance and prejudice is, sadly, very limited.
According to Alekseev, it is primarily visible and challenging actions, like the gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda.
He’s right. All throughout history, it has been direct action by campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice.
Adapting their non-violent civil disobedience 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, with a mischievous wink and smile.
Already, he and his comrades are thinking about Slavic Gay Pride 2010. Perhaps in Minsk, Belarus? That would be even more daring and dangerous than Moscow. Belarus is Europe’s last Soviet-style dictatorship, with a government even more repressive and homophobic than Russia. The personal risks of protesting there would enormous. But these heroic, courageous LGBT activists are undeterred.
And I, of course, will continue to support them.