3 min

Russia’s gay gag

We are watching a revolution unfold in Russia

This is a revolution against religious and political oppression. It is a fight for gay liberation, women’s rights and free speech.

Depressing news about post-Soviet Russia seems to surface daily. The latest: anti-gay activists are suing Madonna for $10 million for “offending” them during her Aug 9 concert, where she declared her unwavering support for gay rights.

“Maybe someone does not see the link but after Madonna’s concert maybe some boy becomes gay, some girl becomes lesbian, fewer children are born as a result and this big country cannot defend its borders — for me it causes moral suffering,” one of the activists said.

Russia’s “war on gays” is not new. Homosexuality was illegal in the former Soviet Union. After it fell, gay sex was decriminalized in 1993, but virulent homophobia continues to run deep.

St Petersburg introduced a gay gag law in February, making it a crime to say anything positive about gay and lesbian people.

Four other cities followed suit. Neighbouring Ukraine introduced, then shelved, its own legislation in July.

Gay rights activists in Russia have long attempted Pride marches, but they are continuously met with police violence — rainbow flags are confiscated and demonstrators hauled away. A former mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, referred to gay pride events as “satanic gatherings.”

Moscow’s top court recently upheld a ban on gay pride marches in the Russian capital for the next 100 years. It is as absurd as it is terrifying.

How is the Canadian government responding? So far with deafening silence.

The closest the government came to any kind of condemnation was to advise Canadians travelling to Russia in March to “avoid displaying affection in public, as homosexuals can be targets of violence.”

In other words, if you get attacked in Russia for acting gay, you have only yourself to blame, according to our Department of Foreign Affairs.

Unlike our wimpy elected officials, the Canadian people have not been silent. Many of us have joined a growing global chorus singing a punk prayer with the women of Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in a Siberian prison on Aug 17 because they belted out an anti-Putin protest song inside an iconic Moscow cathedral.

Russian prosecutors claim the song was intended to offend the Orthodox Christian community. The three members of the band were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

What’s the Canadian government’s response? On Aug 20, when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was asked about the issue, he couldn’t even bring himself to utter the band’s name.

“We believe in every part of the world of sentencing having some relation to the serious nature of the crime,” Baird said. “Obviously, there’s, I think, widespread concern that this was perhaps too much and there were perhaps political considerations. We support around the world independent judiciaries, and we certainly take note of what’s happened.”

The statement followed news that the band may have a Canadian connection. Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova reportedly holds permanent resident status in Canada.

If Tolokonnikova is Canadian, then Canada must step in. Is the Harper government afraid to rock the boat given its already rocky relationship with the Kremlin?

Meanwhile, in the wake of Madonna’s concert, Russian authorities say they, too, want her punished for speaking up for gay Russians. The deputy prime minister called her a “whore.”

In Russia, gay activists are fighting back, and it’s important that we support them.

All eyes will be on Russia in 2014 when it hosts the Sochi Winter Olympics. Russian authorities have already made it clear that queer people are not welcome.

In March, a Russian court upheld the government’s ban against Pride House, which was pioneered at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics as a place of celebration and refuge for gay athletes and asylum-seekers. The court ruled that Pride House “leads to propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society” and provoke “social-religious hatred.”

If an athlete comes out during the Sochi Olympics and speaks proudly of being gay, will Russian authorities haul him or her away for upsetting the fragile sensibilities of Orthodox Christians and Vladimir Putin?

It is nothing short of an international embarrassment.

Andrea Houston is staff reporter for the Toronto edition of Xtra.