3 min

Russia’s powerful anti-gay movement

Why won't Canada denounce Russia's human rights abuses?

Madonna is being sued by anti-gay activists for defying Russia's gay propaganda law in August. Credit:

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. This week we learn that anti-gay activists are suing Madonna for $10 million for “offending” them during her Aug 9 concert at which she declared her unwavering support for gay rights. The crowd of thousands cheered and many held up tiny rainbow flags.

In their lawsuit, the anti-gay activists write, “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.”

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. In recent years, Russia has been taking steps to take the country back toward state-supported discrimination.

In February, when St Petersburg made the disturbing move to criminalize any positive speech about gay and lesbian people, the world started to wake up to the increasing persecution of queer people in the country.

Ukraine soon followed suit, introducing a similar “anti-gay propaganda” law. Then, Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk, passed a similar law. Previously, the cities of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, Kostroma and St Petersburg had passed similar legislation. The rest of Russia seems likely to follow.

Gay rights activists 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.”

This week Moscow’s top court 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.

Where’s the condemnation from Ottawa? Is it not Canada’s official position that gays and lesbians should be protected from human rights abuses?

The closest the government came was in March, following the passing of the gay gag law. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs advised Canadians travelling in Russia to “avoid displaying affection in public, as homosexuals can be targets of violence.”

In other words, “If you get attacked in Russia, you have only yourself to blame. We warned you gays about touching one another in public.”

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, three brave artists who are following in the footsteps of punk legends like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, using music to fight political oppression and religious tyranny.

The members of Pussy Riot are facing up to two years hard time in a labour camp because they belted out an anti-Putin protest song inside a Moscow cathedral, a song that lasted less than one minute.

Russian prosecutors claim the song was intended to offend the Orthodox Christian community, and the three members were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

The ridiculous verdict sparked protests around the world, including in Toronto.

And 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.”

This statement came after news that the band has a Canadian connection. Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova holds permanent resident status in Canada and has an Ontario health card.

Canada must step in. It’s our duty to protect our citizens. Is the Harper government afraid to rock the boat with its already rocky relationship with the Kremlin?

Meanwhile, in the wake of Madonna’s concert, Russian authorities once again lashed out, saying they seek punishment and “moral damages” because the singer spoke up for gay Russians. The vice-president even called her a “whore.” 

In Russia, gay activists are fighting back, and it’s important we support them. All eyes will be on Russia in 2014 when it hosts the Sochi Winter Olympics; queer rights will no doubt be front and centre in international human rights discussions. Russian authorities have already made it clear that queer people are not welcome at the next Winter Olympics.

In March, a Russian court ruled that Pride House, a refuge for gay athletes and asylum-seekers, was “extremist” and could provoke “social-religious hatred,” thus it is banned. 

Pride House was first created for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. It was re-created for the Summer Olympics in London. On Aug 20, the founders of Pride House in Sochi filed a lawsuit seeking €200,000 in response to the Russian Justice Ministry’s refusal.

Will queer athletes be safe in Sochi? If an athlete comes out during the Olympics and speaks proudly about being gay, will Russian authorities haul him or her away for upsetting the fragile sensibilities of Orthodox Christians and Vladimir Putin? The answer is likely yes.

It is nothing short of an international embarrassment. Canada will be complicit in this persecution unless it speaks out strongly against this hate.