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Vancouver’s queer community rallies for Russia

The least Canadians can 'do in our privilege is stand up and speak out': Jennifer Breakspear

Vancouver rally co-organizer Jennifer Breakspear. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth

Vancouver’s LGBT community and its allies gathered outside the Russian consulate Sept 3 to protest against the country’s anti-gay legislation as part of the Global Speak Out for Russia campaign staged in 34 cities around the world.

Since Russia passed controversial gay propaganda laws in June, the country has reportedly seen a rise in violence against queer people.

One of the new laws bans promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. The scale of punishment for those who violate the measure varies. Individuals can be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($125–156), legal entities up to one million rubles ($15,500–31,000) and suspension of their activities, and internet promotion up to 100,000 rubles ($1,550–3,100). Foreigners found to have flouted the law face the prospect of 15 days in prison and deportation.

Other legislation bans gay couples around the world from adopting Russian children.

Jennifer Breakspear, who co-organized the Vancouver protest with Janelle Zwarych, told Xtra the rallies were being held in concert with the From Russia with Love events, where protesters risk arrest or worse.

"We're scared. We're concerned. We're angry," Breakspear says. "This is an event of love and compassion for our Russian brothers and sisters."

The least Canadians can “do in our privilege is stand up and speak out,” she says. "We have our rights enshrined. We have our rights upheld and respected."

Not so in Russia under the new laws, she says, noting that queer Russians are being beaten by police, having their passports confiscated and their homes searched.

A letter from Russian LGBT activist and journalist Andrew Nasonov, read at the event, recounts his arrest and beatings at the hands of police and the despair he feels.

"In Russia, I see no future for myself," Nasonov writes. "I cannot have a family, I cannot have children, I do not have many of the rights enjoyed by all other citizens of the country. And after I organized an action against the law banning 'gay propaganda' in Voronezh on January 20, it became quite difficult to live here. Our group of 10 LGBT activists were attacked by 500 people, including Cossacks, Nazis and Orthodox activists. I suffered. I was pushed to the ground, kicked in the head. I lost consciousness. Now I'm scared even to go out and just walk down the street because many know me in person."

"We are going through difficult times," he continues, “but I am sure that we will come to a world where human rights will be respected, and the state will take care of its citizens. We must not remain silent!”

He concludes, "Today, in many Russian cities, we also hold events called 'From Russia with Love.' These events are for the foreigners who support us. For you, the people of Vancouver! We love you! Thank you for everything!”

Speaker Will Blunderfield told the crowd that equality is a right and not a privilege to be bestowed by the state.

"Vladimir Putin is a hateful man who has made homophobia acceptable in his country," he says. He then led the crowd in singing John Lennon's “Imagine.”

Immigration lawyer Rob Hughes called the laws "state-sanctioned queer bashing." He says Canadians need to bring pressure to bear on Canadian politicians to push Putin to repeal the laws.

Gay Vancouver actor Berend McKenzie was among the more than 150 people at the protest watched over by several police officers.

"I'm angry," he says. "What Russia is doing is unjust, and the [International Olympic Committee] is remaining silent and condoning the behaviour."

He says if Putin won't reverse the laws, the IOC should cancel the Sochi Olympics.

The issue has sparked a storm of controversy in the leadup to the Games next year, with ongoing calls for a boycott of the event. 

While Canadians have no sway on what the IOC might do, Breakspear notes, she says they can make their feelings known to elected officials, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is to attend the G20 leaders' summit in St Petersburg, Russia, this week.

Breakspear encourages Canadians to email Harper and press him to raise the issue with Putin, as other leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, have committed to do.

"We don't carry weight with the IOC, but we do carry it with votes," Breakspear says.

She would like Harper to reiterate what Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird said Aug 1.

"This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year. It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence," Baird said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

A recent poll revealed that Canadians aren't ready to give up on the Sochi Olympics in the face of the Russian laws.

Protesting at the Games, however, may not be so easy. Putin has increased security measures for the duration of the event, issuing a decree prohibiting “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets” that are not part of the Olympics and Paralympics, from Jan 7 to March 21. Still, he recently told Channel One there'll be no discrimination against gays at Sochi and dismissed the outcry against the legislation, saying there was "no need to make a moutain out of a molehill."

The IOC has maintained there would be no tolerance of discrimination based on sexual orientation during the Games but has also threatened to penalize athletes who make political statements at the event.