Monday, May 18, 2009

The Ugly Homophobic Underbelly of Eurovision's Moscow

Eurovision might wll be the epitome of camp, but sadly modern Moscow is far from a queer friendly city and Russia itself is a very difficult place for people who are not heterosexual. Nevertheless there is a small lesbian and gay rights movement and they have guts. On Eurovision weekend, a small group of activists attempted to use Eurovision to draw attention to the plight of queer folks in Russia. It was brutally suppressed by the Moscow police at the behest of the Mayor. There's a full report in today's Age here. It's both sad but inspiring reading and it's worth reflecting how far we have come in Australia in my lifetime and, without minimising the hard work and sacrifices of our own struggle, just how surprisingly easy it was for us compared to our fellow queers in Russia or India or Malaysia or, even worse, in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Just some points from the Age article (which is reprinted from the LA Times) that I want to highlight. First off the police action is based on a longstanding ban queer rights demonstrations in Moscow which appears to be driven by the city's Mayor. Indeed, the article quotes him as saying that:

Gay activists threaten "not only to destroy the moral pillars of our society but also to deliberately provoke disorder, which would threaten the lives and security of Muscovites and guests of the city"

So US fundamentalist Christians clearly do not have a monopoly on demonising hyperbole when it comes to us queers, and queer activists especially. I don't know the political background of the Mayor of Moscow but so much of Russia's political elite are heirs to the old Soviet ruling classes that I wouldn't be surprised if he came from an old Party background too. There's a myth that the Bolshevik revolution was a queer friendly event that removed all the old restrictions on homosexuality in Russia. The reality is that the Bolsheviks merely abolished the old Tsarist Criminal Code. The new code they brought in did not contain anti-homosexual provisions. However, in the early 30s Stalin re-instituted anti-queer laws. It's not clear why. In his Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn suggests that, for the Stalinist, if there was a need to sweep up more people into the Gulag it was a simple matter of outlawing some previously illegal activity and thereby round up all of those now guilty for consignment to the prison slave labor system. There might also have been certain diplomatic stakes vis a vis Germany as, according to one account I read, the German embassy in Moscow had connections with the city's homosexual subculture or elements of it. In other words, a lot of poofters were working in the German diplomatic corps and criminalisation would aid and abet blackmail opportunities in Moscow for espionage purposes. On the other hand, criminalisation took place at the same time as the rise of Hitler in Germany. The new Nazi regime had a radical wing represented by the SA whose central leadership corps seem to have been largely homosexual under the very homosexual Ernst Rohm. Possibly Stalin feared a radical recruitment drive amonsgt Moscow's homosexual sub-cultures at the behest of Rohm and co. The radical SA homosexual under Rohm would soon perish in the Night of the Long Knives, but as a ruthless dictator, Stalin would be posessed of a certain level of paranoid imagination. Needless to say the recriminalisation of homosexuality could only have happened at Stalin's behest. Furthermore any realistic attempt at understanding why the recriminalisation occurred would have to acknowledge that there would be a plethora of reasons of which the ones I have listed would be merely examples.

But whatever the full story, it left a harsh legacy, of which the weekend's events are but a sample. The depth of Russian societal antipathy to homosexuality is quite astonishing and depressing for someone like myself who has long been atracted to and fascinated by things Russian. I can't help but think it is in some sense a legacy of Stalin. I am reminded of Alan Bray's observation re sworn friendships and other such same sex bondings in medieval and Renaissance England, that in many ways the disciplines of friendship, in particular passionate friendships, remain somewhat outside of and thereby can be perceived as a threat to the family, kinship and patriarchal systems of the day )and hence, he infers, the more formal rituals of sworn friendship were allowed to lapse). I wonder whether or not, Stalin saw threats in such passionate bondings unregulated by the demands of kinship and offspring and the potential of such for manipulation by a tyrannical state.

I also wanted to quote this choice snippet:

The crowd of plainclothes security grew and tension increased as noon drew closer. One of the security men laughed rudely, pushing at a colleague.

"They are not even here yet and Max is already flirting with me," he joked. "Take him away from me, guys."

Nearby, a stocky policeman held his portable radio, listening to scratchy commands from above.

"Get all of them," the unseen supervisor barked.

"Yes," the policeman said. "But how do we know who's gay?"

How do we know who's gay? That's the dilemma of the homophobic regime. As the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick observed, therein lies the power of the homophobic regime too. I think it's in Epistomology of the Closet where she points out that it is the cultivated suspicion that one's bonds are homosexual that is most potent in policing affectional ties outside marriage and family. Suspicion combined with the myth of homosexual contagiousness as evidenced by the banter above amongst the 'security men'. Poor Max, what had he done, I wonder to be the patsy for such homosocially homophobic banter? And you can be sure he applied himself to his policing task with all due rigor just in case the jocular spotlight placed on him there might cause him to be the object of even more ruthless suspicion. You'll hear the same sort of dynamics amongst groups of young men as I did in the train coming home from Rosewood the other night and about which I'll write at another time.

But for now give thought to our queer Russian brothers and sisters and the struggle they continue to wage and be inspired by them for their heroic determination against all odds. Be sure, too, to check out the short video that accompanies the report.

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