Russian LGBT efforts must begin with cultural change

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This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bare-chested bravado dominated the headlines. His reckless, unilateral military intervention in Syria left the international community split and Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) majors scratching their heads.

Yet the media’s overeager desire to frame this aggression as the dawn of a new Cold War overshadows other pressing issues in Russian society. Though the lives and rights of the Russian LGBTQIA+ community are violated daily, the only prominent reference to their plight this week concerned musician and activist Elton John. When Putin phoned the singer Sept. 24 and offered to discuss ‘any questions that are of interest,’ the Western media’s singleminded focus on their interaction cast the struggle for equality as an issue of power politics and celebrity activism, ignoring the everyday plight of the queer community

It should come as no surprise that such an approach is dangerously out of touch with reality. The American media’s concern with Elton John follows a pattern in their coverage of the queer community in Russia; overwhelmingly, they have been distracted with the president, popular figures and federal legislation. For example, the 2013 “anti-gay propaganda” law, which effectively banned promoting “non-traditional relations” or equating such relations with “traditional partnerships,” was covered as a cause rather than a product of widespread intolerance.

Viewed as a whole, the media’s treatment of the struggle for queer rights in Russia is superficial. Addressing Russian homophobia from the “top down,” as if politics were the sole cause, embraces sensationalism and ignores socially institutionalized discrimination. Political reform has its place, but progress will only come from recognizing the ingrained cultural themes of conservatism, masculinity and fixation on “traditional values.” It is these themes, and their perceived ties to Slavic and Russian identity, that are the true sources of oppression.

Social conservatism is closely linked to both ethnic and national identity throughout the Slavic countries. The current refugee crisis has been heightened by Eastern European countries’ refusal to take in more refugees, a stance grounded in xenophobia, Islamophobia and a history of conflict. Idealized masculinity, so clear in the country’s adoration of Vladimir Putin, supports institutionalized discrimination against women. A new fixation with “family values,” visible in the Russian Orthodox Church’s ascendancy and politicians’ divisive rhetoric, reflects a historic Russian desire to make the country a bastion of “Slavic values” opposing Western liberalism.

These insights into Russian culture flip the script on the media’s usual depiction of homophobia. The political elite did not impose discrimination against the queer community. Rather, politicians co-opted existing inclinations for discrimination and violence through legislation and nationalism.

The everyday reality of queer individuals in Russia reflects this ingrained conservatism and homophobia. The 2012 U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report noted the growing social intolerance in everything from discriminatory hiring processes to the denial of healthcare services. Homophobic violence is on the rise but is largely ignored by the police. These attacks are nothing short of heinous — in Sept. 2014, 16 people were hospitalized after a gas attack at a queer festival in St. Petersburg.

And now, the bullying is increasingly taken up by by vigilante groups who overwhelmingly affirm far-right ideologies. Led by people like the noted neo-Nazi Maxim Matsinkevich, they kidnap, torture and humiliate queer youth. They then post their depravity on social media to intimidate others. The lack of strong social or legal responses to these attacks and bans on queer activism have created a poisonous environment for the community. Though international observers point to the aforementioned “anti-propaganda law” as the source of an uptick in violence, these attacks defy a solely political explanation. Their roots lie in cultural norms that have enabled discrimination and intolerance.

Recognizing the dire position of the queer community in Russia, the question remains of how to confront it. In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch contributors listed three key steps Russian leaders must take to make progress. First, the government should condemn and commit to ending the violence. Second, law enforcement should begin acting against homophobic violence. Finally, the government should repeal the “anti-propaganda” law.

However, though these suggestions would certainly be effective, they are all addressed to the government. In other words, like the media, they approach this challenge from the “top down” and focus on the political while excluding the cultural and societal. Nothing short of reflection, recognition and confrontation of entrenched conservatism can lead to progress.

To this end, civil society takes on a role of paramount importance. Steps for advancing the cause of equality should focus on the impact of individuals, classrooms and secular or religious institutions — those are the groups responsible for shaping social behavior. The path forward lies in a surge of educated domestic and international normative pressure, aimed at normalizing and empowering the queer community while stripping legitimacy and power from prejudiced voices. This work must be the catalyst for the society as whole to progress before lasting political and legal reform can be implemented.

This advice may seem idealistic to the point of naiveté. No country, and certainly not the United States, has completely confronted its social and cultural inclinations to discrimination. Yet the issue with Russia lies in the strength of these inclinations and their capacity to work in concert with political manipulation. It is through their synergy that violent oppression is upheld. If nothing else, reflecting on the impact of history, culture and society as vehicles for discrimination must be a part of the conversation. Buying into the media’s shortsighted concern with celebrities and power politics will never serve the cause of long-term equality.