Thursday, June 07, 2018

Shaken from complacency

Every once in awhile, we see something that is jarring enough shake our vision of reality, and maybe even knock us off the foundations of certainty we have about ourselves. Anything could do that, a speech, a movie, a piece of music, a novel—anything. For me, it was a British TV documentary.

Last night, one of our free-to-air TV channels broadcast a BBC Three documentary, part of series called Reggie Yates’ Extreme Countries. The particular episode was one of three about Russia, and called “Gay & Under Attack”. The episode originally aired in April 2015, though if anything the situation is worse now than it was then.

In the episode, Reggie travelled to St. Petersburg to attend “Queerfest” so he could get firsthand knowledge of the situation gays face in Russia. While I knew it was extremely bad in Russia, I had no idea how bad it was in practical terms. Be warned, the next three paragraphs deal with specific details about the episode, so skip them if you want to watch it first.

Reggie looks at the website for the event and sees it carries an “R18+” label, meaning that no one under 18 can attend. This is because of Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law that makes it a crime to talk about homosexuality positively with anyone who’s under age. Reggie noted that in his native UK, children attend Pride Parades.

No venue was listed online, and attendees had to ring to get the location—yet another oddity. Reggie went, and arrived just as they were setting up. So did the homophobes. He goes and talks with the anti-gay activists (including the hate-mongering politician who authored the “gay propaganda” law) who have shown up to disrupt the event. Reggie goes back inside to find everyone has suddenly started packing up. It turned out that the venue owner rang and cancelled their booking because, he suddenly claimed, the ceiling was unsafe and might fall on anyone there, so they couldn’t use the space. Off they went to their back-up venue—another oddity. What event organisers routinely have a “back up venue”? Apparently LGBT+ people in Russia do.

At the new venue, one of the protestors got inside and set off a “stink bomb”. She later bragged about how attendees were hanging out of windows vomiting.

The reason I go into such detail is to make clear that what Reggie saw is beyond anything usually seen in the West. Reggie talks to the homophobes to try and find out why they’re so filled with hatred, and it turns out it’s a mix of religion, extreme nationalism, and a warped view of what it means to be Russian, a Russian male in particular. This latter part was hilarious because it provided some of the most unintentionally hilarious moments, such as the homophobe who said Russian men were warriors who takes Reggie to a Russian sauna (Reggie wore shorts, the Russian wore nothing).

In all the encounters with homophobes, there was a constant stream of vile homophobic language—I’ve never heard such a barrage of hate-filled language, ever. The closest I’ve ever come was from white supremacists in the USA’s South in the 1950s and 60s, but the Russians’ anti-gay version was absolutely unrelenting. It was shocking.

The homophobes admitted that if it was legal, they would kill gay people, because they want them all dead. This is unbridled hatred of a sort we seldom see nowadays—it was homicidal, not political.

Reggie also talked to some gay people, including a lesbian who was stabbed and nearly died, and the police refused to investigate, telling her, “we don’t help lesbos”. In fact, the common thread in all the stories of gay people who were attacked is that no arrests or prosecutions ever followed.

The gay people all said that to stay safe—and alive—they had to be very discreet, including never showing even the remotest bit of affection when in public, and perhaps faking a partner of the opposite gender to throw off suspicion. Their reality was that ultimately they’d end up in prison, dead, or they’d need to leave the country.

And this was the moment for me that shook my vision of reality, and knocked me off the foundations of certainty I had about myself, because I’ve never faced anything like what Russian gays face every day. There was only one time a group I was part of was kicked out of a venue for our meetings because we were a gay group (which I mentioned several years ago), and that one time was more than 35 years ago. While I’ve known of gay guys who were attacked for being gay, it was always guys several times removed from me, never a personal friend or even aquaintence. I was never personally threatened, nor was I ever subjected to a barrage of anti-gay hate speech. So my life was nothing even remotely like LGBT+ people in Russia.

When I watched that documentary, I pictured myself in the Russians’ position, and it was not a pretty picture. I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, and a confident advocate for my people and our cause, but if I was in the same situation as the Russians I’d be far too terrified to say or do anything. I realised that I would, in essence, be a coward, even though justifiably. I’d never thought about that before.

We are, all of us, creatures of the world we know, even as we try to create the better world we imagine. But what if the world becomes so much worse—not better—than what we always knew?
The reason the documentary about Russia struck home with me is because the deterioration of the USA has been on my mind so much the past year or so. I wrote about it as it relates to LGBT+ Americans on Monday and again yesterday. So far, the sort of scapegoating and offensive rhetoric used in Russia has in the USA been directed mainly at “illegals”, Mexicans in particular. That has left me both appalled—and relieved. Appalled for all the reason one would think—the immorality of it, the stupidity, the lack of facts, the lack of honesty, the narrow-mindedness, and the short-sightedness. But to be completely and brutally honest, I’m also relieved that—FOR NOW—LGBT+ people are not at the receiving end of that sort of brutal rhetoric.

The way the USA is headed, I can see how it could become not so very different for LGBT+ people than it is in Russia. After all, the current occupant of the White House admires the Russian dictator so much that he wants to BE him. Moreover, Pence and the far-right “Christians” that back him want Russia-style laws in the USA and those backers were behind Uganda’s infamous “kill the gays” law (which I have written about many, many times). Besides, with everything that’s happened in the USA in the past 17 months, saying “it could never happen here” is just plain stupid.

So, yesterday I saw something that was jarring enough to shake my vision of reality, and knock me off the foundations of certainty I had about myself. For me, this time, it was a British TV documentary. What it did was to make me recommit myself to resist the forces or authoritarianism before they take hold—while I still can, and still have the courage to act.

Related: “A mob was yelling slurs and chasing gay people after Utah’s Pride festival. One man stepped in to fight them off.” By Erin Alberty – Salt Lake Tribune


rogerogreen said...

This is SO awful. And retrograde. And depressing.

rogerogreen said...

BTW, I recommend Jeff Sharlet's work on this. (I worked with his late mother when he was a kid.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVrB6wig1p4 and https://www.gq.com/story/being-gay-in-russia