On the eve of Rosh Hashanah this year, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum delivered a sermon before thousands in New York, comparing the struggles faced by Jews in the Soviet Union decades ago with the struggles facing gay and lesbian as Russia cracks down on its LGBT community.
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Among the legislation that has shocked human rights watchers is a law criminalizing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” effectively rendering illegal any public discussion of LGBT rights. This was one of the topics explored at “Crossroads: Jewish, Gay and Russian,” a panel discussion Kleinbaum hosted at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center last Wednesday night.
“The law enshrines second-class citizenship and makes it a crime to fight for equality,” said Masha Gessen, a well-known author, journalist and outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Taking Putin’s cue, anti-gay sentiment has spread from the Kremlin to the streets.
That said, writer and activist Jay Michaelson, who with Kleinbaum and Gessen participated in the discussion, feels the issue isn't just about gays. “It’s a crackdown on civil society as a whole,” he said. “The LGBT population is targeted as part of a broader campaign.”
That broader campaign feels familiar to many attendees last Wednesday night, who fled the former Soviet Union decades ago to escape a suffocating life as Jews. Gessen is one such emigrant; eventually she returned to Russia and has now come back to the United States, propelled by the storm of anti-gay policy and rhetoric.
“I came to America as a Jew,” she told Haaretz after the panel. “I went back as a reporter, and came again as a gay immigrant.”
Kremlin taps fertile cultural soil
The wave of anti-gay legislation and violence marks an about-face from a country that decriminalized male homosexuality in 1993 and seemed to be moving toward acceptance. Moscow and St. Petersburg both have active gay scenes.
At the event, Moscow-born conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks showed slides from “Moscow,” his book documenting gay cruising sites in the city from the 1920s to 1980s. In between photos of subway platforms, park restrooms and even a statue of Karl Marx in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Fiks recounted a historical rollercoaster for LGBT Russians, including a period of decriminalization after the revolution from 1917 to 1933.
There were years when gay and lesbian Russians were on more stable legal ground, but they have never been socially accepted. While LGBT acceptance has rapidly grown in the United States in recent years, the majority of Russians – 74 percent according to a recent Pew Research poll – think society should reject homosexuality.
Much of this social angst stems from the fact that sexuality, in general, is not talked about in Russian society, said panelist Bella Proskurov, a psychologist. “The country where I grew up had no discussion of sex or sexuality at all.”
Add to this the vast presence of the Russian Orthodox Church – to which about 80 percent of the country belongs – and the circumstances are ripe for targeting an unpopular minority.
“The problem is not Russia’s public homophobia,” Gessen said. “It’s a Kremlin campaign. But it falls on fertile cultural soil.”
Fanning the Olympic flames
The latest wrinkle is a law that would empower the state to remove children from gay families. The law has since been withdrawn, but not for good. The legislator says he is re-writing it.
“In English,” said Gessen, who has two children with her wife, “that means wait until after the Olympics.”
The Winter Olympics, which begin in February in Sochi, a Black Sea resort about a thousand miles from Moscow, has become a convenient lightning rod for responses to Russia’s anti-gay developments.
Calls to boycott the games have subsided in favor of pressuring primary sponsors, such as Coca-Cola and Visa, or NBC, the broadcaster of the games, to take a vocal stand against the policies. At the panel on Wednesday, there were differing views about a potential boycott. Russian activists are not seeking an athletic boycott on the games, Gessen clarified, but rather a political one in which international dignitaries snub the Russian leader. “We want to see Putin alone in that box,” she said.
The International Olympic Committee has been silent on the matter, which is tantamount to siding with Russia, activists say. For its part, in October the U.S. Olympic Committee added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy and condemned the recent laws.
It also cited Russia’s assurances that no athlete at the Games will be impacted by the recent legislation. But, as Michaelson pointed out, the primary concern is not about what happens during the Games – most people suspect Russia will be on its best behavior under the spotlight – but what happens after.
Several panelists noted the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which international participation essentially validated a political regime clearly headed in a dangerous direction.
“The real challenge,” said Michaelson, “is are we willing to monitor the situation after the bright lights have been turned off?”
A complicit Russian Jewish establishment
As Putin pulls the Russian Orthodox Church closer, minority religious sects are jostling to be officially recognized by the Russian government. Within Judaism, Chabad appears to be in a favored position. Possibly as such, and also because ideologically they are opposed to homosexuality, Chabad has not spoken out against the recent Russian anti-gay laws.
While there has been no organized Jewish response in the United States, Michaelson credits the Anti-Defamation League for speaking out. In an article in the Huffington Post in August, ADL national director Abe Foxman compared the plight of LGBT Russians today to that of Soviet Jewry in the past. He called for action by the United States government, including legislation to ease emigration for LGBT Russians, similar to a 1974 bill that helped Soviet Jews do the same.
Meanwhile, the panelists feel their own community ought to take a leading role.
“Chabad in the United States and other Jewish communities in the United States should raise their voices,” Michaelson said. Rabbi Kleinbaum concurs: “We need to work together to figure out an effective, powerful, humanitarian, political response.”
Whoever spearheads it, clearly the need for action is urgent. On Sunday last week, gunmen disrupted a weekly gathering of activists at LaSky, a gay support organization in St. Petersburg, injuring two people. According to LaSky, this “pogrom,” as they called it, marks an alarming shift from attacks on activists at public rallies to “attacks on closed private social events.” In other words, there’s no such thing as a safe space.