I don’t know if you’ve heard, but life is getting pretty damn scary for gays and lesbians in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed through a strict new law, allegedly merely to ban so-called “gay propaganda,” but the terms are so broad that it essentially criminalizes homosexuality. Yes, if you hold hands on the streets of Moscow, you will be arrested and imprisoned. Or worse. Putin’s actions and attitude have given license and tacit approval to expressions of violent homophobia throughout Russia. Arrests and bloody beatings of gay people have proliferated at an appalling rate, with no end to the escalation in sight. Prominent American gay activist/writer/actor Harvey Fierstein has been one of the few voices in this country trying to raise a klaxon about the growing crisis for gays over there. He’s been equating Putin’s actions today to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and indeed there are a lot of historical parallels. However, I believe it would be irresponsible to invoke the “H” word in regards to gays in Russia — at this point, anyway. While gays are indeed being harassed and beaten and imprisoned, there is as yet no sign of the systematic and organized extermination of gays that was visited on the Jews in the time of Nazi Germany. Now, it is true that Putin is following several Hitlerian precedents, including assuming (rightly, so far) that he can do what he pleases in terms of violating human rights within his borders and the world will do nothing substantive in response except stand back and tut-tut uselessly. International outrage has been tepid where it’s been displayed at all. Even the response from the international gay community has been lackluster, at best. The feeble attempt in America to start a boycott of Stoli vodka in gay bars is an insult to the gravity of the crisis. (Stoli isn’t even a Russian company, but even if it were, Putin would be laughing at the silliness of it all.) Fierstein’s point is, of course, that the Western powers stood idly by while the Nazis initiated the Jewish Holocaust. While Fierstein certainly makes a valid point, I don’t think Putin is deliberately following the Hitlerian path — he’s not that smart or organized. If anything, his actions so far can be characterized as malicious thuggery. It’s more a case of channeling Stalin, who, while he was by no means stupid, was more a brutal, genocidal thug than anything else. Stalin’s oppression was not based on any ideology; it was the motivation of a bully given power. That is how Putin should be characterized. But the most distressing thing about this whole issue goes beyond the growing cruelty and sanctioned brutality against gays in Russia — gays have been facing this in Africa and Asia and America (remember Matthew Shepard?) — for years now. For me, the issue is the continuing lack of official outrage and indignation from so-called enlightened Western governments. We have allowed ourselves to be consoled by the spread of marriage equality in Europe and the United States, believing that this was an indication of support for our rights as human beings. But as response to this crisis in Russia, and elsewhere, shows, support for gays may be widespread, but it is also appallingly shallow. They are our friends when it is politically expedient for them to be, and when it brings little cost. I understand how frustrating it is, knowing how little we as a community can actually do to change what’s happening over there — but it’s just sad to see that what little can be done is not being done. The international gay community should be holding constant demonstrations outside every Russian embassy in every Western country that gives lip service to human rights, as well as at the United Nations. And Western governments need to put their money where their mouths are, so to speak, and start organizing an international underground railroad to help any gay person who wants to escape Russia do so. But are we and our Russian brethren getting even lukewarm diplomatic tut-tuts of support? I haven’t seen it. So, yes, I deplore Putin’s descent into Stalinesque brutality. But it’s also a harsh wake-up call for gay activists around the world, to remind us of how fragile our positions continue to be. And how little it would take to channel Stalin elsewhere.
Gary L. Day is an office manager and freelance writer who lives in Center City. He was associate editor of PGN from 1983-95.