Russia: Moscow “Gay pride” and the struggle for equal rights

Facing repression, gay rights activists in Russia have no time for carnivals.

Once again, as always at this time of year international TV has shown pictures of Gay Pride activists in Moscow being arrested and facing violence from the far right and police. But the TV reporters rarely show what is really going on behind the photo shoots. This year’s campaigning for gay rights in Moscow has shown that the movement is divided, not just over tactics but over the political direction to be taken.

22 May – The “March for Equality” led by, amongst others, CWI members

Since its inception Moscow “Gay Pride” has alienated a significant layer of gay rights activists by its approach, which is based not on attempts to mobilize the widest layer of LGBT and uniting them in struggle with other groups who are discriminated against, in particular women. Instead it relies on a business PR approach, inviting well known international figures to participate in an elitist spectacle in the centre of the city that, in the way it is organized, can only lead to the arrest of its participants. It does nothing to win over public opinion, presenting itself instead as a small persecuted minority fighting against the rest of society. As one of their organizers blogged: “It is better to have 2 activists and a thousand journalists than 1000 activists and 2 journalists”. Their arrogant and elitist approach was demonstrated on a TV talk show just days before gay pride when the main organizer Nikolai Alekseev stated that “he spits on what the majority of the population think”. (Actually anyone who reads his blog can find comments critical of Jews and Lady Gaga, and deriding the “illegal prostitute” who was used to discredit Dominique Strauss Kahn.)

29th May “Gay Pride”

This year’s “Gay pride” was no different. Tens of thousands of euros were spent to bring people such as Peter Tatchell from Britain, U.S. gay rights activists Dan Choi and Andy Thayer along with France’s Louis-George Tin. The last three were detained by the police along with about thirty others, about half of whom were extreme right wingers who had tried to attack Gay Pride.

The reality is that the “Gay Pride” movement in Russia is in crisis. It was only able to mobilize a couple of dozen people – after all, what’s the point in turning up for a demo just to get arrested if it makes no dent in public opinion? The depths of the crisis was demonstrated by the behavior of its leader Nikolai Alekseev, who didn’t turn up, claiming he had hurt his foot on a TV talk show two nights before.

26th May – Zhenya Otto on TV show “Duel”

The reality is he hurt more than his foot on the show “Duel”. His pride was badly damaged. The programme has two opponents standing either side of a barrier, debating and answering audience questions. Faced with a leading member of Putin’s United Russia party and an audience of right wingers and religious fanatics, he proved completely unable to put forward a coherent argument. Even when he was asked to state what it was that the Gay Pride March wanted, all he could do was quote the “European Court of Human Rights” decision that it was wrong to ban the march. Faced with a further provocative question he lost his temper and stormed off the stage.

Fortunately a member of the CWI, Zhenya Otto was able to jump up and take his place. The effect she had was electric. Within about a three minute appearance on the show, which was watched by 3 million people, she was able to announce she was from the CWI, shut the religious bigots up, explain the campaign was not about the right of LGBTs to hold carnivals but part of the struggle of all oppressed – gays, women, workers, immigrants for their rights and equal rights. The Russian CWI site almost crashed overnight as over 6000 people tried to find out more about Zhenya’s position and the CWI. (The show can be watched on – Zhenya’s intervention starts after about 50 minutes.)

Later Alekseev bitterly commented: "The anti capitalist, thank God, did not speak for a whole round. Here I should say what is important. I am a fully committed supporter of the capitalist system. I am against communism, socialism, equality, the unification of workers of the whole world and other paranoid nonsense. Capitalism will win and with it Gay Pride”.

The fact is that there is a growing movement of genuine gay activists who relate their struggle to the campaign for equal rights and see victory through uniting with other oppressed groups in a struggle against capitalism. Just days before Gay Pride, a successful “March for equality” of over eighty LGBT, womens’ rights and socialist activists managed to march the length of one of Moscow’s main streets. The CWI played a key role in organizing this event

The authorities had turned down permission for the march, saying «it would meet a hostile response in society» and «it could have a negative effect of the psychological health of children and teenagers”. Such concerns did not, of course, prevent the authorities from permitting a fascist march intended to whip up anti gay sentiments. But unlike Gay Pride, the March for Equality did not set out to get people arrested. Participants met at a secret place, the route was scouted before hand to spot police, and later in the march when the police turned up, a well practiced dispersal plan was used.

As it marched, the protesters chanted, amongst others, «No discrimination by sex or orientation!», «No to discrimination, yes to emancipation!», «Down with fascism, homophobia and sexism!», “My body is my business”, “Equal rights with no compromise”, “The working class is united, don’t let the racists split it” “Just as 2 and 2 is four, only struggle gains you rights” and “Down with capitalism”.

Clearly whilst Gay Pride is becoming more isolated, support for such events as the March for Equality, also now an annual event, is growing. A key role in this march is played by members of the CWI, who ensure that socialist ideas are clearly at the fore. They do not restrict the struggle for LGBT rights to a once a year media event, but campaign all the year round against all forms of discrimination, repression and exploitation showing, in the process, that in common struggle, ordinary workers lose their prejudices and stereotypes. Unlike Alekseev, who thinks that “capitalism will win”, many young LGBT activists are seeing that discrimination against them is linked to the injustices in society as a whole and are drawing socialist conclusions. The CWI in Russia, by linking the struggle for equal rights to that against capitalism and for socialism is convinced that this is the only strategy that can build the movement and lead to victory.

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June 2011