As the only person many of my American friends know who has spent a lot of time in Russia, I have been on the receiving end of a lot of comments about the “wave of anti-gay activity in Russia.” Here's a bit about it, read on of you want to understand the situation better.
Firstly about myself. I grew up a couple of miles from downtown Ogunquit, Maine, a bit of a “gay town.” Some of my neighbors were gay, and the Mom and Pop corner store at the end of my street was actually a Pop and Pop operation. So, my ideas of gays and being gay were formed at a young age and essentially are that is normal, natural, part of life and no big deal. Of course that's easy to say being straight and there is a “big deal” behind the struggle of gays, but in my little “Leave it to Beaver” like childhood and adolescence it never struck me as a controversy. Of course as I got older, experienced friends “coming out,” interacted as an adult with openly gay couples these experiences also shaped my ideas, but essentially my fundamental ideal idea has been one that reacts with surprise against anti-gay activity out of the fact that in my mind it's never been a controversy.
What is is this Russian “anti-gay” law? It outlaws gays, right? Not really, it's a law that was passed that makes “homosexual propaganda” illegal. Basically, stay in the closet, a sort of “don't ask, don't tell” for an entire nation. It was passed as a reaction to a growing gay rights movement in a country that is socially very conservative mostly as a way to justify the cancellation of gay parades and gay protests.
Lets take a step back and see what it is to be gay in Russia. In the Soviet times a man being gay was a crime, and gay men were subject to arrest and jail time. There was no such law about gay women, and although gay women were also seldom ever mentioned, in a nation of several brutal wars, were women outnumber men, sometimes by large margines, female gay relationships existed, and were not punishable. After the fall of the Soviet Union being gay stopped being a crime, and gayness slowly showed up in an above ground way. However Russian social growth was stunted by the Soviet time, essentially leaving many social issues in the the 19th century. Ideas across Russian society about feminism, secular social beliefs, ideas of family and general social conservatism are often pre-20th century. The end result the “gay movement” in Russia faces a huge struggle in Russia. The situation is where is may have been in the US or Western Europe in the early 20th century.
Socially speaking there is a conflict in not just Russia but many places all around the world, a struggle against modernity. With the power of the internet presenting a very different narrative, to young people especially, nations around the world are faced with serious conflicts between their traditional views, however twisted they may seem, and standards and ideals that we take for granted in the North American-Western European society. Sometimes it's “the evils of feminism,” sometimes secular democracy itself, and in this particular instance, gay rights are what's on the minds of “westerners.”
The problem is I'm afraid I'm here to say that in the short term little progress seems likely. The problem is when these ideas are woven into the fabric of a society. Just imagine that instead of 40% of Americans saying “gay marriage will ruin marriage,” that it was 80%: welcome to Russia, really just a step away in someways. Imagine you were in the US 100 years ago asking these same questions, you'd be getting the same answers. Perfectly nice, reasonable people saying remarkably crazy things about all sorts of rights that other people should have on topics that are really none of their business. Imagine the jump a society must take from these 19th century ideas to the 21st or even the late 20th century. How can it happen? It can happen, but only with time, hopefully a short time, but with time.
The idea that the reactionary forces of social conservatism have found it necessary to “strike back” is in itself a good sign. I know that sounds like very little consolation, but the gay movement in Russia is growing. Gay's have been markedly the bravest of protesters, facing tacitly accepted violence against their gatherings and still managing to do it on a very small, yet unprecedented, scale. They don't have a majority of the society on their side, but now more then ever their movement is enough to make the patriarch of the Russian church give anti-gay speeches, to make the president and mayors of major cities very uncomfortable, to challenge the social norms.
Ironically, to my American mentality, Russian men seem rather gay. They love hair care products, looking tidy, pastel colored clothes, and Vladimir Putin's 60 year old bare chest. Russian women like short haircuts, and walk around holding each others hands. The state run channel 1 TV's “Blue New Year's Party” is gayer than gay porn, but just like the US in the mid 20th century, gay actors, singers, dancers, and other performers are seen as different but not singled out as gay. Young people are finding inspiration in the North American-Western European ideas of gay equality and young gays are more comfortable in being, looking or acting gay, and their pears are more accepting of it.
What's the answer? Dammed if I know. If I had a giant gay wand I could wave, I would. This is a movement around the world, and Russia is not at the front of the movement, but like any movement the thing to do is engage. Don't burn your tickets to the Olympics, cancel your vacation or write off Russia as backwards. Russia is a nation and a culture which is capable of sweeping changes in short time. Russia is changing. 20 years ago Russia was stuck behind an iron curtain, and culturally stunted by a 20th century full of totalitarianism and Orwellian contradictions. Russia has as a defacto national religion the most conservative form of Christianity on Earth. It's not going to be easy, but it's happening, slowly, but just as it's been a struggle in the US, Russian gays face an even more uphill battle.
I don't mean to be apologizing for Russians, but when you read that Russians can now be arrested for “just being gay,” it's not really like that. When you read that holding a gay protest is against the law, keep in mind that just about all other protests are against the law as well. These are tough times, in many ways, but also good times. Time to face these important issues, time to grow, time to try to make things better.