It seems that every few months I get angry and fed up enough to write about something, usually concerning the LGBT community and it is almost always a rant. The same is true today, but I’m not just going to regurgitate the same points for what probably is the 5th or 6th time. No, instead I want to identify the issue, look at where it came from and honestly try to see if anyone really cares.
Last week President Obama decried the recent Russian law that essentially outlaws homosexuality. That’s fine, but the issue has been bubbling up to the surface for a long time and not just in Russia. Around the world while some countries are extending rights and legal privileges to the LGBT community, many others are taking far more dangerous and draconian steps to pretend that we don’t exist as a people.
Before I continue I want to share exactly what the new Russian law does. Known as the ‘Gay Propaganda Law,’ the legislation bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. But it’s of course so much more than that. It criminalizes any attempt to equalize gay and straight relationships, installing special fines for Russians as well as media outlets and foreigners. Another bill signed into law criminalizes anything that is determined to offend religious feelings. Together, the two pieces of legislation give authorities free reign to actively criminalize and punish anything to do with LGBT rights. These actions have also effectively given permission to citizens to be even more active in how they discriminate against the LGBT minority; a sharp increase in violent hate crimes is already reported throughout Russia.
But Russia certainly isn’t alone in how the law treats gays and lesbians, so why are we focusing so much attention on them?
This has been an issue for me as I travel. How does one balance the desire to see a new country with sovereign laws refusing one’s right to exist? Personally, I’ve tackled the problem on a case-by-case basis. I traveled to Morocco knowing full well that it is legally a crime to be gay there. However, I also know that this law is not actively enforced and I personally saw it more of a legal relic than anything else. At the other extreme are countries like Uganda and Russia. In recent years, political forces within Uganda have tried repeatedly to make being gay a capital offense. Restrictive and harsh attitudes towards homosexuality can be found throughout the African continent actually, as well as throughout many other regions of the world. So again, why is Russia getting so much more attention than all of these other countries?
Part of it is probably inherent racism to be honest. It’s not a positive trait, but I think we have preconceived notions about various countries. I don’t think as a society we are very surprised when predominantly religious societies decide to incorporate moral beliefs into their legal codes. I also don’t think we are very surprised that some countries in Africa have taken a heavy-handed approach to confronting the reality that gays and lesbians actually exist. But Russia is different. Russia is a 1st World country (although those designations no longer are truly applicable), one that at least pretends to be democratic and is clearly active on the world stage. They’re hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, and they’re Russia for God’s sake. While it’s one thing to recognize a certain vein of conservatism in a nation (hello United States) it’s another to see it enforced through the legal apparatus of that nation. That I think has shocked and offended us. It’s shocked and offended me at least.
But while we as a citizenry may be repulsed and appalled by the actions of our former Cold War foe, we are apparently not angered enough to actually do anything about it. No, that’s not quite fair. There has been a lot of grassroots action taken, but nothing from major multinational corporations. This sad fact has clearly been the case in the travel and tourism industry.
The same day that the Russian Gay Propaganda bill was signed into existence, a major luxury hotel chain proudly announced the opening of a new property in Russia. Since the bill was signed, countless other companies have highlighted everything from their lovely hotels to tours and special deals to visit Russia. Yet many of those companies have non-discrimination policies in place and probably have a sizeable percentage of employees who self-identify as LGBT. If actions speak louder than words, than it has been made painfully clear to me that money matters more than morals and principals, something that has disappointed me profoundly, even if it is in no way shocking or surprising.
Why do companies feel as if they can ignore the massive LGBT travel audience? Why is it that they aren’t leading the way in boycotts and protests, letting their financial influence have some sort of sway? Just as our inherent racism didn’t surprise us about certain countries and their restrictive legal codes, the inherent misunderstanding about what it means to be gay or lesbian and how we as the LGBT community react are both to blame.
Let’s imagine a scenario where Russia criminalized an entire ethnic minority, which probably isn’t too far from reality to be honest. What would the reaction in the United States be? Most likely extreme outrage and immediate action in the form of marches, boycotts and political pressure being waged on US politicians; and rightly so. That’s because to us as a society it is reprehensible to be so flagrantly prejudiced against an entire group of people, to capriciously deny an entire minority group rights and privileges based entirely on something they have no control over, such as the color of their skin. I would hope that the hotels and tour companies would take a stand, stop offering activities in Russia and maybe even threaten to pull out their hotels. The furor would be intense, like a social flash bang going off into the ether as it should be.
That’s exactly what has happened with the LGBT propaganda law, yet I see no corporate led protests, I see no outrage from CEOs, I see nothing actually. Instead I see photos of flower displays from luxury hotel lobbies in Moscow being disseminated on Instagram in total ignorance that an entire nation has deemed me unfit to exist. Why is this the case? Because in spite of all the progress we have made in recent years, and it truly is stunning progress, there still exists a fundamental lack of understanding on behalf of many straight people what it means to be gay. It’s not something that can be seen if you line up a group of gays and straights (so many jokes I could make here, but I won’t). It’s a hidden trait, something that can be concealed and ignored. Therefore, since we can repress it what’s the harm in just hiding if we decide to visit Russia? What’s the harm in pretending we’re straight so that no one gets upset? Why even be upset, no one is forcing us to go there, why not just skip it? I also believe that many straight people still, STILL think that being gay is a choice of some sort. A switch I can turn on and off. So while the law in Russia is unfortunate, it’s something that can be navigated.
Granted, this is a lot of conjecture on my part, but it’s the only reason I can think of as to why more hasn’t been said publically. But it’s not the corporate giants that are to blame, it’s our own fault as well. Other minority groups do a much better job at identifying outrages against them and taking action. We in the LGBT community have not historically done a great job in standing up for ourselves. An entire book can (and has) been written about this, so I won’t do justice as to why the LGBT social consciousness gene seems to be turned off, but the blame can and should be shared equally. We don’t do a great job of standing up for ourselves anymore, especially in light of all of the successes we’ve had. Many of which, by the way, have been led by straight allies and not by the LGBT community itself. The concept of Pride Month, for example, used to be more about social justice and community building. I fear that in many cities that is no longer the case and younger gays and lesbians don’t appreciate how far we’ve come and the sacrifices it has taken to get us here. I was not allowed to be out in high school. Even in college I didn’t feel it was possible. Compare that to the kids of today and you start to understand the difference in social psychologies between the generations.
But I digress from my point. That is, even though I am saddened by the fact the travel and tourism industry has done precious little to condemn the position of Russia towards gays and lesbians, there is still time to take action. There is still an open opportunity for companies to say no to Russia, to risk some profits in favor of corporate morality and demonstrate to the world and its employees what they value. Just as it wasn’t right for hotels to be segregated, it is not ok for them to ask gays and lesbians to go into the closet if they visit Russia. And we as members of that colorful minority must be vocal. We must be louder. We must stand up for ourselves and demand what is right, instead of hoping others will just do it on their own. Pride in June shouldn’t have been about Bear Parades and high heel races, it should’ve been about empowering the community to take action. We should be filling buses to Washington, DC to urge our legislators to take a stance, to proclaim that these actions are not right. We should be calling hotels and tour companies, refusing them our business until they do what is right. Imagine if the top five sponsors of the Olympics banded together and asked the IOC to move the Games unless Russia relents. Don’t you think something would happen then? That’s all I’m asking for and that’s all we as a community have ever asked for; to be recognized as human beings and not some demonic ogres freshly raised from hell. We may not change the undercurrent of homophobia amongst the Russian people, but the Russian government must be told that it has to protect all of its citizens, not just the ones it likes.
I don’t know how many of you are still reading what has become quite a lengthy post, but those of you who are I hope will do something, anything to express your dismay (if you have any) about Russia and how we have all responded, from corporate giants to your next door neighbors. There is only one way for things to change, and that’s if we lead the way.