London's Gays Protested Against Putin This Weekend
Stephen Fry and Simon Amstell were at the demo, too.
It's a torrid time to be gay in Russia. A series of gruesome and depressing incidents have recently taken place in the country – whether it be cruel paratroopers throwing their weight around outside the Kremlin, gay teenagers being tortured to death, homophobic laws being passed in Parliament, or politicians likening homosexuality to bestiality. In June, research found that Russia has the least gay-tolerant public in Europe and another report by the European International Lesbian and Gay Association was equally damning.
Since 2006, numerous regional parliaments have adopted laws against "gay propaganda" and in June this year the state Parliament followed suit. Four hundred and thirty-six Russian politicians voted in favour of passing a bill that makes it illegal to provide information about homosexuality to under-18s. Zero – not one – voted against (there was a sole abstention).
Russia isn't alone in its homophobic disgrace. Recent months have seen Georgian pride marchers bussed out of Tbilisi to protect them from a mob of bigoted Orthodox Priests and hundreds of thousands descending upon the Champs-Élysées to protest against equal marriage in not-so-gay Paris (they failed; the laws were passed). But it is Russia that is gay rights activists' current bête noire due to what seems to be a state-led charge back to the Dark Ages. People have even been boycotting Russian products in protest. You know shit is getting real when people are pouring away perfectly good vodka in the streets.
Meanwhile, Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea, is looking forward to holding the 2014 Winter Olympics. This is horrifying to many who argue that they can't be allowed to go ahead in a homophobic country. Russia's Sports Minister even confirmed that athletes who engage in "propaganda" of their homosexuality could be arrested (though a top lawmaker contradicted this the next day).
That said, the Olympics is at least giving the protesters a focus and on Saturday London played host to a demonstration in solidarity with the Russian LGBT community. VICE photographer Matthew Francey and I headed down to check it out.
The idea of a despot with a cult of personality persecuting a minority while using the Olympics to boost his image reminds many of Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics. Cue many photoshopped images of Putin as the Führer.
The other meme doing the rounds was Putin as a drag queen, which made the whole thing feel a bit like a rally for a sinister, camp tyrant – a dictatorship where gender bending is mandatory and heteronormative activity will land you in a Gulag in Soho.
Other than that, it was pretty much what you would expect from a protest, except with more drag queens. Oh, and the stewards' usual hi-vis jackets had been replaced with tight pink T-shirts, just to bow to stereotype.
A few metres away, some people were protesting against Putin's bigotry the only way they knew how – synchronised dances to cheesy gay bar anthems. It was pretty effective at making being gay look way more fun than being a homophobic moron.
Which is why I decided to dance with this guy.
At that point we noticed a crowd gathering and people saying things in loud whispers that spilled over into excited squeals. "It's Stephen Fry!" I overheard someone gasp. If you've been reading the news over the last few days you will have noticed that Stephen wrote an open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in which he wrote that, "An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world." I grabbed him for a chat.
VICE: Hi Stephen. What do you make of today’s protest?
Stephen Fry, National Treasure: It’s really impressive. As far as the eye can see there are smiley, happy, probably mostly gay faces. But I’m sure there are straight people, too. I don’t think this is going to change the Prime Minister’s mind but it raises the heat on the cauldron a bit.
So if you don’t think the Olympics will be boycotted, what should happen?
We’ll have to devise and make completely viral a gay solidarity symbol for the podium. I don’t know what it could be, maybe a limp wrist, a YMCA folding-your-arms [pictured]. I don’t know! Something to make sure that every single athlete that goes there knows it. If you remember the Black Power salute – it would be amazing if athletes at the games showed some solidarity. So let’s all put our thinking beanies on.
Would a wider boycott of Russian products work?
People say we need them for their oil, but they need us to buy their oil. It took a long time to work in South Africa. We can’t kid ourselves that it’s going to happen overnight. But the world moves more quickly than it did. If Mandela was on Robben Island now, the force of Twitter and Facebook would mobilise people around the world and put so much more pressure on the apartheid state. And that’s what it is now in Russia.
I talked to a gay couple, two women, who had been married before and were now bringing up their children from previous marriages, so every day they were breaking the law because they were exhibiting the normality of their relationship in front of minors. So they were confused about whether they were going to have their children taken away from them. The children, one 20, one 16, are both completely straight, against what they would have you believe. As if you can make someone gay!
After all, you can’t make someone straight. I spent my whole life having woman draped across cars trying to sell me things – did that make me straight? No! If someone tells you being gay is a choice, you tell them, “Okay, you chose to be gay now, for a week, and I’ll give you £1 million. Join Grindr, go to clubs, have sex with loads of men and then stop, just to prove that you can.” They say, “No, I’m not going to choose it.” Why not? Because you can’t. You are who you are.
Do you think this could all be projection of repressed homosexuality on Putin’s part? He's got this weird macho image that he feels the need to project for some reason.
No question! There are very strong rumours. He’s a classic self-oppressing egomaniac. It’s always the last one to put the foot into the ribs and kidneys of the poor guy or girl on the ground who they’ve been gay bashing – they’re the ones who are the most gay, who hate that thing in themselves but have blocked it out. They’re the ones who need help because what they’re doing is so damaging to others as well as to themselves. And with Putin, the lady doth protest too much.
You’ve likened Putin to Hitler. I’m not a fan of his, but isn’t that a bit much?
In 1935, Hitler wasn’t like the Hitler we know now – the Hitler that died in the bunker in ’45. The Olympic movement did nothing in 1936 and it gave such status to Hitler. He grew in the estimation of his people – this short, preposterous, revolting, ugly man (I mean ugly in his mind) – they adored him. That’s what’s going to happen with Putin. He’ll be smiley and relaxed and laugh with other heads of state and this will be beamed into the homes of the Russians and they’ll feel proud of him.
Do you think the anti-LGBT laws are part of a wider move against democracy?
The Church rules on all matters ethical, moral and Russian. All the symbols of Russia are now in the Church. Putin is, as it were, their secular Pope. He can utterly destroy any opposition as being “non-Russian”.
Having talked to Stephen, I decided to pick some non-celebrity brains, but I was bang out of luck.
Simon Amstell, comedian: This is the first protest I’ve ever been on.
VICE: What was it about this issue that made you overcome your apathy?
I don’t usually like to get involved with real life. There were images that kept popping up on the internet which I kept trying to ignore. But I felt like out of the options of not coming today and coming today, coming today was the better thing to be doing.
That makes sense. Do you think the Olympic Games should be allowed to happen in Sochi?
I have Jesse Owens in my mind. It was a symbolic moment in history, but Hitler then went on to kill a lot of people. Still, my instinct is that it should go ahead and some kind of stink should be caused at the event.
What would be the best “Fuck you!” to Putin?
Something that expresses love rather than fear. I don’t think a “Fuck you!” to Putin is needed. To me he seems like just the most insecure man.
So what should happen instead?
I think he needs to sit in a room with a psychotherapist and for the psychotherapist to say, “What’s wrong?” He could come to the realisation that he’s got some issues with his father, perhaps. Then the psychotherapist needs to hug him as they both cry and Putin says, “I’ve made a terrible mistake” and we all carry on with our lives.
That would be great. Thanks Simon.
You’re not going to take the piss and make me look like an idiot, are you?
VICE: As a former policeman, what would you say to your Russian counterparts who have been complicit in things like attacking Pride marches?
Brian Paddick, failed London Mayoral candidate in 2008 and 2012 and, until his retirement, the UK’s most senior openly gay police officer: It’s essential that the law is enforced fairly no matter who people are, what their sexual orientation is or their background. It think they’re going to need more than a few lessons in the Russian police force before they get that message. The trouble is, if you’ve got a government passing anti-gay laws, then you can’t expect the police to do anything but be anti-gay.
Should the police refuse to follow orders?
It’s very difficult in Russia. Police officers are very likely to be disciplined if they don’t do what they're told to do. It’s got to start with political pressure on the politicians to revoke these discriminatory laws.
VICE: What brought you out here today?
Bourgeoisie, 22, performance artist: The idea that someone could be jailed for loving who they want is revolting and I had to do something about it. It’s 2013 and life’s about more than getting your dick wet and where you get your dick wet. I don’t care where somebody else puts their dick, so why would they care where I put my dick?
I don’t know. Do you have concerns for the LGBT community beyond Russia?
Well, look at what’s going on in Greece with the police harassment of trans people – it’s crazy. I don’t understand what the fuck is going on in the world.
Russia recently enacted a law banning “gay propaganda”. Who’s your favourite gay propagandist?
Myself, of course! If you ask a drag queen that question of course she’s going to say herself! I’ve thought about booking a ticket to Moscow to propaganda the house down.
Okay, well be careful.
VICE: What's the idea behind all of these posters and signs that you drew, Victoria?
Victoria Sin, 22, Designer and VICE illustrator (pictured left): It was my friend Will’s idea. It’s inspired by the old handkerchief code. So, you know, piss on Putin’s policies and laws. And literally piss on him.
That's pretty direct.
VICE: Do you guys reckon the Olympics should be allowed to happen in Sochi?
Alan, 18, student: If people just don’t turn up Russia will still get a platform to promote its rather fascist points of view, so I think the Olympics should be moved from Sochi to a different country.
Ryan, 21, student: Yeah or they should have them in Sochi but ban Russia from playing.
Alan: Yeah, because that would work.
Ryan: It would! Don’t let them get medals or anything.
If it does go ahead, what could LGBT athletes do at the Olympics?
Just sabotage it for everyone else. Trip people up in the 100 metres. Maybe, I don’t know if that actually works.
Yeah, I'm not too sure about that. Do you know what gay propaganda is?
Exactly. What even is it?
Alan: Any kind of public approval of homosexuality? Anal sex? I don’t know.
Did you hear that a Russian Communist said Elton John's flamboyant clothes were "homosexual propaganda"?
Ryan: I didn't. Associating that with homosexuality is weird. Ideas about masculinity and femininity have grown in Western minds – they don’t actually exist. In some cultures, gay means super-masculine. It’s weird that Russia has bought into this Western idea that homosexuality is feminine.
After we talked to Alan and Ryan, a round of applause went up and people started crowding around again. Stephen Fry was leaving and they were giving him a hero's goodbye. Peter Tatchell, in the blue shirt and tie to the left of this picture, looked a little despondent. Perhaps he was wondering what he, a man who has been beaten up for his human rights work so often that he has suffered brain damage, would have to do to be similarly worshipped.
VICE: Hi Peter. What do you think we should do about these anti-gay laws?
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner: We should boycott vodka as well as the sponsors of the Sochi Olympics – big names like McDonald's, Visa and Coca-Cola. And we should think about boycotting Western companies that are investing in Russia and helping sustain the regime.
Should the Games themselves be boycotted?
It’s a tough one. My instinct is that there should be a boycott or that it should be moved to another city. However, most Russian organisations oppose that – they say it will encourage greater hatred and hostility towards them because LGBT people will be blamed for losing Russia the Olympics. We have to be really careful.
Anything else you want to add?
We have to stand together united to oppose the tyranny of the Putin regime. It would be a huge mistake to isolate the gay rights struggle from the wider struggle for democracy and human rights in Russia. United we must stand.
After we talked to Peter, this person started taking their underwear off from beneath their leotard, which somehow felt like a cue to leave. Firing up my laptop at home, I found out that Sebastian Coe and David Cameron have rejected the idea of a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. This seems like a cop out and probably irked Fry, but actually the Russian LGBT Network were pretty happy about it, issuing a statement against the calls for a boycott, saying that, "We should speak up, not walk out."
Whether the "turn up, cause a stink" option can help shift public and political opinion of gay people in Russia remains to be seen. What is clear is that Russia's LGBT communities remain under threat and need all the help they can get.
More from Russia: