Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus deftly illustrates the slow descent into chaos experienced by European Jews as the Nazi menace took hold over their lives. The nightmare did not hit all at once, but in slow, dreadful paces. During the descent, everyone tried to live as normal a life as possible. They went to the store. They went to work. They had friends over for dinner. Meanwhile, the Nazi menace hovered over everything like thick smoke and those caught in its wake coped with it by, metaphorically, wearing stronger and heavier gas masks to filter out the ugliness around them. The full breakdown of society came when the Nazis started hauling folks into the camps. Only then, did society for the victims vanish. The gas masks no longer worked.
I’m wondering, are LGBT folks in the Russian Federation going through this same type of descent? Are they finding their world constricting around them, the air heavy with suffocating smoke? What are they doing to adapt to the new normal foisted upon them by a cruel government hell-bent on their elimination? What masks do they employ?
The scenes coming out of Russia are horrific not just because they depict senseless violence, but because the violence they depict is sanctioned, even encouraged, by the state. That’s the tipping point. Gay bashings occur here, where I live, in the US, in California, in the Bay Area. But where I live, the law provides redress for and protection from violence directed against someone because of his or her sexual orientation. The state certainly does not sanction such violence. This is not the case in Russia. Not now.
To be sure, Russia has never been known as a gay-friendly place, either during the Soviet era or since — Lenin decriminalized homosexuality, but Stalin recriminalized after Lenin’s death. Ostensibly, gay sex is legal, with the age of consent being 16. Laws allowing the legal change of one’s gender date back to 1997. But these laws are meaningless under the intentionally ambiguous smokescreen created by the Russian government regarding the legal status of LGBT people.
The ambiguity reached its zenith this summer with the passage of Article 6.21 that President Putin signed into law. From PolicyMic:
Here is what Article 6.21 actually says:
Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.
We can thus summarize Article 6.21 as the Don’t Make Kids Gay (Or Else) Law. What constitutes propaganda and what constitutes traditional and nontraditional sexual relations is completely up to the state to define. For the purposes of LGBT folks, the definition is as narrow as possible, confining them as tightly as possible, restricting every aspect of their lives as much as possible. It’s the “Or Else” that makes the law deadly for them.
Do not be fooled into thinking that only those who protest the law and the attitudes behind it are the immediate victims of 6.21. Having been blessed by the state to Get the Gays, thugs are having a field day randomly surrounding, harassing, beating, and killing anyone they perceive as gay, whether they are or not. Fellow writer Hans Hirschi, who has written some great commentary on the Russian antigay laws, has posted some horrific photos, though sadly such photos are not hard to come by. Police sometimes intervene to stop the beatings, but sometimes they simply look on.
So the new normal requires LGBT folks to don a disguise, any disguise to make them look “traditional.” It’s not enough that they not carry signs or wear t-shirts that endorse The Gay. They have to do everything possible to look “not gay” so as to avoid harassment or worse. Imagine how it would impact your life to have to go through lengths to hide something about yourself, something basic to your being, something that would not otherwise show. You could not walk with your significant other. Even if you did not touch each other, something about your manner or comportment might give you both away. You might fret over your attire, fearing that the slightest flash of out-of-the-ordinary might make you a target.
You would get ulcers worrying about it. You would constantly look over your shoulder, wondering if you are being spotted. You would lose your sense of self by constantly pretending to be someone else. This would become your new normal.
But it’s getting worse. Neighbors are being encouraged to rat on each other. Homes are being invaded. So even if one behaves themselves in public, one still is not safe. For now the state might come into your home, into your bedroom, to find you out. Russian landlords may have spontaneously begun posting flyers encouraging their tenants to be on the look out for gay folks. Or they may have been encouraged by the state to do so. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the impetus, it is allowed to happen. Folks perceived as gay can be harassed. Indeed, by current Russian societal dogma and state decree, they must be.
So what’s the new normal? There isn’t one, not for LGBT folks in Russia. Others define their normal. They aren’t allowed to define a normal for themselves. Their “normal” is a constant state of fear, paranoia, and self-loathing.
We know where this can go. We’ve seen it before. Today’s gay-bashing thugs are simply yesterday’s Brownshirts in different clothing. So the challenge we face is, what are we going to do about it? Will we blithely go and play in the Olympics? Will we ask them to suspend 6.21 during the Olympics, so that the athletes and guests are not harassed, only for the law to go back into effect after the games are over? That’s not going to happen in any case, as Russian officials have already said that they will not suspend 6.21 during the Sochi Winter Games. Hitler got to show off how “wonderful” his country was during the 1936 Berlin Summer Games, at least until Jesse Owens whipped his Aryan-loving ass. But the Jews and other “undesirables” were already under various levels of new normal, or chaos, by 1936. Again, we know what happened after that.
I agree with George Takei’s recommendation: move the games elsewhere. This will not stop the beatings and killings. It will not stop the spying and harassment. But it will deprive Putin a platform where he gets to show the world how “wonderful” his country is. That’s a start.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.