First They Came for the Homosexuals

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Disclaimer: The links below include both pictures and video depicting hateful, horrible violence taken against a gay Russian teenager and a transgender Russian woman by other Russians. Many of you are likely to find the images very disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

Russian Transgender Woman Beaten In Public Park Caught On Tape (GRAPHIC VIDEO) (Huffington Post)
Russian neo-Nazis  torture gay teenager they tricked into meeting them as part of online scam (Daily Mail)

One of the traps that many Americans fall into — and I suspect that liberals like me are even more prone to it — is applying our own western, American ideas of rights and freedoms to other countries. Respecting other cultures means also respecting things that may seem out of step with our own histories and traditions. What “freedom” means to us is often not what “freedom” means to others, and even if people in other countries may enjoy some freedoms that we do not, often there are rights and privileges that we Westerners take for granted that people of other countries don’t get to experience.

There do come times when it is difficult to stay silent on this kind of cross-cultural issue, simply because the rights and freedoms involved feel not just American, or western, but basic to human rights and human dignity. When women in eastern countries are whipped and/or otherwise punished for being raped — as if they somehow are to blame for having been raped — I cannot tolerate that. Likewise, while Uganda has recently contemplated giving the death penalty for engaging in same-sex sexual activities, I have not been able to stay silent, simply because killing people for consensual sexual activity, let alone discriminating in the horrific punishment against same-sex sexual activity, is something so appalling, so inhumane, that I cannot accept it as a mere “cultural difference” that I have to get over.

What has been going on in recent weeks in Russia, with this tidal wave of sadistic, gleeful violence against non-heterosexuals and genderqueer people, has been nothing short of chilling, and I absolutely, positively cannot stay silent about it.

This violence has come on the heels of Russia passing sweeping new anti-gay legislation designed to curtail so-called “homosexual propaganda,” laws that allow Russian police to arrest anyone for just wearing a rainbow flag pin, let alone showing affection for a same-sex partner in public. What is being seen in these photos and these videos — which are being posted by barbaric Russians with absolutely no sense of shame in what they are doing — is the natural extension of the mindset that the Russian government, from Vladimir Putin on down, has engendered in the Russian citizenry. When the Russian police finally come to break up these mob assaults, it has often been the people who have just been shoved, and punched, and kicked, and bloodied, who end up being the ones arrested, when the mobs turn and accuse the person they’ve just savaged of a violation of the laws against “homosexual propaganda” in Russia.

The photos and videos in the articles above are far from the only ones; it is all too easy to find several other assaults captured on film on YouTube and other video-sharing websites. Such searches will show that this violence has been occurring, to a lesser extent, for some time now in Russia. This violence has become much more frequent in Russia since the anti-“homosexual propaganda” law was passed, because Putin and the other Russian politicians who passed that horrid law have, effectively, legitimized violence against non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians. (Sexual orientation and gender identity, in Russia as in too many other countries, are often conflated with one another by the majority of the public.)

There is a strong temptation here to call attention to the continued discrimination against non-heterosexual and genderqueer people here in America, especially when Russian politicians use the same weak “this law applies to heterosexuals too, so it’s not discriminatory” argument that many conservative American politicians have used in the past, claiming that homosexuals in America are free to marry — just so long as it’s to someone of the opposite sex. (Doubtlessly some conservatives are going to point to what’s happening in Russia and say that non-heterosexual and genderqueer Americans should stop complaining because they have it so much better here than their Russian counterparts.) This summer’s Supreme Court victories mask the continued mistreatment many non-heterosexual and genderqueer Americans receive, but for the time being I want to focus on what is happening to non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians, simply because things there have now gone well past the crisis point.

What has caused this increased rate of hatred towards, and violence against, non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians in recent years has been a growing public sense — ill-founded as these always are — that they are somehow the ones to blame for all the problems that have befallen Russia in recent years. It’s scapegoating, in its simplest form, and not only is scapegoating a sad refrain in much of world history, but looking at the hatred being stirred up here in America against groups like immigrants and other minorities, I don’t think even America has gotten as clear of that part of our past as we would like. Again, though, things have escalated so far in Russia that our attention needs to be focused on there for the time being.

It is clear that the Russian government is nowhere near done in its persecution of non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians. Removing the children of same-sex Russian couples is reportedly the next step being considered, and I doubt they’re gong to stop there. Russia also seems unable, if not unwilling, to stop the glorification of this sick mob violence through Internet videos and the like. Through their own inaction over the past few weeks on this issue, it feels as if the Russian government is even condoning the public assault of non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians. Doubtlessly, for every assault that is captured on video and uploaded for the world to see, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other assaults that the world has not been able to bear witness to. While none of the videorecorded assaults have yet resulted in death, it doesn’t feel likely that this will remain the case for much longer.

I’m going to break Godwin’s Law here, and I honestly don’t give a damn: This is all too evocative of the early days of Hitler’s Germany, where laws promoting discrimination against Jewish people, and the state turning a blind eye to outright violence against Jews, only led to conditions getting worse and worse there until eventually millions of Jews were exterminated in an effort to wipe out the people being unjustly blamed for all that was wrong in post-World War I Germany. There was no YouTube in the 1930s, and although German exiles brought with them reports of the atrocities being committed there by the Nazis, these accounts could not possibly be as vivid, as immediate, as all the photographic and videographic evidence coming out of Russia right now. I have argued time and time again that comparisons to the Nazi Regime, by people of all political persuasions, is used far too often and far too incorrectly, a cheap way to stir fervor in the public with an easy comparison to the darkest days of the world’s recent history. This time, however, the historical correlations are far too close, and far too numerous, for me to avoid making the comparison. I hope, I pray, that I am wrong in making that comparison, but every cell in my being tells me that I’m not.

I am not one to call for boycotts that frequently. For all the bad that’s out there in the corporate world, I personally boycott only three companies: Walmart, Nike and Shell. Given what has already happened in Russia, though, and given what is likely to happen unless there is a mass movement to stop this scapegoating and violence dead in its tracks, I have to join others in pressing for an immediate boycott of all things Russian, from vodka to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi and everything in between, until these atrocities stop, and to call on all elected officials worldwide to bring pressure to bear on Russia to repeal its anti-“homosexual propaganda” law and end the mob violence being seen in so many Internet videos.

The history of minorities being used as scapegoats teaches us that even if Russia is somehow effective in silencing or eradicating its non-heterosexual and genderqueer populations, it will then have to find a new group to scapegoat and commit violence against. If that group is somehow put down, then a new group will be found, and it will not stop until either there is no one left to scapegoat, or the people doing the scapegoating are removed from power. No one — no one — deserves what has been happening to non-heterosexual and genderqueer Russians these past few weeks, and we must do what we can to make this scapegoating and this violence stop.

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