I’ve spent twenty-five years traveling to Russia. But I’ve never met a gay person there.
Through college, graduate school and work, I’ve roamed across this vast country – one larger than the surface area of Pluto – meeting hundreds of people in varied contexts and in myriad places. I’ve made friends – close ones – but no gay people. Statistics show that of course I’ve met gay people, I just don’t know it.
But homosexuality is anything but invisible in Russia – it’s denounced everywhere. And it seems the West’s focus on Russia’s homophobia is what has made it such a central topic of conversation. Sadly, what began as an earnest strategy to increase rights for LGBTs has morphed into a grotesque charade to push the West’s real agenda: NATO expansion. The result is that gay lives are at more risk than ever before, particularly in Russia and Ukraine.
It all started innocently enough. In 1993, fresh from the implosion of Communism and desperate for Western cash, Boris Yeltsin decriminalized homosexuality in legal jargon so obtuse that no one actually noticed. The change did, however, comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, and Russia was later rewarded with Council of Europe membership.
Over the years, Western cultural products became increasingly common in Russia, so homosexuality occasionally surfaced in the mainstream. But whatever tolerance was slowly developing was met with virulent backlash.When Moscow activists attempted to hold the first Pride parade in 2006, they were attacked by skinheads and police. The parade and the attacks have now become a sort of ritual repeated every year. Also in 2006, a new legislative idea took hold: the banning of “gay propaganda.” Homophobic rage bubbled along on the country’s back burner for seven more years, while the West responded with crickets.
Meanwhile, gay Ukrainians weren’t faring much better. In 2012, Ukraine’s parliament draftedits own “gay propaganda” law. Unlike Russia’s regional laws, this one was federal. Soon after, Ukraine’s first Pride parade was canceled because of vicious attacks on activists. None of this attracted any attention from the West, with the notable exception of Elton John, who condemned the violence and pledged help to gay Ukrainians.
And then, in 2013, the West suddenly started caring about gay Russians.
At that moment, Eastern Europe was facing one of the most important issues since the end of the Cold War: the fate of Ukraine. It was the center of a tug-of-war between the East (Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union) on one side and the West (the U.S., the European Union, and NATO) on the other. Each side was pressuring Ukraine to sign an economic agreement. Notably, one European sticking point was Ukraine’s resistance to adopting pro-LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Western diplomats pressed ahead anyway, urging Ukraine to reject Russia’s influence. It is hard to overstate the significance of this moment. If Ukraine sided with Europe, eventually NATO would have weapons right on Russia’s border. The thin wire that held Eastern Europe together was pulled taut and it hummed with tension. And then it snapped.
In June, Russia’s federal ban on “gay propaganda” went into effect and Americans exploded in justified anger. But because of the timing, Russia sensed that the uproar wasn’t actually about gay rights, but about Ukraine. After all, the West had forced Russia to decriminalize homosexuality in 1993 and was currently pressuring Ukraine to change its laws relating to gay people. With NATO breathing down Russia’s neck, LGBT rights looked like a coup in disguise.
In time, it may have been possible to change this perception, but things didn’t go that way. Instead, Ukraine signed with Moscow. The West lost; Russia won. But a month later, mass protests broke out in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, the United States and the European Union backed opposition politicians, eventually maneuvering them into power. The final blow came in February 2014, while Putin was at the Sochi Olympics: Ukraine’s government was overthrown.
But Ukraine’s new government did not usher in a new day for LGBT rights. These leaders didn’t universally lean toward the West, just away from Russia. A sizable contingent were right-wing nationalists that want to execute gay people. As Taras Karasiichuk, an activist from Ukraine recently reported at a New York forum, “We have a little bit of a strange situation, because we maybe have right now a little bit better face for the West than we had before. … But unfortunately, if we will look to the condition of the LGBT community in general, I think we will not see a big difference between the Russian situation and Ukraine.” Karasiichuk has recently sought asylum in the U.S. because his life is in danger in Ukraine.
Russia’s perception that LGBT rights were just a smokescreen for a coup no longer sounds like a paranoid delusion. The United States spent two decades ignoring the growing danger to the gay community in Russia, only choosing to speak out at a moment when Russia was in a critical showdown with the West over Ukraine. On the flip side, the EU recently succeeded in twisting Ukraine’s arm into accepting some weak pro-LGBT legislation, but the parliament’s speaker followed it up with an emphatic promise to “never, God forbid” allow gay marriage in Ukraine. Meanwhile, gay Russians and Ukrainians fight for their lives.
As I keep not meeting gay people in Russia, I have to ask: what are we doing? The U.S. either can’t or won’t be consistent in its push for LGBT rights abroad. So-called “larger”geopolitical goals always rule the day. But human beings are not plastic Risk pieces and gay people should not be mere pawns in superpower games.