LGBT rights, Latvian vodka and Putin’s Russia
Reports of brutal attacks on LGBT Russians and the adoption by that country of laws banning “homosexual propaganda” have caused revulsion everywhere where (however recently) more positive attitudes have been adopted. Celebrities have joined politicians in making public their disgust. Stephen Fry’s call for a boycott of everything Russian was widely reported, Cher won’t sing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The prime minister raised the issue when meeting president Putin at the G20 two weeks ago.
Those of us who have been practising international solidarity for a long time maybe need to rein in our cynicism to welcome the sudden burst of attention to these developments. But it’s important that such solidarity is properly informed and doesn’t lead to unintended consequences – like the campaign started in the USA for boycotting vodka actually made in Latvia, not Russia.
Credit for taking a better approach must be given where it is due: the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for example, was giving practical support to people struggling for LGBT rights in many countries for several years before the present government came into office. As part of this they convened meetings of LGBT organisations and of trade unionists committed to sharing information and discussing appropriate responses. It’s a shame that the present government appears to have dropped this very useful gathering, but at least it has not retreated on its firm stance.
One key principle should underpin all our support for our LGBT sisters and brothers in Russia (and everywhere where there is oppression): we must ask them what they want us to do, not assume that we know better. I have read powerful articles written by leaders of the LGBT movement in Russia saying: please, listen to us! We don’t want you to boycott Russia! As a tactic, it will be counterproductive, it will rebound on us. We want you to demonstrate your solidarity, to engage with Russia, to put on pressure and to argue the case.
Some western attempts to challenge the oppression faced by LGBT people in Nigeria, or Uganda (for example), have made things worse. They have been portrayed as quasi-imperialist interference in these countries’ internal affairs. The mistake was not to listen to the voices of LGBT representative organisations in those countries – which do exist. They wanted solidarity, but the real, practical help was to help these groups to survive, while talking to politicians behind the scenes.
The same principle must apply in Russia. On 3 September, there were magnificent demonstrations around the world in solidarity with Russian LGBTs, organised in response to a call from Russian LGBTs. LGBT trade unionists were there too. Now there is an Early Day Motion in Parliament (no. 487), with cross-party support, calling for the same approach.
It may be easier to repeat simplistic slogans that sound good (to us) than it is to find out what the people we are claiming to want to help actually want, but it is the wrong way to go. British unions will play their part in this continuing campaign by listening to the people who really matter (including our fellow trade unionists around the world).