It is no secret that what is happening to gay men and lesbians in Russia right now is nothing short of terrible. Now, I don't want to suggest that there is a silver, pewter, lavender or really any lining here, but it is worth noting that a lot of people with no real connection to Russia care. It got me thinking a little bit about something I discussed in a previous post about the gay community and what it means about the future of how, and maybe more importantly why, we organize. And I mean "organize" not just in the "organize to fight discrimination" sense of the word but in the sense of how we organize as a community of queers.
Take a look at your news feed, this website, just about anywhere, and you will read something -- and more importantly see something -- about what is happening in Russia. It's the images from Russia that are truly captivating in a horrifying way. Given that most Americans don't normally spend too much time fretting about worldwide human rights violations (and there are a lot, many qualitatively worse than what has us talking about boycotting figure skating), it is nice to see that people care. But why do we care?
Many very smart sociologists and anthropologists have discussed the ways in which ritual sacrifice helps bring communities together and maintain bonds. It sounds crazy, but it makes sense if you think about from about 50,000 feet. It was a bloody civil war that united the North and South in this country. It was hangings in town squares that restored order to lawless frontier towns. It was seeing innocent bodies fall from the World Trade Center that (briefly) united Democrats and Republicans for the only time in recent memory. These are quite literally the bloody sacrifices that help restore order and, importantly, a shared sense of community.
I like to think of the modern gay rights movement as marked by two important bloody battles: first, the Stonewall riots of 1969, which launched the gay liberation movement, and second, the AIDS crisis that began in the early 1980s. In the first bloody battle, American gay men and lesbians fought in the streets to simply exist in the public sphere, and in the second, thousands of men watched with anguish as their friends and lovers turned into corpses. Yeah, bleak stuff. And while drag queens getting billy-clubbed in the Village or gay men dying without President Ronald Reagan even acknowledging what was then considered a "gay cancer" can't be considered, by any stretch of even the most demented imagination, good things, they did help shape generations of gay activists and waves of the gay community. Our rituals, customs, and common beliefs were shaped by these two seminal moments in our history. Circuit parties became a place to raise money for HIV and AIDS, bars developed into de facto community centers, and various charities and other organizations developed to help fight the fight and consequently bring gay people together.
Recently a new generation of gay men and lesbians has also fought battles, and while important, they were rather low on the blood index. Fighting for marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the military are certainly epochal wins, but they happened in state houses, what I presume to be very fancy Supreme Court chambers, and nondescript Capitol Hill offices. Humdrum. Have you ever been to Harrisburg? Boring city! I don't want to be flippant here, but these battles, while hard-fought, provided very little drama to rally around. They were like the current war(s) in the Middle East compared with World War II: The former is something we literally don't see much of, while the latter provided iconic imagery of fighting and, well, death.
Perhaps the current dislocation of the gay community has something to do with the fact that the battles we have been engaged in lack bloody spectacle. These fights don't really unify the community or provide the common symbols and rituals that bond us together. This is maybe not the first thing you think about when you see Russian youth being tortured, beaten or forced to drink urine, but I can't help but think how lucky we are that social media are able to disperse these powerful images. Think seeing a whole lot of red equal signs is powerful? Try looking at images of soldiers brutally beating a gay kid. Talking about the horrific acts is one thing, but seeing them is a far more powerful thing that even the most distracted among us cannot avoid. That's a good thing having to do with a bad thing.
Of course, like everything, what is happening in Russia is also partly about us. We hear a lot about bullying, and certainly bullying in schools or on the streets is something that gets us riled up. It is those incidents where this discrimination is captured in visual form that makes bullying real to us. When we see blood, as we did recently in a hate crime incident in Seattle, it becomes something more inherently tangible to us. I hear a lot of folks speculate that the Internet has killed our sense of gay community in real time and space, but I think these most recent examples provide a powerful counterpoint to the old "AOL chat rooms killed the gay bar" bit. Whether we're considering the recent spate of gay bashings in New York City, Seattle or wherever in the U.S. or the horrible images emerging from Russia, I wonder whether seeing (if not being physically witness to) discrimination in physical form will be something that helps unify the youngest generation of LGBT folks.
What is interesting about these most recent examples is that they are nothing new. Gay men and lesbians in modern history have always been selectively physically attacked, sometimes by individuals, sometimes by oppressive governments. What is different today is that we are capturing and sharing these bloody battles in ways not as easy to do even a few years ago. It has to do partly with technology, and partly with the fact that we are more globally aware of the basic human rights that sexual minorities deserve.
Trust me when I say that I'd like to see no more blood of innocent LGBT individuals here or abroad. However, if violence is happening, I want those of us who care about such things to know, and to be angry. It gives us something to organize around: We can organize our political actions, our social justice actions, and even, perhaps more critically, our sense of what a global community of LGBT persons is, why it matters, and why we need it.