Russia has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, thanks to the new anti-gay legislation banning so-called "homosexual propaganda" and adoption of Russian children by couples in countries that support same-sex marriage. The issue of gay rights in Russia has been extremely politicized, and rightfully so. The recent crackdown on gay rights goes hand-in-hand with the general crackdown on human rights, free speech, freedom of the press, and political opposition, and with the rise of Russian Orthodox chauvinism and xenophobia, employed by the government of Vladimir Putin in order to replace the discarded Communist propaganda and cement his image as a strong man and "father of the nation."
That's not to say that gays in Russia ever enjoyed any real freedoms or equality. Even though homosexuality was officially decriminalized in 1993, it remained on the country's list of mental illnesses until 1999. Homophobia has always been prevalent in both Russian politics and general public opinion, with the most recent survey indicating that 74 percent of Russians think homosexuality should not be accepted by society (up from 60 percent in 2002), compared with 16 percent who think that homosexuality should be accepted. Reflecting and further promoting this growing intolerance, various local governments implemented bans on "homosexual propaganda," starting with central Russia's Ryazan region in 2006. Last year this ban was also introduced in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, which traditionally had a rich and vibrant gay scene and history (not to mention the Hermitage, which is loaded with what would be considered "homosexual propaganda" by the new law, from Caravaggio and Michelangelo to Russia's own Aleksander Ivanov). In June 2012, as though to make its stance on any future queer matters clear, Moscow City Court banned Pride parades for the next 100 years. All these oppressive and highly symbolic steps led to the nationwide ban on "propaganda of homosexualism, bisexualism, and transgenderism," adopted by the Duma this past June.
This state-sponsored homophobia was shaped by the old Gulag mentality and hierarchy, according to which gay people were the lowest cast, virtually subhuman -- opúschennye ("degraded" in Russian prison slang; you can read more on this subject in my article "Gay in the Gulag" in Index on Censorship). Only now gay people became the perfect target for anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, labeled as "foreign agents" and "corruptors of public morals" and scapegoated for Russia's demographic decline.
The latest anti-gay crackdown seems like a terrible PR move for Mr. Putin, following the backlash after the rigged elections, the show trial of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, his recent divorce (highly unusual for the Russian political elite), and the rumors of a "special relationship" with his indispensable mini-me, the puppet president-turned-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. Happily swapping jobs, this cozy power couple will most likely have a strong grip on Russia for years to come.
After scoring on social media the nickname "Vladimir Pussy" and countless Photoshopped drag makeovers, Mr. Putin embarked on the mission to become one of the world's most homophobic leaders, right next to Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe, who recently proclaimed that gay people are "worse than pigs, goats and birds." Africa's strong man Mugabe knows how to deal with homosexuals: "If you take gay men and lock them in a house for five years and tell them to come up with two children and they fail to do that, then we will chop off their heads." Isn't it surprising that homophobia always goes hand-in-hand with political and economic corruption and is one of the key ingredients of any self-respecting authoritarian regime?
One thing is for sure: This rampant homophobia will result in a mass exodus of talented and successful gay people from Russia, similar to what happened with the Soviet Jews back in the '70s and '80s. And this is a loss that even a vast and prosperous country like Russia simply cannot afford.
As someone who suffered from homophobic persecution and censorship, I cannot silently watch my gay brothers and sisters in Russia being once again marginalized, harassed and punished for who they are and whom they love. We cannot just watch yet another gay bashing on the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg, or any other Russian city, and expect that things will get better. We must all make our voices heard and do something to put pressure on Putin's government to abolish these draconian laws -- even if these are little things like sharing and posting on social media, signing petitions, or simply talking about this uncomfortable issue with people who don't care or don't know. And the really big thing we can do is push for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Putin's favorite pet project and propaganda vehicle.
I remember the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow that was organized by the U.S. and its allies to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was a huge symbolic blow to the Soviet regime and that unpopular war. In response the U.S.S.R. and other Soviet-bloc nations carried out a boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In retrospect, both boycotts proved ineffective and even pointless, considering that the bloody war in Afghanistan went on for another 10 years, ultimately leading to the disintegration of the mammoth Soviet empire and opening the door for an equally bloody and unjustified U.S. invasion in 2002.
With respect to this recent history, I see a clear case for the boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. And here's why: Russia's recent anti-gay legislation contradicts the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter, and the International Olympic Committee must acknowledge that and find a different, more tolerant and civilized host country. This is not just another political issue; this is an issue of basic human rights. If the IOC and its multinational corporate sponsors like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, with their multibillion-dollar interests in the new Russian market, close their eyes to the troubling events unfolding in my homeland and proceed with business as usual, they will de facto endorse the growing homophobia in Russia. Let's all make sure that this doesn't happen and let Mr. Putin know that his policies are damaging for his country and simply bad for business. Thats' perhaps the only language this "strong man" will understand.